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Leonardo DiCaprio as Romeo in Romeo + Juliet
Still from "Romeo + Juliet"

The stories behind your favourite cult soundtracks

As Thomas Vinterberg’s Far From the Madding Crowd hits cinemas, we speak to composer Craig Armstrong to get the back story on some of his greatest movie soundtracks

Craig Armstrong might be your favourite musician you’ve never heard of. Originally from Glasgow, where he played in bands as well as studying classical piano and violin, Armstrong “fell into” scoring films in the mid-90s after musicians he was working with – like Massive Attack and U2 – asked him to make arrangements for film soundtracks they were working on.

His fusion of popular and classical styles (a combination he fell in love with after listening to his mum’s eclectic record collection) set him apart from the Hollywood set and after he collaborated with Baz Luhrmann on his stylistic masterpiece Romeo + Juliet – for which he won a BAFTA – Armstrong’s name became a force to be reckoned with in the industry.

Over the years he’s collaborated with directors to score a range of high concept films like Moulin Rouge (for which he won a Golden Globe), Ray (for which he won a Grammy) and The Great Gatsby and he’s continued to experiment with his soaring solo music, which frequently gets picked up and used in soundtracks. Armstrong has a next-level ability to evoke complex and subtle emotions with sound and his work is a reminder of how powerful music can be. Here are ten of his most popular tracks and some stories behind their creation.


“Every composer has things in the orchestra they really like and I really like writing for the choir. And that goes back to my early days, when I was doing theatre in Glasgow. I quite often used voice. I definitely think working with the likes of The Royal Shakespeare Company was really good practise for working in films because you’re writing music about drama. And the only way of getting good at that is just to do it a lot.”


“I wrote the lyrics for ‘This Love’ with a female artist called Jerry Burns. Back then I was signed to Massive Attack’s label and they asked Elizabeth Fraser if she’d sing it and so we collaborated. Before I did Romeo + Juliet I was doing a lot of orchestral arranging for people like Massive Attack, U2 and Suede. So by the time I got a chance to do a big score, I actually had quite a lot of practise. It means a lot to me that a piece of music I wrote has touched people. ‘This Love’ is a beautiful song and a lot of people seem to like it.”


“I definitely looked at (Paris in the 1890s), but with Moulin Rouge, I really just wanted to capture the energy of the place. And that was quite difficult because they built the Moulin Rouge in the middle of Sydney, in tropical heat (laughs). There were elements of some of the piano stuff I did that was reminiscent of the composer Erik Satie, but I think more than anything I was really just trying to capture the absolute fervour of the place.”


“The first time I read Love Actually I remember laughing out loud at the script. Richard is such a great writer and Bill Nighy's character was an amazing creation. One of the fun things in doing the score was that quite a lot of it was recorded in my studio in Glasgow. When you write music for a romantic comedy I find it's best not to go with the humour and instead go with the emotion of the scene. The ‘Glasgow Love Theme’ was one of several themes that I wrote for the film which had a romantic loneliness about it which seemed to reflect the unrequited love throughout the film.”


“With ‘Ruthless Gravity’ I wanted to do something that was very orchestral and classical but at the same time had a very pure, electronic pulse. I’m known for doing these big orchestral pieces but a lot of music I write is quite out there. I’ve got a band The Dolls with the artist Antye Greie and we did an album recently for a stage production of Orlando and that’s really quite abstract and quite ambient. I have used field recordings in the past too – it’s all music to me.”


“I was concerned about (writing the music for the life story of another musician). So I decided to make the score completely different. I based it on very early spiritual, almost hymnal music; the sort of songs of people who were out working on the fields – which in a way was the very early essence of jazz. I think that was quite a good move in a way – not to base it on any of Ray Charles’ music but to do something very different – because I didn’t want to get tied to one style of music, I needed it to be much more dramatic and emotional than that.”

"NOVEMBER" – NEDS (2010)

NEDS was my fifth collaboration with (Scottish actor and director) Peter Mullan. It was especially fun working on it as both Peter and I grew up during that period in Glasgow, so there were lots of reference points we were very familiar with. To reflect the grittiness and period of the film I composed quite a lot of music for it on vintage analogue synthesisers which was part of the back drop musically for that period, I felt using these instruments were useful to mirror the emotional landscape of the time.”


“Baz Luhrmann has always been influenced by popular music. And I think he’s always been very fascinated by the use of songs blending into the original score. Of course, it’s my job to make sure that those two things work seamlessly together. The score for The Great Gatsby had to reflect the pathos and sadness of that story. Because it’s basically a love story that never really gets going. You really do have to fall in love with the characters when you write music for a film, because the music is a hidden character itself. And Leonardo DiCaprio is such a good actor, so it was easy to empathise with Gatsby.”


“I suppose ‘Childhood’ was (written with my childhood in mind). But it was written a long time ago. Throughout my career I’ve written my own solo records and people have picked up tracks and used them in scores. I find most of the music I write isn’t very time specific; that I may have written it 20 years ago but it doesn’t sound that out of place now. And I like that people (like Xavier Dolan) connect with it and have their own understanding of it.”


“There are many tracks in the score that were very part of Thomas Hardy’s time – folk music and hymns. But rather than go right back to those days, which was very early folk music, I based the bulk of the score on Delius, Elgar and Vaughan Williams. I thought that Englishness would suit the film. And it does. It couldn’t be anywhere else, you know? You don’t have to do period music for a period film but I thought the music I wrote (for Madding Crowd) chimed with the English landscape. So even though the inspiration for the music was a lot further on, in terms of years, from Hardy’s time, it still captures that sense of English Romanticism.”

Far From the Madding Crowd is out in cinemas now