For the March edition of the collective collaborative blog, T&E writers discuss some of their favorite movie soundtracks. We mention both classic and contemporary films, and discuss how the soundtracks made each of these films into timeless pieces.
So I wanted to write about some soundtracks that made their movies what they were--that is, great movies. Some movies do okay without a soundtrack; other movies are silent cuz of technology. But most movies have a soundtrack. Well, what about movies that are basically about the music they got in ‘em? Movies whose soundtracks are their substance? Here are a few:
Film: A Clockwork Orange
Year Released: 1971
Favorite Song: The Clockwork Orange Theme is pretty good, but why not slooshy the whole fuckin’ thing? See how it is is that this whole thing, this whole movie, is about music, innit? Alex, foremost amongst his band of droogs, the Fab 4 of them or so, is a big classical music fan, holding out a special place in his black heart for ol’ Ludwig van, listening to him while dreaming about blimps going up in flames and bombs leveling villages and the whole lot. How civilization is, Beethoven was. Did you know, for example, that the anthem for all of Europe comes from Ludwig van’s 9th symphony? That’s the honest truth. Well in this soundtrack for Clockwork Orange, in a way that I’m sure would’ve pleased Alex very much, and probably also Anthony Burgess very much (Burgess being himself very pleased by a good classical number), composer Wendy Carlos has taken to melting away some of Beethoven’s luster with her moog synthesizer. So the whole eerie score fits superbly for both the depraved and the sophisticated, the ultraviolent chelloveck and the monocled symphony-going grey-hair alike. And that’s what the whole movie is about!
Film: American Graffiti
Year Released: 1973
Favorite Song: “Peppermint Twist”
Hear the spirit of America here. This soundtrack beams you into a time whose appeal has never ended. I just got back from a lunch at my local drive-in, my local In-n-Out Burger, and there were people out leaning on hoods and listening to music and shit, talking, gossiping. The difference is that all the burger-faced bros of today aren’t listening to The Platters, The Drifters, The Diamonds, The Silhouettes, or, my favorite, The Starliters. What a shame! It really hits you where it hurts, don’t it? But don’t fuss about it, man. Sit down, man, have a popsicle. Let ol’ Woflman play these long-lasted good-timing numbers to rock-and-roll your troubles away. This movie fucking rules!
Film: Car Wash
Year Released: 1976
Favorite Song: “I’m Going Down”
Car Wash was more of a long music video for a Rose Royce concept album. The movie is about as thin as one of those shammies they use to wax people’s windows with. The soundtrack, on the other hand, is heavy as molasses. You got “I Wanna Get Next to You.” You got “I’m Going Down.” And then of course the eponymous jam they still jam on radio stations across the land. All together these songs make for a beautiful story. A regular R&B opera about an especially endearing car wash, all produced by Motown rogue Norman Whitfield.
Film: American Gigolo
Year Released: 1980
Favorite Song: “Call Me”
Fuck yeah. If you’re ever pressed to define what’s cool for all time--a kind of absolute, universal conception of cool--you can go ahead and cite this soundtrack. The version of “Call Me” that starts the movie off is relentless; it’s an example of how perfect it can be when the music matches the movie to create a mood. And the mood calls upon you to say to yourself “Fuck yeah. Lemme be this dude!” It works hard on you. Like the man in the movie. Like Moroder, that is. The “Call Me” version is, like the soundtrack as a whole, one of Giorgio Moroder’s gems. In the 80s this guy was like the Phil Spector of movie soundtracks. After American Gigolo, Moroder went on to do soundtracks for Cat People and Scarface, which were both haunting and epic and amazing. But American Gigolo, man.
Year Released: 1982
Favorite Song: Pick ‘em
A real event, this one. Sounds like you’re participating in some ritual to depart into the unknown. Like you can’t wait to get off this godforsaken planet and out onto the other planet out there with rolling green hills and forests of fruit trees and nothing made of concrete or steel. And how you get out there is by reciting this Hopi incantation, “Koyaanisqatsi,” which means “Life Out of Balance,” a million times. But that’s how it is with incantations; you say it 999,999 times and you’re so worn out that you think you can’t take it, but then on that millionth time your mind opens up and all the Earth-bound bullshit is behind you. The master guru guy behind the music is the always-all-black-wearing composer Philip Glass. Dark is the man’s soul, dark is the fate of our planet, and dark is this seance-sounding soundtrack.
Film: Hail! Hail! Rock & Roll
Year Released: 1987
Favorite Song: “Too Much Monkey Business”
Chuck’s feigned seriousness followed by Keith’s solo. Chuck has had about enough--of everything. Fuck it all, he’s the inventor of rock ‘n’ roll so don’t he get any kind of pass on all the tedium everyone else gets entangled in? This song in particular, “Too Much Monkey Business,” sounds like a rap song from the 1950s, sounds like “The Breaks” meets “Rock Around the Clock.” And might I mention that, along with the inventor of rock ‘n’ roll, along with one of my favorite guitar players ever, there’s also Etta James, Eric Clapton, Linda Ronstadt, Robert Cray, Julian Lennon, Bobby Keys, Steve Jordan, and Johnnie Johnston on the soundtrack. It’s a museum unto itself. Hail, hail rock ‘n’ roll.
Film: Les Triplettes de Belleville
Year Released: 2003
Favorite Song: "Belleville Rendez-Vous"
This is my all-time favorite soundtrack not just for the incredibly catchy theme song, but for the way the music effortlessly guides the movie throughout the entire narrative. There are almost no words spoken in this French animated film, but the score delivers the plot through Django Reinhardt-inspired guitar melodies, eclectic instrumentation (i.e. bicycles, vacuums, newspapers), and invigorating swing energy. It’s the kind of music that makes any daydreaming American think of wandering the alleys in France. I was fortunate to see the composer Benoît Charest and Le Terrible Orchestre play the score live alongside the movie a few weeks ago. I was so happy that I literally started crying within the first few minutes.
Film: O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Year Released: 2003
Favorite Song: "Big Rock Candy Mountain"
This is the album that transformed me from being the cliche “I-listen-to-everything-but-country” music lover to someone who embraces diverse sounds of bluegrass, gospel and country. This soundtrack not only serves as an entertaining listen, but also a great crash course of Americana Roots 101. You hear first generation bluegrass legends like Ralph Stanley exposing his soul in an acapella version of the traditional folk song “Oh Death”, to contemporary Louisiana artist Chris Thomas King paying homage to early blues with his cover of Skip James’ “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues”. Even after 13 years of expanding my bluegrass and gospel knowledge, this soundtrack still takes me to church every damn time. If you love this soundtrack too, I recommend reading Ronny’s blog “I’ll Fly Away: A Brief History of the Quintessential Gospel Song (and Ten Great Renditions)”.
Film: Rab Ne Bana di Jodi
Year Released: 2008
Favorite Song: "Haule Haule"
I mean, where do I even start trying to pick a Bollywood movie for this list? Bollywood soundtracks really deserve an entire blog of its own. Though there are far more iconic movies I could have picked, I went with Rab Ne Bana di Jodi because it has a perfect balance of the over-the-top big production flashy numbers (i.e. “Phir Milenge Chalte Chalte”) to beautifully crafted love songs that translate feelings of hopeless romanticism across all languages (i.e. “Haule Haule”). This soundtrack is so emotionally poignant that I usually turn off the subtitles during the musical numbers and let the beautiful melodies/Shahrukh Khan’s lipsyncing carry me away. Interesting side note, this was also the first ever Bollywood soundtrack to reach the Top 10 album sales in the iTunes store. So, if you’re new to Bollywood this might be a good place to start.
Film: Harold and Maude
Year Released: 1971
Favorite Song: "Trouble"
This movie paved the way for indie quirky love films and is a cult classic for countless reasons, but I think it’s safe to say that what really elevated this movie into being a timeless masterpiece is Cat Stevens’ original soundtrack. One of the most beautiful aspects of this soundtrack is how Stevens’ music is so perfectly paralleled by Maude’s character (and in essence, the entire spirit of the movie). The focus track, “If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out”, showcases just a man and his guitar singing very matter-of-fact lyrics and simple chords, yet it carries an emotionally complexity that cuts right through your heart. Similarly, Maude’s life philosophy of being yourself is so seemingly simple, yet she turns out to be an extremely dynamic character that has much more depth than what shows from her eccentric surface.
I won’t give away any spoilers for the ending, but I will say that what really makes Harold and Maude one of my favorite movies is the ending scene accompanied by “Trouble”. Stevens wrote this song in the hospital after being diagnosed with a collapsed lung and tuberculosis, and was told he only had a few weeks left to live. It bares all his vulnerability from that stage of his life, and it’s that honest and raw sentiment that pulls together the ending montage so beautifully. As far as I’m concerned, it’s one of the best uses of a “rock” song in a movie.
Film: This is Spinal Tap
Year Released: 1984
Favorite Song: “Big Bottom”
You know, whenever I meet someone in a rock ‘n roll band who’s never watched Spinal Tap I just can’t respect them. It’s harsh, I know, but fair considering that everything you need to know about rock history can be found in this “mockumentary”. There’s so much that can be said, and already has been said, about this soundtrack so I’ll just say that when I saw all three band members playing bass on “Big Bottom” (and Derek Smalls rockin’ the double-neck bass) it blew my fucking mind. I asked my parents for a bass that Christmas, and I took bass lessons all throughout 7th and 8th grade all thanks to that stupid, brilliant song.
Honorable mentions: The Harder They Come, Everything is Illuminated, The Hobbit (1977 animated version), Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny, Romeo Must Die, Requiem for a Dream, Repo Man, The Wedding Singer, The Fifth Element, Amelie, Lawrence of Arabia
Film: 2001: A Space Odyssey
Year Released: 1968
Favorite Song: "The Blue Danube"
Originally, director Stanley Kubrick had commissioned Hollywood composer Alex North to create an original score for 2001: A Space Odyssey, as the two had previously worked together on Spartacus (1960) and Dr. Strangelove (1964). But when North went to the first screening of 2001, he didn’t hear any of his music. What he heard instead was a vast and magnificently beautiful spread of classical music that included one of the most famous romantic ballets by Johann Strauss (above), an early modern symphonic tone by Richard Strauss, a modern-era ballet by Aram Khachaturian, and several avant-garde pieces by the mid-20th century composer György Ligeti. While North wasn’t pleased at the time, the decision looks brilliant in retrospective. Though Kubrick incorporated orchestral and choral pieces spanning a century from the 1860s to the 1960s, the music gave the film anything but an antiquated or time-specific feel. Quite the contrary, the music helped cement 2001 as a timeless classic, one seamlessly bridging our humble, magical past with the deeply unknown, technological future.
Year Released: 1963
Favorite Song: "La Passerella di Otto e Mezzo"
Though there must certainly exist great soundtracks and scores unfortunate enough to be paired with shitty movies, that’s not what my list is about. Actually, 2001 and 8½ are my two favorite films ever. While the former cherry-picked from a century of classical music, however, the latter features a mostly-original score by Nino Rota, the Italian composer most famous for scoring the Godfather series in the 1970s. He regularly worked with fellow Italian auteur Federico Fellini, whose 8½ is a three-hour, completely over-the-top circus of egocentric, insecure artist navel-gazing. That makes it sound terrible; and it could be, if you’re not into art that’s overly conscious of itself. But when done brilliantly, it can be mesmerizing. To complement the carnival on screen, Rota’s dozen tracks swing between jazz, classical, and other sounds soaked in melodies and instruments pulled straight out of the circus—as in the “Passerella” (above), which translates literally as “walkway” but could also mean “catwalk,” as when models show off a designer’s new collection. In other words, it continues the film’s overarching metaphor: the director must walk the walk under the spotlight of the media, the critics, the fans, the producers, the team members, and even loved ones.
Film: Jurassic Park
Year Released: 1993
Favorite Song: "Theme from Jurassic Park"
What more can be said about John Williams? The legendary Hollywood composer gave us the music for endless classics--Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Indiana Jones, E.T., Jurassic Park, Harry Potter, Star Wars (including the latest)—and thereby has helped inspire the imaginations of several generations. Hopefully I’m not being hyperbolic when, in my mind, I put “Williams” up next to names like “Bach,” “Mozart,” and “Beethoven.” Most people probably wouldn’t debate with me about the glory of his music, but the point of contention would probably arise when trying to decide which of his film scores is best. Movies tend to be somewhat emotional experiences—especially when they’re good—so I imagine nostalgia would play a part in how we answer. I was 5 when Jurassic Park came out. I fucking loved dinosaurs like any other child. And I watched this movie 65 million times. Basically, it’s safe to say that the score for this movie has inscribed itself in my neural network, influencing the human being I am today.
Year Released: 1954
Favorite Song: "Godzilla Main Title"
Boom. Boom. Boom. And then the sound of a roar that sounds something like a giant metal door creaking and clanging as it slowly opens. Then you hear the theme, a steady staccato of low strings punctuated by violins playing triplets in quick succession, getting louder and more tense as it goes on, pulling you to the edge of your seat. Monster movies may all be about the build up to the actual monster stepping onto the screen, so until that point you need incredible music to suspend your disbelief and keep your anticipation levels high as possible. Jurassic Park does this largely by inspiring wonder; Godzilla does it through ominous, anxious, always tremulous strings, letting you feel what the people of Ootojima Island or Tokyo Bay might have been feeling. Though the recording definitely sounds dated, the music itself resonates as gorgeously and lushly as ever.
Film: Pulp Fiction
Year Released: 1994
Favorite Song: "Misirlou"
My first pick was a soundtrack, the middle three were scores, and so my last should obviously be another soundtrack. How could I not choose Pulp Fiction? The very first track, “Misirlou,” is a Dick Dale masterpiece of surf rock that drew heavily from a traditional eastern Mediterranean song. The second track is the hilarious “Royale with Cheese” conversation between Samuel Jackson and John Travolta. The third track is funky Kool & the Gang. The fourth is sexy, groovy Al Green. Fifth, more surf rock. Sixth, down, dismal, and in the dirt country. Halfway through and you get “Son of a Preacher Man.” The collection of songs and spoken dialogues, in other words, speaks for itself. As with Quentin Tarantino’s other soundtracks, Pulp Fiction proves the filmmaker’s taste in old-time movies is matched only by his taste in old-time music. By the way, though those pieces of dialogue breaking up the music would be distracting or even annoying for any other movie, here we’re talking about Pulp Fiction, a film whose shooting script is pretty much the movie.
Film: Freddy vs. Jason
Year Released: 2003
Favorite Song: Type O Negative - “(We Were) Electrocute”
There are two reasons why I chose to write about the Freddy vs. Jason soundtrack. First off, to many millennial metalheads, it served as one of our earliest exposures to heavy music. Many popular bands like Lamb of God, Killswitch Engage, Slipknot, In Flames, and Devildriver contributed to this soundtrack, and some of them went on to become our favorite bands throughout the rest of the decade. It’s almost like the metalhead’s equivalent of the Space Jam soundtrack. The second reason I chose it is because it’s essentially a time capsule that perfectly captures the paradigm shift that was occurring in popular metal when this movie was released. When you listen to it from start to finish, you can feel the growing pains of 2003 as the nu-metal bands that dominated MTV2 at the turn of the millennium were slowly being put out to pasture in order to make way for the metalcore that would become popular towards the middle of the decade.
Also, this soundtrack contains Seether. You know, Nickelback’s angsty, “misunderstood” younger brother. Hey, I told you there were growing pains.
Unsurprisingly, the best songs on the soundtrack are by the bands that have stood the test of time. Lamb of God, Hatebreed, and In Flames contributed some fantastic songs that I still listen to today. However, my favorites have to be Type O Negative’s hauntingly beautiful “(We Were) Electrocute” and the creeping, disjointed Sepultura/Mike Patton collaboration “The Waste.” As far as the nu-metal goes, I’ll admit that Spineshank’s “Beginning of the End” and Powerman 5000’s “Bombshell” have always been guilty pleasures of mine from that era, and the soundtrack’s Latin-tinged lead single “How Can I Live” by Ill Niño isn’t too bad either.
Year Released: 1996
Favorite Song: Lou Reed - “Perfect Day”
Danny Boyle’s brilliant take on this gritty tale of heroin-addicted friends in Thatcher-era Scotland has a sublime choice of songs on its soundtrack. This collection of rock and Britpop pushes the film to another level by providing a realistic sense of the time period, location, and situations that the characters find themselves in as they cope with their addiction and the dark events that come with it. The use of these songs in their respective scenes almost make you feel like you’re in the movie alongside the characters and getting caught up in the madness of their world with them.
I primarily chose to write about Trainspotting because it has my favorite use of a song in any film ever. It’s hard to imagine watching Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) overdose and literally be dragged to the doorstep of the emergency room by a cab driver to anything other than Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day.” To the viewer, it almost feels like an unceremonious funeral scene. As soon as Renton shoots up, he sinks into the floor as if he was sinking into a grave. The cold attitude of his drug dealer and the cab driver, coupled with Lou Reed’s somber delivery, make for a powerfully sad and scary scene. However, the song works on two levels. Lou Reed’s lyrics serve as a window to Renton’s thoughts throughout the whole ordeal. To him, a heroin trip is a perfect day, even when he’s being treated like trash and on death’s doorstep. He is revived in the hospital while the line “You’re going to reap just what you sow” repeats, which serves as a sobering reminder of the fate that awaits him when he is snapped back to reality.
Some of my other favorite song placements in Trainspotting include the sarcastic use of Iggy Pop’s “Nightclubbing” to provide a backdrop to the characters shooting up, interspersed with scenes of Renton commiting crimes to support his habits; and the disorienting house beats of Underworld’s “Dark and Long (Dark Train)” while Renton is hallucinating his way through a cold turkey detox.
Film: The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
Year Released: 2004
Favorite Song: Seu Jorge - “Rebel Rebel”
The Life Aquatic soundtrack is Wes Anderson’s love letter to David Bowie, and he managed to write it using only two original versions of Bowie songs. It worked, though. Brazilian cast member Seu Jorge’s acoustic covers sung in Portuguese stole the show, and even Bowie himself would go on to say, "Had Seu Jorge not recorded my songs in Portuguese I would never have heard this new level of beauty which he has imbued them with." Jorge transforms Bowie’s songs, giving “Starman” and “Rebel Rebel” a cool, breezy, oceanic vibe. Meanwhile, you can feel the raw emotion in “Rock & Roll Suicide,” “Five Years,” and “Life on Mars?” even more when they’re stripped down to their basics.
Seu Jorge’s cover of “Rebel Rebel” is my favorite just because it’s the furthest departure from the original. He took such a hard rocking song with an iconic guitar riff and turned it into a mellow, jazzy, tropical-sounding number that’s right at home out on the open water where most of the movie takes place. However, my favorite use of any song in this movie has to be the use of “Search and Destroy” by The Stooges during Zissou’s shootout against the pirates that hijack his ship. It’s a silly action scene where a Speedo-and-open-bathrobe-clad Bill Murray escapes a hostage situation, rips a handgun from one of the pirates’ bare hands, and single-handedly manages to send the entire pirate crew running for cover, despite the fact that Bill Murray is hilariously outnumbered and outgunned. As the chaos ensues, the blistering, kick-ass proto-punk classic feels like Wes Anderson is giving the audience a big whipped-cream pie in the face and gives the scene a real sense of fun. Other great song placements include “Starálfur” by Sigur Rós during the climactic scene where the crew finally finds the jaguar shark that Zissou was looking for, and the poignant use of David Bowie’s original “Life on Mars?” towards the beginning of the movie as Zissou learns that he might be a father to a fully-grown adult son that he just met. It’s a weird song choice for sure, but it works brilliantly.
Film: The Great Gatsby
Year Released: 2013
Favorite Song: “Back to Black”
The Great Gatsby soundtrack, executive produced by Jay-Z, is a decadent and diverse collection of original songs and covers. Jay-Z’s song selections successfully pay homage to the roaring 20s without feeling too forced, while still maintaining a modern twist. Selecting a rapper to produce the album was one of the most surprising, but effective choices that Baz Luhrmann (the director of the film) could have made for the movie. Rappers are the modern day Gatsby – focusing on excess, fantasy, and partying until dawn. Some of my favorites from the soundtrack are “Young and Beautiful” by Lana Del Rey, “Kill and Run” by Sia, and Emelie Sande’s cover of “Crazy “In Love”. The soundtrack of this 2013 movie adaptation made an old classic feel relevant.
Film: Almost Famous
Year Released: 2000
Favorite Song: “Slip Away”
Almost Famous is an American classic for any music lover, especially those with a passion for the good ol’ days of rock and roll (which is what the entire soundtrack consists of). The music from this movie oozes early 70s, and makes you want to ride down the freeway in the middle of the desert with the top down.
Tell us some of your favorite movie soundtracks in the comment section below!