This week’s question comes from A.V. Club assistant editor Alex McLevy:
What’s the first movie soundtrack you fell in love with?
As a kid, there was one cassette tape that ended up getting played over and over on the little boombox in my room, long before I even really understood what a soundtrack was or why only certain movies had them, and it taught me the rock ’n’ roll sounds of the Chicago blues. Yes, preteen Alex had a deep and abiding love of The Blues Brothers: Original Soundtrack Recording, and the attendant music that accompanied the film scored many an afternoon and weekend spent reading—or more likely, practicing the moves I had seen Dan Aykroyd or John Belushi bust on celluloid. To this day, the opening strains of “She Caught The Katy” can still send me into a pitiful imitation of the soft-shoe smoothness the cinematic brothers pulled off with such panache. (Don’t tell my coworkers.) I remember being shocked to learn there was actually a live album that came out before the movie soundtrack, and while Briefcase Full Of Blues has some killer tunes (“Rubber Biscuit” is an absolute banger), for me it will never equal the studio magic of the top-shelf blues musicians backing up the antics of Jake and Elwood Blues.
I love Cat Stevens and I love Harold And Maude, and I don’t know if I love the film because I already loved the musician, or if I grew to love the musician after seeing the film. At any rate, Stevens’ songs cast a warm glow on the love story between Harold and Maude, which is also a story of how Maude teaches Harold the very Stevens-esque lessons of embracing art, the earth, and being true to yourself. Most of the songs were simple reworkings of ones already released on 1970s’ Mona Bone Jakon and Tea For The Tillerman, with “Don’t Be Shy” and the superlative “If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out” the only two Stevens wrote specifically for Harold And Maude. Still, it stands in contrast to a lot of stellar soundtracks that fail to resonate with their film’s content and themes in a meaningful way; I’m thinking in particular of Simon & Garfunkel’s The Graduate soundtrack, which is great, but doesn’t feel of a piece with the film in the way Stevens’ songs do in Harold And Maude. Each song fits, and “If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out” binds the plot together in such an organic, clever way: Early in their courtship, Maude belts it out and encourages Harold, self-conscious and awkward, to join in. After her death, Harold drives his Hearse-Porsche off a cliff in a violent, angry sequence. But then he calmly plucks out the song’s tune on the banjo Maude taught him to play, signaling to the viewers that he’s taken Maude’s lessons to heart.
Most of my early music tastes were dictated by my efforts to bond with my dad, a man of persnickety and mostly classic-rock-based tastes. The funny thing is, I don’t even know if he really liked the Good Morning, Vietnam soundtrack all that much—he was never much of a Beach Boys guy—but I gravitated to it pretty quickly after the first time I pulled it out of his tape collection. I was drawn in by a mixture of ’60s rock classics, plus Robin Williams at his schtickiest. “Five O’Clock World” and “The Game Of Love” are permanently burned into my brain, but it’s Williams’ take on real-life military shock-jock Adrian Cronauer that really sticks with me. I definitely didn’t get most of the jokes at the time about “poon-tang” and “Hanoi Hannah”—and as an adult, it strikes me as Williams indulging in some of his worst excesses—but at the time, hearing Mork from Nick At Nite yell about it being “hot as shit” in the jungle had me laughing endlessly in between some pretty great tunes.
I could chalk it up to being young and impressionable and skip ahead to something that I discovered during the mid-’90s soundtrack boom, but let’s set cred aside and be vulnerable for a moment: I have many happy memories of riding around in my parents’ minivan listening to The Bodyguard soundtrack. Not the entire soundtrack; most of the time we’d just listen to side A, a six-song run of Whitney Houston at her schmaltzy ’80s best, then rewind the tape and listen to side A again. Sorry, Joe Cocker, but you can’t compete with a bunch of 6-year-olds bopping to “I’m Every Woman” in the backseat of a tan Chrysler on their way to tap-dancing class.
My mother inflicted the Jesus Christ Superstar soundtrack on me as a form of religious education, and I wore out my play-and-read version of The Jungle Book soundtrack as a child, but Grease was the first movie record I went out and purchased just for myself. My friends and I played all four sides of the double album in the summer of 1978 endlessly, acting out as many dance moves we remembered from seeing the movie as many times as our parents would take us. We favored John Travolta-Olivia Newton-John duets like “Summer Nights” and original-for-the-movie “You’re The One That I Want,” blithely repeating words we were much too young to be repeating, like, “You know that ain’t no shit / We’ll be getting lots of tit” in “Greased Lightning.” Looking back at the movie, as fun as it was—with the familiar 1970s theme of glorifying the 1950s—and as irrepressible as a lot of these songs were, there’s a lot that didn’t age well (“Did she put up a fight?”). We didn’t know what “lousy with virginity” meant either.
The Ghostbusters II soundtrack had me before I even left the theater: The first time I saw the movie, I leapt out of my seat at the sound of Bobby Brown’s “On Our Own” and danced down the aisle, mimicking the dorky steps that Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, and Ernie Hudson do under the end credits. I can’t say how long it was before my family owned “On Our Own” and Ghostbusters II’s other attempts at recreating its predecessor’s marshmallow man-sized hit of a theme song, but like Katie’s Bodyguard cassette, I remember the tape doing heavy minivan rotation, occasionally relieved by the summer of ’89’s other movie music heavyweight: The Little Mermaid. Like the psychoreactive substance oozing beneath the surface of New York City in the film, I still have strong reaction to “Higher And Higher”; it’d be years, however, before I realized that Elton John isn’t singing “Love is a cannonball” on side two.
This is one of those AVQ&As where I need to be completely honest and say the first soundtrack I loved was for the 1997 motion picture Spawn, which had the extremely 1997 idea of pairing up a bunch of rock bands with electronic acts to produce what history has darkly dubbed “rocktronica.” Some of these pairings are still sort of interesting—Butthole Surfers and Moby, Soul Coughing and Roni Size, why not—while others, like Stabbing Westward and Josh Wink, transport you immediately to the darkest aspects of the late-Clinton era. But you know… some of it still kind of works, like the loud-quiet-loud dynamics of Marilyn Manson’s collaboration with the Sneaker Pimps. Anyway, look: I had the Spawn toys, I read the comic books, I listened to the soundtrack, rocktronica is bad and so was this movie, but if you’re going to listen to a rocktronica album, you could do worse than this one. Sing along: Satan! Satan! Satan! Satan!