Whether you’re a die-hard fan or his most ardent detractor, It’s difficult to deny the industrial dominance of Hans Zimmer and his Remote Control Productions team. When it was announced earlier this year that Zimmer himself would be scoring The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014), many folks, including his fans, raised an eyebrow.
For the record, I don’t classify myself as a Zimmer detractor. He’s crafted scores that I adore and scores that disappointed me; however, I root for excellence each time he sets out on a new compositional journey. What actually troubles me is his sheer dominance within the industry. I don’t think that’s healthy for the longevity of cinema. What makes Zimmer particularly unique when compared to other composers of the past, is that Zimmer has been extremely clever in expanding his brand to other composers who have risen up through the ranks of his Santa Monica-based Remote Control Productions. If Zimmer himself is not available to score a particular film, there are dozens of composers within the Zimmer brand who may be, and thus the dominance of the Zimmer brand proliferates further.
It’s difficult to compete with that. It’s a lot like the “big-box” retailers competing with the mom-and-pop shops. There’s a place for both and I worry about the possibility of one swallowing up the other into obscurity. Brand identity has always been an important factor in finding success in this business; however, I’ve never noticed it so rampantly out-of-control than where we currently find it.
To counter this dilemma, I offer up my list of nine composers whom I would want to see diffuse the dominance of one brand within the film music industry. These names are not new “big-box-retailers” to replace our current big-box retailer. These are the mom-and-pops that I’d love to see gain a few measly shares of the market. Zimmer’s dominance will remain for the foreseeable future; however, if you infuse a little balance, I think the artistic health of the industry which I am duly devoted will continue to thrive.
For almost twenty years, Mark McKenzie’s career as an A-list orchestrator flourished like wildfire throughout Hollywood. He seasoned his symphonic skills serving several elite composers including Bruce Broughton, Marc Shaiman, Randy Edelman, Danny Elfman, Alan Silvestri, and Jerry Goldsmith. When Goldsmith passed away in 2004, Mark effectively retired as an orchestrator and refocused his career solely as a composer.
In a relatively short period of time, McKenzie has quietly established himself as a master symphonist with a profound sense of drama. His earliest works, including Frank & Jesse (1995) and Dr. Jekyll and Ms. Hyde (1995), demonstrate an extraordinary degree of compositional skill rare for current times. He also exhibits another essential characteristic inherent in great film composers; an understanding of the principles of visual storytelling.
In the last several years, McKenzie has sharpened his attention toward spiritually themed films. His score for The Greatest Miracle (2011) is an exceptional treasure and was crowned my favorite score of 2011 while The Ultimate Life (2013) represents a clever fusion of traditional orchestra and bluegrass. Both of these scores are richly dramatic and allow audiences an unobstructed emotional connection to the film through the sweet bouquet of each lilting phrase.
His penchant for piquant melodies and the kaleidoscopic ways he dresses them sets this talented composer apart from his contemporaries. He is one of the best dramatists working today and an exemplar of the powerful force behind music in films.
Other noteworthy scores: Durango (1999), Blizzard (2003), Saving Sarah Cain (2007)
Conrad Pope is arguably the reigning king of orchestrators working in Hollywood today. He’s hired out his skills scribing scores for legendary composers including James Horner, Danny Elfman, Alan Silvestri, Alexandre Desplat, Howard Shore, and James Newton Howard. Most notably, he has been one of John Williams’ primary orchestrators on practically every film he’s composed since Jurassic Park (1993).
It seems from all the hours orchestrating more than one hundred films, Pope has learned a thing or two about how to score one. As a composer he doesn’t have a huge pile of credits; however, nestled amongst a dozen scores are some absolute gems that exhibit the work of a musical genius.
In My Sleep (2010) is a smallish film about a man struggling with a sleepwalking disorder which causes him to commit acts in his sleep which he can not remember the following day. Pope’s music is astonishingly complex in its composition, yet it flows from the orchestra like simple effortless breaths. It’s a true “tone-poem” accurately expressing the narrative of the film even when experienced away its visual counterpart. In contrast, Pope’s music for My Week With Marilyn (2011) demonstrates his extensive musical vocabulary and diversity as a composer. Primarily a jazz-infused score, My Week With Marilyn tackles multiple layers of emotion which Pope carefully threads with his music.
Both of these works could not have come to fruition by happenstance. They are marks of true craftsmanship born from a composer who thoroughly understands the marriage between music and film.
Other noteworthy scores: Ghost Ship (1992), Pavilion of Women (2001), The Presence (2010),Tim’s Vermeer (2013)
Not every composer on my list is a relative newbie to the world of film composition. In fact, Bruce Broughton is a semi-retired veteran of more than one hundred film scores spanning forty years. I include him because, for whatever reason, Broughton has more-or-less receded into the shadows of obscurity. Perhaps this was his intention? Perhaps he was bumped off the radar by those attracted by the new wave of Hollywood hot-shots? Regardless of the specifics, Broughton is a man who should be scoring more of the biggest and best movies Hollywood has to offer. If I were an executive in charge of such matters, I would drive a dump truck full of cash to his house and implore him to score my next film.
Broughton is the only composer, in my opinion, who approaches the orchestral dexterity of John Williams, the technical precision of Jerry Goldsmith, and the simple sweetness of Elmer Bernstein. Other than perhaps Williams, I don’t believe there is anybody working in film music today who understands the complicated acrobatics of an orchestra better than Bruce Broughton. If John Williams were unavailable to score the new Star Wars trilogy, Broughton would’ve been my pick as his successor.
With such a long and fruitful career, there are many scores you can point to which demonstrates Broughton’s genius. He composed two of the finest western scores of the last quarter-century in Silverado (1985) and Tombstone (1993) and his rousing adventure score for Young Sherlock Holmes (1985) is a woefully underrated masterpiece. He also crafted gems including The Boy Who Could Fly (1986), The Monster Squad (1987), Harry and the Hendersons (1987), and Miracle on 34th Street (1994). His resume reads from a list of many of my all-time favorite scores and I believe there are still plenty left in him.
Other noteworthy scores: The Ice Pirates (1984), The Presidio (1988), Eloise at the Plaza (2003), Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey (1993)
There is no other composer on this list who has scored as few films as Douglas Pipes. He may only have two major studio film scores under his belt, but he’s already showcased traits which inspires me to extol his virtue to the highest degree. These two scores are Monster House (2006) which was #5 on my list of favorite scores the year of its release and Trick ‘r Treat (2007) which ended up #6 on my list of favorite scores in 2009 (it wasn’t released until two years after it was made). Pipes nailed the atmosphere of Halloween so acutely with his music for Trick ‘r Treat, that it has become a permanent staple of my annual holiday listening.
It’s difficult to gauge the merits of a composer through only two works, especially when they’re both from the similar genres; however, there’s so much to admire in these two scores that I’m itching to hear what Pipes would do with a period drama, animated adventure, or even a romantic comedy.
I was first beguiled by Spanish composer Fernando Velázquez’s work in The Orphange (2007). Here I was experiencing one of the legitimately scary horror films I had seen in several years, yet the music was unabashedly altering the narrative by adding additional layers rarely encountered in traditional horror films. Ultimately the film evolved into a story about maternal love and the determination of a desperate mother to relocate her lost son. It’s a difficult task to fuse these two disparate elements together into a single musical tapestry, yet Velázquez seemed to accomplish this with ease.
I’ve since immersed myself in Velázquez’s music including The Impossible (2012) which was my #4 favorite score of that year. It’s so heart-wrenchingly painful to listen to and I absolutely adore it. The melody alone is enough to stop me in my tracks and ponder the overwhelming magnificence of life.
While drama seems to be his strength at this juncture, Velázquez certainly has demonstrated musical and narrative diversity with scores like Sexykiller (2012) and Zip & Zap and the Marble Gang (2013) enough to keep him firmly ensconced on my radar for years to come. Other noteworthy scores: Devil (2010), Mama (2013), The Last Days (2013)
The overwhelming majority of Roque Baños’ work is unknown to most American audiences. The prolific Spanish composer has penned music for dozens of European films including Las 13 Rosas (2007), Balada Triste de Trompeta (The Last Circus, 2010), Las Viudas De Los Jueves (2010) and Torrente 4: Lethal Crisis (2011) to name a few. His first major film to receive significant attention in the United States was Sexy Beast (2000) starring Ben Kingsley; however, it was Baños smartly composed homage to Bernard Herrmann, The Machinist (2004), which initially perked my ears and kept me hungry for more. The one score most responsible for putting him on this list is also one of his latest. Evil Dead (2013) contains some of the best pure-horror music I’ve heard in some time and is a seriously scary score to listen to by itself. If these films aren’t enough to introduce him to wider audiences, then perhaps his score for Spike Lee’s upcoming Oldboy (2013) will further the cause. Either way, I’m glued to his music and relishing each new score he composes.
Other noteworthy scores: Las Daga De Rasputin (2011), Intruders (2011), Septimo (2013)
Jeff Grace got his start providing various music services for Howard Shore including music preparation, producing, and editing. In 2005 his debut feature film score The Roost (2005) established an enduring relationship with indie-darling director Ti West which continues to this day. It’s a score of uncompromising creativity harnessing the unique sound qualities of chamber strings and a superlative example of “less-is-more” precision scoring.
What intrigues me the most about Grace’s music is that with each new score he composes, his work seems to be getting better. I was nearly knocked out of my seat by his dark retro music for The House of the Devil (2009) and his score for The Innkeepers (2011) is a horror masterwork which ended up #6 on my list of favorite film scores that year.
Grace’s music is thoughtfully composed lacking any of the “canned” samples or loops that are so prevalent in modern scores. Even when technology is brought into his music, the work of the artist prevails over the work of the computer. Grace’s music is wholly original yet each is cut from the fabric of nostalgia. It’s also wildly unpredictable. Throughout my tenure as a film music journalist I’ve interviewed a bunch of different composers; however, I’ve never been offered the opportunity to interview Jeff Grace. He seems to avoid the usual social media and public relation services that so many composers utilize. If you’re reading this Jeff, email me. I’d love to do an interview with you sometime.
Other noteworthy scores: The Last Winter (2007), I Sell The Dead (2009), Stake Land (2011)
Of all the composers on this list, the one who may inherit and influence the future of film music the most is Abel Korzeniowski. This isn't simply my opinion but a culmination of viewpoints scattered amongst fans, fellow critics, and industry professionals alike.
Fans of 80s cinema (which I include myself) will naturally gravitate toward Polish-born composer Korzeniowski’s music. It brims with nostalgia and champions the essential elements of cinema. He’s not afraid of the power of music and he knows how to wield it. He’s a gourmet chef with a clear mastery of every culinary ingredient imaginable.
While there have been several of his scores that have piqued my interest, one of his latest, Escape From Tomorrow (2013), is the one that has firmly situated him amongst the elite rising forces in film music today. It’s a bizarre, eclectic score for a pretty weird film that I’m not wholly sure I even completely grasped; however, his music certainly elevates it beyond what our imaginations can comprehend. This is the very essence of functional film music.
Although I haven’t seen the film yet, Copernicus’ Star (2009), also rivals the work of Williams or Goldsmith in their prime. It should be in every film music enthusiast’s soundtrack collection. It’s spectacular!
Other noteworthy scores: A Single Man (2009), W.E. (2011), Romeo & Juliet (2013)
Bruno Coulais is another veteran composer on my list whose work is not wholly known in the United States. This Parisian veteran of more than 150 films may be most well-known by American audiences by his kaleidoscopic score for Coraline (2009) which was easily my favorite score of that year (and probably among my top ten of the last decade). His funky instrumental arrangements fueled by gibberish lyrics sung with exquisite beauty made this score one of the most unique I’ve heard in years. If the visual style of Neil Gaiman could be seen with your ears, Coulais certainly made that happen.
Another score which utterly wows me each time I hear it or see the film is the Celtic animated movie Brendan Et Le Secret De Kells (The Secret of Kells, 2009). Like Coraline, Coulais faced another wildly imaginative universe full of eye-popping colorful candy and he delivered a score of such magnificence that it fought your eyes for attention.
I also adored Coulais’ score for the dialogue-less documentary Babies (2010) which was my #2 favorite score of 2010 and still one I listen to constantly. It incorporated Coulais’ signature voice technique of using gibberish as lyrics to be sung within the body of the music.
When I was a student at Berklee College of Music majoring in film scoring and composition, I wrote a fairly lengthy analytical paper on Coulais’ score for a relatively obscure French film entitled The Son of the Shark (1993). I dug it out after many years in storage just before I interviewed Coulais in 2009. I read through it expecting to be slightly embarrassed but I was pleasantly surprised how well I did. It instantly reminded me of what an amazing composer Coulais truly is.
Other noteworthy scores: Microcosmos (2001), Winged Migration (2001), Himalaya: The Rearing of a Chief (1999), Oceans (2010)