Soundtracking is a regular column that appears on looking at the music featured in the biggest new releases both in theatre and on home video. Shane McNeil speaks to composer Alex Ebert (aka Edward Sharpe) and looks at the music of A Most Violent Year.

Originally published on – January 28, 2015.

Things get a little ugly in A Most Violent Year, which hits Canadian screens on Friday.

J.C. Chandor’s film about Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) and the lengths to which he is willing to go to build a business empire in the early 1980s, the film has its dark moments. But so, too, does the film’s music.

For his third feature Chandor once again turned to composer Alex Ebert to score, who in turn ran with the film’s gritty and sinister qualities.

“I wanted to sort of break and give a taste of the reactionary times of ’81, ’82, ’83 the sort of New York punk revolution and the sort of synth experimentation that was going on and more importantly, the content of those songs,” Ebert told Cineplex. “The desire to self-destruct, the desire to make music that, on its face, seems a tad ugly.”

The result brings a lot of synthesizers and dark overtones to the film’s score. Ebert believes the music helps extend the trance that overtakes Abel and drives the action in A Most Violent Year.

“I realized that mesmerizing sort of contemplative trance pieces were really the only thing that would extend Abel’s atmosphere beyond the screen and into our seats,” he said. “That sort of capitalist trance of his, of pure determination and ambition and without this sort of droning rumble, we’re really only looking at him, so the synths became totally necessary.

The film’s score is a brooding, more electronic turn from the pair’s previous collaboration. Ebert worked with Chandor on his previous effort – 2013’s All is Lost, which earned Ebert a Golden Globe for Best Score – and the collaboration proved to be a launching point for a critical phase in the 36-year-old musician’s latest incarnation.

While All is Lost announced Ebert to the cinematic world, he’s been a fixture in the music industry for years under a variety of aliases. He broke into the industry fronting a variety of bands, including Ima Robot, who provided what would become the theme song to the show “Suits.” “Breaking Bad” enthusiasts will undoubtedly also recognize his greatest solo hit, “Truth,” recorded under the moniker Alexander.

However, he is more widely known for fronting another act, under the alias Edward Sharpe. The ubiquitous hit “Home” would provide his band, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, with radio notoriety and high profile placement everywhere from an episode of “Community” to a commercial for the NFL. Another Zeros track – “40 Day Dream” made its way into various TV and movie projects, including the Drew Barrymore vehicle Going the Distance.

Ebert says that his success as a film composer is definitely affecting his approach to pop music.

“We just did a session for our last (Magnetic Zeros) album and I declared to the whole room: ‘nothing we write is going to end up on the radio. Get it completely out of your minds,’” he said.

“You get so poisoned by the idea of how to write a song that the people are going to like, and then [you] get recognized for something where I didn’t have my audience in mind at all the entire time,” he added, referencing the success for All is Lost.

Ebert also offered up a different sort of song for A Most Violent Year. The film’s credits roll over Ebert’s track “America For Me”. A gospel song at its root, Ebert twists the orchestration to strip away some of the beauty to get to the dark root of the film.

 “I have those beeps that are very intrusive sort of destroying this beautiful melody and at the same time I wanted to keep it rooted in earnestness, in a gospel truth.”

The song is also a sharp indictment of the current American political climate, as Ebert sings: “I pay my taxes, I pay for war, I pay for death.”

The move to synth-based composing may not be a full-time shift for Ebert, but it does represent a return to some of the music that helped turn him on to composing in the first place. Remembering his childhood, Ebert cites family vacations and the Chariots of Fire soundtrack as key touchstones in his musical life.

“Those childhood road trips were my cinema,” he said. “Cruising through Monument Valley with Vangelis blasting in the back of the van, looking out the window over this Martian, Monument Valley landscape, suddenly the cinema of your life comes to life and the combination of music and imagery becomes undeniable.”

The mark left by the Greek composer behind Chariots of Fire, Blade Runner and more remains strong with Ebert to this day. While there are still a couple days before A Most Violent Year hits theatres, have a listen to the selection below and see if Ebert’s influences don’t shine through.


A Most Violent Year opens in select cities on January 30.