16 Rock Stars Turned Movie Composers, From Danny Elfman to Jonny Greenwood (Photos)

Bryce Dessner, Trent Reznor and Hans Zimmer have all won acclaim and accolades for their film scores

John Williams is great and all, but there aren’t a ton of his iconic film scores that I might actually want to listen to while working out. For that, you need to turn to the rock stars, the guys who perform to 20,000 screaming people one night and then collaborate with David Fincher the next. They make the kind of scores that raise the eyebrows of writers at Pitchfork and inspire bedroom hipsters to go out and see an indie film that might otherwise never get an audience.

Trent ReznorThe Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor burst out onto the film score scene when he composed the icy, digitized beats for David Fincher’s “The Social Network” in 2010. He and his collaborator Atticus Ross won the Oscar that year, and he’s since had a wave of creativity on other Fincher films like “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” and “Gone Girl.” More recently he did the score for “Waves,” the “Watchmen” series and Pixar’s upcoming film “Soul.”

Danny ElfmanDanny Elfman joined up with the band Oingo Boingo as a guitarist and vocalist as part of his brother Richard Elfman’s cult film “Forbidden Zone” from 1982, but the band took off for real in the ’80s, and their bouncy, strange and even cinematic New Wave sounds caught the attention of fan Tim Burton. Elfman would then work with Burton on many of his films, starting with “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure,” and he’s now synonymous as a film composer complete four Oscar nominations.

Hans ZimmerHans Zimmer’s history with rock music dates back to his collaborations with The Buggles on their signature hit “Video Killed the Radio Star.” It wasn’t long after that Zimmer became one of the most recognizable and prolific names in film composition, first getting nominated on “Rain Man” in 1989 and then winning his Oscar for Disney’s “The Lion King.” More recently, Zimmer made his return to rock and roll by performing at Coachella for a set in 2017.

Jonny GreenwoodJonny Greenwood might be the face of the rock star-turned-composer phenomenon, as his other-worldly, nightmarishly atmospheric sounds on “There Will Be Blood” represented a dramatic shift for the Radiohead guitarist, despite much of his classical, formal music training and background. Since then he’s worked on each of Paul Thomas Anderson’s subsequent films and finally earned recognition with the Academy after being nominated for his work on “Phantom Thread.”

Randy NewmanThere’s a whole generation of millennials who only know Randy Newman as the guy who sang “You’ve Got a Friend In Me” from the original “Toy Story,” which is a shame for anyone even remotely familiar with his sardonic songwriting. And though he’s been a staple of Pixar and Disney films including scoring “Cars,” “A Bug’s Life,” “Monster’s Inc.” and more, he just recently did the score for Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story.”

Mark MothersbaughThe Devo co-founder Mark Mothersbaugh became incredibly prolific in film and TV after his post-punk rock days, having worked with Marvel on “Thor: Ragnarok,” on “Rugrats,” and with Wes Anderson on “The Royal Tenenbaums.” But he got his start composing for the original “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse” TV series dating back to 1986.

Nick CaveSaying Nick Cave is also a composer doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of all the things this baritone, post-punk songwriter can do. But his film work is best recognizable in films like “The Proposition,” “The Road” and “Hell or High Water.”

Bryce DessnerYou’d most likely recognize The National guitarist Bryce Dessner’s work in some compositions for “The Revenant,” but he’s the sole credited composer on “The Kitchen” and “The Two Popes” from this year. In an interview with TheWrap, he explained that his background lies in classical guitar and formal music training, so while indie rock and classical music may seem worlds apart, they’ve both been a part of everything he does.

Mica LeviThe singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist better known as Micachu first crafted the haunting, alien sonic palette for Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin,” but she’s since done scores for “Jackie,” “Monos” and “Marjorie Prime.”

Popol VuhThe German ambient noise collective Popol Vuh were pioneers of electronic music and krautrock with their spacy use of Moog synthesizers. But they in part reached an international, art house audience thanks to their collaborations with auteur Werner Herzog, most notably on his masterpiece “Aguirre, the Wrath of God,” as well as “Fitzcarraldo” and “Nosferatu the Vampyre.”

Mark KnopflerMark Knopfler is best known as the guitarist and front man of the ’70s and ’80s rockers Dire Straits, but he juggled time with the band alongside scores for “The Princess Bride” and “Wag the Dog,” among others.

Cliff MartinezCliff Martinez collaborated with everyone from the Red Hot Chili Peppers to Captain Beefheart in his early days before forming a partnership with Steven Soderbergh on his film “Sex, Lies and Videotape.” He’s since scored many of Soderbergh’s best films and won a handful of awards for his collaborations with Nicolas Winding-Refn on “Drive,” “Only God Forgives” and “The Neon Demon.”

Karen OThough Karen O’s most notable composer credit is for Spike Jonze’s “Where the Wild Things Are,” the Yeah Yeah Yeahs singer has contributed songs to “Her” and to a cover of “Immigrant Song” with Trent Reznor for “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.”

Eric Clapton‘Ole Slowhand Eric Clapton surprisingly did the music for all four “Lethal Weapon” movies as well as Gary Oldman’s “Nil by Mouth.”

David ByrneThe Talking Heads frontman David Byrne could be working on his EGOT after staging his new Broadway play “American Utopia.” But the Grammy winner also already has his Oscar after winning for one of his first scores on “The Last Emperor” from 1987.

Brian EnoBrian Eno has become such a prolific music producer, working with bands like U2 and Coldplay and beyond, that his own electronic and ambient music innovations have almost become secondary in his musical legacy. And yet he’s also a frequent composer, more recently lending his distinctive sensibility to Peter Jackson’s “The Lovely Bones” and “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.”

OthersMany more musicians better known for their rock bands have at times turned to film as a way to stretch their sound, even if just as one-offs. Eddie Vedder did the music for “Into the Wild,” Thom Yorke did the score and an original song for “Suspiria,” Daft Punk notably scored “Tron: Legacy,” Blood Orange’s Devonte Hynes worked on Gia Coppola’s “Palo Alto,” indie rockers Grizzly Bear wrote the music for “Blue Valentine,” electronic artist Daniel Lopatin, who works under the stage name Oneohtrix Point Never, composed the scores for the Safdie brothers’ films “Good Time” and “Uncut Gems,” and the electronic band Air wrote the score for Sofia Coppola’s “The Virgin Suicides.”
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