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The 20 Greatest Director-Composer Teams in Cinema History

29 September 2015 | Features, People Lists | by Matthew Benbenek

Movies and music have gone together since the beginning of film, accompanying viewings before even dialogue. The passion and excitement of the story, while heavily dependent on the story and direction, can be brought to even greater levels when accompanied by a fitting musical score.

While some consider film scores to be lesser than concert music because they accompany something rather than being the main focus, this has not stopped some of the most renowned composers of the world to venture into the medium. In fact, many classic film scores are even played in concert halls by the world’s most premier orchestras and have become landmarks of classical music in their own right.

In order for film music to be very effective, however, it requires the shared focus and vision of both the director and the composer. Of course, there are terrific films that lack notable scores and then some bad movies feature great soundtracks that overshadow the film, but when the two work together they create brilliant, memorable cinematic experiences.

Many of these filmmakers and composers end up finding success working with each other and team up for several projects, creating many a strong bond. The director-composer teams that are featured in this list all found common themes of interest in their work and paired together to make many great works by effectively mixing their talents.


20. David FIncher, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross

David FIncher’s films have made a name for themselves for being very thrilling and engrossing, but also exceedingly dark. His work often focuses on killers, swindlers and other criminals, going disturbingly in depth on their psyche and motives.

Throughout the beginning of his film career, Fincher constantly switched composers for his many masterpieces like Fight Club and Zodiac, working with a range of writers from Hollywood heavyweights like Howard Shore to more independent artists like the Dust Brothers. It wasn’t until the 2010 film The Social Network, when Fincher finally found composers who matched his style and approach to storytelling.

These artists were industrial rock writers and bandmates Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross of the influential group “Nine Inch Nails.” Although they had never written a soundtrack before, their debut effort was far from amateur. Their Academy Award winning score for The Social Network is a very effective, but understated, accompaniment that conveys the ominous, ruthless genius of Mark Zuckerberg and his rise to fame and fortune.

Since that acclaimed project, the musicians have teamed up with Fincher for his two following projects, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl, where they continue to excel at providing an unsettling atmosphere to the film’s dark thematic content.


19. Christopher Nolan and Han Zimmer

This superstar team is responsible for some of the greatest blockbuster hits of the past decade including The Dark Knight Trilogy, Inception and, most recently, Interstellar. Nolan is a relatively young director in Hollywood, making his debut film Following only in 1998, but he has made a large impression since then. After two more well received films, Insomnia and the cult-favorite Memento, Nolan broke into bigger, studio films, where he began working with Zimmer.

Hans Zimmer is one of the busiest and most respected film composer working today, averaging about four films per year since the start of the millennium. After working on some of the biggest movies of the 1990s, Zimmer quickly became one of the elite in Hollywood, working on many other blockbuster films before pairing up with Nolan for the Batman reboot.

Zimmer’s style of composing, like Reznor & Ross’s, is more focused on the atmospheric impression it leaves on the viewer instead of putting a distinctive melody in their head.

With Nolan’s quickly paced directing and Zimmer’s pounding scores, the Batman franchise was the most exciting film adaptation of the hero to date. They carried their intensity to the mind-bending Inception defining the soundtrack with the now iconic “BWAHH” sound, and to Interstellar where Zimmer’s score worked with the incredible visuals to convey the immensity and mystery of deep space.


18. Godfrey Reggio and Philip Glass

Godfrey Reggio is a documentary filmmaker who has only made four feature length films since he started the profession in the 1980s. He has been able to keep his renown, despite his small body of work, due to his gorgeous shots and his large scope and importance of his films, which address such topics as the evolution of human civilization.

This is one of the only pairings on this list where the composer is more famous than the director, in this case due to Philip Glass’s extremely busy activity in the past decades, writing not only many movie scores, but lots of symphonic music and operas as well. His music is especially distinguishable due to his heavy minimalist style, utilizing lots of repetition, arpeggios and scales, which also makes for great background soundtracks.

All four of Reggio’s feature films, Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi, Naqoyqatsi and Visitors, were scored by Glass. Each approaches a different aspect of change in human society, whether it be expansive, technological, cultural or personal. The films’ visuals are similarly as deep and ponderous but are devoid of any sort of narrative.

Reggio simply captures stunning imagery from all over on Earth and of all types of people, telling his message with film alone. The minimalist scores of Glass, then, assume the role of the star in these films, as they are one of the only connective elements that persists through the many separate images. They do not distract from the message of the shots, but create a meditative environment with which to absorb the films’ meanings.


17. Darren Aronofsky and Clint Mansell

Darren Aronofsky is one of the most exciting directors in modern cinema, creator of such acclaimed films as Black Swan, Requiem for a Dream and The Wrestler as well as more experimental cult films including Pi and The Fountain.

Not only are Aronofsky’s films always well produced and polished, but, more importantly, they always examine challenging, but very relatable, human problems. His most successful films take these basic human themes and elevate them to an epic proportion. Of course, much of this effect would not be possible without the intensity brought by Clint Mansell’s scores.

Like a few other modern composers on this list, Mansell started out as a musician in a band (“Pop Will Eat Itself”), only moving to film soundtracks when Aronofsky needing a score for his debut film Pi. He quickly found that his talents were even better suited to this medium of music.

Their second pairing, Requiem for a Dream, is arguably their most successful collaboration, producing not only an emotionally devastating film about the horrors of drug addiction, but a popular musical theme “Lux Aeterna” which has been borrowed and adapted for various purposes across television and the internet.

His other scores, while less recognized, are similarly effective, most notably his spin on Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake music for Aronofsky’s ballet thriller Black Swan.


16. Masaki Kobayashi and Toru Takemitsu

If this were a list of the greatest film composers instead of director-composer teams, Toru Takemitsu would certainly be higher, but unlike many of the composers on this list, his best scores come from films of a variety of directors.

Takemitsu is also well known for his concert works, as he was a prominent modernist composer, studying under greats like Olivier Messiaen. His prestige in the field of classical music led to many collaborations with the greatest Japanese directors of all time, including Akira Kurosawa, Masahiro Shinoda and a legendary team-up with Hiroshi Teshigahara which came close to making this list, but his film projects with the incredible Masaki Kobayashi are the most powerful.

With the exception of the war epic The Human Condition, almost all of Kobayashi’s notable films were scored by Takemitsu, a partnership which suited both artists. Kobayashi’s gritty and brutal style of film is exceptionally matched by Takemitsu’s energetic and modernist scores. Together, these two created the unmatched intensity of the samurai films Harakiri and Samurai Rebellion as well as the spooky atmosphere of Kwaidan, a collection of four Japanese ghost stories.

Kobayashi and Takemitsu teamed up for a total of ten films from the 1960s to the 1980s, and while not all of them were considered masterpieces of either filmmaking or composition, they all display the two’s immense talents and similar artistic ambitions.


15. Peter Greenaway and Michael Nyman

Peter Greenaway is one of the most visually ambitious directors of all time, due to his history as a painter and his obsession his art history. The frames of his films are meticulously crafted, often deeply layered, and tell a lot about the themes and meanings of the film, instead of just the plot. For this reason, many find his films perplexing, overwhelming and somewhat hard to follow.

To further polarize the viewer, Greenaway fills his films with twisty plot, violence, nudity and other controversial content. Michael Nyman’s music, which accompanies most of his films, are a good fit to these films because their minimalist repetition and structure helps keep the cluttered shots in order.

Nyman’s significance in the music world goes further than his collaboration with Greenaway, including being a critic, teacher, opera composer as well as other film scores, most notably Jane Campion’s The Piano. His first successes, however, were from his early pairings with Greenaway.

Starting with a few short films, the two ventured into feature films with the enigmatic masterpiece The Draughtsman’s Contract. Greenaway’s grandiose exploration on the differences of classes and sexuality was paralleled by Nyman’s baroque-inspired modernist soundtrack.

For many of their other films, Nyman would similarly select musical periods or composers like Mozart on which to adapt and riff on. Some of their other great collaborations include The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, A Zed and Two Noughts and Drowning by Numbers.



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