From ‘1917’ to ‘Little Women,’ Period Films Take Freewheeling Approaches to Music

1917 The Irishman Little Women Music for Screens
Courtesy of Universal/Netflix/Sony

For movies that take place in ye grand olde 20th century, or earlier, directors often go for period-specificity for everything that appears on screen. When it comes to the music coming through the speakers, though, that can be another matter, as filmmakers tend to be fine with anachronisms in scoring and sometimes even songs. Here’s how six recent period films handled that soundtrack question.


Thomas Newman’s score for Sam Mendes’ war film (their seventh film together, including “American Beauty” and “Skyfall”) ignores the period entirely. “It’s a very visceral experience, and a very modern movie,” he says, referring to Mendes’ much-discussed conceit of making a two-hour movie appear to be one long shot.

Newman’s 95-minute score ranges from ambient, involving electronically created and processed sounds, to symphonic, with an 87-piece orchestra recorded at London’s Abbey Road. Mendes wanted the score to remain “in present tense,” accompanying the film’s two British soldiers without commenting on their desperate mission. The music often conveys “thrust and drive, location and landscape, [but] it all needed to live in a kind of neutrality,” he adds. There are two moments — one at the halfway point, another at the end — where Newman was allowed “a moment of reflection” involving a solo cello, which “draws a bit of an emotional conclusion.”

It was a unique challenge. Says the 14-time Oscar nominee: “You have to make [the music] pregnant in its sense of possibility, but you can’t answer questions because if you do, it’s slightly less interesting and worse, condescending to the experience.” — Jon Burlingame


For the racecar movie that spans the late 1950s through the mid-’60s, director James Mangold sent composers Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders a playlist of songs that inspired him — “going back to the ’50s, some jazz, and rock ’n’ roll from the ’60s,” Beltrami says. They in turn assembled a 15-piece band — including three guitars, rhythm section, keyboards and brass and woodwind players — and scheduled a series of jam sessions over five months at the legendary Capitol Studios in Hollywood, where so many classic records were made during the same era, including albums by the Beach Boys and Frank Sinatra.

“Jim doesn’t like scores that are very polished and homogenized,” Beltrami adds. “He likes things that are a bit rough around the edges.” Mangold visited, listened and made suggestions that helped the composers finalize their approach, reflecting the director’s original musical intentions.

“The whole score is centered around the band,” says Sanders. “When they get to Le Mans, there are extra tracks of guitars tightly edited to represent the fine tuning of the motors.” The result is a score that often sounds like a modernized extension of the garage-y ’60s rock songs that also pepper the soundtrack. — JB


What the Rolling Stones were to “Goodfellas,” the Five Satins are to “The Irishman.” At least, “In the Still of the Night” is the song you’re mostly likely to walk away humming as the Martin Scorsese picture largely eschews classic rock songs in favor of doo-wop or crooner choices. Says composer Robbie Robertson: “[Scorsese] chose songs that connect to certain periods, things that I would have never thought of — like he’s using some of Jackie Gleason’s orchestral music in it. This movie takes place over many decades, and at first you think, oh, if we use songs from those different decades, it kind of signals the time period you’re in.”

They didn’t completely abandon that approach, but, “I had to find a sound, a rhythm, a timeless flavor that worked over all of these years and didn’t feel stuck in any decade,” says Robertson. The movie closes with his collaboration with Van Morrison on a new song, “I Hear You Paint Houses,” that couldn’t be less tied to the movie’s time periods. — Chris Willman


Director Taika Waititi presented a fascinating exercise in having it both ways —going one direction with the score and another with the song choices. The Nazi Germany dramedy begins with the German-language version of the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and ends with David Bowie’s “Heroes” — and even has the young 1945 characters enacting some of Bowie’s video moves in the closing shots of the film.

When it came to orchestral elements, composer Michael Giacchino says he “wanted a very European score, something that felt like if you were wandering down the street in 1939 Germany, you might hear that music playing out someone’s window.” Chopin, Liszt and Satie were among his influences.

“Having a more traditional score with the Beatles and Bowie moments makes it even stranger and stronger,” Giacchino offers. “Somehow it all works together, and I don’t entirely know how.” Far from disapproving of how the rock song picks conflicted with his old-school score, Giacchino used his Paul McCartney connection to secure permission for the Beatlemania oldie comically associated with a portrayal of Hitlermania. It wasn’t an easy sell. — CW


Director Greta Gerwig’s idea of a musical score initially puzzled French composer Alexandre Desplat: “Mozart meets David Bowie,” she told him. It seemed an odd request, especially for a movie set primarily in 19th century America. But “when I saw the film, I understood what she meant,” Desplat says. “There is something pop in the way she has directed the actors, and the art direction has a modernity to it. It doesn’t play perfectly period — classical or tedious or restrained.”

His solution: a Mozart-style orchestra of strings, with flute, harp, clarinet and — most importantly — two pianos, the four hands subtly hinting at the four March sisters of the story. Rather than indulge in “period Americana” clichés, it provides a supportive, lyrical musical backdrop for the various life crises and relationships of Jo, Meg, Beth and Amy. “It was a way to keep the intimacy of the story,” adds the two-time Oscar winner. “Most of the time they are in the house, by themselves. There’s an intimate bond with the girls. It’s very choreographed, like a ballet, and the music plays that.” — JB


Quentin Tarantino is king when it comes to going wildly out of period with song choices. But for his late ’60s SoCal character epic, the 60-plus needle drops stay almost entirely within the time frame, except for a few instrumental scoring cues on loan from the 1970s that you’d be hard-pressed to pick out.

“We didn’t have many anachronistic pieces like he has done in the past,” says music supervisor Mary Ramos. “He wanted to really stay true to the period, and that even expanded into the score choices, like the Bernard Herrmann pieces we use,” including a bit from Herrmann’s discarded score for “Torn Curtain.”

The song parameters were easy: Los Angeles top 40 station KHJ radio is practically a character unto itself, and Tarantino plucked some actual recordings of airtime in the ’60s. The director acknowledges that some diehards contend, “He’s not playing enough of the more psychedelic stuff. … He’s obviously playing [what] a 6- or 7-year-old would listen to’” (Tarantino’s age at the time). But one of the things about tying it implicitly to KHJ was that it was able to give the entire soundtrack a personality — and you can’t break the personality. It’s AM radio. It’s not about this deep cut from Jimi Hendrix.” — CW