“Emotion resulting from a work of art is only of value when it is not obtained by sentimental blackmail,” Jean Cocteau once wrote. When assessing the most emotional film scores, in honor of composer Krzysztof Penderecki’s birthday, today (the Polish musician responsible for the devastatingly affecting work, “Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima”), we stayed clear of overly sentimental and cloying scores, of which there are many. Instead, we explored ten tender abstractions that take us to the heart of each film and remain memorable as solo works of art. Feel free to add to our list, below.
Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas opens with the lonely twang of Ry Cooder’s slide-guitar soundtrack and Harry Dean Stanton surveying the vast desert before him. It sets the perfect tone for Wenders’ soulful tale of alienation and redemption. Cooder based the soundtrack on Blind Willie Johnson’s 1927 blues song, “Dark Was the Night (Cold Was the Ground).”
Zbigniew Preisner is best known for his work with Polish director Krzysztof Kieślowski (The Three Colors Trilogy). The artists collaborated on this mesmerizing film about two women who don’t know each other, but share a mysterious bond. Preisner’s haunting, delicate accompaniment draws us further into Kieślowski’s metaphysical rumination on fate, intuition, and identity.
Thomas Newman’s flowing orchestral soundtrack for Road to Perdition is embellished with Celtic notes, as a nod to the characters’ Irish-American heritage, and upbeat period jazz. The quieter, darker passages mirror the conflicted characters with subtle complexities.
Paul Schrader has frequently chosen a memorable soundtrack to his movies (Cat People and American Gigolo to name a few), but none has been as breathtaking as Philip Glass and the Kronos Quartet’s score for Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters — an experimental portrait of Japanese author Yukio Mishima. Glass’ stunning composition ranges from somber to stirring, and smartly draws from the non-linear narrative without resorting to the obvious. “Over the last fifteen years, Philip Glass has defined a new form of biographical opera. There was never any doubt that he would be the ideal composer for Mishima, a mosaic film biography,” Schrader wrote of the film. “I wanted a score which would unite the film’s disparate elements and propel it forward. Such a score, by definition, would be a distinct, cohesive composition.”
The soaring strings in Alexandre Desplat’s darkly romantic composition for Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution — set in 1940’s Shanghai — are breathtaking.
This list could easily be all about Italian composer Ennio Morricone — if not based on the significance of his accomplished scores, then the sheer number of films he has soundtracked. The maestro’s collaborations with director Sergio Leone are exceptional and helped popularize an entire genre of film: the spaghetti western. Morricone paints Leone’s stories with vivid strokes, creating an astonishing opera of sound effects and memorable rhythms. Leone’s masterpiece, Once Upon a Time in the West, expanded upon the director’s deconstruction of Old West mythologies, framed by Morricone’s riveting, windswept, emotional score.
The Claire Denis and Tindersticks collaborations are some of the most compelling and consistent works in contemporary cinema. With White Material, set on an African plantation in a country on the brink of a civil war, we sense the impending storm through an elegy of sighing, weeping strings. The somber cues rise from the landscape, as stately and spare as Denis’ work.
Michael Giacchino won the 2010 Academy Award for Best Original Score — in this case, Pixar’s Up. The emotional storytelling — centering on an octogenarian fulfilling his lifelong dream — doesn’t bombard us with sentimentality as many animated features tend to do, and Giacchino’s soundtrack follows suit. He captures the warm, charming, and lively nuances with enthusiasm and grace.
The music of former Pop Will Eat Itself member Clint Mansell has been a driving emotional force behind the films of Darren Aronofsky. Requiem for a Dream is the collaboration that has won the most praise (and commercial attention, particularly “Lux Aeterna”), but it’s Mansell’s composition for a different director that has haunted audiences. The spellbinding score for Duncan Jones’ Moon captures the desperate loneliness of Sam Rockwell’s astronaut Sam Bell — the sole inhabitant of lunar mining base. Mansell’s union of electronic and classical sounds creates a potent symphony, carrying us through Bell’s fractured and isolated internal landscape.
Pure enchantment, total bliss.