BiographyFilm composer Joe Kraemer has demonstrated that he can deliver a fresh film score that emulates the musical sensibilities of a classic, and has scored films in virtually every genre. The critically acclaimed composer gave Christopher McQuarrie’s “The Way of the Gun” a Bernard Herrmann-esque thriller score for the Tarantino generation, and brought a foreboding, melodic presence to the upcoming Tom Cruise blockbuster “Jack Reacher.” Kraemer is a composer who fell in love with music at the movies, whose innate sense of what is right for a picture finds expression in a distinct musical voice.
Growing up in a small town outside Albany, New York, Kraemer was drawn to music early—an inclination that was fostered by his father, a computer programmer and musician who played and recorded songs at home. At age six Joe Kraemer saw the film “Star Wars,” with its memorable score by John Williams, and immediately went home and began playing the music on piano by ear. The incident cemented a love of film music, and exposed his ability as a musical prodigy.
“Musically,” Kraemer explains, “my three biggest influences have been John Williams, the Beatles, and my dad.”
Kraemer took piano lessons from a neighbor and played piano to his father’s organ in church. He improved on guitar, rehearsing with his father, and took full advantage of his newly amassed gear (including synthesizers and a four-track cassette recorder).
Kraemer’s fate discovered him in the seventh grade, when he befriended senior Scott Storm—an aspiring filmmaker who went on to the School of Visual Arts in New York City. Storm (and his new friends and classmates Bryan Singer and Christopher McQuarrie) would return to Albany on weekends to shoot movies, and he enlisted Kraemer first as an actor and then—when the film score-loving kid asked Storm what he used for music—as a composer. Kraemer scored Storm’s films on his father’s synthesizer, playfully wading into his future vocation.
“It was totally seat-of-my-pants,” he laughs. “It was all done very instinctively.” Developing those instincts laid the basic foundation for his career.
Though he was already working as a film composer, Kraemer realized he could benefit by formal training. He attended Berklee College of Music in Boston, where he studied songwriting and film scoring. He learned the fundamentals of the craft, and how to respond to images with the appropriate emotion or restraint. After graduation he followed the well-worn path to Hollywood, and found work in the movies as a sound editor (an early credit was editing the classic dialogue in Dumb and Dumber).
In 1997 Kraemer reunited with Christopher McQuarrie, who had recently won an Oscar for his “The Usual Suspects” script. Kraemer scored the NBC Pilot “The Underworld,” which McQuarrie wrote and produced. That in turn led to Kraemer scoring the indie film “Burn,” produced by Bryan Singer.
Two years later McQuarrie made his directorial debut with “The Way of the Gun,” a quirky, neo-noir thriller starring Ryan Phillippe and Benicio Del Toro. Kraemer and orchestra delivered a delightfully mysterious, castanet-salted score—influenced by the classic film scores he loved but with an approach all his own. The music was singled out by critics, and praised by The Washington Post as “one of the best [scores] in recent memory, rich in classic film noir atmospherics.”
From there Kraemer cultivated his skills in independent films and television—writing more than fifty scores for every genre from western (“Desolation Canyon”) to comedy (“Monday”), mystery (“The Kidnapping”) to documentary (“An Unreasonable Man”).
For McQuarrie’s new film, the Tom Cruise action thriller “Jack Reacher,” Kraemer was always the director’s number-one composer choice. His score for the renegade investigator harks back to the potently spare, analog scores of the 1970s (McQuarrie pointed Kraemer to The Exorcist and Dirty Harry as references). Kraemer conducted a 90-piece orchestra on the historic Sony scoring stage in Los Angeles, delivering an original dark, motif-packed score that emphasizes low brass and strings.
Mixing a vintage cinematic sensitivity and sound with a uniquely modern approach, Joe Kraemer is the definition of a “film composer.” “There are times I suspect he’s the heir to John Barry or David Shire,” McQuarrie explains. “Other times I feel Joe [Kraemer] is a descendant of Elmer Bernstein or Bernard Herrmann.”