Film Scores Are Not Sticking to a Single Genre, and It’s Working

By  · Published on October 31st, 2013

When it comes to creating a score for a specific film, the music normally needs to stay within a specific genre to reflect the film’s mood and reinforce its emotional core. You can expect an action film to have a driving sound that keeps pace with the momentum on screen, a drama will be full of soaring strings, and a horror film will build the tension and accent the inevitable scares. But lately, certain scores have been breaking the rules and incorporating multiple musical genres into a single film, and doing so with surprisingly successful results.

Don Jon and The Counselor are two films that may not seem like they have much in common, but the scores for each featured different musical genres and proved these unusual combinations actually can work.

Don Jon is told from three different perspectives – the playboy, the romantic, and the realist. To create the music for such a story, Don Jon’s writer and director, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, had the idea to use three different musical genres to reflect these differing perspectives. Once again collaborating with composer Nathan Johnson (who Gordon-Levitt worked alongside on Brick and Looper), Johnson furthered this idea of separation by working with three different musicians to create the music for the three different perspectives. For the playboy, Johnson worked with Son Lux to create synthesized sounds, for the romantic he worked with Judson Crane to create grand orchestral movements, and for the realist he worked with Jonny Rogers to create stripped down guitar riffs.

Listening to a track like the synthesized “My Ride,” which represented the playboy Jon (Gordon-Levitt), and then a romantic track like “The First Kiss,” to represent the romantic Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), work as a clever nod to the audience that Jon and Barbara’s relationship may not last. And because the two genres are polar opposites of one another, they also work to make you laugh because at its most basic, Don Jon functions as a comedy. On the surface, Jon and Barbara seem like they would be perfect for one another, but as we get to know them better we realize that may not in fact be the case, a fact the music hints at early on.

On the other hand, the interesting and hopeful guitar stanzas in “Lost Together” represent not only Esther (Julianne Moore), but more importantly how her perspective on things influence Jon and change him from being a one-note playboy to someone open to new ideas and the hope they may bring. It would not seem like a synthesizer, orchestration, and raw guitar could work together, but in the context of the film and its varying perspectives, the changes in music actually work quite well and bring cohesion to the film’s overall vision and Jon’s journey.

Daniel Pemberton’s score for The Counselor is even more varied, changing from music one would expect to hear in a spaghetti western to orchestration to techno, even horror elements. While I was not a huge fan of The Counselor, the music actually worked well within the visual story director Ridley Scott was telling. As the film moved from a car chase to a philosophical conversation, the music would change to fit the mood of each scene. But more importantly, the music seemed to reflect the film’s distinct characters.

The spaghetti western styled music would start up when cowboy hat wearing Westray (Brad Pitt) would enter the scene and techno would begin to vibrate when the elaborately dressed Reiner (Javier Bardem) was near. But the music got really interesting when it came to the film’s title character, The Counselor (Michael Fassbender), and his descent from a man falling in love scored by orchestration eventually devolving into a man losing everything, accented perfectly by horror tones.

The key to to making these various genres work together seems to come down to keeping the choices true to the film’s narrative and characters, but most importantly, having by a single voice curate the music. Johnson may have worked with three different artists to create the music of Don Jon, but he was the one who knew what all those separate elements sounded like and had the master plan of how to link them all together. Pemberton created all the different styles of music featured in The Counselor and wisely used them to accent the various characters that drive the film.

The idea of creating scores that feature more than one musical genre may sound far fetched, but when they work to enhance the experience of the film’s story and characters, these multi-musical genre scores come across as more natural and entertaining than avant-garde.

Don Jon is currently in theaters with the soundtrack is available on Amazon and iTunes. The Counselor is also in theaters with the soundtrack is available on Amazon and iTunes.