Whether a bombastic symphonic score or a collection of pop hits, we generally know what’s in store when we settle in for a night of watching movies. Some of the most rewarding cinematic experiences, however, come from cases where our soundtrack expectations are upended. Often, this can come from an unlikely marriage of songs to image; at other times, the choice of composer might fall outside of the expected pool. What follows is a list of ten films whose soundtracks don’t behave expected — and are all the more memorable for it.
Twixt (2011) Director: Francis Ford Coppola Score: Dan Deacon
Francis Ford Coppola’s recent return to filmmaking has been characterized by a welcome willingness to take risks. He’s worked with low budgets and taken a distinctively philosophical approach, and in doing so tapped into the same strain of creativity that prompted (say) the haunting ambiguity of The Conversation — to say nothing of his efforts as a producer of films by the likes of Wim Wenders, Paul Schrader, and Akira Kurosawa.
2007’s Youth Without Youth boasted a score from the stylistically divergent Argentinian composer Osvaldo Golijov. For Twixt, Coppola settled on an even more unlikely choice: Baltimore’s Dan Deacon, who seems determined to be a one-man bridge uniting the pop, compositional, and experimental worlds. Deacon’s experience in concert may also have played a role in this, as Coppola will reportedly be taking Twixt on the road for a series of live iterations of the film. These will involve Coppola manipulating his cut of the film and Deacon providing a live soundtrack.
Blow-Up (1966) Director: Michelangelo Antonioni Soundtrack: various artists
Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up captures the heady world of mid-’60s London: beautiful people, expansive art, and a burgeoning music scene. Contrasting with this is the account of what may or may not have been a murder, adding a sense of dissonance into a surface-perfect world. For a contemplative film exploring issues of perception, the appearance from The Yardbirds — which eventually collapses into a squall of feedback — provides an auditory parallel to the sublimated tensions on view.
Gummo (1997) Director: Harmony Korine Soundtrack: various artists
Writer/director Harmony Korine’s sometimes infuriating, sometimes sublime Gummo focuses on a large number of characters living in a small Ohio town. The film’s tone veers from unexpectedly blissful to horrifically wrenching. This tension manifests itself on the soundtrack as occasionally pastoral scenes of small-town life are overlain with doom and black metal, powerviolence, and more. (Contributors include Sleep, Spazz, and Brujeria.) Between this and the choice of Jason Pierce (of Spiritualized) and Sun City Girls to provide music for his later Mister Lonely, one can make a case for Korine as a purveyor of one of the most eclectically soundtracked filmmakers currently working.
The Third Man (1949) Director: Carol Reed Score: Anton Karas
The Third Man is a taut thriller set in post-war Vienna, starring Joseph Cotten, Orson Welles, and Valli. The screenplay is by Graham Greene, and — like much of his work — explores aspects of loyalty, betrayal, and morality. The music comes from Anton Karas, and is performed entirely on the zither — which, admittedly, is probably not what you would expect. And yet it works perfectly, evoking the charms and strange rhythms of the city in which the film is set.
As an added bonus, note that the trailer cites Karas by name, and uses the phrase, “He’ll have you in a dither with his zither.” We would argue that this kind of commentary would significantly improve many a modern trailer.
Kids (1995) Director: Larry Clark Soundtrack: Folk Implosion and various other artists
Larry Clark’s Kids, with a soundtrack provided by Lou Barlow and John Davis’s Folk Implosion, dodged aural expectations in any number of ways. It led to an unlikely hit with “Natural One”; its trailer introduced many young indie films fans to the music of Sebadoh; and it didn’t hurt that the movie includes Slint’s slow-burning, ultimately horrific “Good Morning Captain,” or an upbeat number by Daniel Johnston. Even by the standards of mid-’90s alt-rock soundtracks, this one stands out for both its eccentricity and its high quality.
Carlos (2010) Director: Olivier Assayas Soundtrack: various artists
For Carlos, a five-hour film with action set across the globe, the choice of a post-punk and new wave soundtrack seemed strange. There are certain expectations for the music of large-scale, politically charged dramas, and director Olivier Assayas confounds those expectations brilliantly: the repeated use of New Order’s “Dreams Never End” evokes Carlos Ramirez’s celebrity-level appeal — even as the rest of the film thoroughly damns him. (According to numerous articles, Assayas had also hoped to use music from The Feelies; given the film’s subject, they declined to be involved.)
The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) Director: Martin Scorsese Score: Peter Gabriel
Martin Scorsese has a near-perfect ability to match music with the action of his films, whether it’s a Harry Nilsson song used to memorable effect in GoodFellas or Philip Glass soundtracking Kundun. For the surreal, meditative The Last Temptation of Christ, Scorsese turned to Peter Gabriel. Gabriel’s score — released as the album Passion — sounds unlike anything he’d do before or since. It furthered his interest in non-Western music; largely instrumental, it exists in its own space, not meshing with any particular tradition.
I Am Love (2010) Director: Luca Guadagnino Soundtrack: John Adams
Luca Guadagnino’s I Am Love makes use of numerous pieces by composer John Adams. Ultimately, the scope and emotional range of Adams’s music takes what could be a low-key drama about a wealthy Italian family into the realms of the melodramatic, and then beyond. The effect isn’t always perfect: the film walks an awkward line between melodrama and realism. But the choice to opt for a heightened level of emotion is ultimately critical to the film, and Adams’s music is an essential part of that.
Punch-Drunk Love (2002) Director: Paul Thomas Anderson score: Jon Brion
Punch-Drunk Love is the first film to showcase Paul Thomas Anderson’s fondness for fully immersive scores. Here, at times, the image shifts away from his highly stylized comedy to blissful colors provided by Jeremy Blake as Jon Brion’s beautiful, impressionistic score plays. We might well have included Anderson’s subsequent There Will Be Blood on this list as well, given its haunting use of Jonny Greenwood’s music.
Walker (1987) Director: Alex Cox Score: Joe Strummer
Alex Cox’s fondness for punk rock soundtracks seemed spot-on with, say, his classic Repo Man. Given the 19th-century setting of his later Walker, the presence of the iconic Joe Strummer on the soundtrack may seem like an odd choice. Admittedly, Strummer’s music here has its surreal side — but given that Cox’s film makes brilliant use of anachronistic touches and flourishes, including cuts to Time magazine and the presence of a helicopter, it meshes far more neatly than one might initially expect.