×

‘Mowgli,’ ‘Buster Scruggs’ and Beyond: Streaming Cinema Is Enlisting A-List Composers

Carter Burwell and Danny Elfman are among those whose scores elevate the profiles of Netflix and Amazon.

The debate rages on over whether a Netflix movie is legitimate, bona fide cinema, as the streaming behemoth has somewhat reluctantly joined Amazon Studios in giving its award-hungry offerings at least a limited theatrical run. But good old-fashioned talent makes contrasting the streamers with their Old Hollywood rivals a moot point. And, along with star-studded casts and esteemed directors, many of this season’s Netflix and Amazon original films were soundtracked by prestige composers.

“Roma” had no original music, but Netflix scored a coup with “The Other Side of the Wind,” the belatedly released Orson Welles film that features a new score by three-time Oscar winner Michel Legrand. Meanwhile, Amazon nabbed not one but two Radiohead members for its original features this year: Jonny Greenwood for “You Were Never Really Here” and Thom Yorke for “Suspiria.”

Netflix’s “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is the latest in a 35-year collaboration between the Coen brothers and composer Carter Burwell, who’s proved equally deft at italicizing their quirky humor and darkening their cold drama. He needed to walk the razor’s edge between both in the Coens’ western anthology, which has Tim Blake Nelson grinning and singing over his kill in one chapter, and then a stoic Liam Neeson carting an armless, legless thespian (Harry Melling) around in a very bleak story that follows.

Burwell’s score — which ambles from a rustic hymn for acoustic guitar and strings, to a wintry dirge, to a sentimental flute lullaby, to an ink-black rumination on death — is almost like a miniature songbook of his career. He first tried tying all of the disparate chapters together with a unifying theme, but quickly realized that didn’t work. Instead, he embraced the film’s episodic nature and the unity simply became — himself.

“In the end, it’s a Coen brothers film and it’s a Carter Burwell score,” he says. “So we pulled it back to just sounding more like us.”

Another longtime partnership, between director Gus Van Sant and composer Danny Elfman, dates back to 1995’s “To Die For.” Two of the composer’s four Academy Award nominations were for Van Sant films: “Good Will Hunting” and “Milk.”

In the director’s dramedy for Amazon Studios, “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot,” Joaquin Phoenix plays Portland cartoonist John Callahan, who overcame the alcoholism that led to a car crash, which rendered him a quadriplegic. Elfman’s score begins with the farthest thing you’d expect from the composer: free-form jazz.

“Anytime I can do anything where someone says, ‘That couldn’t be from you,’ that’s like my highest compliment,” Elfman says.

The rest of the score was written for a tiny ensemble of seven players. There are some wordless vocals, but most of it is just a guitarist and Elfman on keyboards and synths. That was mainly due to the film’s small budget, but Elfman enjoys taking a break from the symphonic juggernauts — including his recent score for “The Grinch” — and stripping things down.

“It’s a chance for me to be more personally engaged, not with the writing, but with the performance of the score,” he says.

He and Van Sant didn’t have a roadmap for the film’s musical tone or style, only that they wanted to avoid maudlin. Theirs is a process of constant experimentation, throwing wildly different ideas at the picture and seeing what sticks.

“If you were a painter, it would be the difference [between] doing a lot of sketches first before you commit to the painting, because it has to achieve a specific whole entity, [whereas] with Gus, it’s going to be more like doing a Jackson Pollock.”

A less familiar name to American moviegoers, Nitin Sawhney has been scoring films and videogames for 20 years. The Londoner’s background in both Indian and western classical music made him an ideal fit for “Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle,” director Andy Serkis’ dark adaptation of the classic Rudyard Kipling tale of an Indian boy raised in the jungle. Netflix bought it from Warner Bros. and released it in December.

“It’s a hero’s journey, but it’s also a coming-of-age [story],” says the composer, who identified with the young protagonist. “I grew up in an area in England where there’s a great deal of racism, and so I felt quite torn between being, I think, the only Asian in my area, and my home life — and feeling like I was between two worlds.”

Sawhney’s score braids Indian percussion instruments including the mridangam, pakhawaj and tabla into a traditional symphony orchestra. His theme for Mowgli is a bittersweet melody often played on bansuri, a bamboo flute. “I was trying to find something that felt like it had a lot of heart, and captured his innocence, too.”

More Film

  • The Band Doc 'Once Were Brothers'

    Robbie Robertson Documentary 'Once Were Brothers' to Open Toronto Film Festival

    “Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band” will rock the opening night of the Toronto International Film Festival. The documentary recounts the story of one of Canada’s musical legends — a man who served as both lead guitarist and primary songwriter on a group that introduced the likes of “The Weight” and “The Night [...]

  • Rounds

    Stephan Komandarev and Catalin Mitulescu Films Among Sarajevo's 23 World Premieres

    The latest films from Bulgarian director Stephan Komandarev and Romania’s Catalin Mitulescu are among 23 world premieres competing for the Heart of Sarajevo awards at the 25th Sarajevo Film Festival. Komandarev’s 2017 film “Directions” played in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard and his 2008 opus, “The World Is Big and Salvation Lurks Around the Corner,” was [...]

  • Tommy JamesCousin Brucie 3rd Annual Palisades

    Tommy James Biopic 'Me, the Mob and the Music' in Development (EXCLUSIVE)

    Pop music star Tommy James and film producer Barbara DeFina are developing the biopic “Me, the Mob and the Music,” based on James’ autobiography. DeFina, whose credits include Martin Scorsese’s “Casino” and “GoodFellas,” and James have tapped three-time Tony Award winner Kathleen Marshall to helm the film adaptation from a screenplay by Matthew Stone (“Intolerable [...]

  • Terminator: Dark Fate

    Comic-Con: ‘Terminator: Dark Fate’ Cast Will Hit Reddit Live-Streamed AMA (EXCLUSIVE)

    Arnold is back — and he and other cast members of “Terminator: Dark Fate” are joining a first-of-its-kind live-streaming Reddit AMA on Thursday from Comic-Con International in San Diego. For the new installment in the “Terminator” franchise, Paramount Pictures is hosting a traditional Comic-Con panel Thursday 11 a.m.-12 noon in Hall H. Then, a few [...]

  • Pedestrians walk past a large screen

    Johnny Kitagawa: Power, Abuse, and the Japanese Media Omerta

    Will the death of Johnny Kitagawa lead to a change of attitude by the Japanese media to the powerful Johnny & Associates talent agency that he formed? Public broadcaster NHK and others this week reported a warning to the company from the Fair Trade Commission over alleged pressure on TV stations to keep members of [...]

  • Jahmil X.T. Qubeka on Durban Opening-Night

    Jahmil X.T. Qubeka on Durban Opening-Night Film ‘Knuckle City’

    DURBAN–Dudu Nyakama is an aging boxer whose best fighting days are behind him. But for a man whose only glory has come in the ring, a big prize fight offers the one shot at saving his family, dragging him into the criminal underbelly of the gritty township he’s spent his whole life trying to escape. [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content