Tom Jolliffe looks at the effective use of contrarian music in films which show violence…
There’s something about a great film soundtrack whether it’s the score or songs (or both). You can have a melancholic drama which will usually be laced with melancholic music. You can have the rousing action adventure with the John Williams barnstorming orchestral number. If you look at cinema with a core of violence, like the action, thriller or horror genres for example, often the music will stick to a formula that ties in with that genre. However, on occasion, the musical direction of a film will shake things up and go for something unexpected.
In the 70’s and 80’s for example, providing backing for a number of genre films permeated with violence, German Electronic group Tangerine Dream became a popular fixture (particularly for distinctly visual directors). Whether it was Sorcerer, Thief, Firestarter or Near Dark, their pulsating synth sequences and ambient soundscapes created an ethereal, almost dreamlike score that acted as a wonderful counterpoint to gripping on screen set pieces, or punctuations of violence. It was just different from the norm, the tried and tested. They would later inspire a spate of neo-retro scores in the action, thriller and horror genres, not least with films like Drive and The Guest.
Bernard Herrmann’s final masterpiece as a composer was his sterling work on Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. What made it so uniquely brilliant was how seemingly misplaced the music seemed. It was entirely the point of course. The music had an organic nature too, often imperceptibly shifting from oddly chilled jazz to crescendo’s of discordant chords that mirrored the erratic and fractured nature of Travis Bickle’s psyche. There’s rarely been music like Taxi Driver, and rarely an example of ill-fitting music made to fit oh so perfectly. When Scorsese/Herrmann pitched the idea, jaws must have dropped, though this came just within a window of immense creative expression within American cinema (you could also look at the music in The Conversation for an example as a great antithesis to the intense paranoia with a jazz infused score).
Vangelis’s beautiful soundtrack provided an ethereal backdrop for the rain swept a violent action within Blade Runner. A classic noir dressed in cyberpunk and sci-fi (groundbreakingly so), with a graceful, almost haunting tranquility coming from the keys of Vangelis. His work is so different, but so perfect. Despite the film being a personal favourite and having seen it countless times, it was a mesmerising experience seeing it for the first time on the big screen. The moment where I suddenly knew this was like seeing it anew, was the first swell of Vangelis’s music as we overlook the grimy vista of L.A 2019 (according the designs from 1982 that is). Action moments, or those sequences involving death don’t lead us with the music. When you watch Indiana Jones, of course it’s iconic and the soundtrack is imperious, but it’s a reactive soundtrack that leads your feelings. It has recurring themes that trigger the excitement, as you anticipate a big moment, or a scary moment. Vangelis, and indeed Tangerine Dream go for an enveloping atmosphere, a mood. It distorts the sense of reality to feel close to a dream state, to become an antithesis to say, Deckard hunting and killing Zhora.
We’ve seen many great uses of licensed music to subvert a sequence. You think of Michael Madsen’s infamous ear cutting scene in Reservoir Dogs, of John Woo delivering an overblown and balletic shootout in Face/Off to the backing of Somewhere over the Rainbow. They shouldn’t fit, but they do. Woo, whether track or score has always had a great gift for using contrarian music. Where his collaboration with Zimmer in Mission: Impossible 2 is convention, the music in Hard Boiled beautifully drifts from some evocative (and expected) action beats (reminiscent of James Horner’s Walter Hill collabs in the 80’s), to some beautifully melodic moments that once again provide a counter to the extreme carnage and blood shed. Woo’s ‘heroic bloodshed’ has often best worked when the soundtrack provides a beautiful yin to the yang of guns, blood and squibs. The music by Michael Gibbs also has a few jazzy infusions and nice use of the sax. There’s not enough sax in action films these days. There, I said it.
Elsewhere Takeshi Kitano became synonymous with extreme violence in his gangster cinema, yet with a quirky sensibility, slightly comical style (mirroring his background as a comedian). At the same time, from his debut in Violent Cop with Daisaku Kume (again…jazz, fused with some blues and synth) to his collaborations with Joe Hisaishi, the music always felt like it had wonderfully poetic symmetry with the violent bursts or intensity with which Kitano often played his characters. Hisaishi’s synth score in Sonatine in particular, marked something a little different for him, but with shades of Tangerine Dream was really atmospheric. It contributed to Sonatine’s offbeat and odd style that made it feel unique.
What’s your favourite use of unexpected music in violent cinema? Let us know on our social channels @flickeringmyth.
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2021, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see…https://www.instagram.com/jolliffeproductions/