Obscure Festive Film Scores That Crackle Along Like Chestnuts on an Open Fire
Believe it or not, there is a limit to the number of times you can listen to Bill Nighy warbling “Christmas Is All Around Me”.
So, here’s a list of films, of which their unusual scores have stood out. From future family favourites to ones to enjoy when you’re sick of being oh-so-merry, give them a watch (and listen) this holiday season.
Read on, in no particular order…
‘CAROL’ (2015), DIRECTED BY TODD HAYNES
Set in New York at Christmas (no, not Elf, you filthy animals) Carol is a strikingly intimate film about two women who forge a passionate, but condemned love in the 1950s.
The man behind the score, Carter Burwell, is a master composer, crafting atmospheres for Fargo, Banshees Of Inisherin and, lest we forget, The Twilight Saga.
For Carol, Burwell wrote what it sounds like to fall in love. The operative word being “falling”, as one piece seamlessly melts into the next, like the Boxing Day dawn when it used to snow on Christmas Day.
“Opening” sets up the film without the need for main characters, and fills us with a sense of urgency through its promising clarinet, and portentous pulsating strings.
The layers of harp in “Over There” perfectly harmonise with the vibrato bass to form a sweeping ascending melody.
There are a few moody 1950s songs from powerhouses such as Billie Holiday, Mary Ford and Jo Stafford, but Burwell’s dramatic and melancholic masterpiece perfectly underscores Carol with an ominous sense of yearning.
It’s a perfectly matched soundtrack that helps explore both the poised and poisonous sides to love.
‘C.R.A.Z.Y’ (2005), DIRECTED BY JEAN-MARC VALLEE
One of the highest ranking French-Canadian films, C.R.A.Z.Y follows Zachary Beaulieu over three decades and three Christmases, as he discovers (or more confronts) his sexuality, beliefs and tumultuous-at-best familial relationships.
It’s an endearingly witty coming-of-age film that steers clear of jingle bells and instead smashes headlong into a pop-punk soundtrack.
Like a high-end selection box, the tracklist offers a range of 1960s, 70s and 80s hits, from Jefferson Airplane and David Bowie to Giorgio Moroder and The Cure.
There are even a few oddballs in there to keep you on your toes, like “Tout Ecartille”, the eponymous Patsy Cline’s “Crazy”, and even Elvis makes an appearance like a token elf on the shelf.
There’s a great scene where Beaulieu rises above the Church as the congregation sings “Sympathy For the Devil”; like a slightly less spooky Stranger Things 4.
If, like Zachary, you’re thinking, “As far as I can remember, I’ve hated Christmas,” – this might be the soundtrack for you.
It’s satisfyingly angsty and no more anti-Christmas than it is an exercise in nostalgia, so crank up “The Great Gig In The Sky” to intensify those turkey-triggered hallucinations.
‘WHISPER OF THE HEART’ (1995), DIRECTED BY YOSHIFUMI KONDO (STUDIO GHIBLI)
Whisper of the Heart. Credit: Photo 12/Alamy Stock Photo
Nothing says Christmas like a film about young ambition, love, and an old curiosity shop (that’s if you overlook the summer setting).
This heart-warming story is about a 14-year-old girl, Shizuku, who discovers her ambition to be a writer with the help of a magical cat, all the while slowly falling in love with a boy who turns out not to be a “jerk” after all.
Yuji Nomi’s score conveys the whole arc of the film, each piece working together to cultivate the feeling of adventure and possibility.
It opens with “A Hilly Town” that immediately puts you right in Tokyo with its warm wind instruments and steady piano. “The Song of Baron” has an optimistic pace that builds to a strong, clean melody.
There is of course, also “Take Me Home Concrete Roads” – a humorous version of John Denver’s original that Shizuku writes about her hometown.
The entire score is cosy, galvanising and, dare I say it, festive, beautifully portraying what it feels like to find your foundations in your early teens.
‘TANGERINE’ (2015), DIRECTED BYSEAN BAKER
Set and filmed on Christmas Eve, transgender prostitute, Sin-Dee Rella, fresh out of prison, learns of her pimp-boyfriend’s affair. With her friend, they set out on a vengeful Christmas quest to find him and his “fish” girlfriend.
Sean Baker proves you only need a few rich ingredients to make a rip-roaring comedy; a cracking cast, a fiery soundtrack and an iPhone 5.
Tangerine features an electric soundtrack bubbling with trap, house and pop songs by contemporary Los Angeles artistes.
Highlights include DJ Lightup’s “Team Gotti Anthem”, which balls up a playful energy and releases it in the form of a call to dance, like an EDM “Cha Cha Slide”.
There’s some peppy jazz from Bern Nix that wonderfully contrasts with the Deadmau5-inspired dubstep in Nato Feelz’s “Luv”, and two thumping alternative techno tracks from White Night Ghosts.
Baker is undeniably skilled at producing social comedies that dig into the foundations of society, made all the more addictive by his diverse soundtracks. If you’ve run out of firewood, throw on the Tangerine soundtrack and you’ll be heating up the speakers in no time.
‘LESS THAN ZERO’ (1987), DIRECTED BY MAREK KANIEVSKA
Less Than Zero. Credit: Photo 12/Alamy Stock Photo
College freshman, Clay, returns to Los Angeles for the holidays, but discovers that things have changed, including his former best friend who’s developed an untameable drug habit.
With its loud and proud soundtrack, it does a good job at de-glamourising the “getting wasted and wasting away” scene of the elite youth.
Expect East-coast hip-hop and psychedelic rock on this gold awarded R&B album, in the form of Red Hot Chili Peppers, Jimi Hendrix and Public Enemy.
The racy score is up when it’s up, with The Bangles and Run-D.M.C., but when those moments get dark, Roy Orbison snowballs you in the heart with “Life Fades Away”. The only seemingly misplaced piece is Chopin’s “Berceuse In D Flat Major”, but being an opium addict, maybe he fits in after all.
Trainspotting meets Metropolitan (offering great, but very different soundtracks of their own), Less Than Zero is made more than zero by the compelling acting and head-banger of a soundtrack.
‘THE ICE HARVEST’ (2005), DIRECTED BY HAROLD RAMIS
If your Die Hard DVD is looking a little worse for wear, the lesser known, but just as naff action movie The Ice Harvest is a great substitute.
On yet another Christmas Eve, sardonic mobster lawyer, Charlie, attempts to steal from his boss, but like a darker Planes, Trains And Automobiles, his journey is complicated by icy roads.
Not again, Mr Frost.
While the soundtrack to this neo-noir comedy might not be as extensive as others, David Kitay’s twisted take on Christmas classics encapsulates the theme of corruption perfectly, with a few naughty noughties tunes thrown in there.
“Trouble With Dreams” by Eels hits like a misspelling of Santa as Satan with its incessant bells and spooky descending bass. The punky “Let’s Be Gentlemen Please” holds a humbug two fingers up to Sinatra, and “Christmas Song” by Hidden in Plain View reminds us that it is 2005 and we shouldn’t expect anything that isn’t inspired by Westlife.
Kitay’s raucous covers put the “ice” in “heist”, and is sure to put you off “Little Drummer Boy” for at least three consecutive Decembers.
Don’t forget to brace yourself for “The Chipmunk Song”, but we don’t talk about that one.
MERRY CHRISTMAS MR LAWRENCE (1983), DIRECTED BY NAGISA OSHIMA
Title aside, Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence doesn’t evoke anything close to cosy, but this POW film set in 1940s Java, boasts a score as iconic as it is emotional.
Starring David Bowie in one of his more persuasive roles, we follow two officers navigating clashes of culture, violence and romance.
The score by Ryuichi Sakamoto speaks for the characters when language barriers become too much, which creates a profound, and at times disturbing soundtrack.
“Germination” has a vaguely snowy feel, with its offcuts of sparse synths and plucky strings, while “The Seed And The Sower” almost tops the title track in terms of sweeping drama.
Of course, everyone’s waiting for the titular track, but what’s Christmas without a little anticipation?
The hauntingly naive “Merry Christmas Lawrence” is arguably one of the best theme songs ever written.
There are a few versions kicking about, including David Sylvian’s westernised cover, “Forbidden Colours”, but it is Sakamoto’s original recording on an impressive assortment (for 1982) synths that manages to encapsulate the journey of an entire film in one single song.
It’s hard to believe it was Sakamoto’s debut film score and acting appearance.
Cover Credit: Carol. Photo: AJ Pics/Alamy Stock Photo
For more festivities, read:
- Alternative Christmas Songs To Play This Festive Season
- Greatest Hits: Christmas Gifts for the Music Lovers in Your Life
Immerse yourself in the best film scores at home with KEF
Writer | Tallulah Boote Bond
Tallulah is a London-based music journalist, actor and playwright who has written for The Line of Best Fit, Last Bus Magazine and Moonhood Magazine. She has a feature film in development and was upset when she learnt that it wasn’t her job to choose music for her scripts.