Nine Rock Stars Who Became Film Composers

Danny Elfman

Pop music and film music have always gone hand-in-hand. For decades, the "Best Original Song" Oscar winner was not only a major radio hit, but was often written (or cowritten) by the composer of the film. Lately, though, as rock stars stare 40 in the face and decide they want to do more with their lives than play reunion concerts or become the subject of VH1 specials, the world of film music is filling up with familiar faces from the rock world. Some try it as larks (e.g., Toto's horrible soundtrack for Dune); some simply record their own music and the director uses it where he can (e.g., Neil Young's guitar score for Dead Man). This list looks at those who actually traded in spandex and tour buses for full-on orchestral movie work.

  1. Mark Mothersbaugh. This is one of the most successful leaps from pop to film. Mothersbaugh fronted the cult band Devo for many years before settling into his current occupation, and you can see his roots in the bouncy scores he's written for Happy Gilmore, 200 Cigarettes, and the TV series Rugrats. Lately he's become the composer of choice for hipster darling Wes Anderson: Mothersbaugh wrote the scores for Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, and The Royal Tenenbaums.
  2. Danny Elfman. If there's any rock singer who has outdone Mothersbaugh in terms of film score success, it is Oingo Boingo's Elfman, who appropriately channeled his brand of spookhouse pop into Tim Burton soundtracks. This eventually led to less Boingo-esque scores, and he is now one of Hollywood's top composers. His credits are far too numerous to mention, but the non-Burton highlights include Good Will Hunting, Spider-Man, Men in Black, Red Dragon, and Hulk.
  3. Randy Newman. Most people under 40 may not know that the ubiquitous Newman, who hails from a composer family and has scored over twenty films, was a singer-songwriter once known – and hated – for his satirical '70s single "Short People". Folks were irony-impaired even back then, and many thought that Newman genuinely hated short people.
  4. Lisa Gerrard. Although it's hard to describe '80s world music duo Dead Can Dance as a "rock" band, Lisa Gerrard and her partner Brendan Perry still cranked out albums and toured to enthralled audiences, just like rock stars. Perry has dabbled with film but Gerrard is the true breakout: she co-composed scores for Gladiator, The Insider, Ali, and is now doing scores on her own, such as Whale Rider.
  5. Trevor Rabin. Everybody was surprised back in 1983 when effete '70s progressive rock band Yes came back with a hit album and two memorable singles, "Owner of a Lonely Heart" and "Leave It". They owed their pop resurgence, brief as it was, to two Trevors: producer Trevor Horn (who also masterminded the Buggles and the Art of Noise) and guitarist Trevor Rabin, who injected some youthful energy into the group and now composes the music for Jerry Bruckheimer movies. Whether this is a step up from playing guitar for Yes is a tough call.
  6. Stewart Copeland. The Police's drummer chased his own composer dreams as soon as his band broke up, and although Copeland's filmography of B movies and short-lived TV series is hardly an impressive resume – Wall Street is easily his most high-profile film – he's getting lots of work.
  7. Clint Mansell. The former front man for the British cult band Pop Will Eat Itself got his big break on a little film: Darren Aronofsky's Pi. This forged a Hollywood career for Mansell, who has since composed the scores for Requiem for a Dream, Murder By Numbers, and Abandon.
  8. Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman. Possibly the most unlikely pair of film composers on this list are these two women from Prince's band The Revolution. (That's them strutting in thigh-high boots in the "When Doves Cry" video.) They had a modest pop hit of their own with "Waterfall", and now keep busy composing for movies like Dangerous Minds, Soul Food, and Juwanna Mann.
  9. Tangerine Dream. Finally, let's give it up to Germany's Tangerine Dream, a prog rock collective who turned their arty noodlings into gold. As a group, they scored some of the most '80s movies of the '80s: Risky Business, Vision Quest, Fright Night, and Legend. Most of the members of the group continue to score films individually. Mach weiter so!