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Only God Forgives
Cliff Martinez’ original film score conjured up the witching hour ambience of Nicolas Winding Refn's boring Bangkok thriller

Film soundtracks that became a lead character

These backing tracks took on a life of their own, including the soundtrack that put the party in Party Monster

Sometimes an on-screen snooze can be totally trumped by a killer soundtrack. It's often the most difficult decision a director faces – how do you make the visuals leap off the screen and force the viewer into an unflinching chokehold? There are instances, however, when the music is something more than a backing track: its singular voice is louder than the problematic plot it underscores. A beautifully crafted film score can catapult a so-so plot to fresh, starry heights and far outlive a plain slice of cinematography or a visual lesson in genre conformity. Here are just a few of our favourite examples, including the soundtrack that put the purple in Purple Rain and the party in Party Monster. And whilst these are all good films in their own ways, we think the tunes are better.


“Money, Success, Fame, Glamour… we are living in the age of the thing”, Macaulay Culkin drools through a megaphone over thumping, industrial beats in this low budget disco oddity that details the rise and fall of king of the club kids-turned-murderer Michael Alig. Love it or loathe it, the cult classic oozes a brilliantly camp, trashy spirit that emanates from its dance floor-ready soundtrack via Ladytron, Scissor Sisters, Marilyn Manson and original club kid DJ Keoki.


The lush, distorted synthesizers and bubbling piano of Cliff Martinez’ original film score conjured up the witching hour ambience of Nicolas Winding Refn's nocturnal Bangkok thriller (take that categorisation very lightly), and propelled Larry Smith’s neon-sheened cinematography to life. The darkly sublime creation also acted as a much-needed antidote against the films pornographic levels of violence. As did Ryan Gosling’s face, of course.


While the rebellious, glitter-soaked biopic of all-girl rock band The Runaways was a stylish feat in itself, it was the soundtrack that really brought this film to life. From Nick Gilder to David Bowie to Iggy and the Stooges, the films musical dialogue is a strictly glam rock affair. “Punk hadn’t even begun when The Runaways started, at least not in the US,” Cherie Curry told Dazed when the film came out. “We had our own sound – straight up glam rock.”


David Lynch’s neo-noir horror was knotted together with feverish, alienating complexities, making it one of his harder-to-follow cinematic head-scratchers. The real star of this film was its soundtrack – a darkly brooding, night-time creation produced by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails. Featuring the plunging, industrial depths of Marilyn Manson and Rammstein, the soundtrack gave the film a tangibly ominous, razor-sharp edge.


In the defining pop culture moment of 1984, Prince unleashed rock opera Purple Rain in a glittering shower of ruffles, shoulder pads, dry ice and a buffed-up Honda. However, rather than the ego-feeding 'extended music video' plot, it was the omnipresent soundtrack – which stayed at number one for a consecutive 24 weeks – that elevated the film to inimitable, electro-funk heights.


Sofia Coppola’s filmic back catalogue is as musically stylish as it is visual and her 2010 drama Somewhere is no different. Whereas the somnambulant tracks added some sense of propulsion to the story, it inched along with its languid pace. Film critic Roger Moore said it bluntly: "Even so-called 'slow cinema' shouldn't be this dull." Set in the matte-gold sunlight of the Hollywood Hills, the rich, new wave film score was composed by French quartet Phoenix, fronted by Coppola's husband. The diegetic soundtrack is equally as stylish, featuring Julian Casablancas’ woozy ballad ‘I’ll try anything once’ and Gwen Stefani’s sugary, girl-pop anthem ‘Cool.’


They don’t make slacker films like they did in the 90s, and they certainly don’t make soundtrack’s like this one. The plot-thin Richard Linklater classic might have outstayed its welcome if it wasn’t for the no wave noise collage courtesy of Sonic Youth, Elastica & Stephen Malkmus and Butthole Surfers.


The story goes that halfway through production of this Danish drama, Björk became so enraged with director Lars Von Trier following a series of rows that she ripped up a blouse and proceeded to eat it. Sensationalist tales aside, it was the Oscar-nominated soundtrack that really caught the world's attention. Solely composed by Björk herself, the textural, luscious sweeps of ‘Overture’, the twisted rhythms of ‘Cvalda’ and the slow building, militaristic beats of ‘I’ve Seen It All’ elevated the polarizing film into a majestic, affecting piece of cinema.

THE ROVER (2014)

This year’s bleakest, dystopian vision of the future hosted a beautifully warped, dissonant film score to match, as well as the unlikely addition of Keri Hilson’s glossy pop track ‘Pretty Girl Rock’, which Robert Pattinson sings to himself in the car. “I can't remember how and when Keri Hilson found herself in the mix,” said director David Michod. “I wanted that moment in the movie to function as a potent reminder of the fact that Rob's character is a kid who, in different circumstances, would just be doing the kinds of things kids do everywhere. Instead, he has found himself in the middle of nowhere, tethered to a monstrously damaged drifter.”

THE GUEST (2014)

The 80s synth-soaked soundtrack to Adam Wingard’s slick, blood-splattered thriller ensures that the genre-conforming film is oozing with icy-hearted cool. It's a hell of a tale – houseguest with hidden agenda goes on murderous rampage – but at times it feels a bit budget. Thank God for the 80s injection, “Initially, I was thinking more 80s goth rock stuff like Death In June, but as we made the picture, I realised the movie was going in a more poppy direction,” said Wingard. “The electronic sound just worked with the look of the movie more.”