A History of Stanley Kubrick in 21 Tracks

The iconic opening to 2001: A Space Odyssey, set to “Also Sprach Zarathustra” by Richard Strauss. Photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Stanley Kubrick died on March 7, 1999, shortly before the release of his final film, Eyes Wide Shut, but sometimes that’s easy to forget. Nineteen years later, Kubrick remains inescapable. He is the subject of museum exhibits (including a mammoth, career-spanning tribute at LACMA a few years ago and a just-opened look at his years as a photographer at the Museum of the City of New York), books (most recently Michael Benson’s Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke and the Making of a Masterpiece), and documentaries. And opening in New York this Friday, May 11 before expanding, Filmworker revisits Kubrick’s career from the perspective of Leon Vitali, an actor who largely surrendered his career in front of the camera to serve as Kubrick’s assistant.

Kubrick even has a new movie coming out, sort of. A new 70-mm. print of 2001: A Space Odyssey, struck from the original negative and touted as an “unrestored” print, will begin touring the country May 18 after being premiered at Cannes by Christopher Nolan, who helped shepherd the project.

With all that Kubrickiana floating around the cultural ether, it’s a good time to consider another approach to looking at Kubrick’s career: by listening to it. Kubrick was a distinctive visual stylist, but he also made innovative use of music. To explore this, we created a playlist that doubles as a history of Stanley Kubrick’s film career in 21 tracks.

1. “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” Richard Strauss (from 2001: A Space Odyssey)
There’s no other way to start a Stanley Kubrick playlist than with the track that accompanies one of the most famous opening scenes in all of cinema. (And closing scenes, for that matter.) As the moon, Earth, and sun lock into alignment, the music swells and the credits announce that we’ll be watching A Stanley Kubrick Production of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The opening has lost none of its impact, but it has lost some of the context that made it a radical statement of purpose. Fans of thoughtful science fiction spent much of the ‘60s reading and watching TV while ignoring a string of mostly forgettable movies. Planet of the Apes started to change that in February of 1968. Then there was this a few months later: a movie that offered nothing less than a journey from humanity’s beginning to a possible future “beyond the infinite” — lofty ambitions signaled with the soundtrack’s first, stirring notes.

Created in 1896 by German composer Richard Strauss, it’s the prelude to Also Sprach Zarathustra, a collection of tone poems inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche’s book of the same name, a sort of philosophical greatest-hits collection written in the form of a sacred text. It didn’t take long for the track to become a cliché in the years after 2001. Elvis spent the ‘70s using it as his entrance music (a habit shared by Tom Cruise’s pick-up-artist instructor in Magnolia). The Brazilian musician Eumir Deodato rearranged it as a Grammy-winning slice of smooth jazz-funk (and you can hear that version in Being There). But, for all the echoes, the original still resonates loudest.

2. “The Killing: Main and End Title,” Gerald Fried (from The Killing)
3. “On Patrol,” Gerald Fried (from Paths of Glory)
In the 2001 documentary Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures, director Tony Palmer says, “Before Stanley Kubrick, music tended to be used in films as either decorative or heightening emotions. After Stanley Kubrick, because of his use of classical music in particular it became absolutely an essential part of the narrative, intellectual drive of the film.” It’s easy to pinpoint the moment when Kubrick broke with the traditional use of film scores — more on that below — but also worth noting that he could make great use of traditional scores. For his earliest films, Kubrick turned to Gerald Fried, a Juilliard-trained composer and oboist. Fried’s music for Kubrick’s The Killing, which became Kubrick’s breakthrough feature in 1956, is in the tradition of other ‘50s noirs. But, like the film around it, it has an urgency and an inventiveness all its own, suggesting that the criminal game its characters are playing out beneath the surface of New York’s straight world has unimaginable stakes.

Kubrick’s final collaboration with Fried was Paths of Glory, the director’s unsparing look at the absurdity and inhumanity of trench warfare during World War I (and, by extension, all warfare anywhere at any time). Fried delivered an appropriately martial, percussion-heavy score with sinister undertones, as if the rhythms of war had become as inescapable for those in the film as the air around them. Fried, who remains active at 90, would go on to have a long composing career, largely working on television projects as diverse as Gilligan’s Island and Roots, for which he collaborated with Quincy Jones. Most famously, he worked on Star Trek, composing a number of instantly recognizable cues, including its fight music, first heard in “Amok Time,” the pounding drums of which make it a distant cousin to his Paths of Glory music.

4. “Oysters and Snails,” Alex North (from Spartacus)
Kubrick’s next movie was one he never set out to make. He took over the Roman epic Spartacus only after the firing of original director Anthony Mann. Kirk Douglas, who’d starred in Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, brought Kubrick in and suddenly, at the age of 30, he found himself helming a project much bigger than any he’d ever worked on before. He also inherited one of Hollywood’s top composers, Alex North, who used the setting as an opportunity to work with a combination of ancient and modern instruments. This cue, created for a scene containing sexual themes that led to it being removed from the film for decades, combines an Ondioline — an early 20th-century electronic keyboard — with percussion and string sounds that could have been heard in the ancient world.

5. “Space Station Docking,” Alex North (from music for 2001: A Space Odyssey)
6. “The Blue Danube,” Johann Strauss II (from 2001: A Space Odyssey)
Kubrick seemingly liked North’s work well enough to accept MGM’s suggestion that he work with him again on 2001. He didn’t, however, like North’s work well enough to keep the score he created. In Space Odyssey, Michael Benson describes North’s time working on the 2001 score as a grueling experience in which he found himself competing with the classical pieces Kubrick had been using as temp music. North arrived thinking he’d be composing a full score for a film with minimal dialogue, then discovered Kubrick wanted him to create a score that could complement the classical music Kubrick was beginning to see as essential to the film.

North eventually collapsed under stress and the 40 minutes of music he recorded in two days wouldn’t see the light of day until 2007. It’s, not surprisingly, terrific. But, listen to “Space Station Docking” and try to imagine it taking the place of Johann Strauss II’s waltz “The Blue Danube” (or, even better, compare the two clips above). This was Kubrick’s break with film music’s past, a departure as radical in its own way as the use of Simon & Garfunkel in The Graduate, released the previous year.

7. “Bomb Run,” Laurie Johnson (from Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb)
8. “Lolita Ya Ya,” Sue Lyon with Nelson Riddle and His Orchestra (from Lolita)
To double back a bit, it’s worth noting how playful, ironic, and darkly funny Kubrick’s use of score music could be. Dr. Strangelove began as a straight thriller until Kubrick decided the only way to depict nuclear brinkmanship was through black comedy. Laurie Johnson’s score often feels like it went through a similar mutation. “Bomb Run” sounds noble to the point of absurdity, mixing percussion, stirring horns, and a choral group offering a wordless rendition of “When Johnny Came Marching Home.” It’s one war-movie music cliché stacked on top of another, until the whole thing threatens to topple over.

For Lolita, Kubrick gave himself the task of adapting Vladimir Nabokov’s seemingly unadaptable novel about Humbert Humbert, a professor who falls in love with an adolescent girl, played by Sue Lyon. For the music, Kubrick turned to bandleader Nelson Riddle, who composed the score, and Bob Harris, who provided the swooning theme that plays over the opening credits of a man lovingly painting a girl’s toenails. That sequence establishes an uneasy blend of tragedy and dark humor that carries through the rest of the film. But that doesn’t mean you can’t dance to it. The 1962 soundtrack produced the single “Lolita Ya Ya,” heard on Lolita’s handheld radio when James Mason’s Humbert first sees her. Lyon provides the wordless vocals, but though the track didn’t make her a pop star the song became a minor hit for the surf group The Ventures the same year.

9. “March From A Clockwork Orange (Ninth Symphony, Fourth Movement — Abridged),” Wendy Carlos
10. “Title Music From A Clockwork Orange,” Wendy Carlos (from A Clockwork Orange)
11. “Main Title From The Shining,” Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind (from The Shining)
Kubrick continued his inspired use of classical music with A Clockwork Orange, a much dimmer version of a possible future than 2001. The film’s chief juvenile delinquent Alex (Malcolm McDowell) loves Beethoven seemingly as much as he loves rape and mayhem, but is this a sign that he still has a soul capable of redemption or just another nihilistic detail? The score by electronic music pioneer Wendy Carlos (then recording as Walter Carlos) doesn’t provide any answers. Carlos broke through with the 1968 album Switched-On Bach, which brought the music of Bach to the then-new Moog synthesizer. It’s an odd, often beautiful album that helped legitimize electronic music, but giving Beethoven’s stirring tribute to humanity’s potential the Moog treatment sounds like a mechanical perversion of its noble sentiments — which may be the point. Kubrick used Carlos’s original music just as memorably, both in A Clockwork Orange and The Shining, where she uses the Moog’s deepest, coldest tones to eerie effect.

12. “Harpsichord Suite No. 4 in D Minor,” George Frideric Handel (from Barry Lyndon)
13. “Women of Ireland,” The Chieftains (from Barry Lyndon)
Music plays a similarly central role in 1975’s Barry Lyndon, which charts the rise and fall of an 18th century Irishman as he cheats and seduces his way into wealth and fortune. Two types of music fill the soundtrack: baroque and traditional Irish music, the latter represented most memorably by the Chieftains’ rendition of “Women of Ireland.” But it’s not a cheap contrast between the warmth of home and the perils of seeking your fortune abroad. Both seem to be attempting to express a sense of tragic inevitability, as if any moral lessons to be gleaned from Barry’s misdeeds were incidental to the more enveloping notion that life undoes everyone’s best intentions in the end.

14. “Hello Vietnam,” Johnnie Wright (from Full Metal Jacket)
15. “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’,” Nancy Sinatra (from Full Metal Jacket)
16. “Surfin’ Bird,” The Trashmen (from Full Metal Jacket)
Full Metal Jacket gave Kubrick a chance to make savvy use of a handful of 1960s hits while avoiding tracks that were already becoming clichéd “Welcome to the ‘60s” soundtrack staples. There’s no Creedence Clearwater Revival, in other words. Instead, Kubrick opens the film with the 1965 country hit “Hello Vietnam,” written by Tom T. Hall and recorded by Johnnie Wright, letting its pro-war sentiments unspool as a group of new recruits get their heads shaved in advance of basic training. Later, he’ll let “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’” sound like a descent into hell by dropping it over our first glimpses of Vietnam itself, and use “Surfin’ Bird” to capture the absurdity and chaos of battle, where a song about a bird on a surfboard starts to sound like a howl from the depths of madness.

17. “Baby Did a Bad Bad Thing,” Chris Isaak (from Eyes Wide Shut)
18. “I Only Have Eyes For You,” The Victor Silvester Orchestra (from Eyes Wide Shut)
19. “When I Fall in Love,” The Victor Silvester Orchestra (from Eyes Wide Shut)
Nicole Kidman’s enthusiasm for heartbroken rock traditionalist Chris Isaak made a fan of Kubrick, who used this track from the 1995 album Forever Blue to soundtrack a memorable love scene between Kidman and her co-star (and then-husband) Tom Cruise. Isaak’s suggestions of secrets and lies serve as the perfect accompaniment to Kidman’s sidelong glances at herself in the mirror. She’s his but she’s not; not entirely. Nobody ever is. Used relentlessly in the film’s marketing campaign, it became inescapable in the lead-up to its summer release. It’s also the only such song on the soundtrack. In Eyes Wide Shut’s early scenes, the central couple attends a party where every song seems to be about endless devotion, a contrast to what lies ahead for its protagonists, though maybe not as stark a contrast as it first appears given the film’s ending — which brings them back where they began, more or less.

20. “We’ll Meet Again,” Vera Lynn (from Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb)
21. “The Faithful Hussar,” Susanne Christian (from Paths of Glory)
Dr. Strangelove famously ends with a nuclear apocalypse set to “We’ll Meet Again,” but the irony runs deeper than the title. Vera Lynn’s recording of “We’ll Meet Again” gave hope to countless soldiers during World War II, a promise that the war would end and the reunions begin “some sunny day.” This is an ending that that allows for no such days, just one last, grim chuckle as the world burns.

The darkest version of a Kubrick playlist would end there, with the mushroom clouds going up and the world winding down. But Kubrick’s reputation as a cold technician first and everything else second misses the humanism that underlies his work. Many share an abiding concern about the processes and institutions that dehumanize us, be it the brutal military induction of Full Metal Jacket, the distancing wealth of Barry Lyndon, or the bureaucratic machinery of Strangelove. Even A Clockwork Orange suggests, in the darkest way possible, that what makes us human is worth preserving, and the final moments of Eyes Wide Shut end his career with a blunt, one-word admonition to keep love alive.

When Kubrick died, Steven Spielberg gathered some friends for a dinner and screened the scene he felt best exemplified Kubrick’s work: the final moments of Paths of Glory. In the scene, a group of dispirited French soldiers gather in a bar where the proprietor forces a young German woman — played by Kubrick’s future wife, Christiane Harlan, credited as Susanne Christian — to sing for them. They’re ready to jeer, or worse, but her rendition of a German folk song moves them in ways they could not have expected, or explain. Even here, the possibility of connection remains, if only in this fleeting moment. But even in the trenches, the melody lingers on.

A History of Stanley Kubrick in 21 Tracks