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Unsung Heroes: Underrated Film and TV Scores You Need to Hear!

By Chris Wells
Feb 21, 2024
7 minute read
Unsung Heroes: Underrated Film and TV Scores You Need to Hear!
13:12


Whether it's the foreboding BRAAAM (the official name according to Google) of Hans Zimmer’s Inception or the horn-filled triumphant journey to a galaxy far, far away from the GOAT John Williams, most people know the iconic film scores.

The real earworms that you might hear at a really easy pub quiz and everyone gets instantly. They are iconic for a reason. Their sheer genius will comprise at least 50% of our memories from some of cinema's greatest moments. Their masterful compositions become permanently woven into the cinematic worlds they help create.

Today, I want to highlight the more underrated soundtracks, those scores that aren’t usually talked about enough on big internet lists. Ones that I personally really love dearly and just wanted an excuse to share with you. Perhaps it will help you when thinking about the soundtrack for your next project, or find a new favourite artist, or maybe even help you in a more difficult pub quiz someday.

Either way, grab some good headphones and let’s begin!

Suspiria - Thom Yorke

Luca Guadagnino's modern remake of the classic 1977 giallo film wasn't just a faithful update - I honestly believe it was a masterpiece in its own right. Taking inspiration from the original, Guadagnino threaded the needle by crafting a completely unique vision while staying true to the film's spirit. It's one of those rare remakes made better if you've seen the original (which also had an awesome score).

What's even more impressive is that he convinced Radiohead's Thom Yorke (after many months of pleading), to compose the film’s incredible score. It created a layer of true sad beauty to this horror film, that somehow perfectly complements the film's unsettling atmosphere.

Suspiria is a horror drama set in a dance school, and Guadagnino uses parts of Yorke’s score as the troupe's diegetic dance music, doubling the responsibility of the soundtrack as it’s brought front and centre to the audience. And yet, through the melancholic sound and motion in eerie sync, Guadagnino and Yorke create chilling cinematic magic unlike anything I've ever seen.

It’s reported that a lot of the soundtrack was completed before filming was even started, which allowed Luca Guadagnino to play the songs on the set, allowing him to set each scene’s mood before the cameras even rolled. The value of that shines through every frame in the film that somehow threaded the needle to create something far greater than the sum of its parts.

Succession - Nicholas Britell

I know I'm cheating and trying to have my cake and eat it with this one, as you probably know Succession's theme tune, even if you don’t watch the show. The tune’s godlike clashing of classical strings and piano with hip-hop 808s strike your ears like no other theme tune on earth, a sublime juxtaposition that actually works with the overall themes of the show. A true THEME tune.

As lauded as the theme is, I really just wanted to take an opportunity to talk about how incredible the score is for the entire show by Nicholas Britell. Like the best soundtracks, Succession wouldn’t be Succession without its score. I adore the way it uses these grandiose stereotypes we have in our heads about classical music and then plays with that to match the unique style of the show.

“My sort of thesis there was that I would be very serious with the music and inhabit this mixture of oversized beats and very late 18th-century classical music harmonies — everything would be a little too big for itself, a little out of proportion, sort of the way the Roy family sees themselves.” - Nicholas Britell

Succession is a very special show, with writing unlike anything else on TV. It’s bombastic and operatic, but it also has some brilliantly revolting jokes in it (it is written by one of the creators of Peep Show, after all). It has a strangely effective balance between deadly serious and downright farcical tones, and the score mirrors that unconventional approach to the atom - its wonderful blend of styles creates a dissonance that heightens every moment in the show the second the opening detuned piano smashes your ears.

The show's creators have a good sense of when to use incredible music, bringing in the score only when necessary. It often serves only as punctuation to the scene, it knows it's place. For example, in the scene below, notice how you really feel the lack of score in the scene, and when it returns, it only comes back as a piano (with a hint of woodwind), as that's all it needs. Gives me chills every time.

As the show grew season by season, so did the score, culminating in making each season's soundtrack a different movement in an overall symphony. The soundtrack's motifs repeat throughout the show, only now they’ve grown and warped, being corrupted by the money and power like everyone else in the show.

For a bonus, here is the composer Nicolas Britell talking about his process: 

Happy Feet - John Powell

Many family film soundtracks are often overlooked unless you’re Pixar and/or Disney, making us cry with a piano and/or a Phil Collins. While it's not uncommon for a typical kid's film soundtrack to eclipse the film itself in terms of quality, the situation with "Happy Feet" presents a more nuanced scenario. Here, we have a genuinely enjoyable and rather good film, but with a simply remarkable soundtrack.

Trust me. Close your eyes and listen to this fire about the South Pole.

The sheer ferocious scale of the score and how it captures this epic world of Antarctica and the intense conditions faced by the tap-dancing penguins. These are the same musical strengths that Powell brought to the Bourne action films, but this family film gives everything the gravity that its environmental-focused themes need.

That’s also forgetting that the entire film is a jukebox musical with some pretty fantastic cast renditions of popular songs like Prince’s Kiss and Boogie Wonderland. It offers a wonderful counterbalance that somehow makes what could be a real mess of a film come together as a remarkable and unique whole.

Solaris - Cliff Martinez

Film score nerds will know Cliff Martinez from his iconic efforts for Drive or Moon, but when it comes to the former Red Hot Chili Pepper drummer’s cosmic scores, for me, his best has to be for Steven Soderberg’s moody sci-fi drama Solaris.

Solaris is based on a 1961 meditative science fiction novel of the same name that uses its isolated space station setting and cerebral plot to explore profound themes of isolation, loss, and memories.

The film follows psychologist Chris Kelvin (George Clooney) investigating something causing mysterious manifestations of memories on a space station orbiting the enigmatic planet Solaris. It relies heavily on these long, pensive scenes of Clooney's brooding character wrestling with his inner turmoil.

This could be (and will be for some) quite dull for some, but thanks to the incredible music, cinematography and performances, this meditative approach gradually builds up this wonderfully contemplative melancholy mood.

The evocative electronic textures and minimalist piano melodies subtly underscore the loneliness, guilt, and longing felt by Kelvin and the other troubled characters. Martinez's music adds emotional weight and atmosphere, turning what could have been a cold setting into something genuinely moving.


Films set in space often have iconic soundtracks (Star Wars, Moon, Black Hole, Sunshine), as I think there often aren't a lot of other sounds from the vacuum of space you can use to help create a mood, so you have to get really creative to help make it, and music really does seem to be the best way.

Stanley Kubrick knew that way back with 2001.

Forbidden Planet - Louis and Bebe Barron

I would be remiss not to include one of the most criminally overlooked soundtracks in history, the score to the original 1956 sci-fil film Forbidden Planet.


Long before synthesisers, husband-wife duo Louis and Bebe Barron pioneered electronic film scoring with their revolutionary compositions for the 1956 sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet. Using custom oscillators and magnetic tape recorders, they crafted an entirely alien soundtrack of bizarre tones, hums, bleeps and echoes that blew the minds of the people at the time.

Originally only credited for 'electronic tonalities', the Barrons' work actually marked the first fully electronic film score, demonstrating the creative potential of using not-instruments. By creating an immersive auditory experience that transported audiences to distant worlds, they set a new standard for how sound could enhance the cinematic experience.

Anything by Cristobal Tapia De Veer

I'm going to double cheat now and just use this opportunity to shine a light on a composer I think everyone needs to know about more. He recently found some infamy for his soundtrack to The White Lotus TV series, which many people used the violently reductive term 'weird' to describe it.

Though I am usually very opposed to that word, I can't quite be as against its use in this case as it's the strangeness and uniqueness that makes Cristobal such a sonic treasure.

My first encounter with his brilliant music was with the cancelled-too-early show Utopia (the good UK original, not the bad US remake). The conspiratorial thriller could have just had a standard thumping tense score, but instead, you have a tapestry of distorted whispers and industrial clangs. The harsh textures and glitchy samples perfectly match the brazen writing and crass cinematography to make this a wholly unique audio-visual experience.

Warning: The clip below contains violent language.

I highly recommend Utopia if you haven't seen it; though it was cancelled a bit too early, is still worth the journey. Plus, this overture, for its complexity alone, is well worth your time. 

While fitting for a very stylistically strong show, maybe with a darker sense of humour like Utopia or White Lotus, (and even an episode of Black Mirror), one would think Cristobal's unique sound may not work for the more 'serious' moments. And for that, I would say you are wrong.

The show National Treasure (not the Nicolas Cage film) is a harrowing and brilliant show inspired by Operation Yewtree, that doesn't shy away from exploring the complex dynamics of power, denial, and the ripple effects of trauma. It's a poignant and uncomfortable watch, told its extremely difficult subject matter extremely well.

Tapia De Veer's incredible score creates a pervasive atmosphere of sadness, tension, and vulnerability all at the same time. Drawing viewers deeper into the emotional landscape of the characters and the deeply complex themes explored in the series. By avoiding clichéd dramatic cues and relying on subtlety and nuance, the music adds a layer of depth and sophistication that elevates the viewing experience.

Looking back at my writing, I've realised that what I admire most about Cristobal Tapia De Veer is his dedication to experimentation and never falling into clichés. He often forgoes the use of traditional instruments to create novel sounds and moods while still managing to convey the entire gamut of emotions and moods in fresh and captivating ways, which, in turn, inspires us.

Let this final dose of inspiration fill your soul - a haunting pad created in Utopia from a rooster.

Conclusion

The score has just never been an accessory to the audio-visual medium. It is, in its own right, a creative art form capable of elevating narratives, enhancing emotions, and immersing audiences in worlds far beyond their imagination.

The art of film scoring, from the iconic to the underrated, showcases the boundless creativity and emotional depth that composers bring to the table, transforming scenes into unforgettable experiences. I am one of those people who work and write to a soundtrack of film, TV and videogame scores instrumentally fuelling my day to bring me back to the worlds my favourite stories took place in. 

I hope today we were able to celebrate just a tiny bit of their work as we listen and appreciate their ability to weave sound into the very fabric of our experiences, making the invisible visible and the intangible tangible. 

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