Soundtracks have made an astounding comeback this summer—just ask Kate Bush. With “Running Up That Hill” anchoring the fourth season of “Stranger Things,” Bush has experienced an explosive revival since late May, nearly four decades after the song’s 1985 release. On the big screen, blockbusters like Top Gun: Maverick, Elvis, Minions: The Rise Of Gru, and Thor: Love And Thunder have all breathed life back into the summer soundtrack.
Top Gun: Maverick, for example, leverages multiple generations of moviegoing experiences by using songs from the soundtrack of the original film to find new depths in its sequel; before Lady Gaga performs the new ballad “Hold My Hand” over the film’s closing credits, director Joe Kosinski uses Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone” to catapult audiences back into the world of the Naval Aviation training program, then juxtaposes Miles Teller’s performance of “Great Balls Of Fire” with flashbacks to his character’s late father, making connections that unfold powerfully in the story of Maverick.
Conversely, Elvis director Baz Luhrmann utilizes the pastiche approach of his earlier films Moulin Rouge and The Great Gatsby to create a throughline between his iconic subject and the pop stars of today, modernizing Presley while delivering a roundup of the hottest acts on modern musical charts. And Minions assembles a murderer’s row of top-tier artists, including St. Vincent, Thundercat, and Phoebe Bridgers, to record new versions of ’70s pop and disco standards—a shameless commercial exercise that also happens to be and absolute must-listen.
These, of course, aren’t new tricks for storytellers or studios, but what’s intriguing is how these projects have resuscitated an experience that used to be much more commonplace, especially when the only way to get these songs was all together on a single (or sometimes double) serving of physical media. As this summer of soundtracks continues, The A.V. Club looks back at a cultural phenomenon that’s popping off once again.
Music has enhanced movies since the silent era, when an organist played a Wurlitzer at the local cinema while George Melies, Charlie Chaplin, and Harold Lloyd created the medium’s first indelible images. Disney, for better and worse, proved to be one of this platform’s first innovators: Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs spun off the first soundtrack in 1938, followed by other early classics like The Wizard Of Oz. In 1952, High Noon opened with Tex Ritter’s “Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling” (aka “The Ballad of High Noon”), which became a popular single and a major marketing tool, prompting studios to use songs by known artists as a potential secondary revenue stream. Movie scores began to sell well, transforming composers into stars in their own right, tracing a path through Ennio Morricone, Henry Mancini, Elmer Bernstein, Lalo Schifrin, Maurice Jarre, John Barry, Wendy Carlos, John Williams, and later, Danny Elfman, Vangelis, director John Carpenter, Jerry Goldsmith, Hans Zimmer, Trent Reznor, Rachel Portman, and many more. At that time, however, a soundtrack consisted mostly of score tracks, along with one or two songs performed by a star of the moment.
Among the earliest, song-driven soundtracks was The Graduate, which featured five Simon & Garfunkel songs as well as instrumentals by David Grusin. Four of those Simon & Garfunkel tunes had previously been released, while Paul Simon took a work in progress and shaped it into the relentlessly catchy “Mrs. Robinson.” Decades later, that track remains synonymous with the film (not to mention its comely star Anne Bancroft).
Soundtracks today don’t sell in the millions, a byproduct of the way we consume music now, which is usually digitally and a la carte. But from the late 1970s into the mid-’90s, people purchased soundtrack albums. All-time bestsellers include Saturday Night Fever (a double album featuring disco smashes from Bee Gees, The Trammps, Yvonne Elliman, Tavares, and more) in 1977; Grease (a double album with endless hits from Olivia Newton-John, John Travolta, Sha Na Na, Frankie Valli, Frankie Avalon, etc.) in 1978; Flashdance, (with single after single by Irene Cara, Michael Sembello, etc.) in 1983; Purple Rain (with Prince leading the charge on “When Doves Cry,” “Let’s Go Crazy,” and “I Would Die 4 U”) in 1984; Dirty Dancing (featuring a combination of classics and new songs from The Ronettes, Patrick Swayze, Bill Medley & Jennifer Warnes, Eric Carr, etc.) in 1987; and in 1997 the Titanic soundtrack, primarily comprised of James Horner’s emotional score, but propelled to multi-million seller status by Celine Dion’s Oscar-winning ballad “My Heart Will Go On.”
Other landmark soundtracks include Easy Rider (1969), featuring contributions from the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Steppenwolf, and The Byrds; American Graffiti (1973), released as 41 Hits From The Soundtrack Of American Graffiti, which boasted Bill Haley & the Comets, Buddy Holly & the Crickets, Fats Domino, The Big Bopper, The Beach Boys, and The Platters; too many Disney movie soundtracks to count, from Tron to all their animated fare; soundtracks for The Beatles’ movies, starting with A Hard Day’s Night; Curtis Mayfield’s suite for Superfly (1972); Do the Right Thing (1988); Forrest Gump (1994), Clueless (1995); Shrek (2001); 8 Mile (2002); and Straight Outta Compton (2016).
The best-selling soundtrack of all time? That would be The Bodyguard, powered by several Whitney Houston songs, including her anthemic cover of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You,” plus tracks by Lisa Stansfield, Kenny G/Aaron Neville, Joe Cocker/Sass Jordan, and Curtis Stigers. Released in 1992, it sold more than 45 million copies, spent months atop the Billboard charts, and took home the Grammys for Album of the Year, Record of the Year, and Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female.
Over the years, a handful of directors have become as recognized for their movies’ soundtracks as for their movies. John Hughes, Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Spike Lee, and Luhrmann are part of this rarified group. Hughes had a knack for finding classic old songs and tunes by rising stars, and incorporating them into the films he directed or produced. Pretty In Pink is arguably his finest moment, featuring songs by INXS, the Psychedelic Furs, OMD, the Smiths, and Echo & the Bunnymen. Interestingly, Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness,” which Duckie unforgettably lip-syncs as a desperate ploy to escape Andie’s friend zone, isn’t on the soundtrack.
A new Tarantino movie usually means audiences—even audiophiles—discovering or rediscovering great songs by beloved artists and obscure acts. Take your pick: “Stuck in the Middle with You” (Stealers Wheel), “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon” (Urge Overkill, covering Neil Diamond), Misirlou (Dick Dale), “You Never Can Tell” (Chuck Berry), “Jungle Boogie” (Kool & The Gang), “Bang, Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)” (Nancy Sinatra), and “Unchained” (for which Tarantino combined James Brown’s “The Payback” with Tupac Shakur’s “Untouchable”). Tarantino even masterfully deployed a song produced for a different movie, as when he roasted Nazis in Inglourious Basterds to the tune of the fast version of David Bowie’s “Cat People (Putting Out Fire).” Yes, an ’80s song from a sexy horror flick repurposed in a World War II movie. Go figure, but it works—perfectly.
Lee brilliantly used Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power” in Do The Right Thing and Grace Jones’ cover of “La Vie En Rose” in Summer Of Sam. Stevie Wonder wrote and recorded every song for the Jungle Fever soundtrack, which features the title track, “Lighting Up the Candles,” and “These Three Words.” Scorsese also makes tremendous use of established songs in his movies: The Rolling Stones (“Jumping Jack Flash” in Mean Streets, “Gimme Shelter” in Goodfellas and The Departed), Warren Zevon (“Werewolves of London” in The Color of Money), Tony Bennett (“Rags to Riches” in Goodfellas), The Animals (“House of the Rising Sun” in Casino), The Dropkick Murphys (“I’m Shipping Up to Boston” in The Departed).
And then there’s Luhrmann. The Australian filmmaker has always drawn on beloved songs by the original artists, as well as covers, plus new ones. Is there a more fascinating soundtrack than Moulin Rouge? Love it or hate it, it’s daring and unforgettable, with Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman singing several songs, and Christina Aguilera, Lil’ Kim, Mýa, and Pink joining forces on a Grammy-winning cover of “Lady Marmalade.” Beyonce and Andre 3000 teamed up for a cover of Amy Winehouse’s “Back To Black” for The Great Gatsby. Romeo + Juliet is loaded with fantastic songs. As for Elvis, Luhrmann pulls out all the stops, with songs by the King himself (“Suspicious Minds,” etc.), star Austin Butler (“Hound Dog”), posthumous collaborations and remixes (Presley and Jack White on “Power Of My Love,” Elvis and Butler on “That’s All Right”), and a new Doja Cat number, “Elvis,” that samples Presley’s “Hound Dog.”
Suffice it to say that music remains an essential component of watching and experiencing stories, but these soundtracks underscore exactly how rare the format’s success has become. Music licensing has increasingly complicated the process of using certain songs—certainly on a physical or even digital release associated with a project—which is why many films and series assemble a Spotify or steaming-service playlist to share with fans; for example, for the complete song list from even a film like Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, which featured the Rolling Stones’ “Out Of Time” but excluded the track from its official releases, one has to go to sources like Spotify.
Taika Waititi appears to be on the verge of becoming the next director whose movies regularly deliver awesome soundtracks. Thor: Love And Thunder liberally uses Guns N’ Roses (“Sweet Child O’ Mine,” “Welcome to the Jungle,” “Paradise City,” and “November Rain”), but it also includes “Our Last Summer” by ABBA, “Family Affair” by Mary J. Blige, and even a song by Waititi himself called “Hey Ninny-Nonny.” But the official Thor: Love And Thunder soundtrack only features compositions by composers Michael Giacchino and Nami Melumad, which means that the film’s pop songs, brilliantly used as they are, are currently only available in a Thor: Love And Thunder Official Playlist on Spotify.
And yet, these soundtracks with one foot in music’s past and the other in its present (or future) help introduce different generations of listeners to different artists. The Guardians Of The Galaxy soundtracks gave modern moviegoers a clearinghouse for ’70s AM radio classics. Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” shot back up the charts for the first time in decades, along with Metallica’s “Master Of Puppets,” thanks to Stranger Things, which introduced her work to a younger audience that didn’t hear one of her signature songs when it was previously used on Glow, Big Little Lies, Pose, EastEnders, and a few dozen other occasions.
If the sizzling remix of “Staying Alive” in the Bullet Train trailer is any indication, we’re guessing that the Brad Pitt vehicle (pardon the pun) may similarly arrive with a kick-ass soundtrack. The family friendly DC League Of Super-Pets features “Bad Blood” by Taylor Swift, “Big Energy” by Latto, “Jump Around” by KSI and Waka Flocka Flame and, filling the inevitable ’80s classic slot, Survivor’s “Eye Of The Tiger,” which figures to accompany some sort of training montage. Black Adam seems likely to build on the old Jay-Z/Kanye West collaboration, “Murder To Excellence,” featured in the trailer. And there’s little doubt that Black Panther: Wakanda Forever will feature a killer soundtrack, just like its predecessor, whose music was curated by Kendrick Lamar.
But as a snapshot of a sound or music moment, a sampler of classic or contemporary artists, or simply the greatest mix tape you never would have made yourself, soundtracks occupy a unique and vital space in the entertainment that means the most to us—sometimes directly imbuing them with that meaning. It’s a format with tremendous flexibility and yet endless adaptability, because each one comes at the crossroads of a lot of different people’s creativity, only to become synonymous with their collective effort. That they go from being a bunch of songs used in a movie to the soundtracks of audience members’ lives speaks to the enduring and transcendent power of music when it’s used at the right moment.