‘Film Music 1976-2020’: Brian Eno Offers a Satisfying Overview of His Eclectic Composing Career

Film music compilations offer a unique overview of a composer’s body of work, but for an artist as prolific as Brian Eno, it seems almost impossible to even assemble a highlight reel. First of all, how much of his music was composed for real films, and how much for imaginary ones? And how much is even music in any traditional sense? Brian Eno is one of the greatest engineers of sound in the history of recording, and his work has impacted visual as much as audio media for decades. And in spite of this enormous challenge, a new compilation manages to somehow encompass — if definitely not encapsulate — the breadth of that influence. An aperitif for the uninitiated as well as a bite-sized reward for longtime fans, “Film Music 1976-2020” includes classic and newly released material in a slim single-disc serving.

This technically isn’t Eno’s first film music collection. He released “Music For Films” in 1978, although only one track from that release was written for an actual film; the rest imagined the pairing, and almost all of the rest were subsequently licensed by filmmakers. After that, Eno’s forays into ambient music were similarly embraced by everyone from Derek Jarman to Danny Boyle, and in fact what makes this new compilation so intriguing is the handpicked, almost random nature of the selections. Even against the likes of Iggy Pop and Lou Reed, Eno’s piece “Deep Blue Day” feels synonymous with “Trainspotting” and Renton’s dive into “the worst toilet in London; meanwhile, Toto’s music dominates memories of David Lynch’s uneven 1984 adaptation of “Dune,” but Eno’s “Prophecy Theme” perfectly captures the ethereal energy of the source material’s ideas.

Indeed, that’s Eno’s wheelhouse, finding the intangible sensation of a moment, an environment, and evoking it musically. He recorded “Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks” in 1983, but documentarian Al Reinert started interviewing astronauts for his film “For All Mankind,” as far back as 1976, and by the time it was released in 1989, Eno’s soundscapes — such as “An Ending (Ascent),” included here — had come to define the icy, empty beauty of space. It’s no surprise that Eno worked often with directors whose work had many unconventional qualities; Michelangelo Antonioni’s glacial, atmospheric film “Beyond the Clouds” is represented here with “Beach Sequence,” from his U2 collaboration Passengers. Similarly, two tracks (“Dover Beach” and “Final Sunset”) from Jarman films provide the tonal clarity that their narratives lack, while also reveling in their ambiguity.

The rarities and rediscoveries are the real treasures here: “Late Evening in Jersey,” from Michael Mann’s “Heat,” never appeared on the film’s official soundtrack release, although another Passengers track, “Always Forever Now,” was originally included. Similarly, Peter Jackson never formally released Eno’s score to his “The Lovely Bones,” but it’s probably the best element of the filmmaker’s overlong and overbaked adaptation. Meanwhile, it’s fun to watch Eno in different musical modes, gingerly navigating the early days of trip-hop with “Under” from the soundtrack to Ralph Bakshi’s “Cool World,” and recording a melancholy, elegant cover of William Bell’s “You Don’t Miss Your Water” for Jonathan Demme’s “Married to the Mob.”

Suffice it to say that this new compilation only scratches the surface of his film-related work, but the fact that “film music” can carry so many different meanings for Eno — original score, songs, licensed work, even sound design — makes even an abbreviated snapshot of his contributions a worthwhile and eclectic endeavor. Of course, if this inspires listeners to dig further into his expansive and eclectic catalogue, so much the better; but as a starting point for Brian Eno’s greatness, or a welcome reminder of its variety and depth, “Film Music 1976-2020” is a satisfying and enjoyable compilation of just one area of his often-undefinable work. 

Film Music 1976-2020” releases Nov. 13 on Apple Music.