Whether it’s a large orchestral score or the hushed strumming of a lone guitar, the music in a film is an essential part of the whole. But sometimes, instead of a traditional score or multi-artist soundtrack, filmmakers choose a single act to provide the music for their movie.
1. Miles Davis // Ascenseur pour l'échafaud
When looking for music for his debut feature, a crime thriller called Ascenseur pour l’échafaud (released as Elevator to the Gallows in the U.S. and Lift to the Scaffold in the UK), French director Louis Malle, then 24, approached legendary jazz trumpeter Miles Davis at a Paris gig in November 1957 at the suggestion of his assistant. Surprisingly, the normally volatile Davis agreed. Before Davis and his quintet took to the studio, they were given only a brief outline of the film’s plot, and once they got there, they completely improvised the entire soundtrack as they watched a rough cut of the film live.
2. Bob Dylan // Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid
In 1972, screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer approached singer/songwriter Bob Dylan to create songs for a movie he was writing called Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. The revisionist western starred James Coburn as sheriff Pat Garrett, who is hunting down outlaw Billy the Kid, played by Kris Kristofferson, in New Mexico. While it didn’t receive rave reviews, and Dylan’s time on the film wasn’t exactly memorable (director Sam Peckinpah had allegedly never even heard of Dylan before), his country music-tinged contributions to the movie included “Knockin' on Heaven’s Door,” one of the singer’s best-loved tunes. Dylan even has a cameo in the film as a mysterious wanderer called “Alias” who joins up with Billy’s gang.
3. Curtis Mayfield // Superfly
Though it was released a year after singer Isaac Hayes’ classic soundtrack for the movie Shaft, Curtis Mayfield’s album for the 1972 blaxploitation movie Super Fly is now regarded as a pioneering concept album about social justice, influencing countless soul artists after it. The album went on to sell more than two million copies, and Mayfield would continue his soundtrack career by penning the music for six more films, culminating in his soundtrack for the film The Death of Super Fly in 1990.
4. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers // She’s the One
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers reunited after squabbles over Petty’s solo output to make the music for the soundtrack to director Edward Burns’ 1996 dramedy She’s the One. It is officially listed as the band’s ninth studio album, and features guest vocals by Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsey Buckingham and covers of Lucinda Williams’ “Change the Locks” and Beck’s “Asshole.”
5. Eddie Vedder // Into the Wild
The Pearl Jam frontman had previously contributed songs to 1995’s Dead Man Walking and 2001’s I Am Sam, movies both starring actor Sean Penn. But when Penn was looking for music for his fourth directorial effort, Into the Wild, he handpicked the singer to do the whole soundtrack. The folksy acoustic album was Vedder’s first solo effort. He later released a second solo record called Ukelele Songs in 2011.
6. Aimee Mann // Magnolia
Director Paul Thomas Anderson first met singer/songwriter Aimee Mann when he asked her husband, musician Michael Penn (Sean Penn’s brother), to do the score for his first film, Hard Eight. While only two songs were written specifically for Magnolia—“You Do” and “Save Me,” the latter of which was nominated for “Best Original Song” at the 72nd Academy Awards—many of the songs are shared with Mann’s third studio album, released after Magnolia, called Bachelor No. 2. The soundtrack also features Mann’s cover of the Harry Nilsson song, “One.”
7. Air // The Virgin Suicides
French electro-pop band Air provided the music for director Sofia Coppola’s debut feature The Virgin Suicides, which was later named the 49th best French rock album by the French edition of Rolling Stone. Coppola’s fondness for French pop groups goes beyond her movies: She eventually married French band Phoenix’s lead singer Thomas Mars, whose band also provided songs for her 2010 film Somewhere.
8. Tom Waits & Crystal Gayle // One From the Heart
Sofia wasn’t the only Coppola to have a single artist make music for a movie. Her father, the great Francis Ford Coppola, had singers Tom Waits and Crystal Gayle sing soulful duets and solo compositions for his 1982 musical, One From the Heart. Not very many people heard the songs when the film was released in 1982, though. The movie was a gigantic box office bomb, making only $636,796 against a $26 million budget.
9. Neil Young // Dead Man
Similar to Miles Davis’ music for Ascenseur pour l'échafaud, musician Neil Young improvised the solos he made for director Jim Jarmusch’s unorthodox 1995 western Dead Man, starring Johnny Depp. As Young watched the film, he sat in a circle surrounded by his instruments and would pick up and play what he felt reflected the action onscreen. Young likened this method to the way in which organists or piano players would accompany silent films before the sound era.
Director Jarmusch later experimented further with single-artist soundtracks. The RZA from the Wu Tang Clan provided the music for Jarmusch’s 1999 film Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, and Jarmusch’s own band SQÜRL conveniently did the music for his most recent film, Only Lovers Left Alive.
10. Karen O // Where the Wild Things Are
Karen O, lead singer of the indie rock band the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, created the music for director Spike Jonze’s 2009 film adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, along with contributions from her Yeah Yeah Yeahs bandmates and members of Queens of the Stone Age, Liars, The Raconteurs, and Deerhunter, among others. Karen O later reteamed with Jonze for “The Moon Song,” the Academy Award nominated song from Jonze’s 2013 film Her, which also happened to be scored entirely by the band the Arcade Fire.
11. Badly Drawn Boy // About a Boy
Who better to provide the music for the film About a Boy than Badly Drawn Boy (aka British singer/songwriter Damon Gough)? Co-directors and screenwriters Chris and Paul Weitz listened to Gough’s music while writing the screenplay, and were so inspired that they approached the singer to do the music for the film. Gough would again do the music for Paul Weitz’s 2012 film Being Flynn, starring Robert DeNiro.