Keeping Score: 10 of the Best Rock Stars Turned Composers

By August 8, 2013


Over the past decade, it seems more and more musical artists are making the transition into film composing. If you’re anything like me, you hate mornings, have a sick obsession with Anthony Bourdain, love a good cup of coffee…oh, and yes – love a good film score.

Luckily for us, some of the biggest names in popular music do as well. Whether it’s the musical travesty that was Jay-Z’s involvement with the Gatsby soundtrack or Karen O’s wonderful contribution to Spike Jonze’s Where The Wild Things Are, the cornucopia of modern film compositions by such artists is growing. And because this is an obsession (hopefully not for just myself) I’ve compiled 10 of the best rock stars turned composers below.

Jonny Greenwood 

Jonny Greenwood is known mostly for his work as the guitarist for Radiohead. Greenwood started composing for film on the 2003 documentary Bodysong. It was actually his work on that film that inspired Paul Thomas Anderson to choose the guitarist to compose the hauntingly beautiful score for There Will Be Blood (which is my favorite of his work).  Don’t fret, people. Mr. Greenwood is still scoring for film, his most recent work being for the 2012 film The Master. Not to mention, he was the composer-in-residence for The BBC Concert Orchestra for roughly 9 years. Not too shabby.

Karen O

Ms. O here was tapped by her old flame Spike Jonze to oversee the soundtrack for his 2009 film Where The Wild Things Are. While reception of the film was mixed as the popularity of the book still holds great importance to many, the contribution by The Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ lead singer hit all the right notes. Here, she teamed with her band mates and members of indie rock groups Deerhunter, The Raconteurs, The Dead Weather and others to deliver a fantastic album. The music fits perfectly with equal parts bittersweet meloncholy and childhood screams of unabashed joy. Hell, I’m listening to it now and have a strong urge to play in a sandbox.

Mike Shinoda

Known primarily for his work with Linkin Park and his own side project Fort Minor, Mike Shinoda juggles a variety of talents. Rapper, songwriter, keyboardist, guitarist and now composer, Shinoda is one year younger than me and listing his talents just makes me feel like a slacker. Thanks, pal! In 2011, Mr. Shinoda teamed with composer Joseph Trapanese on the score for the  film The Raid: Redemption. This movie is definitely a kick to the head and the score accompanies it quite well. In 2012, he worked on the score for the video game “Medal Of Honor: Warfighter” and is currently in the studio working on new Linkin Park music.

Basement Jaxx

Simon Ratcliffe and Felix Buxton (better known as Basement Jaxx) teamed up with Stephen Price on the soundtrack for the 2011 British monster film Attack The Block. The directorial debut of Joe Cornish, and already a cult film to many, Basement Jaxx does a brilliant job matching the movie with the music they scored. The soundtrack even made its own mark with the song “Get That Snitch” featured in this scene. Blap blap blap!

Daft Punk

There are a few no brainers on this list and Daft Punk is one of them. Before they were up all night to get lucky (I said it!), they were picked by director Joe Kosinski from a short list of electronic musicians to score the long awaited Tron sequel. Now whether you loved Tron Legacy or hated it (and there are a bunch on both sides of the fence), the robot headed duo fit right into the neon world of The Grid. The score here is definitely in Daft Punk’s wheel house. Aside from their work here, Thomas Bangalter (one half of the duo) previously worked with Gaspar Noé on the score for 2002’s Irréversible. So, here’s hoping this won’t be their last stint in the film composing world.

Cliff Martinez

Easily one of my favorite composers, Cliff Martinez started his musical career by contributing for bands such as The Red Hot Chili Peppers and The Dickies. It was in 1989 that Martinez got the chance to score his first film when Steven Soderbergh tapped him to score Sex, Lies and Videotape. Since then, he has made quite the name for himself as a film composer, working on titles such as Kafka, Traffic, Drive, Contagion and Only God Forgives. He’s even dabbled in video games and contributed work to 2008’s “Spore”.

Mark Mothersbaugh

Sure, he’s one of the co-founders of the seminal new wave band Devo. If you didn’t know that, stop reading this immediately and go listen to “Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!” right now! Since his work with Devo, Mothersbaugh has cemented himself as a composer across multiple mediums. This is a huge body of work we’re talking about people. He’s worked in film with titles like Happy Gilmore, Rushmore, Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. His television work is varied with titles like “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse”, “Rugrats”, “Sliders” and “Big Love.” Hell, the dude has even scored a bunch of video game titles. We’re talking the “Crash Bandicoot” games, “Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy” and “Boom Blox”. Even if you weren’t aware of it, you’ve probably heard Mark Mothersbaugh’s musical compositions somewhere.

Clint Mansell

Hey! Remember the band Pop Will Eat Itself? The alternative/industrial band hit their peak in the early 90s before disbanding in 1996. After that happened, their former lead singer and guitarist Clint Mansell forged a working relationship with Darren Aronofsky and the first film he scored was Aronofsky’s directorial debut Pi. From there, he’s scored Aronofsky’s Requiem For A Dream, The FountainThe Wrestler and Black Swan.  His piece Lux Aeterna, which was originally composed by Mansell for Requiem For A Dream, has become a classic piece of music in its own right, being used commonly in film trailers for films like Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers, The Da Vinci Code and Danny Boyle’s fantastic film Sunshine (which was scored by electronic band Underworld and John Murphy). Aside from his successful partnership with Aronofsky, Clint Mansell has scored the movies Moon and Source Code for director Duncan Jones. He has even dabbled in video game composing with “Mass Effect 3.” In case you haven’t figured this out yet, Clint Mansell is a badass. The more you know…

Trent Reznor 

If the picture of a pensive looking Trent Reznor at the top of the page wasn’t an obvious clue he’d be in this list, then this is your wake up call!  The Nine Inch Nails front man has held an interest in composing music for some time. Way back in 1996, Reznor contributed ambient music and sound effects to the video game “Quake.” He was even supposed to compose the score for “Doom 3” in 2003 but due to a few conflicts, that project never came to fruition for him. On the film side of things, Trent was asked by Mark Romanek in 2001 to score his film One Hour Photo. However, it turned out the music didn’t fit the feel of the film. These tracks eventually ended up on NIN’s lesser known album “Still”.

It was in 2010 that Trent Reznor teamed up with regular collaborator Atticus Ross to score David Fincher’s The Social Network.  The only time before this the two had collaborated was when Fincher used the “Closer (Precursor)” remix for the opening credit sequence of Se7en. Lo and behold, Mr. Reznor and Mr. Ross won an Academy Award for their work here and have since teamed again to score Fincher’s Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. While Trent has been rather busy with his side project “How To Destroy Angels” and with touring to support the new NIN album “Hesitation Marks” (and being a husband and father), one can only hope he will be scoring more projects soon.

Danny Elfman

It seems only fair to end this list with Danny Elfman. He is THE rock star turned composer. With his humble beginnings as the lead singer and songwriter for Oingo Boingo, Elfman composed his first film Forbidden Zone back in 1982. This film was inspired by the stage performances of The Mystic Knights Of Oingo Boingo. It was in 1985 that Tim Burton was getting set to direct his first film. Burton and Paul Reubens asked Danny Elfman to score the movie and with the assistance of Oingo Boingo’s guitarist Steve Bartek, the classic soundtrack to Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure was born. And much like Clint Mansell’s partnership with Darren Aronofsky, Mr. Elfman developed and has maintained a strong relationship with Tim Burton, scoring all but two of his films (Ed Wood and Sweeney Todd).

Aside from his work with Tim Burton, Danny Elfman scored the theme song for “The Simpsons,” has worked on countless television shows, and the film titles he has scored music for include Midnight Run, Scrooged, Army Of Darkness, Mission: Impossible, Men In Black, Spider-Man, Milk, Silver Linings Playbook and David O. Russell’s upcoming American Hustle.  I’m only cracking the surface here with Elfman’s work and influence. Whether you believe he is a genius or not, Danny Elfman’s work pretty much speaks for itself.

Honorable mention – Nick Cave and Warren Ellis (Lawless, The Road, The Proposition), The Chemical Brothers (Hanna), Tangerine Dream (Vision Quest, Fright Night, Legend)

Who are your favorite rock stars turned composers? Let me know in the comments below!

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Aside from throwing words onto your screen here, he has written for the likes of FEARnet, Examiner, Dread Central and MTV Movies Blog. And yes, he was Percy on VR Troopers.