Why Can't More Modern Movie Scores Live Up To The Sonic Joys of Challengers?

(L to R) Mike Faist as Art, Zendaya as Tashi and Josh O'Connor as Patrick in CHALLENGERS, directed by Luca Guadagnino, a Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures film. 
Credit: Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures
© 2023 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved.
(L to R) Mike Faist as Art, Zendaya as Tashi and Josh O'Connor as Patrick in CHALLENGERS, directed by Luca Guadagnino, a Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures film. Credit: Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures © 2023 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved. /

Almost exactly halfway through 2024, several elements of the year’s cinema scene stand out. For one thing, Hundreds of Beavers came out of nowhere to dazzle audiences with more power than a hundred movies costing $200+ million combined. For another, who knew prequels could be as good as Furiosa? However, one especially exciting thing from the first half of 2024 is by far the year’s best film score. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross delivered a vibrant collection of compositions for Challengers more inspired by house music than standard sports movie scores.

Going this route created a vividly alive sonic accompaniment to Challengers. The bodies on-screen glistened with sexual attraction. Reznor and Ross gave those figures an appropriately fervent musical companion in the form of their score. The only real problem with their work on this film? It underscores just how stilted many mainstream modern film scores are. Once you eat the best, it’s hard to go back to the rest.

Reznor and Ross are a part of the iconic band Nine Inch Nails, with the latter member joining the group in the 2000s. Not building their entire previous careers in film scores seems to have worked wonders for each of these men. They are not bound by the legacy of Ennio Morriccone and Max Steiner. Their works are more in tune with the sound and vibes of Nine Inch Nails tracks. That quality has been apparent long before Challengers consumed movie theater screens and TikTok videos everywhere. The Social Network’s score solidified Reznor and Ross as a force to be reckoned with as film composers. In this 2010 David Fincher feature, the electronic flourishes in their tracks echo the tech-obsessed world of Mark Zuckerberg and cohorts. They live online. The score underpinning their lives should have a similar energy.

There’s also an aching melancholy, though, piercing through so many of the Social Network’s compositions. This element doesn’t just mirror the internal emptiness gnawing at Zuckerberg or the human bonds forever raptured by Facebook’s ascension to fame. It also harkens back to the haunting atmosphere conjured up by classic Nine Inch Nails songs like “Beside You In Time.” Phrases like “I can feel me start to fade away" reinforce the downright ominous vibes emanating from the sound of “Beside You In Time.” In hindsight, such lyrics and eerie noises are the perfect precursor to unforgettable Social Network compositions like “Hand Covers Bruise.”  Reznor and Ross build on this band’s legacy and sound to create compositions so outstanding they require no prior Nine Inch Nails knowledge to enjoy.

For the longest time, it seemed like nothing could possibly surpass The Social Network in the realm of Reznor & Ross film scores. Then came Challengers, which used electronic compositions fueled by go-go-go rhythms perfectly encapsulating the relentless horniness and scheming driving the film’s story. The adrenaline rushing through these tennis players as they compete for victories or romantic conquests simultaneously soars through your veins thanks to the score’s propulsive energy. The Challengers score doesn’t just subvert the musical standards for sports features. It’s also a perfect example of how film scores can transport audiences into the minds of fictional beings.

Unfortunately, most modern film scores aren’t capable of producing such desired results. There are several long-standing problems in the world of film scores that countless people have already explored. This includes one especially famous 2016 YouTube video essay detailing the recurring problems in Marvel Cinematic Universe movie scores. Since 2016, though, problems in the mainstream American film score industry have only become worse. Good film scores do exist including in super high-profile blockbusters like Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, Oppenheimer, and Barbie. However, there are systemic issues keeping more film scores from being as good as the work delivered by Reznor and Ross on Challengers.

Part of those issues can be found in a lengthy now-deleted Twitter thread by composer Joe Kraemer, the man responsible for the Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation and Jack Reacher film scores (among others).  Preserved now only through Reddit threads posted about the Twitter activity back in 2021, Kraemer details in these tweets larger systemic issues hurting both old and especially newcomers to the composing world. Among the many allegations he presents here is a wish that the world of film composers evolves to a land where everyone "helps each other rather than competes with each other." He also alleges major composers of failing to credit artists who actually mold a film's score. Specifically, he notes that the vast majority of modern film composers are “a team leader, a figurehead for a team of composers who are getting no credit, very little money, and no job security.”

These and other comments from Kraemer are all allegations. However, the concepts he’s bringing up here are interesting. If true, they do line up with other very well-known issues in Hollywood. That Every Frame a Painting video, for instance, emphasizes how the use of temp tracks (temporary film scores from pre-existing movies used in editing) is limiting what kind of new compositions composers can make. How can any individual composer establish a personality if they’re adhering to a temp track or just trying to mimic what the “figurehead” of a group “would do”?

Kraemer also notes in his tweets about losing an important job out to a “Zimling” a term for a protégé of famous composer Hans Zimmer. This term reflects another issue in the modern film composer scene. Too few of the same composers are getting most of the jobs. These gigs now mainly belong to people from Hans Zimmer's Remote Control Productions. This film scoring company co-founded by Zimmer has sterling post-production facilities and lots of room for composers to work. As noted in a 2014 Variety piece, the establishment (which has existed since 1989) has also produced a bevy of modern film composers.

Hollywood as a whole clings to the past to a dangerous degree. Film scores are one example of this. Zimmer is now so deeply associated as the big modern blockbuster score that most mainstream movie scores get modeled after him. If you can't get Zimmer, you might as well get a Remote Control Productions veteran who can create scores that sound an awful lot like his works. Reading over Variety's list of the big composers who have offices at Remote Control Productions, it reads like a basic list of the most prolific composers of the 2020s. Fixtures of modern blockbuster scores like Lorne Balfe, Benjamin Wallfisch, and Tom Holkenborg all made the list.

None of these three men is totally incapable of delivering quality work, let's be clear. Holkenborg's compositions on Mad Max: Fury Road are legendary for a reason! Lorne Balfe did not do too shabby work on the Black Widow score. Meanwhile, Wallfisch composed the excellent Blade Runner 2049 score with Hans Zimmer. The problem, though, is the proliferation of them and other Remote Control Productions veterans. They’re all coming from the same background, same place of origin, and the same influence of Zimmer. Some of the best modern film scores (like the Challengers score by Reznor & Ross, or various collections of tracks from Jonny Greenwood and Tamar-kali) hail from artists who come from other musical disciplines beyond film scores. They’re not just motivated by what worked in the past for Zimmer. They’re bringing unique qualities of their own backgrounds to the table.

Not only that, but the biggest Remote Control Productions veterans are now doing way too many film scores a year. Kraemer’s allegations about composers just being “figureheads” taking credit for the work of the artists are impossible to validate, at least from my position as just a bimbo from Texas. However, it is baffling to consider how Balfe, for instance, had time to compose the scores for five different movies in 2022 and then another five in 2023 (following up on another SIX score in 2021). John Williams, meanwhile (an icon Kraemer notes does not engage in his alleged bad composer practices) has only occasionally in an expansive career done two movies, at most, in a single year. Heck, he explicitly bowed out of doing the mid-2010s Steven Spielberg movies Bridge of Spies and Ready Player One just so he could focus on other upcoming Spielberg movie scores! 

Save for a busy 2018, modern iconic composer Ludwig Göransson has also refrained from doing more than two feature film score gigs a year. Handing over so many film-scoring assignments to a handful of people has led to creatives being stretched way too thin. It’s a lose-lose for everyone. Benjamin Wallfisch, Tom Holkenborg, Lone Balfe, and other staples of modern film scores have obvious talent. Emphasizing quantity above all else in their careers, though, hasn’t served anyone well. The problems associated with the overexposure of these Remote Control Productions veterans just make Joe Kraemer’s allegations seem all the more urgently relevant.

It’s easy to feel down about the state of modern film scores given how generic so many of them sound and the wider industry problems plaguing this sphere of filmmaking. However, there are many great composers out there delivering outstanding work in modern cinema proving this art form is far from dead. Daniel Pemberton, for instance, as far as I can tell, has no experience with Remote Control Productions. His widely varied modulate their sounds and instrumentation based on the needs of an individual movie/TV show rather than mimicking Zimmer's temp tracks. Tamar-Kali, meanwhile, has delivered outstanding film scores in the last decade rooted in her varied experiences in the New York punk scene and forays into experimental music. No wonder her compositions for The Assistant and Shirley were so idiosyncratic! 

Then of course, there’s the best film score of 2024 so far, the collection of Challengers compositions crafted by Trent Reznor and Atticus Foss. These two and their idiosyncratic works for this tennis movie remind folks everywhere that (to paraphrase Anton Ego) “a great film score can come from anywhere.” The ubiquity of certain film composers and styles of Zimmer-esque scores can get film nerds down. But if the unforgettable melodies of Challengers have taught us anything, it’s that modern film scores can still score big-time.