Electronic musicians have often found film as a place where they can safely follow their sonic muse in a way that is free from the demands of the club and in cozier proximity to the mainstream music industry. Maybe that is the reason why so many of electronic music’s most widely regarded records come attached to our favorite films.
A comprehensive listing of electronic music in movies is impossible. You could spend weeks listening to nothing but 70s Italian horror soundtracks (start with Dario Argento’s Profondo Rosso by Goblin). But here’s a list of the biggest ones that had a major impact at the time, and that we still come back to.
Forbidden Planet (1956)
Widely regarded as the first all-electronic film score, these “electronic tonalities” by Louis and Bebe Barron introduced millions to the notion of synthesized sound (although calling it music might be a stretch if you’re not well-verse in abstract glitch albums). In many ways, the Forbidden Planet soundtrack is the missing link between the early theremin soundtracks from the late ‘40s and early ‘50s (The Day The Earth Stood Still), and the first Moog synthesizer movie appearance, in 1967’s Roger Corman classic, The Trip.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
Arguably the most famous five-note melody in cinematic history, John William’s score for the Steven Spielberg sci-fi classic was ironically recorded using a traditional orchestra, despite the ample presence of synthesizer music by 1977. But that didn’t keep Daft Punk from opening their legendary pyramid shows with the musical phrase, letting the world know that the robots had, in fact, landed.
Midnight Express (1978)
While Spielberg and Williams kept things classical, Giorgio Moroder ran with the electronic innovations he invented while working on Donna Summer’s hit “I Feel Love,” as well as his own 1977 album From Here To Eternity, and applied them to the 1978 soundtrack to Midnight Express, especially lead single, “The Chase.” Not only did Moroder take home an Academy Award for his efforts, he also set the tone for 1,000 dark disco and new wave soundtracks that would follow throughout the ‘80s.
Blade Runner (1982)
By 1982, with electronic sounds embedded in a vast majority of pop songs, a simple synthesizer score was no longer enough to raise eyebrows. But in the case of Vangelis’ compositions for the dystopian world of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, the dark and brooding ambient sounds were so compelling that, in the absence of an official release due to legal issues, bootlegs of the music became treasured possessions for both sci-fi and electronic music fans. The most extensive bootleg collection, 2007’s Esper “Retirement” Edition, contains 172 pieces of music, including the complete music from the film, additional unused music, and a DJ mix of songs that sample Blade Runner, including Future Sound of London and Dillinja.
Ask anyone who remembers the late-90s electronica era and they will likely recall Trainspotting without any more prompting. Impressive, considering that the soundtrack to this film about junkies only featured two electronic tunes (the rest of the album was loaded with excellent older songs by Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, New Order, Pulp, Elastica and more). But when the definitive track is Underworld’s awe-inspiring “Born Slippy (Nuxx),” it’s hard to recollect anything else.
Fight Club (1999)
Equally ominous, though easier to obtain than the Blade Runner soundtrack, this original score to David Fincher’s unnerving 1999 Brad Pitt vehicle recruited Los Angeles producers The Dust Brothers for their first own album release. Though they had made their mark a decade earlier, sheparding amazing albums like Beastie Boy’s Paul’s Boutique and Beck’s Odelay, the pair had spent the late ‘90s working with far less innovative acts like Hanson and the Rolling Stones, which makes this challenging collection of gritty beats and grinding synths surprising and satisfying.
Berlin Calling (2006)
Every year, when more and more international adventurers swarm the city of Berlin and it’s seemingly endless array of all day/all night parties, this 2008 film is likely the vision they have in their heads. Paul Kalbrenner’s slightly autobiographical tale of excess and breakdown made him an international star. It also set Berlin, long a destination for techno adventurers, square in the sites of an entirely larger wave of creative-lead gentrification. The fact that the two main clubs featured in the film, Bar 25 and Maria, were closed for real estate developments that never took hold demonstrates a city still in severe flux.
Most successful electronic producers crave film work as another notch in their artistic belts. Jon Hopkins did things in seeming reverse, first working with Brian Eno on the score for Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones, before simultaneously re-starting a stalled solo career and delivering the soundtrack to the 2010 UK sci-fi horror film Monsters. Like many of the older scores on this list, Hopkins mixes traditional instruments (strings by composer Davide Rossi) and giving them an otherworldly sheen via electronic processes.