Soundtrack Heaven: Inside Llewyn Davis, Her & More

Part of what we try to do on this site is introduce you to all the people who make movies. By that we mean all the people, as each film you see is a final product that was assembled by dozens, sometimes hundreds, of talented people.

Looked at a certain way, there's a Russian nesting doll quality to the medium—the director and the stars are the largest doll in the set, the one you see without having to do a thing. But look a little closer and you see they're but one part of the creation.

And just as the film in total is the work of many contingent parts, a single scene within a film is also layered—there's what you see without having to do a thing, and then beneath that, there are countless bits of discrete manipulation at work. Subtle shifts in camera perspectives, color temperature, an actor's mood, lighting, editing, and, perhaps the most emotionally effective of all the tools in a filmmaker's toolkit—the sound. Dialogue, yes, but also, and often more affecting, the music.

When you think about some of your favorite scenes, those moments that made you fall in love with a particular film or with the medium itself, so often they involve music. Ask yourself this; when you're watching a film and you get the chills, how often is music involved?

Camille Saint-Saëns is typically credited with being the first person to ever write music specifically for a film, for Henri Lavedan’s The Assassination of the Duke of Guise.

Today, there's multiple crew members involved in shaping a film's unique soundtrack, including the sound designer, sound editor, and composer. The importance of a film’s soundtrack is hard to overstate—think of the deathless opening of Apocalypse Now when the sound of helicopter blades bleeds into The Doors “This is the End.” When you think of a Scorsese film, one of the things that pops into your head first is The Rolling Stones. Pulp Fiction’s soundtrack is legendary, Sophia Coppola’s Lost in Translation soundtrack was a hit, as were the soundtracks for The Graduate, Singles, Boogie Nights, Easy Rider, Trainspotting…you see where this is going. These are all great films made greater by their soundtracks.

We asked Evan Cooney, creator of the New York City based band Flight Crash Companion, if there was a recent soundtrack that stood out to him. Cooney's music has been used by both NBC and the BBC, for the shows Life, Friday Night Lights, The Black Donnellys and The Season. Without hesitation he mentioned the 2011 film Drive, directed by Nicolas Winding Refn and starring Ryan Gosling.

"It's no revelation that music can make a scene, but in the case of Drive, I think their use of music, and the huge stretches of silence, was truly masterful. The Elevator scene in particular comes to mind—how they bring in these beautiful and haunting synth pads during the slow motion kiss, before the hard cut to silence when the violence begins," Cooney says.

"Gosling and Carey Mulligan's first car ride set to 'A Real Hero' sounds like it would be too lyrically on the nose, but it fits perfectly, making a fairly straightforward montage feel especially powerful. Not only because it's a brilliant song, but also because, I think, its the first time you hear a proper song in the film since the opening credits, and it makes all the bleakness thus far wash away and you really feel what the characters feel. But the song also has a bittersweetness that suggests things aren't going to end well. I'm not ashamed to admit I became embarrassingly obsessed with that song for many months, and can't help but think the visual tie in made me like it more."

Could you ask for anything more from a film's soundtrack then that feeling? Well, there are a slew of upcoming films that could do for you what Drive did for Cooney. Here's a quick glance at the great music (and the films too, of course) coming up.


Spike Jonze movies always have interesting soundtracks, probably because Spike Jonze movies are always interesting. It also might have a good bit to do with Jonze’s many connections in the music world, considering he’s directed some incredible videos for the likes of Bjork, The Beastie Boys and more. Carter Burwell was his musical supervisor on Being John Malkovich, the soundtrack of which included pianos, pieces of Bartók, Bjork, and even a song that is just Burwell explaining a scene in the film to his orchestra, and then another song that is the result of that explanation. For Her, Jonze had Arcade Fire compose his music (those music connections come in handy), with music supervisor Ren Klyce helping to create a soundtrack that meshed with the film’s setting—a beautiful, but somewhat isolating, future Los Angeles. Her is a gorgeously told love story between a man (Joaquin Phoenix) and an intelligent operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), and the music, by Arcade Fire, Karen O., Owen Pallett and others help infuse the film with equal parts hope and melancholy. Speaking of Karen O., listen to her ‘The Moon Song’ for the film—this will give you a good idea of the bittersweet beauty of Jonze’s best movie yet.


The Only Lovers Left Alive


Jim Jarmusch vampire film Only Lovers Left Alive is more concerned with the stickiness of human (or, inhuman) relationships—that is, what keeps people together after ten, twenty, two hundred years—than with feasting on people. The film is a love story between two ancient vampires (Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton—can you think of a better actress to play an erudite, cultured, soulful bloodsucker?). The soundtrack, selected by Jozef Van Wissem and Jarmusch himself, includes a mix of rock and roll (Black Rebel Motor Cycle Club), rockabilly (Wanda Jackson), instrumentals (by Van Wissem and Jarmusch), R&B (Denise LaSalle) and the music of Yasmine Hamdan, a Lebanese singer and songwriter who has a small part in the film. It seems a paltry compliment, but we couldn't mean this more—Only Lovers Left Alive is one of the coolest films in years.


Inside Llewyn Davis

Have you noticed that the people on this list all have a history of great soundtracks already? The Coen Brothers have accompanied all of their films with unforgettable music (the extended dream sequence in The Big Lebowski, set to Kenny Rogers & The First Edition's "Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)," comes to mind). Who else could help lead a resurgence in bluegrass? As NPR pointed out, their 2000 film O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which was produced and compiled by T-Bone Burnett, won Album of the Year at the Grammy’s and sold nearly eight million copies. Inside Llewyn Davis follows a singer (Oscar Isaac) as he attempts to find his footing in the Greenwich Village folk scene in 1961. The Coen Brothers and Burnett have had quite a run (he worked with them on The Ladykillers and Crazy Heart as well), and he’s back producing on Davis, adding to singer and actor Oscar Isaac’s performances with many recordings of folk songs made just for the film (including music by Marcus Mumford of Mumford & Sons, and co-star Justin Timerblake). Listen to the entire soundtrack here.  

American Hustle

What do we love most about David O. Russell’s latest, from the trailer alone? Besides the hair, of course? The music. Talk about chill-inducing—get a cast of great actors, put them in a tense film where the stakes are life and death, and set it to Led Zeppelin's "Good Times Bad Times." The soundtrack also includes Johnny Mathis and ELO (and likely many more classic bands and songs). There are few better genres for great, classic soundtracks than period crime dramas. Just ask the master, Martin Scorsese.

Featured image: Oscar Isaac, Justin Timberlake and Adam Driver (L to R)in Joel and Ethan Coen’s INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS Photo: Alison Rosa ©2012 Long Strange Trip LLC


Bryan Abrams

Bryan Abrams is the Editor-in-chief of The Credits. He's run the site since its launch in 2012. He lives in New York.