Music has always been an important part of film, and there’s plenty of movies that make great use of their musical scores or certain song selections for key scenes. However, some directors manage to marry music and film so well that they’re widely recognized for the music they use in films just as much as for the movies themselves.
There are some directors who have curated very fine soundtracks for their films (Sofia Coppola in “Lost in Translation,” Nicolas Winding Refn in “Drive,” Behn Zeitlin in “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” Paul Thomas Anderson in “Phantom Thread,” etc.), but this list takes a look at some of the directors who have repeatedly proven their impeccable taste in music throughout their film careers.
Directors who have looked at ways of integrating music within their films as a supporting player or as a narrative device and not as a background prop.
10. Lars von Trier
Lars von Trier’s work has always been quite polarizing, drawing mixed reception from critics and fans alike, mostly due to his difficult themes. But the Danish director should be noted for his creative use of music in some of his most well-known works.
“Dancer in the Dark” is still talked about today, albeit more due to the tumultuous collaboration between von Trier and Björk, who starred in the movie and vowed to never act again following that experience.
Nevertheless, their collaboration yielded not only a powerful film, but an inventive soundtrack as well. “Selmasongs,” the accompanying soundtrack album written by Björk, von Trier, Mark Bell and Sjón, was praised for how well it combined Björk’s unique vision to her character’s suffering, and it ultimately led to an Oscar nomination for the song “I’ve Seen It All.”
Von Trier’s most acclaimed musical moment came when he decided to use Richard Wagner’s prelude to “Tristan und Isolde” in “Melancholia.” The prelude is used throughout the film and in places, the film was even edited at the same pace as the music. Von Trier decided to use Wagner’s music after coming across a section from “In Search of Lost Time” where Marcel Proust argues that Wagner’s prelude is the greatest work of all time.
9. Wes Anderson
Wes Anderson is known for his very distinct style. While the visual style might be his primary trademark, he is also known for his inspired musical selections. His use of pop music from the 60s and 70s usually brought renewed interest in the songs he featured.
In “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou,” David Bowie serves as the main point of inspiration for the soundtrack, featuring some of his original hits (such as “Life on Mars” and “Queen Bitch”), but also covers sung in Portuguese by Seu Jorge. Some of these covers are actually performed live in the movie, by Jorge, showcasing Anderson’s own use of a diegetic soundtrack.
Anderson’s love of classic rock music is made clear through the abundance of iconic classic rock songs he scatters throughout his films. As a big Rolling Stones fan, he’s featured their songs many times.
In his debut film “Bottle Rocket,” Anderson uses the Rolling Stones’ “2000 Man” during the climax of the film, while in “The Royal Tenenbaums” he uses an instrumental cover of “Hey Jude” performed by The Mutato Muzika Orchestra (a moniker used by Mark Mothersbaugh, the lead singer of Devo and frequent Anderson collaborator) in order to paint a portrait of the Tenenbaum family.
8. Wong Kar-wai
Wong Kar-wai, a highly stylistic filmmaker, directs without using a script and relies on mood and improvisation. His films have even been compared to music videos due to the nature in which music is used as the essence of his works, and the way it dictates the rhythm of his movies.
One perfect example of the role music has in Wong’s films is in his 2000 romantic film “In the Mood For Love.” The film follows a man and a woman who form a bond once they suspect their spouses are having an affair together.
“Yumeji’s Theme” by Shigeru Umebayashi appears throughout the film multiple times, following the couple each time they meet. The piece routinely fades out before it has the chance of fully coming together, but each time they meet and the piece starts anew, it lasts a little bit longer. Once it is used in full, its mournful sound reflects the impending fate of the couple.
In “Chungking Express,” Wong uses “California Dreamin’” by the Mamas and the Papas repeatedly during the second part of the film. As one of the character’s favourite song and as a vessel for her obsession with California, the song is used to establish the character and her motivations. Wong paints a touching scene when the character reunites with her lover after leaving California, and the entire scene is amplified by the constant playing of the song in the scenes before it.
7. Andrei Tarkovsky
Andrei Tarkovsky is heralded as one of the greatest directors ever. His cinematography, unconventional structure and themes have created a new language in the art of filmmaking. While some directors use music as a central piece in their films, certain auteurs have successfully employed a minimalist approach, opposed to the excessive use of music found in other films.
This is true with Tarkovsky as well. He believed that in a film, there should be a natural use of sound and music, reflecting reality as close as possible. He used music to express metaphors and enrichen the connection between the film and the audience.
For the soundtrack to his films “Solaris,” “The Mirror” and “Stalker,” he collaborated with composer Eduard Artemyev and created a distinctive sound that, alongside Tarkovsky’s imagery, would evoke a person’s interior world, as imagined within the film. In “The Mirror,” which lacks an obvious narrative, Artemyev’s soundtrack carries and centers the entire film.
6. Jim Jarmusch
Being a musician himself, there’s no surprise that Jim Jarmusch is very attentive to the music he uses in his films. He is known to only work with financiers that can guarantee him final cut, and is against having his films dubbed for foreign audiences.
One of the reasons he does this is to ensure that someone else cannot dictate what songs feature in his films, bringing to mind the commercial films of the past in which the music was used to sell the soundtrack, not advance the story or give depth to the characters.
In an example of the music being a supporting characters itself in Jarmusch’s works, his 1984 film “Stranger Than Paradise” featured a soundtrack written by John Lurie, who also starred in the film. Besides Lurie’s original work, the soundtrack also used Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You” as the sound of a character’s imagined version of America. The scene in question also gave us the now iconic line: “It’s Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and he’s a wild man, so bug off!”
After being allowed to use the song, Jarmusch showed his gratitude by casting Hawkins himself in a role as the night clerk in 1989’s “Mystery Train.” The film’s main source of musical influence is undoubtedly Elvis Presley. The track that also gives the film its title plays several times during the movie, including in both the opening and ending credits.
One of the three stories presented in the movie features a character who is obsessed with Elvis and reaches the Arcade Hotel, which features a portrait of the artist in each room. The King of Rock and Roll is omnipresent in the film as Jarmusch also uses the crooner’s “Blue Moon” three different times throughout the film. Though on paper this might seem like overkill, Jarmusch blends the song and the scenes so well together that you cannot help but appreciate the repetition.