Korean-American composer and multi-instrumentalist Gene Back began classic violin studies at age 7. As a teenager, he taught himself to play guitar, keyboard and percussion, and began writing his own songs. He toured internationally with multiple bands. But Back was in his late 20s before he realized he had the ability to compose music for film (in addition to television, theater and virtual reality).
"I always thought that film composers needed to have some sort of formal training, or at the very least, a degree in composition. In contrast, I'm someone who mostly learned composition by ear," he says. His first professional composing gig was for a commercial, which led to a number of short films, and then to his first feature score (2020's Cowboys). "Sometimes there's nothing quite like learning on the job under serious pressure. Today, it feels like scoring for film and TV is something I've always been meant to do."
Back's latest is Shortcomings, an indie comedy from director Randall Park based on the graphic novel by Adrian Tomine. "I was so incredibly excited at the idea of working on something that had such deep and personal meaningfulness as an Asian-American," explains the composer. "There are few stories out there that so brilliantly and acutely capture the various (and unspoken) nuances of the Asian-American experience. It's rare to work on a project that means so much to you personally, to the point where you want to invest every part of you, creatively and professionally. The job itself becomes secondary to the broader personal, cultural and social implications of the art that's being created."
The first cue that Back wrote for the film was inspired by François Truffaut's The 400 Blows. "As a nod to Ben being a curmudgeon-y Criterion nerd," he says of Shortcomings' lead: A struggling movie-theater manager who dreams of directing films of his own. "While Randall had a clear vision about how he wanted the score to feel," Back says, "he gave me the creative freedom to really go for it."
So, what makes a quintessential Gene Back score?
"Every one of my scores will have some part of me performing in it, whether it's a solo violin, electric guitar, bass, piano, musical saw, vocals, accordion, and so on," he muses. "It might simply be because I’m a creature of habit, and that I’ve been recording myself since I was a teenager, but I've come to appreciate the value of my own playing as a way to establish a unique sound that no one else can replicate. Even though there might be 'better' technical players who do session work for a living, no one else has my hands, fingers, and lived experience — which means the more I lean on those unique markers of identity, the more I can separate myself from the crowd."
"I also strongly believe in the power of thematic musical storytelling," continues Back, "which can come in the form of a beautiful melody, a dissonant texture, specific chord progression, or percussive motif. I always want to write something memorable enough for one to hum or contemplate on long after they've seen the film, and discover something new after each listen."
Below, Back shares with A.frame five films with music that he is still contemplating.
Directed by: Edward Zwick | Music by: James Horner
This was one of the first films where I subconsciously learned to love thematic film scoring. To this day, I can sing James Horner's main themes, note for note, and still get the chills from thinking about how the Boys Choir of Harlem soars over his lush orchestral writing. I was a big Civil War buff when I was a kid, so this score has childhood nostalgia and personal sentimental value attached to it, apart from it being one of the most beautiful scores ever written. War movie music can sound a little interchangeable these days, but Glory leaned more into the emotional depths of humans coming together under the most unlikely and challenging of circumstances, despite the vast differences across race, class, and rank. Horner's score continues to inspire the way I look for the unexpected in musical storytelling — not for novelty's sake, but for evoking a deeper emotional meaning.
Directed by: Nagisa Ōshima | Music by: Ryuichi Sakamoto
Sakamoto was an artist who composed stunning original music, but also just happened to be one of the greatest film composers without even seemingly trying. I can only aspire to achieve his level of creative and professional independence, unbeholden to any system and unphased by the typical trappings of Hollywood. How many composers can say they wrote their first film score for what would become an arthouse staple, and then co-star with none other than David Bowie at the same time?
Sakamoto’s main theme for Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence is a piece I often play on the piano for myself, as a reminder of how difficult it is to write something harmonically complex yet make it sound deceptively simple. It requires so much intention and discipline to compose like that, and while this approach may not be immediately apparent to the average listener, it's something the artist themselves will know as a matter of personal integrity. While my job as a film composer needs to be executed well, what's even more important is whether I can look back and say to myself, as an artist, that I didn't settle.
Directed by: Stanley Kubrick | Music by: Jocelyn Pook
One of my favorite Kubrick films, Eyes Wide Shut is a prime example of how pre-existing music or needle-drops can be just as effective and tailored to a film as original score. I feel like few directors employ pre-existing music as artfully and intentionally as Kubrick. And while some film composers might understandably groan at having to do sound-alikes to temp, or feel like they have to compete with some of the greatest original music ever made, I always welcome the challenge to write something better.
In the case of Eyes Wide Shut, you have Ligeti's bare piano motif that pairs perfectly with Jocelyn Pook's haunting original score. Pook's reverse treatment of Romanian priests singing liturgical text during the ritual scene is so inventive and represents how a composer can truly think outside the box. It's proof that film music doesn't have to sound like 'film music,' and that great music should stand on its own, whether it was originally created for film or not.
Directed by: Quentin Tarantino
Another example of the rare director who exquisitely uses the needle-drop as a critical part of his storytelling is Tarantino. It's actually difficult to even imagine a Tarantino film without the needle-drop, though it's no wonder that Ennio Morricone would be the one to win the Oscar for Best Original Score for The Hateful Eight. And as much as I do love the score for that film, I choose Inglourious Basterds because of how masterful Tarantino was in using Morricone's pre-existing work as a critical thematic palette for a World War II film.
Morricone's music is so thematic yet utterly cool, it doesn't matter if some of it was originally made for a Spaghetti Western or not. When his music is used in Inglourious Basterds, I become fully immersed into a transcendental cinematic experience only Tarantino would have the ability to envision. I had the honor of working with Morricone's orchestra at The Forum in Rome for one of my scores, and hearing those players in the same space where he recorded some of his most iconic work was one of the most meaningful experiences of my life as a genuine fan.
Directed by: Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise | Music by: Alan Menken
It's impossible to think about some of the most classic Disney movies without the composer who wrote those classic songs and scores: Alan Menken. Talk about the height of thematic composing — he's right up there with John Williams. And though some of his biggest hits are remembered through Beauty and the Beast or The Little Mermaid, I encourage everyone to take a very close listen to The Hunchback of Notre Dame's score.
Few composers out there — pun intended — can compose smash hit songs that integrate so organically with the rest of the score. And not just any score, but a compositionally rich, complex and beautifully thematic score. I worry that this approach is getting lost in today's Disney movies, where the songwriter is often separate from the score composer. But Menken did it all, and it's the reason why the movies he composed feel so complete, consistent and seamless in tone. Hunchback represents the definition of musical storytelling. Quasimodo's big solo number, "Out There," not only has incredible emotional power and operatic beauty, but the melody becomes a central theme throughout the score. And if you listen carefully, you'll notice just how clever and purposeful Menken's thematic approach can be.