Favorite film soundtracks
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What are your favorite movie soundtracks? I still listen to ones for Wes Anderson movies all the time—Rushmore, Royal Tenenbaums, Life Aquatic. What soundtracks are good enough as a whole to be in rotation alongside your favorite albums? —Ethan
Is this where I show my age? One of the first albums I ever bought was the Lost Boys soundtrack, and a few years ago, I picked it up on CD and started playing it again. It isn’t exactly sitting-around-the-house music, but it’s one of my favorite road-trip albums, and it’s particularly good for that moment of hitting the road, when everyone’s energy and enthusiasm is still high. It even progresses nicely from hyper energy down to long-haul mellowness. It’s cheesy rock, but it brings back a lot of good memories of a lot of good trips. Ditto the Trainspotting soundtrack, overplayed-but-still-hooky-as-hell “Lust For Life” and all. More recently, while I’ve never really gotten into J-pop, the insanely poppy, jaunty Paprika soundtrack was an obsession for me for a while, particularly the bouncy final track, “The Girl In Byakkoya.” On the mostly instrumental tip, the soundtracks to Black Hawk Down, Battlestar Galactica, and The Last Temptation Of Christ (a.k.a. Peter Gabriel’s Passion) are all haunting, melancholy, Middle Eastern-inflected mood pieces that I tend to return to a lot when I’m working, writing, or reading at home. Finally, I periodically return to the soundtrack for Wim Wenders’ Until The End Of The World. That is one troubled, flawed, yet fascinating movie, and part of the fascination is in the music. In 1990, he went to various artists—Nick Cave, Jane Siberry, Talking Heads, R.E.M., Julie Cruise, U2, Daniel Lanois, Lou Reed, Elvis Costello, and a bunch more—and asked them to produce him a track that sounded like what they thought they’d be playing in 1999. The result is a jangly, strange album that’s now set in those artists’ past, but sounds like their projected futures. Even if it wasn’t full of terrific songs, I’d still be fascinated with it entirely as a pop artifact.
This is funny, because I was just thinking yesterday about how I wanted an excuse to write about how awesome the Trainspotting soundtrack is, and it looks like you beat me to it, Tasha. But I’ll reiterate that not only was it a great collection of songs, independent of the film, to me, it will also always be connected to the times and places when I was watching the movie in heavy rotation, specifically late high school and early college. I guess good soundtracks are always about that for me—not just the music, but sending you back to where you were when both the movie and the music meant a lot. This is why Magnolia also sprang to mind—I remember the winter I watched it, because I was between two semesters studying abroad, and that Christmas break, I watched Magnolia, Man In The Moon and Being John Malkovitch, which was maybe the best string of moviegoing I ever had in my life. Anyway, Magnolia got me even harder into Aimee Mann than I was before, and I remembering ordering the soundtrack via Amazon to Italy (which I’m sure was cheap). I listened to it on serious heavy rotation on my portable CD player, specifically on a train to Switzerland, where we ended up hearing Supertramp’s “Logical Song” in a bar, coincidentally.
I may be in the minority in regarding Grosse Pointe Blank as an overlooked masterpiece, but surely we can all agree on the awesomeness of its soundtrack. Auteur-star John Cusack and director George Armitage (of the equally great Miami Blues) understand how music works in the lives of people who care about it—far better, in fact, than did Cusack’s High Fidelity director Stephen Frears. It’s not just that the album is full of great songs, some of which are utterly transformed by the way they’re used in the film: To this day, I can’t hear David Bowie and Freddie Mercury trading verses without seeing a mental picture of John Cusack’s hit man gazing deep into a toddler’s eyes. Or Minnie Driver, who, as her 10-year high school reunion approaches, is still giving away Palace tickets on the radio, and is the fantasy girlfriend of every guy who ever clocked an overnight at the campus radio station. I might not have known the English Beat’s “Mirror In The Bathroom” before I saw it used in the kickboxing scene between Cusack and Benny “The Jet” Urquidez, but I was hip enough to catch the name-drop for Drag City co-founder Dan Koretzky, one of Martin Blank’s high-school classmates.
What makes Grosse Pointe Blank for me is the way it uses music to give listeners a sense of how the characters live, of what happens to them when they’re not on screen. I’d never understood the moment when Cusack’s character knocks on Driver’s door and she answers by saying “You can’t come in” in a thick English accent. But when the soundtrack’s (now out-of-print) second volume was released, I got my answer, in the form of the Specials’ “You’re Wondering Now,” which starts with the same bit of dialogue. The coup de grace? “You’re Wondering Now” is the song Driver is listening to when she answers the door. We don’t hear the beginning of the song in the movie, but if you know it, you understand that the intro was fresh in Driver’s mind, and popped out as soon as Cusack knocked. It’s one of the simplest but most profound illustrations of the way a song can work its way into your subconscious, just waiting for the right moment to pop back up.
For me, soundtrack love is as much about nostalgia as it is about solid tracks. Thus, I love the Grosse Point Blank soundtrack not just because of the general greatness of The English Beat and The Specials, but because I saw that movie in high school, and at that bleak point in time, definitely identified with Cusack’s assassin outsider—maybe not so much on the killing front, but more on the deep “no one gets me, man” loathing front. On that same teen tip, I spun the Clueless soundtrack about a million times in high school. It’s still one of my favorites today, mostly because it isn’t dated “this is teen music in 1995” cuts, but because, much like the luxury-addled teens of Bronson Alcott High School, it pretends to be a little more grown up than it actually is. David Lowery’s “Shake Some Action” and World Party’s “All The Young Dudes” seem so universally angsty that they balance out the schlock of the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Coolio, and even that Jill Sobule “Supermodel” cut. I also really like the Splendor soundtrack, which was a staple of my college radio days at Ohio University. When no one was on air overnight, let’s say, we’d pop a soundtrack in the CD player and hit repeat. A fellow DJ left this one day, and I fell in instant love. It’s brilliantly new wave and packed full of great remixes, including Moby’s take on Blur’s “Beetlebum,” Moog Cookbook’s version of Air’s “Kelly Watch The Stars,” and a devastating My Bloody Valentine take on Lush’s “Sweetness And Light.” Splendor, the movie, is a fairly desperate take on polyamory starring Johnathon Schaech and Kathleen Robertson (best know for her role as Clare on the original Beverly Hills 90210) and unfortunately, it’s worth absolutely no one’s time, but this soundtrack is well worth all kinds of repeated listening.
If I were to confine myself strictly to scores, they don’t come any better than Basil Poledouris’ unforgettable music for Conan The Barbarian. A blend of majestic swords-’n’-sorcery pomp, grand replications of Wagnerian operatics, and clever evocations of “Oriental” ethnic themes, it’s a perfect match to its source material, and, as I learned on a recent monthlong road trip, it’s just the thing to make driving through bare endless stretches of Montana seem like part of an epic quest. As far as soundtracks go, since my A.V. Club peers have dibs on most of my favorites, I’ll be that dick who chooses obscurity for obscurity’s sake. One of my all-time favorite soundtracks is long out of print (even my copy is assembled of mp3s converted from a decades-old cassette), and from a movie few people have ever seen: 1988’s underrated modern noir The Blue Iguana. Its music is diverse to a fault, and composed of a wild, unpredictable collection of songs that have almost nothing to do with each other, though they somehow fit together perfectly as a piece. There are some ringers (a James Brown mega-hit, a popular Fela Kuti number, and a rousing cover of “Born To Be Wild” by Zodiac Mindwarp & the Love Reaction), a couple of doo-wop classics (“You Cheated” by the Del Vikings, and the great “Winner Take All” by the Platters), some hip-hop curiosities (an early rap-rock fusion with the White Boys’ “This Is Hardcore, Is It Not?”, an ultra-rare Fat Boys track, and Kurtis Blow doing the movie’s theme song), a few original songs by punk producer Ethan James (who also wrote the surf-noir score), and even some funk and metal (by Chuck Brown and L.A. Guns, respectively). It’s a combination that shouldn’t make any sense, but it somehow comes together with total precision, and it makes for great listening on a beery summer night.
Okay, sure—I’ll play four really obvious cards here. The Saturday Night Fever OST was, for a few years, the biggest-selling album in the history of music. Why? Because it’s great, that’s why. The Bee Gees never wrote tighter, more sinuous, or catchier songs; the session pros who gave them flesh didn’t lay back. (It’s long been cool to trash the Bee Gees as mere disco arrivistes, which ignores the fact that they were making the stuff as early as 1974, and were better at it than most.) Ignore the instrumental-score excerpts, and what you have is still as good an introduction to the music as anyone has made. The same goes for the reggae sampler of The Harder They Come—there are bigger and more complete ways to begin learning the byways of golden-age Jamaican reggae, but there really aren’t any better first steps, though the two Jimmy Cliff reprises are extraneous. (Pick hit, after all these years: Toots & the Maytals’ “Sweet And Dandy,” maybe the most joyous thing I’ve ever heard.) And while Curtis Mayfield and Prince may—may—have made better albums than Super Fly or Purple Rain, the degree to which these albums defined them as artists still seems right. Both are perfect expressions of their makers’ artistic personalities, over and above the movies they work with (or against, in Mayfield’s case—he wrote his anti-drug lyrics after the film was completed), and both remain inexhaustible listens.
Mr. Matos gave passing mention to Purple Rain, but it probably deserves its own entry if we’re talking about the greatest soundtracks of all time. He (and others) might disagree, but there’s no Prince record I listen to more than Purple Rain, which makes sense, since it’s pretty much perfect. Five of its nine songs were hit singles, including two No. 1s (“Let’s Go Crazy” and “When Doves Cry”), and even the slightly deeper cuts, like “The Beautiful Ones,” are basically immortal. Sonically, everything got so much thicker and intense on Purple Rain, which isn’t to slight Dirty Mind or Controversy. But Purple Rain—it’s pretty much perfect. The same can’t be said for the movie itself, but the fact that Prince’s loopy performance and the over-the-top, semi-autobiographical plot can’t take anything away from the music says something about the songs themselves. Something good, that is.
I guess I’m a sucker for any movie soundtrack that immediately ditches the poofy-poignant strings approach, even more so if it can pull off the whole score with just one instrumental tone. For me, that trumps even the great-songs-I-thought-nobody-else-cared-about approach. When I found an old copy of Anton Karas’ zither score to The Third Man at a record sale, I snapped it up to enjoy on its own, though it’s not the same without the darkness of the film to underscore it. This is a movie whose moral center eludes me to the very end, throwing me off with one of the most brutal lines in film history (“…if one of those dots stopped moving…”), so the orchestrated comforts of a standard Hollywood score just wouldn’t be right. Karas’ opening-scene theme is as inappropriately jaunty as Harry Lime himself, tricking viewers into laughing at the screwiness of post-war Vienna and its black market before they could possibly have any clue of where it’s going to lead. Ennio Morricone’s score for John Carpenter’s The Thing serves the opposite purpose, stripping away whatever innocence people might attach to its 1951 predecessor The Thing From Another World. (Which you might recall hinges entirely on an electric-blanket mishap—come on!) Now, there is some orchestration going on here, but generally, the more synth-y and cold it gets, the better it underscores how immensely isolated the characters are. Any time I’m doodling around with a chintzy keyboard and find a setting that sounds even halfway like this, I start wishing for the companionship of Wilford Brimley and an ’80s-tastic chess machine.
A few scores stand out, both of which are way better than the movies they accompany. Philip Glass’ score for Koyaanisqatsi is very cool. In particular, the cue “The Grid” is about as exciting a 19-minute slow-launch toward total kineticism gets. I saw the movie “live” (i.e., with Glass & co. performing), and the music trumps the movie’s overly obvious agenda about how life is going out of balance, we should all munch grass and live off the land instead of eating McNuggets, etc. Also awesome is Wendy Carlos’ score for Tron, which holds up remarkably well; in a lot of ways, it’s probably her single strongest work, combining strings and synths in fascinating textures, and pushing systematic chromatic writing further than most movies are comfortable with. I know it pretty much by heart, and as a bonus, it has two unmatchably stupid Journey songs: “Only Solutions” (which presumably inspired Ed Harris in Apollo 13) and the way-off instrumental “1990s Theme.”
An honorary mention of some kind should go to the Dumb And Dumber soundtrack, even though I still shamefully haven’t seen the movie. A friend loaned me the soundtrack in high school. There’s some filler, but much of it is the kind of bright power-pop radio audiences inexplicably can’t stand: Pete Droge’s “If You Don’t Love Me (I’ll Kill Myself)” is pretty awesome, and it’s not really surprising he ended up playing with Matthew Sweet in The Thorns as well. It’s also got two fun Britpop remainders: The Primitives’ “Crash” (granted, in the “‘95 Mix,” but still) and Echobelly’s “Insomniac,” which is still pretty dramatic fun.
One of my favorite movies is Ted Demme’s Beautiful Girls, and I still enjoy listening to the soundtrack that Greg Dulli helped executive produce as much as I like watching Natalie Portman do her Lolita thing with Timothy Hutton. (Hey, at least I wasn’t salivating over her in The Professional.) It’s packed with some great oldies that I’d never listen to otherwise—Billy Paul’s “Me And Mrs. Jones,” The Spinners’ “Could It Be I’m Falling In Love,” Neil Diamond’s centerpiece “Sweet Caroline”—and even though Dulli doesn’t try very hard to hit any of Barry White’s notes, I love hearing The Afghan Whigs tear through “Can’t Get Enough Of Your Love, Babe.” The demented cousin to Beautiful Girls’ soundtrack is the one that goes along with John Waters’ Pink Flamingos, which includes magical little nuggets like Frankie Lymon And The Teenagers’ “I’m Not A Juvenile Delinquent,” Little Richard’s “The Girl Can’t Help It,” and the background for Divine eating poodle shit, Patti Page’s “(How Much Is) That Doggie In The Window.” Needless to say again, I never would have listened to any of those songs otherwise, which is why I now make sure to pick up any album Waters curates. In the seminal indie-rock category, Matador put its stamp of approval on The Kids In The Hall’s Brain Candy, Hal Hartley’s Amateur, and Half-Cocked, and they all sound fantastic today. Half-Cocked is the roughest of the three, finding its strength in bands like Unwound, Sleepyhead, Versus, and Polvo (whose “Can I Ride” is arguably the band’s finest moment), while Pavement, Yo La Tengo (spelled “Tango” on the back of Amateur), and Liz Phair appear on both of the other two. Amateur slightly edges out Brain Candy in my book, thanks to My Bloody Valentine’s “Only Shallow,” Red House Painters’ devastatingly beautiful “Japanese To English,” and the score by Hartley (under the name Ned Rifle) and Jeffrey Taylor that sounds like equal parts This Mortal Coil, Enya, and Jeremy Enigk’s Return Of The Frog Queen. And while we’re talking about mid-’90s indie rock, who can forget Lou Barlow inexplicably (yet deservedly) finally getting some mainstream recognition for his beatsy contributions with John Davis as Folk Implosion on the Kids soundtrack, most notably “Natural One”? Lou, give up on the Dino Jr. and Sebadoh reunions, and get back to the thumping beats!
Chronicling the first year of life in post-Katrina New Orleans is no small task. So who better to trust to tell that story than the brilliant minds behind The Wire? Unfortunately, the first season of Treme was uneven; When it hit, it hit square in the heart, but when it missed, it missed badly. Part of the trouble was the pacing, sometimes caused by musical interludes. The paradox, though, was that these musical interludes were essential to establishing the character of the city. They were also excellent. Music was especially important for residents who survived the storm and lived in the post-apocalypse (full disclosure: I was one), rebuilding the city by day and dancing off sorrow at whiskey- and beer-soaked brass-band shows by night. But in the context of the show, these scenes were sometimes long and disruptive, derailing the flow worse than some of the more nefarious plotlines. (Such as anything to do with Sonny.) But as a stand-alone product, Treme’s soundtrack is a wonderful cross-section of NOLA’s rich musical landscape, showcasing local musicians like Trombone Shorty, people who are relatively unknown outside of the 504 area code, but are stars of the local scene. After all, there’s more to New Orleans music than Louis Armstrong and Dr. John. The soundtrack also includes examples where music and plot intersected for powerful moments on the show. The “joke” campaign song recorded by Steve Zahn’s DJ Davis captured the residents’ anger over the city’s rebuilding. (It also has a new context, thanks to George W. Bush’s recent comments.) And there’s the moment when Antoine Batiste (played by New Orleans native Wendell Pierce) stumbles upon Sonny and Annie playing in the French Quarter and joins them for a drunken, wistful rendition of “I Don’t Stand A Ghost Of A Chance With You.” If there are nitpicks, it’s that many of the songs are presented in shortened versions, and there are no examples of the city’s thriving hip-hop scene. (The latter somehow didn’t figure into the show, so that isn’t unreasonable.) Still, as far as television soundtracks go, few double as both “soundtrack” and “essential cultural introduction” as seamlessly and wonderfully as Treme’s does.
When it comes to biopics, I’ve never understood the point of soundtracks where actors sing in character. (Who would choose to listen to Joaquin Phoenix pretending to be Johnny Cash when they could just listen to Johnny Cash?) But Velvet Goldmine isn’t a biopic, exactly—names changed to protect the innocent and all. Todd Haynes got away with making a movie about “David Bowie” and “Iggy Pop” by creating new characters who pout and pose to the glittery tunes of contemporaries like Roxy Music, T. Rex, and The New York Dolls. The Velvet Goldmine soundtrack is sort of a free-for-all: actors performing covers, musicians doing their best imitations of other musicians, glam-inspired ’90s bands offering new songs that sound old, and even a few classic tracks in their original form. Members of bands including Suede, Mudhoney, Sonic Youth, Radiohead, and The Minutemen camp it up in fictional bands The Venus In Furs and Wylde Ratttz, a musical vacation from the present that sounds like it was a blast to be a part of. (As a fan of both Radiohead and Roxy Music, I can’t help but smile at Thom Yorke’s Brian Ferry vibrato on “2HB.”) And new tunes by the pretty art-rock boys in Pulp and Shudder To Think fit right into the androgynous mix. The soundtrack has yet to wear thin for me, and it serves as a constant reminder that I should maybe learn how to apply makeup better.
I’ll likely be accused of having ’90s alt-rock on the brain, but I’ve got to give the nod here to the Singles soundtrack, for reasons personal (this and Beastie Boys’ Check Your Head are the first CDs I ever bought) as well as musicological. Collecting songs from some of the biggest and most important mainstream rock bands of its time—Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains, Smashing Pumpkins, Mudhoney, Screaming Trees, and Chris Cornell of Soundgarden, to name several—Singles is as essential to understanding the significance of grunge in the early ’90s as the Harder They Come soundtrack is to grasping the power of reggae in the early ’70s, or Saturday Night Fever is to comprehending the commercial prominence of disco in the late ’70s. Few soundtracks can lay claim to transcending their movie-souvenir status to become significant stand-alone works of art, but I think Singles fits that bill. Unlike most grunge-era albums, Singles delivers what was good about rock music at the time without any of the troublesome baggage. (Unless you count being connected to one of Cameron Crowe’s less celebrated films, that is.)
Nearly everybody I knew in high school had a copy of the Repo Man soundtrack kicking around their car floorboards, even though none of us could remember ever buying it: We all duped it or swiped it from people we knew. And a lot of us hadn’t even seen the movie the first time we heard the album. But as a handy primer for early ’80s West Coast punk, it was hard to beat that Repo Man record, which had Black Flag, Circle Jerks, Fear, and Suicidal Tendencies, alongside the more retro-sounding The Plugz, touches of spaghetti Western and blaxploitation, a groovy Jonathan Richman cover, and the most feral Iggy Pop song since the mid-‘70s. The album was a full-formed experience, with a sense of humor and place that put all the punky rage in context.
I’ve gotta stick up for TV soundtracks here, even though I’ve enjoyed a great many film soundtracks (particularly for Wes Anderson and Quentin Tarantino films) over the years. As a young teen, I bought the Friends soundtrack, and even though I’m vaguely embarrassed by that now, there are still some pretty good songs on it. (Later, when I fancied myself cool, I gave it away to my little sister, after copying the songs I liked to cassette tape.) From there, I moved on to a soundtrack of Polaris’ scruffy rock from The Adventures Of Pete & Pete, which I procured from sending in a bunch of proof-of-purchase symbols from Frosted MiniWheats boxes, and the various soundtracks to The X-Files, where I first got to know Nick Cave, via his immortal “Red Right Hand.” In recent years, I’ve purchased fewer TV soundtracks, but I’ve always made a little room for the sweeping, orchestral work of Michael Giacchino from Lost and Bear McCreary from Battlestar Galactica. McCreary’s work, in particular, is wonderful, jumping from intimate to epic as easily as the show did, and the music that plays when the fleet—spoiler alert!—discovers Earth (for the first time) is the only non-pop piece in my top 50 most played on iTunes. It’s just wonderful work, and it deserves a wider audience.
It’s understandable that people are kind of burned out on ’80s new-wave soundtracks; John Hughes nostalgia overload will do that. But the era doesn’t begin and end with Pretty In Pink. My favorite soundtrack of the decade is 1984’s Electric Dreams—not just because the songs are gorgeous, but because the music is woven so tightly into the tone, theme, conception, and even plot of the film. The story of a lovestruck geek whose sentient computer starts to compete for the attention of his would-be girlfriend, Electric Dreams sports a half synth-pop, half New Romantic soundtrack that perfectly captures the movie’s admittedly fluffy, totally ’80s cyber-romance. Ironically, two artists who first made their big splashes in the ’70s—disco futurist Giorgio Moroder and ELO frontman Jeff Lynne—helped produce the soundtrack, which also features great, swoon-worthy, and thankfully underexposed songs from Culture Club and Heaven 17, not to mention a cut from soul survivor P. P. Arnold. And the integration was reciprocal; the video for the song “Together In Electric Dreams,” a sweetly plastic collaboration between Moroder and The Human League frontman Philip Oakey, is built around scenes and dialogue from the film, and the song even shows up as a prop in the movie itself. The high point, though, is “Video!”, an impeccably crafted, slyly infectious song in which Lynne proves he can more than keep up with all the uppity young new-wavers.
I'm on the record as a big fan of Ennio Morricone, whose music often provides the soundtrack to my writing and editing for The A.V. Club. (That's why there's so much dissonance. And gunplay.) But with Morricone I'm more likely to listen to a playlist of favorite tracks than a single soundtrack. Vangelis' score for Blade Runner also gets a lot of play. But the soundtrack I play from start to finish the most, the way I do my favorite albums, is Nino Rota's score for 8 1/2, which remains just as dramatic and delightful out of context and years after I first heard it. (Of course I'd sort of heard it before. Danny Elfman's Pee-wee's Big Adventure score borrows pretty liberally from Rota's work.)