We here at 366 Weird Movies appreciate the contribution of music to the tone and impact of a weird movie, and try to highlight it whenever we can, but we’re not musicologists. We had long hoped to publish some kind of feature on bizarre movie scores, but when a pair of actual experts approached us with a similar idea, we jumped at the chance. Here are Butler University composer/professors Michael Schelle and Frank Felice’s choices for ten strange movie scores:
Over the course of film’s history, the styles and indeed the function of a film’s musical score has changed frequently, from the earliest silent film’s “pianist-in-the-pit” to today’s “anti-score” sound design of Hans Zimmer. Most of the time, however, the musical score for each movie serves to intensify the emotional core, underscore/buttress the plot, or some cases, function like an unseen character. For nearly its entire history, this musical underscore has been fairly conservative, with quite accessible classical music providing the basic music for most films, augmented (or replaced at times) by the pop music of the day. However, sometimes directors and producers asked their composers to go further, or more likely, the composers themselves took the risk or writing something unique, and their bosses accepted it. Here are ten scores (well, a few more) that are weird, either in their techniques, or their instrumentation, or how they interact with the images and dialogue.
Body Parts (1991) – directed by Eric Red, score by Loek Dikker
Much of the score by Dikker uses a typical horror music aesthetic and language, but what makes this film unique is one instrument’s frequent use a bowed musical saw. Just about perfect for a film about lost limbs and their replacements…
(listen for the saw doubling the violins at about the three minute mark)
Crash (1996) – directed by, score by Howard Shore
Howard Shore may derive much of his fame as a composer from his work on Lord of the Rings, but it’s scores like this that show his range—most of the music is derived from the sounds and a few chords played by the opening guitar parts. Other instruments augment this essential music, but the guitar is nearly always there lurking in the texture, certainly adding to the creepiness of this very bizarre film.
The Third Man (1949) – directed by Carol Reed, score by Anton Karas
This is so utterly bizarre! In what is surely one of the best suspense films of all time, wonderfully written, paced, and filmed, the music throughout the WHOLE of the film is performed largely by a ZITHER. Happy and cheerful. Even through the crazy chase scenes. Of course, some of the most intensely acted scenes have no music. Making the return of the zither each time it happens a lot less trustworthy…
Forbidden Planet (1956) – directed by Fred McLeod Wilcox, “electronic tonalities” by Louis and Bebe Barron
The first score to be produced completely by electronic means, where the composers even built many of the circuits. This music set the stage for the classic sound designs of the sci-fi films to follow, but also provides the utterly perfect underscore for the feel of the film—this is unlike anything we’ve heard, so it must truly be alien. Later sci-fi scores would return to familiar sources of music to provide a human connection—not so here! (The New York Musicians Union prevented the Barrons from being given the normal “music by…” credit).
Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) – directed by Sergio Leone, score by Ennio Morricone
Again, instrumentation makes this one so weird. We believe that many movie goers have certain associations that they bring to their viewings—so, if you’re going to see a film about the American West, you would think that electric guitars (SURF guitars at that), harpsichords, electric harmonica, and female choirs would do the trick, right? (Huh – no banjo or tack piano or fiddle?) Leone and Morricone changed the film world with their films. It seems normal now, but was weird and quite revolutionary for its time. (Pick any of their collaborations – they all do this).
Wait Until Dark (1967) – directed by Terrance Young, music by Henry Mancini
In many ways a standard ’60’s horror film score, but Mancini’s constant use of the out-of-tune piano from the very beginning of the film sets the stage for the entire film—listen for extended piano techniques throughout (slammed piano keyboard lid, chord clusters, some inside the piano scraping and hammering). Throughout the film I find myself trying to adjust the piano’s tuning to fit. It never will… (PS: the pop tune at the end always feels so false because it lacks the piano. It smells of contractual obligation).
Cobweb (1955) – directed by Vincent Minelli, score by Leonard Rosenman
Taking of Pelham 123 (1974) – directed by Tony Scott, score by David Shire
Although Cobweb is a typical orchestral score and Taking Pelham 123 is played by a jazz band, both of these scores share a common musical technique: their music is written using all twelve notes of the chromatic scale equally, also known as dodecaphonic or twelve-tone music. Because there is no musical “home-base” this technique easily provides the sense of unease needed for both of these films. Horror movies certainly lived off of many of Rosenman’s motifs and techniques for decades after this. However, not many subsequent composers used the technique as purely as Rosenman. We love the way David Shire does so—so brash, yet still setting the viewer on edge.
Once a Thief (1965) – directed by Ralph Nelson, score by Lalo Schifrin
Birdman (2014) – directed by , score by Antonio Sanchez
Diegetic music becomes score, in this case the drum solo under the credits becomes the underscore for the initial action, moving from the club into the streets, tweaked and affected, reflecting the drug-based plot, and the murder in the drug store.
This scoring becomes a harbinger for Birdman forty years later, whose entire soundtrack is all drum set. It becomes oddly meta when the actors twice come across a drummer playing the score in the film. Just weird, so bizarre…
Kubrick jettisoned Alex North’s more typical soundtrack for 2001 and replaced it with….. Johann Strauss? Richard Strauss? The normalcy and grandiosity of those composer’s works are what most filmgoers take away from this film, but it’s the avant-garde works of György Ligeti juxtaposed with those other composers that makes this weird. And it wasn’t the only time Kubrick would use Ligeti’s work—check out the weirdness of “Musica Ricercata II” in Eyes Wide Shut.
Koyaanisqatsi (1982) – directed by, score by Philip Glass
This art house film truly lives as a marriage of sound and image, and yet the minimalist score of Glass often has very little direct relationship with what is seen onscreen—here, the juxtaposition of incommensurate worlds communicates the message of the Hopi title, which translates to “life out of balance.” Other film composers have embraced the minimalist aesthetic, in more realist settings, and those pairings often do not age as well. Here, minimalist can equal grandiose. Lovely. Odd. Compelling. Weird.
Frank Felice and Michael Schelle are both active composers of concert music who also teach at Butler University in Indianapolis.
Eclectic composer Michael Schelle has been commissioned and/or performed by 350 orchestras, wind bands and professional chamber ensembles all over the world. He is the author of the acclaimed book “The Score,” a set of interviews by many of Hollywood’s biggest film composers, and has three times been named as a finalist for the Pulitzer prize in music. (http://schellemusic.com/)
Frank Felice is also an eclectic composer who writes with a postmodern mischievousness: his music can be comedic/ironic, simple/complex, or humble/irreverent. Recent works have focused on music for violin and piano, pieces for solo instruments and live electronics, and music incorporating voice. (www.frank-felice.com)