Aaron M. Olson of LA Takedown Offers Up His Ten Favorite Film Scores
Wanna see movies of your dreams? Look no further.
On May 12, LA Takedown will release II, their (you guessed it) second record. Aaron M. Olson’s recording project began as a way for him to experiment with film scores in the comfort of his own home, and both II and 2015’s LA Takedown flip the tired instrumental music yarn—this isn’t the score to movies that don’t exist so much as it is the soundtrack to a remembered version of Los Angeles, one that likely never existed but that came to the world (and to the city’s own citizens) through screens small and large in the 1980s and ’90s. Consider it a kind of aural retrofuturism.
Olson’s vision for the project is clearly informed by his deep and granular love for film, so we asked him to tell us about his ten favorite scores and soundtracks. You can read his thoughts and listen along below.
It was very difficult to get this down to just ten scores or soundtracks! I had to sacrifice some favorites in order to whittle it down. Some runners up included Midnight Cowboy, Disney’s Robin Hood, Miami Vice (the TV show, not the 2006 film), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Deadlock, Sorcerer, Fantastic Planet, Disney’s Pinocchio, and Manhunter, to name a handful.
So, here are my top ten film scores/soundtracks in no particular order.
Jack Nitzsche, Cutter’s Way
Jack Nitzsche’s score for the 1981 film Cutter’s Way is without a doubt one of my favorite scores, with “Cutter’s Way Theme” ranking high among my all-time favorite pieces of music. The score is haunting, mysterious, and thoroughly beautiful. It serves the film to no end, but stands alone as a musical suite for an odd ensemble made up of glass harmonica, strings, acoustic guitar, mariachi band, and more. As a big fan of moodiness and non-traditional instrumental arrangements, this score is a goldmine for me. The Cutter’s Way score has lived somewhat in obscurity for decades and only in the past year did we finally see its first commercial release (with bonus tracks and extensive liner notes no less) by Spanish label Quartet Records. Now if only somebody would put it out on vinyl.
Giorgio Moroder, Cat People
Giorgio Moroder’s Cat People score successfully pulls a lot of genuine emotion and suspense out of a heavily “synthetic” palette—a difficult move, for sure. Like the film, this score makes honest, genuine, good art out of a style and subject that teeter on the edge of questionable taste. And then to top it off there’s a David Bowie jam for the end credits! Plus I’m a sucker for synth pitch bends (see “Paul’s Theme”).
Michael Nyman and Damon Albarn, Ravenous
Ravenous is such an anomaly of a film, with a perfectly anomalous score to match. The film itself is part American period piece (directed by English director Antonia Bird), part horror, part comedy but ultimately is a uniquely great film. The score by Damon Albarn and Michael Nyman (who literally wrote the book on experimental music: Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond) is equally scattered but just as successful. The score ranges from totally unnerving to endearingly wonky to just plain beautiful, sometimes all within the scope of one piece. Part of what I love about this score is how much it brings to the film, supporting (and sometimes driving) those pushes of emotion, suspense, and comedy.
Chico Hamilton Quintet & Elmer Bernstein, Sweet Smell of Success
I’m a big fan of the Chico Hamilton Quintet, and when I was somewhat recently introduced to this film and saw the opening credits with their name in it, my ears immediately perked up. The group even appears as a jazz band in the movie (I think Chico has a quick line even)! But yes, this score. It’s half Chico Hamilton Quintet and half Elmer Bernstein with orchestra. The two halves really play well off of each other, at times borrowing themes and motifs from one another. You can hear parts of “Susan” (which had previously appeared as “The Sage” in a different recording on an earlier Chico album) occur in full orchestration and variation at the hands of Bernstein in the piece “Love Scene.” Sweet Smell of Success is a rewarding musical conversation between jazz quintet and full orchestra, and an excellent (and seriously dark) film to boot!
Mort Garson, Didn’t You Hear?
The inclusion of this score comes purely from my love of the electronic music of Mort Garson. I believe the film itself was a student film of some kind (with a young Gary Busey in it??) and I have yet to see it; however, I love this music on its own and can only imagine that it enhances the film. Mort Garson made a string of novelty albums from the late ’60s through the ’70s, some of which might be familiar: Cosmic Sounds of the Zodiac, Mother Earth’s Plantasia, Electronic Hair Pieces, and many more. Garson’s work abounds with masterful synthesizer arrangements and neo-Baroque compositions, this score being a testament to such traits in their purest form as the music is not bogged down by novelty themes pointed at album sales. Pure Garson!
John Carpenter, Escape From New York
Where would we be without John Carpenter? I don’t want to know! Carpenter’s movies and scores (which he mostly did himself with synth programmer/composer Alan Howarth) really speak for themselves… They’re always iconic and bad ass. Plus this score has a synthesizer version of one of my favorite Claude Debussy pieces, La cathédrale engloutie. (Side note: Isao Tomita did a more fully realized synthesizer version of this piece as well, which is also quite nice.)
Popol Vuh, The Great Ecstasy of the Sculptor Steiner
A forty-five-minute Werner Herzog documentary made up largely of super slow motion ski flying footage set to Popol Vuh? Yes please. Not to ruffle any feathers here, but I feel like this score is what many instrumental “post-rock” bands strive to do, but they often fall short of achieving this greatness because of their emotional heavy-handedness and singularity of vision.
Goblin, Profondo Rosso
Goblin’s score for the Dario Argento film Profondo Rosso is proggy, jazzy, heavy, and as stylish as the movie is visually (which is very stylish indeed). I’m a fan of all of their Argento scores, but this one (the main theme in particular) sticks out to me as the most iconic and interesting, taking an extremely Tubular Bells–esque asymmetrical keyboard ostinato and laying a heavy jazzy prog band groove atop it. It just blew my mind the first time I heard it. The Goblin scores in Argento’s films play a role as important as any actor on screen; the music is never tucked back, it’s always in the foreground. The films are almost like music videos at times, though not in the way that something like Snatch is… They’re brutal yet beautiful, and fast-moving but still somehow patient. It works seamlessly in tandem with the images in the film, but when removed from that context still stands alone as a fantastic album by an Italian band from the ’70s.
Philip Glass, Koyaanisqatsi
Koyaanisqatsi is a truly unique and groundbreaking piece of visual and aural art, much more than a typical score to a commercial film. Philip Glass’ musical aesthetics have been co-opted, copied, and beaten to death by Hollywood, but I still find great enjoyment in his scores. You can hear Philip Glass-isms everywhere these days, from the OJ Simpson documentary to a coffee commercial. There’s a reason he’s copied, though, and it’s that his music works so well to set up an image on screen. Somewhere in his simplicity and repetition lay grounds for an emotional rollercoaster triggered by the smallest change of chord and/or instrumentation. The music of Philip Glass was an early obsession for me and has influenced me greatly; I could talk about him all day…but I won’t. I will just say that I once saw the Philip Glass Ensemble perform the Qatsi trilogy (Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi, Naqoyqatsi) live to the original films and was uncontrollably moved to tears.
Tangerine Dream, Thief
One of my favorite movies, one of my favorite scores, I present to you Michael Mann’s masterpiece, Thief. I’m tempted to leave it at that, but I will say this: James Caan, with no dialogue, welding his way into a vault for ten minutes set to Tangerine Dream… and then James Belushi frolicking in the surf on a beach in clingy swim trunks. Hehe. FL