2014 has been an exciting and fun time for movie music with a return to the classically styled soundtrack full of popular music to scores going against convention by adding an unexpected element (vocals) or honing in on a single instrument (percussion). We also got a bunch of catchy new songs to sing along with (and get stuck in our heads) along with scores that moved us, upset us, confused us, or simply made us smile.
As films and filmmakers stretch themselves to bring audiences fresh, new stories, those creating the music are starting to push the boundaries as well (or return to more “vintage” means) to mix things up and keep audiences guessing. The movies of 2014 had a very distinct sound that spanned a wide range of genres and musical styles. This year introduced us to some new talent, showed us a new side of familiar names, and had favorites working at the top of their game – read on to listen through the film sound of 2014.
14. How To Train Your Dragon 2
John Powell’s score for How To Train Your Dragon brought a palpable excitement to a film that could otherwise be dismissed as just another animated feature. Powell clearly understands how important music is to animation and created a score that delivered the emotion, but more importantly, delivered some real adrenaline to How To Train Your Dragon’s action sequences. Powell hits it out of the park again with his score of the aptly titled How To Train Your Dragon 2 bringing those familiar stanzas back into play, but wisely expanding on them as Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and Toothless (Randy Thom) find their world expanding. The biggest change in this new installment is meeting Hiccup’s mother, Valka (Cate Blanchett), and all her dragon rescues and Powell adds the necessary weight to this new development by incorporating lighter choral elements into the theme that works as a subtle, but powerful, way to hint at Hiccup and Valka’s familial connection. But the most important element in a movie about a boy and his dragon is making the audience feel like they can soar right alongside them and Powell once again delivers that feeling in a way that feels both magical and real.
David Gordon Green had a return to form this past year with his character piece Joe. Joe (Nicolas Cage) seems like a fairly simple man when you first meet him, but it is quickly revealed that he is constantly trying to hold back his true nature. David Wingo and Jeff McIlwain create a score that plays to these grey areas – at times seeming melodic before allowing the music to fray and reveal more unsettling elements. Joe is full of good intentions, but there is a rage inside of him that bubbles out and Wingo and McIlwain make sure their score follows these sharp character developments without ever giving them away. The score makes it seem as though there is always something off about Joe, but Cage’s performance works against that feeling in a charming way that makes you not only want to know him, but root for him to win.
12. Into The Woods
Rob Marshall picked the right players to bring Stephen Sondheim’s musical to the big screen – but they may not be the actors you would first expect. We know Anna Kendrick has a beautiful voice (hi Pitch Perfect) and is wonderful as the indecisive Cinderella and Meryl Streep (who proved her musical prowess in Mamma Mia) and is fantastic as the unhinged Witch. But Emily Blunt, Johnny Depp, and Chris Pine are unexpectedly well cast as they sing their way through Into The Woods as the Baker’s Wife, the Wolf, and Cinderella’s Prince. Into The Woods definitely explores some darker themes, but it is a comedy at its core and the actors commit to their roles in a way that brings the music to life and makes the film not only a visual spectacle, but also a treat to listen to as these well-known fairy tales fold into and combine with one another. Musicals can be overwrought or too campy, but the music of Into The Woods successfully rides that line and updates enough of the songs to set the film apart from the stage play.
Birdman is all about innovation from its single shot approach to it’s characters being able to move things with their minds. But one of the film’s most innovative elements is its percussion driven score that works to get under your skin and make you feel like you are going as mad as Michael Keaton’s Riggan Thomson. Where Whiplash used his percussive score to mirror Andrew’s ambition and fixation on jazz music, Birdman uses the instrument for its ability to clang along and become a sound that is oppressive instead of inspirational. Birdman marks jazz drummer Antonio Sanchez first time as a composer, but his classical training is on full display here as Sanchez is able to not only keep up with the increasingly erratic Riggan, but also add to the chaos.
10. A Most Violent Year
Alex Ebert may have been best known as the lead singer of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, but after winning a Golden Globe for last year’s All Is Lost, Ebert is becoming just as well known for his scores. Ebert once again partners with director JC Chandor for A Most Violent Year and brings a dark and tortured feeling to the story of a man desperately chasing the American dream. Ebert’s score starts out slow, but builds to create a lush soundscape that is as dynamic and unpredictable as Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) and the world he lives in. Isaac’s performance and the stark scenery surrounding him are at center stage throughout the film and Ebert expertly creates music to accompany, never overpower, what is happening on screen. The music may sound beautiful at first, but much like the world Abel has created for himself, the cracks start to show and when you listen (or look) closely, it is clear that there is some true unrest at the core of the score (and Abel).
9. The Lego Movie
Everything is awesome – especially in the Lego universe. “Everything Is Awesome” plays as a joke in The Lego Movie, but the song is undeniably catchy and does work as the perfect method to hypnotize people. (Hey – if advertising companies used to do it, why not the tiny yellow overlord of a Lego community?) Tegan and Sara and The Lonely Island may sing on this opening track, but Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh is the mastermind behind The Lego Movie score and uses his experience from the new wave band to create music that has classic orchestral elements combined with enough electronic elements to keep the score fun and aimed at a younger audience. The best part is how Mothersbaugh plays on other iconic scores like Ennio Morricone’s spaghetti-western style on tracks like “Saloons and Wagons” and the grandeur of Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings scores with “Middle Zealand.” Evil may be going on in the Lego universe, but Mothersbaugh keeps it from ever sounding too desperate.
8. The Grand Budapest Hotel
It is M. Gustave’s (Ralph Fiennes) job to welcome you into the fantastical, whimsical world of The Grand Budapest Hotel and Alexandre Desplat adds to this immersive feeling with a score that is both dramatic and fun (much like the hotel itself). M. Gustave and his team find themselves in many different (and increasingly madcap) situations through The Grand Budapest Hotel and Desplat follows along with music that works even their more dire situations, but is still lighthearted at its core. Each of the film’s characters are well defined from their outfits to the way they carry themselves and the music Desplat has written for each works to further define those distinctions. From the piano driven tune for “Mr. Moustafa” to the jazzy string section featured on “The New Lobby Boy” to the jaunty feeling of “M. Ivan” all these different styles work together, just as all these different characters work to make the residents of The Grand Budapest Hotel as interesting as what happens in hotel itself.
For a musical genre all about scatting and riffing, jazz percussion needs to be incredibly precise to allow the other instruments room to play and experiment. Drums are the backbone of any song or ensemble and Whiplash proves this fact thanks to the terrifying and relentless pressure conductor Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) puts on jazz drum prodigy Andrew (Miles Teller). But Andrew wants to be the best and as Fletcher continues to push him, Whiplash’s score also refuses to let up with Justin Hurwitz’s percussion keeping the pressure on through every scene. The blood, sweat, and tears Fletcher drives Andrew to would make anyone question why someone would put themselves through such torture, but Hurwitz’s score is also full of beautiful jazz music that reminds you why the pain and anguish are might be worth it.
6. The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby
Son Lux has had songs on soundtracks before, but The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby is the first time the musician has composed music for a film. Usually scores do not feature vocals (to keep from competing with the dialogue), but Son Lux has created lyric filled songs that work to further the impact of The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby without ever impeding on the performances. “No Fate Awaits Me” is a gorgeous track whose vocals are equal parts beautiful and haunting – something that could also be said of Eleanor (Jessica Chastain). The story of a couple dealing with an incredible loss is one that does not require any additional emotional support (especially when said couple is portrayed by talented actors like James McAvoy and Chastain) and Son Lux comes in to almost add icing to an already delicious cake. The tracks are mesmerizing on their own, but within the film work to deepen the emotions portrayed by those on screen.
Boyhood takes audiences through eleven years of Mason Evans’ (Ellar Coltrane) life, but it also takes audiences through eleven years of music. Richard Linklater uses songs as almost chapter headers to each year of Mason’s life ranging from Coldplay’s “Yellow” to Arcade Fire’s “Deep Blue.” Unlike soundtracks that try to only use “cool” or “hip” music, Boyhood embraces the different and random songs a normal kid would listen to over the course of his life. A ten-year-old boy would be listening to Gnarls Barkley’s hit “Crazy” and you could not turn on the radio in 2011 without hearing Goyte’s “Somebody That I Used To Know.” Boyhood is an honest story of a boy growing up and his musical choices work to further that idea because they play to what a boy at these ages would naturally be listening to – not what the idealized movie version of that boy would be expected to be playing on his Discman (and eventual iPod).
4. Begin Again
I dare you to listen to Begin Again’s “Tell Me If You Wanna Go Home” and not come back with its catchy beat stuck in your head, and happy to have it there. Begin Again may be a bit cheesy in its message of how music can save you and help you (you guessed it) begin again. But the music infuses the film with a feeling of hope that works to suggest a good song really can change your outlook on life. It is no surprise the songs have an infectious quality considering they were written by former New Radicals front man Gregg Alexander – a musician who knows how to write a song that will get your feet tapping. Music is a huge part of the narrative as the differences between stripped down songwriter Gretta’s (Keira Knightley) version of “Lost Stars” versus pop star Dave’s (Adam Levine) version tell you everything you need to know about each character and how a song can change depending on who is singing it.
Nightcrawler proved Jake Gyllenhaal is turning into a true chameleon, but it also proved that James Newton Howard has some series range. His score for Nightcrawler is rooted in an electronic style you would expect from a composer like Cliff Martinez, but Howard’s score hums along to an electrified pulse that works as the perfect companion to Lou Bloom’s (Gyllenhaal) madness. Much like Lou, Howard’s score is slick and cool, but then a chord change or a dissonant note will suddenly make you feel uneasy. But before you try to get away from the uncomfortable feeling, both the score (and Lou) will do something to pull you back in.
2. Gone Girl
From the first down beat in Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score for Gone Girl (the aptly titled “What Have We Done to Each Other?”) – things seem slightly off. David Fincher brings his signature style to Gillian Flynn’s twisted story of a marriage gone array and part of Fincher’s signature style now seems to include music from Reznor and Ross. The duo’s score for Gone Girl may be minimal, but it is still able to deliver a crushing impact when necessary (much like Amy herself). Gone Girl is a tricky dance where nothing is truly what it seems and Reznor and Ross wisely keep to the background, adding to the atmosphere and eerie feeling, but never tipping their hats to what is really going on.
1. Guardians of the Galaxy
“I… I… I… I’m hooked on a feeling…” We were all hooked on a feeling this year as Blue Swede’s 1974 hit ooga-chaka’d it’s way back into our hearts and had us singing along to the hits of ’70s ever since Guardians of the Galaxy hit theaters this summer. The Guardians soundtrack simply makes you feel good and the throwback to cassette mixes was the perfect idea for a soundtrack (which is essentially a mix tape of songs from a movie). Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) has very specific taste in music and it is hard to keep yourself from rocking out along with him to his specially curated mix. ‘Awesome Mix Vol. 1’ has superhero and music fans alike clamoring for what songs might be on ‘Awesome Mix Vol. 2’ – will it stick to the ’70s or will we get a new mix tape full of ’80s hits?