Reznor, Marr, Greenwood… Why Are So Many Rock Musicians Doing Film Soundtracks?

Three of the biggest movie soundtracks of the year have true indie hearts. Trent Reznor (with Atticus Ross) just won an Oscar for his work on The Social Network, pipping Hans Zimmer, who brought in Johnny Marr to play on his music for Inception. Meanwhile, classical elements in Black Swan score were the only thing stopping Pop Will Eat Itself’s Clint Mansell from scoring a nomination. Mansell previously penned the acclaimed score for Moon.

The trend for indie acts turning their hand to soundtracks is nothing new. Aside from penning screenplays, Nick Cave has helmed several soundtracks including The Proposition, while Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood took his avant-garde approach out of the studio and into the heart of Paul Thomas Anderson’s world for There Will Be Blood.

Another Johnny, Johnny Marr, has had a hand in movie soundtracks for far longer, beginning with Dennis Hopper’s Colours in the late-80s. Improvising the music for the opening scene of that film, he found himself up close and personal with the star: “Suddenly he was right on my shoulder, just like Frank from Blue Velvet, shouting in my ear: ‘Make it sound like the fucking cops!’ I immediately started making a sound with my guitar that I’d never been able to make before!”

Marr thinks rock stars are drawn to movie music for the sense of freedom: “You’re not restricted to working on something between three and five minutes long. Obviously the idea of writing an instrumental means you’re mostly dealing with emotions and that offers quite a lot of freedom. It also can be quite solitary and it’s nice not to have to please four or five other people.”


While Marr got into working on movies almost by mistake, Trent Reznor says working on The Social Network was an extension of the direction he took on Nine Inch Nails’ ‘Ghosts I-V’: “With that record I had an image of a place or scenario in my head and I was trying to ‘dress the set’ with a soundscape with no attention to traditional song structure.”

Interestingly Reznor says he harnessed his sense of dread about the state of the music industry to write The Social Network‘s tense and dread-filled instrumentals: “I hooked into the panic and despair that’s emanating from the business side of the music industry as it watches itself being decimated. You can’t help but let some of that seep into your mindset as a musician.”

Reznor says his experience with the film industry has been “a very positive one on all fronts” but that doesn’t mean he’s taking the plunge into movies permanently. He says: “I enjoyed the experience and will continue scoring here and there but I hope to balance it out with working on various albums as well.” For Nine Inch Nails fans that’s good news. Note, he says “albums”.

His view that working on a score is a companion to other musical endeavours is shared by Johnny Marr. The Cribs man says working on Inception as well as the forthcoming animated movie Rango with Antonio Banderas made him “inspired to work on rock music and to see it for what it is. Film music gives you freedom, rock should be wrapped up tight.”

Reznor also believes that working on films has changed the way he sees movies: “I’ve realised that what makes me love a certain film is that synergy of all the elements coming together. Up until working on The Social Network, I rarely paid much attention to the music in a film unless it stood out in some attention grabbing way or just sucked.”

“But when we were piecing together The Social Network, it was quite amazing how much power we had as composers to manipulate your emotional response to a theme. I knew music could do that but it was quite interesting to be the one doing it!”

It’s that power to effect a captive audience that composer David Arnold, who has worked with musicians including Bjork and penned numerous scores including the one for the forthcoming Bond 22, says is key: “I think cinema has a unique appeal to musicians. The fact that, mostly, an audience will sit in the cinema quietly and listen to what you have done and that you have the audience’s attention is a great incentive. Music in films can move people in a way that is different to a song or gig.”

Can soundtracks be more lucrative than plying your trade in a band? Arnold says it depends: “Well, if you’ve written Thriller then soundtracks are small beans but if you’ve written two songs on Steve Brookstein’s comeback album, probably yes. No offence to Steve, of course.” And that battle between Reznor and Marr at The Oscars? “They’ve both won already – they’re making a living from music AND they’re Oscar nominated.”

The indie/Hollywood love affair goes both ways. Marr passionately denounces the kind of audience-intelligence-insulting blockbuster flicks that dominated in the 90s and early 2000s when you were more likely to find Puff Daddy on soundtrack duties than Trent Reznor.

Marr says: “These days the music industry has a lot of interesting characters in it with good young actors and directors and a lot less of that stupid Will Smith saves the world blockbuster nonsense.”

He continues: “We’re living in a time where there’s the promise of people with intelligence being given support to explore ideas that don’t underestimate people’s intelligence. Everyone knew Mission Impossible 3 was crap! They put it out anyway. Inception shows we have attention spans. Thank God for people like Christopher Nolan.”

And for music fans at the movies, thank God for Reznor, Marr and Mansell.

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