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SETTLING SCORES. The Head Scratcher’s Christopher “Snedds” Sneddon guest posts for

8 Great Films About Women, Scored By Women

Written by

Christopher “Snedds” Sneddon

The Head Scratcher

The overshadowing of women by their male counterparts is a long tradition in many walks of life, not least the film industry. And for years, the contributions of women (including directors, writers and composers) have been far less visible to the mainstream consciousness than their talents demand, a cause championed by the #ReclaimTheFrame initiative.

Arguably, one of the least recognised niche’s for women in film is that of the composer. If you search for the term “film score composers” in any online search engine, the first dozen or so names listed will be male. Ask the average person on the street to name a film composer and you’ll get responses like John Williams, Hans Zimmer or Danny Elfman long before you hear the names Wendy Carlos, Debbie Wiseman or Lesley Barber.

This list aims to take a few small steps towards addressing this exposure imbalance, broadening the conversation by highlighting several other female composers, songwriters and musicians, many of whom have worked in film and cinema for decades, winning awards in the process.

Each of the chosen films features a theatrical score from a leading female composer and has been specially selected to focus on filmmakers who’ve turned their lenses towards the female experience. Consequently, many of these features are also written and directed by women.

Under The Skin (Mica Levi) 

Mica Levi (aka Micachu) is a classically trained singer, songwriter, composer and producer who, over the last decade or so, has scored a number of feature films (Jackie, Marjorie Prime, Monos) while experimenting with pop music as part of the critically acclaimed indie band Good Sad Happy Bad (formerly Micachu and the Shapes).

Micachu’s first major film score was for Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin: a dreamy, otherworldly, visual poem that follows a mysterious entity (played by Scarlett Johannson) stalking the gritty streets of Glasgow City, preying on the unwitting male population. Given the film’s exploration of sexuality and gender perception, it’s perhaps fitting that Levi has since come out as non-binary.

Their unnerving score is as much a part of the film’s being as the stark visuals and alien performances are, with Levi creating a bleak and terrifying soundscape formed from creaking, twisted orchestral arrangements, entangled with dark brooding synths and blunt, monotonous, percussive thumps. Much like the film, it’s strange, oppressive, tense and unnatural.

With its snail pace and ambiguous story, Under The Skin is, by its very nature, a difficult film to watch. Give it a chance though: the soundtrack, cinematography and lead performance are worth the effort.

For more of Levi’s work, check out the recent black comedy crime film Zola, and the opening episode from Steve McQueen’s acclaimed Small Axe series: Mangrove.

Available on Google Play Movies

Trailer: (YouTube)

Black Book (Anne Dudley)

Anne Dudley is not just a critically acclaimed composer, keyboardist and conductor (with an Oscar win under her belt for scoring The Full Monty no less) she’s also one part of the avant-garde synth-pop group Art of Noise, notable for performing the theme tune to The Krypton Factor, a popular game show in the UK in the late 80s / early 90s.

For 2006’s Dutch-language feature, Black Book, Dudley joined forces with controversial director Paul Verhoeven for a thrilling and suspenseful WWII adventure. The story, compiled from various true events, revolves around the Dutch-Jewish singer Rachel Stein, as she becomes embroiled in a daring resistance plot to infiltrate the local Nazi headquarters and liberate their captured comrades.

Dudley’s orchestral score creates an atmosphere of intrigue and mystery, punctuated by moments of rousing, blockbuster bombast, as and when the action requires it. It’s a traditional approach and one that works well with the film’s tense war-time setting and dramatic scenes of espionage, adventure and double-cross.

Black Book is a thoroughly enjoyable film, with a bewitching central performance from lead actress Carice van Houten, and deserves to be mentioned alongside some of the very best war dramas out there.

In 2016, Dudley and Verhoeven re-united for his first feature since Black Book, the excellent French-language thriller Elle.

Available on Amazon Prime / Google Play Movies

Trailer: (YouTube)

Dear White People (Kathryn Bostic)

As an accomplished composer, songwriter, pianist and vocalist, Kathryn Bostic is as critically acclaimed as they come. She’s won Emmy Awards for her television work and, for her work in film, has received awards from the Society of Composers and Lyricists (SCL), the African-American Film Critics Association (AAFCA) and was the first female African American score composer to join the Motion Picture Academy.

In 2014, she provided the score for Dear White People, a satirical comedy, written and directed by Justin Simien (Bad Hair). It’s an ensemble film (with an excellent young cast) that explores race politics and endemic racism against the backdrop of student life on a fictional American University campus. Radio presenter Samantha White (Tessa-Lynne Thompson) is the lynchpin of the piece and her titular, antagonistic show punctuates, highlights and underlines the story.

Bostic’s score, intertwined with an excellent modern and eclectic soundtrack, deftly combines moody instrumentals, urgent beats and  ostentatious classical piano with shuffling, film noir jazz interludes and the occasional flirtation with drum and bass. It works perfectly with the style and tone of the film and is equally strong as a stand-alone listening experience.

It’s a sharp, witty, sometimes scathing film that delivers almost as many awkward moments as it does laughs, ending with a dramatic final act which packs an uncomfortable, yet gratifying, emotional punch.

Dear White People has also been developed into a successful TV spin-off but, keep an eye out for Bostic’s latest film Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, a documentary exploring race, history and the American condition.

Available on Google Play Movies

(spin off series available on Netflix)

Trailer: (YouTube)

RBG (Miriam Cutler)

Artist and activist, Miriam Cutler is best known for her extensive work on documentary films with strong social and environmental stories to tell. Her work on features such as A Plastic Ocean, One Lucky Elephant, Ghosts of Abu Ghraib and The Hunting Ground has cemented Cutler as one of the most versatile, sensitive and respectful composers in her field.

In RBG, directorial duo Betsy West and Julie Cohen examine the life and career of the notorious, Brooklyn born, Ruth Bader Ginsberg: a lifelong advocate for women’s rights and gender equality, who became a global icon later in life. The film chronicles her entire career from battling to be accepted as a woman practising law in a male-dominated profession, to her long term appointment to the US Supreme Court.

Using Ginsberg’s self-confessed love of opera and the classics as a counterpoint to her music, Cutler crafts an intimate, personal score with twinkling piano, plucked strings and sweeping instrumentals that create a sense of modesty, importance and auspicious gravitas. It’s often quite subtle but opens up and swells, building and surging naturally at key moments of personal or historical importance.

As a documentary film, RBG does a great job of bringing Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s personality up front and centre, while conveying the weight and importance of her pioneering achievements and making light of her newfound celebrity status.

The score is an ideal counterpart to the film, but not just sonically. In 2014, Cutler, alongside fellow composers, Lolita Ritmanis and Laura Kapman, co-founded The Alliance for Women Film Composers (AWFC), an organisation dedicated to increasing the visibility of women composers working in film.

Available on Amazon Prime / Google Play Movies

Score not available on major streaming services.

Soundtrack available on major streaming services: (Spotify)

Trailer: (YouTube)

Whale Rider (Lisa Gerard)

Australian musician, singer and composer, Lisa Gerard, has collaborated on many high profile films in her career (Gladiator, Ali, Man on Fire) but is perhaps best known for her original score for the 2003 New Zealand film Whale Rider.

Based on an original story by Maori author Witi Ihimaera, and adapted for the screen by Kiwi director Niki Caro, Whale Rider is an emotional family drama following young Paikea Apirana (Keisha Castle-Hughes) as she wrestles to reconcile the burden of her namesake, with her Grandfather’s steadfast beliefs in male-dominated traditions. It’s a contemplative, brooding film, one that gives its story time to develop against the stark backdrop of island life, yet still maintains its heart and soul with a peppering of humour throughout.

Gerard’s sombre soundtrack is perfectly pitched and plays a major role in the overall mood of the film. By mixing ocean sounds, spacious orchestral passages and choral vocals, she perfectly evokes the looming spectre of ancient ancestors and the crushing weight of centuries of expectation. The instrumentals swell and surge and tribal beats and sweeping synths add a flash of drama and excitement at key moments in the story.

The performances, story, cinematography and soundtrack were all critically lauded on original release, but today, Whale Rider feels like a hidden gem just waiting to be discovered by new audiences.

If you want to hear more of Lisa Gerard’s music, make sure to check out her Grammy-nominated album Hiraeth.

Available on Amazon Prime

Trailer: (YouTube)

Our Little Sister (Yoko Canno)

If you’re a fan of video games and/or anime then you may have heard of arranger, composer and musician Yoko Canno, known for her work on the likes of Cowboy Bebop (as part of the group SEATBELTS), Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, and more recently, the arcade cabinet Starwing Paradox.

Canno also provided the score for Hirokazu Kore-eda’s 2015 film Our Little Sister – an adaptation of Akima Yoshida’s acclaimed Manga series Umimachi Diary (Seaside Town Diary). In the story, three sisters discover they have a younger sibling, Suzu, born to the wife of their estranged father. As the girls integrate their new sister into their lives, the audience gradually discovers the effects their parents’ actions have had on their upbringing. Despite its slow pacing and limited action, Our Little Sister draws you in with wonderful cinematography, believable performances and, by placing lots of discussions at mealtimes, makes you feel like part of the family.

Canno’s classical score is typically understated, flitting between delicate, tender, life-affirming passages and more driven, urgent sequences as necessary. As a composer, she knows exactly when to let the visuals and dialogue do the work and when the score should appear in support or take over entirely to convey a theme or emotion.

Our Little Sister’s pacing won’t be for everyone, but if you’re willing to just sit and watch as these character’s everyday lives play out, you’ll find it to be an enjoyable and satisfying experience.

Cowboy Bebop fans should keep an eye out for the upcoming live-action adaptation from Netflix, a series that sees Yoko Canno returning as composer.

Available on Amazon Prime / Google Play Movies

Score not available on major streaming services. Available on CD.

Trailer: (YouTube)

To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything! Julie Newmar (Rachel Portman) 

Over a career spanning multiple decades, Rachel Portman has written over 100 scores for film, television and theatre. Along the way she’s picked up an array of awards too, becoming the first female composer to win an Academy Award, for her work on the 1996 period comedy-drama Emma (starring Gwyneth Paltrow) and earning multiple nominations since (The Cider House Rules, Chocolat).

To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything! Julie Newmar follows Vida Boheme (Patrick Swayze) and Noxeema Jackson (Wesley Snipes), as elite Manhattan drag queens who, alongside the downtrodden novice Chi-Chi Rodriguez (John Leguizamo), drive across America to take part in the “Miss Drag Queen of America Pageant” in Los Angeles. Despite being billed as a zany road comedy where three of Hollywood’s biggest stars cross dress, To Wong Foo highlights the ever-present mistreatment of women, by the men they encounter throughout America, and how the trio’s positive attitudes help empower the other women they meet along the way.

Rachel Portman’s score provides just the right amount of sparkle, heart and whimsy to suit the film’s tone and complement the frankly brilliant performances from its leading (wo)men. Whilst there’s plenty of bouncy classical tones, fit for a caper, the score often becomes tender, gentle and introspective, contrasting well with the iconic soundtrack filled with classic hits from the likes of Salt-N-Pepa, Chaka Khan, Tom Jones and Cyndi Lauper.

The trailer for To Wong Foo makes a huge deal of the novelty of its cross-dressing Hollywood action stars, to the extent that it’s awkward and off-putting, but give the film a chance and you’ll discover why its characters have since become icons for the LGBTQ+ community.

Make sure to also check out HBO’s Bessie, a film about American blues singer Bessie Smith, for which Portman won an Emmy for Outstanding Music Composition.

Available on Amazon Prime

Score not available on major streaming services.

Soundtrack released on Cassette, LP and CD by MCA Soundtracks.

Road To Nhill (Elizabeth Drake)

Elizabeth Drake is an Australian pianist and composer for theatre, film, dance and radio who has left an indelible mark on Australian cinema. She’s been nominated for several awards but, for her work on Sue Brooks’ Japanese Story, she was awarded Best Original Music Score by the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts (AACTA), making her the first woman to receive the award, and Best Feature Film at the 2004 Screen Music Awards.

Road to Nhill is another film featuring the talents of both Drake and Brooks. Written by Alison Tilson, it’s a dry, sleepy comedy that finds its humour in the mundane interactions of a close-knit rural community. When a car filled with four lady lawn bowlers crashes on a deserted road, there are rumours abound, but no one seems to know for sure: what happened, where it happened or who it happened to. The choices made by the local men (who seemingly know what’s best) and their interactions with the bewildered women, clearly traumatised by their ordeal, make for some of the film’s most memorable moments.

Elizabeth Drake’s clanging, clunking score suits the film’s bumbling, confused nature perfectly, incorporating elements of indigenous instrumentation, trumpeting fanfare, smokey noir-esque jazz and the kind of classic, bouncing farce that would give the Curb Your Enthusiasm theme a run for its money.

For the most part, Road to Nhill isn’t laugh out loud funny, but it will keep a smile firmly planted on your face for the majority of its runtime.

If you’re looking for something a little bit different, Elizabeth Drake has more recently scored the unusual personal essay documentary The Silences (produced, written and directed by Margot Nash).

Available on Vimeo

Score available on Elizabeth Drake’s website:

Christopher “Snedds” Sneddon

Snedds is a freelance writer, podcaster and self-confessed nerd from Scotland. He’s also the owner, founder and editor at The Head Scratcher: The Alternative Pop Culture Guide and a host of The Scratch Cast: The Alternative Music Podcast.

The Head Scratcher is a website and blog dedicated to spreading the good word about the best in underground, cult and alternative pop culture with new podcasts, playlists and reviews uploaded every month.

@theheadscratcher @thesnedd @scratcherhead

International Music Day

Each nation has its own unique music and songs, original artists and musicians. But, there is a holiday that unites all musical people on Earth – International Music Day

This is a great day to remind us about the respect of the musical culture of other peoples and to promote the dissemination of music in the world.


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