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Tangerine Dream taught filmmakers to embrace electronic music

Tangerine Dream

The electronic group redefined the sound of ’80s cinema, pioneering an iconic electronic soundscape that reverberates into modern film scoring.

Visiting West Germany in 1974 to promote the European release of The Exorcist, William Friedkin encountered Tangerine Dream for the first time. He saw the synthesizer trio perform a midnight show at an abandoned church in the Black Forest. “It was very hallucinatory. The audience was dead quiet. It was really trance-like, everybody was really into it and so was I,” Friedkin told Vice in 2015 shortly after Tangerine Dream’s founder Edgar Froese passed away. “They were really emotional and the sound was so loud that you could feel it throbbing within you.”

Impressed, Friedkin decided to hire Tangerine Dream for his next project. Filled with slowly evolving drones and velvety, beat-driven synthesizer arpeggiations, the resulting score for Sorcerer (1977) broke new ground for electronic music in film. Despite a poor showing at the box office, Sorcerer launched Tangerine Dream’s influential Hollywood career, which played a central role in popularizing the use of synthesizers and electronic music in cinema. 

Before the advent of commercial synthesizers, filmmakers integrated prototypical forms of electronic music into their work. The composer Miklós Rózsa used the theremin to add a spectral dimension to his scores for Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend and Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound, both released in 1945, and the instrument’s eerie glissando effect made it popular with sci-fi film producers in the 1950s. Delia Derbyshire created one of the most enduring and iconic pieces of electronic music in film and television history when she recorded the original theme for Dr. Who using only basic oscillators and tape splicing in 1963.

The introduction of the Moog synthesizer in 1964 ushered in a new era of music-making. Modular voltage-controlled synthesizers enabled musicians to sculpt musical timbres from scratch and generate otherworldly sounds through endless configurations of oscillators, filters, envelopes, and other electronic components. While the U.S. music industry shied away from synthesizers at first, experimental musicians in West Germany’s budding music scene in the late 1960s enthusiastically adopted them in their practice. Among the most prominent of these artists was Tangerine Dream.

Founded by Froese in 1967, Tangerine Dream went through several iterations before landing on their most critically acclaimed line-up featuring the trio of Froese, Christopher Franke, and Peter Baumann. Fellow musician Florian Fricke lent his Moog synthesizer to the band for their 1972 studio album Zeit, rounding out Tangerine Dream’s pair of VCS3 analog synthesizers. 

Fricke himself produced memorable scores for films including Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972), and Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979). While Fricke used synthesizers to create haunting reimaginings of European folk traditions, Tangerine Dream took their sound in a more propulsive direction, utilizing sequencers to create hypnotic soundscapes that evoke astral travel and spiritual transcendence as much as the mechanical grind of the modern, industrialized world.  

By the time the band started working on Hollywood productions, they had signed to Virgin Records and achieved a degree of commercial success unknown to most of their peers in West Germany’s experimental music scene. Tangerine Dream’s earliest Hollywood scores—particularly their work on Sorcerer and Michael Mann’s debut film Thief (1981)—signaled a newfound acceptance of electronic music in dramatic film productions and demonstrated how synthesizers can supplement and magnify a film’s sound design.

Based on the novel Wages of Fear by Georges Arnaud, Sorcerer tells the story of a group of desperate men toiling in an impoverished Latin American village. Each of the main characters is on the run, having escaped either certain death or imprisonment in their respective home countries. The group jumps at the opportunity to transport a dangerous batch of old dynamite for a U.S. oil company in the hopes of earning enough money to escape their plight. 

While filming, Friedkin received a package from Tangerine Dream containing musical impressions for the movie’s score on quarter-inch tape. He was so blown away that he decided to cut the film to Tangerine Dream’s music. The band never saw any footage during the recording process and based their themes entirely on the script. According to Froese, it was the most hassle-free work the band ever did for a Hollywood film. 

The music in Sorcerer is a revelation. At its most energetic, it acts as a set of rails inextricably leading the characters toward the story’s dismal conclusion. Rapidly cycling synthesizer arpeggiations summon the image of machines locked in perpetual motion, interrupted on occasion by glacial drones layered with cascading bursts of color. The band’s elegant dance of contrasts between loud and quiet, short, plucky bursts, and sustained tones captures a wide range of emotions.

The music interweaves with the film’s cataclysmic sound design, amplifying the score’s impact and heightening the film’s sense of existential dread. In his book Future Days: Krautrock and the Birth of a Revolutionary New Music, the English music journalist David Stubbs describes how Tangerine Dream’s music “conveys the remote workings of a universe utterly indifferent to human beings and their own little timelines.” 

The same can be said of the harsh sound world of Sorcerer, which features leviathan storms, the angry cries of exploited workers, fiery oil rigs, and the endless, gasping chug of truck engines. In conjunction with the score, this overwhelming din embodies a universe completely unconcerned with the struggles and aspirations of the film’s characters. 

The band’s elegant dance of contrasts between loud and quiet, short, plucky bursts and sustained tones captures a wide range of emotions.

Sorcerer would be the only major score produced by the line-up of Froese, Franke, and Baumann. In 1979, Baumann departed the band to pursue a solo career and was replaced by Johannes Schmoelling. 

Among the newly configured band’s first projects together was composing the score for Mann’s Thief. Mann joined Tangerine Dream in their Berlin studio to work on the score. The close collaboration between director and band yielded incredible results. 

As David Sims explains in the liner notes for the 2020 vinyl reissue of the Thief soundtrack, the score “became the sonic bed of an entire cityscape, baked into every aural aspect of the movie.” Crashing waves and fire extinguishers are pitched to Tangerine Dream’s synthesizers, creating a symbiosis of sound design and score that sustains tension throughout. The sonic cohesion contributes to the film’s brooding atmosphere, which is augmented further by Mann’s stark, noir-inspired lighting. 

The music in Thief envelops the film’s protagonist Frank (James Caan) as he struggles to regain his agency from the clutches of the Chicago mob. Dense, resonant drones channel Frank’s monomania and anxiety while Tangerine Dream’s trademark sequencers grind along with his power drill. 

The movie’s winding synth passages are a perfect soundtrack to the neon bar signs and dimly lit street lamps flying by as the characters hurtle down dark, wind-battered Chicago streets. They also manage to introduce distinctly human sensations into the music, reflected in the syncopated drum machines that conjure heart palpitations during the film’s opening heist sequence.

Few synthesizer artists composing for film managed to break out of the genre confines of horror and sci-fi as effectively as Tangerine Dream did with these scores, a major exception being Vangelis, whose lofty Academy Award-winning score for Chariots of Fire (1981) remains one of the most recognizable pieces of electronic film music.

Tangerine Dream worked with Mann one more time following Thief, powering up their synth rigs to create the score for The Keep (1983), a disaster-plagued film that was slashed to pieces by a studio anticipating steep losses at the box office. Despite its baffling story arc and Mann’s disavowal of the film, its rich atmosphere and lush score—which utilizes vocoders and synth choir effects to embody the film’s supernatural subject matter—make it a worthwhile watch. 

As the 1980s progressed, Tangerine Dream’s bold experimentalism took a back seat. They focused less on propelling stories forward through trance-inducing sequencer melodies and free-form abstraction and instead prioritized reenforcing mood and setting.

Tangerine Dream worked on two early Tom Cruise vehicles: Paul Brickman’s Risky Business (1983) and Ridley Scott’s Legend (1985). While excellent, the score for Risky Business primarily features recut versions of their previous work threading together the film’s incidental music, which includes songs by Prince and Phil Collins. 

The closely related timbres of these electronic pop songs and Tangerine Dream’s score demonstrate how the musical zeitgeist was catching up to the band as the 1980s wore on. For Legend, the group spun a wild web of jaunty, electrified pieces to enhance the film’s fantastical setting for the U.S. release (the European version boasted a longer runtime and featured an orchestral score by Jerry Goldsmith). 

Channeling some of new age music’s less endearing qualities, Tangerine Dream’s score feels slightly cheesy at times. But for a film that prominently features magical unicorns, Tim Curry as the devil, and a boyish, gallant Cruise, it certainly doesn’t feel out of place.

Their music for Near Dark (1987), Kathryn Bigelow’s solo directorial debut about star-crossed vampire lovers in the American West, presents a more conventional sound, with distorted guitars layered over increasingly pop-leaning synthesizer passages. The beautiful “Mae’s Theme” that plays when Mae (Jenny Wright) lets Caleb (Adrian Pasdar) periodically feed on her to slake his thirst for blood is a highlight, prefiguring the gentle melancholy of Angelo Badalamenti’s Twin Peaks theme.

While the quality of their work waned over the years, Tangerine Dream’s influence is far-reaching. The band S U R V I V E credit them for inspiring the score to Stranger Things. Joshua and Benjamin Safdie suggested to Oneohtrix Point Never (the alias of experimental electronic artist Daniel Lopatin) that he use Tangerine Dream as a jumping-off point for scoring Good Time (2017). Lopatin’s work on the Safdie brothers’ follow-up Uncut Gems (2019) uses carefully crafted synthesizer tones to channel the film’s anxious pathos, recalling Tangerine Dream’s exhilarating score for Thief but taking things in exciting new directions. 

Tangerine Dream helped lay the groundwork for a distinct relationship between electronic musicians and filmmakers, one that embraces open-ended experimentation to create new and unexpected connections between sound and image.

The vinyl reissue of Tangerine Dream’s score for The Keep (UMC) will be released in June for Record Store Day 2021. Remaining copies will be available for sale online beginning on July 23. 

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