Music for Movies
Still recovering from my 100 Singles project -- but while I take a breather, a few thoughts about the nature of music in films, inspired by Nat over at Another Aging Hipster. . . .
Watching the Academy Awards telecast last night -- the one annual ritual that I hold sacred, no matter how dimwitted and flatulent and ostentatious the whole exercise can be -- I was thrilled, of course, to see my old boyfriend Jeff Bridges win the best actor award (about time!), and to see T-Bone Burnett and Ryan Bingham pick up another statuette for the theme song to Crazy Heart. As the schlockfest lumbered on, between trips to the kitchen to refill my popcorn bowl, a thought occurred to me. Why don't they have a category for best compilation soundtrack? You know, as opposed to the best score category, which rewards only original composers, or the best song category, which is just for a single theme song. A great "various artists" soundtrack can totally sell a picture to me. In fact, I've often thought that that would be my dream job: To assemble songs for movie soundtracks. (Any studio honchos out there reading? You know how to reach me. )
As a music lover, I often pick my movies according to their music. Musical bio-pics are an easy sell for me, even for artists I didn't particularly like. (By the movie's end, inevitably I've become a fan.) We've had a string of good ones lately -- Cadillac Records, I Walk the Line, Ray -- but I'll go back farther. Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison in The Doors. That Jerry Lee Lewis thing with Dennis Quaid. The divine Jessica Lange as Patsy Cline (Sweet Dreams) and Sissy Spacek as Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner's Daughter. I even liked Lady Sings the Blues, and usually I can't stand Diana Ross. Done right, a good bio-pic is like a greatest hits album come to life, with really good liner notes.
Now, I would never buy the soundtrack CD for a movie like Star Wars or Lord of the Rings -- who buys those ponderous instrumental things? But I have been known to buy the soundtrack CD if the movie features a series of original songs, especially if they're performed in the movie, not just in the background. My favorite movie soundtrack of all time is Alan Price's 1973 songs for the Lindsay Anderson movie O Lucky Man!; that one's in a class by itself. But I really enjoyed Glen Hasard's soundtrack for Once -- I loved how the songs were worked into the story -- and thinking of Glen Hasard throws me back to another favorite soundtrack, for his first film The Commitments, an intriguing mix of scene-setting classic recordings and the actors performing other classic songs. If we're talking great original movie soundtracks -- again, songs, not just background score -- you have to mention the Bee Gees' triumph, Saturday Night Fever. I don't even like disco or the Bee Gees, and I get thrilled when the songs break out in that movie. How essential to The Graduate were those melancholy, satiric Simon & Garfunkel songs? And then of course there's one of the greatest rock soundtracks ever, A Hard Day's Night, which is so much better than all those other early 60s rock movies (ever see the Dave Clark Five's Having a Wild Weekend?), that it effectively killed the genre.
But I digress. As I work my way down my shelf of movie-related CDs, what I'm really thinking about today is those soundtracks that assemble already-existing songs slotted in to underlie the movie's story. Certain directors have a genius touch with this -- Oliver Stone, Wes Anderson, Martin Scorsese, and John Cusack come to mind (John Hughes could pull a few rabbits out of this hat too). All these guys are music lovers themselves, who bring that love to the films they direct. They know how a familiar song can establish the era, telegraph mood or character, and punctuate the story line. Back in the dinosaur days when they invented Oscar categories, popular music wasn't used in the same way, but pop culture has so come of age, that in the right hands music is as effective a tool as editing or visual effects for conveying a story. Using a song the audience already knows is more bang for your buck. Just think of how Scorsese used the songs in Mean Streets, for example -- the opening riffs of "Be My Baby" or "Jumping Jack Flash." You don't have to be a Kinks fan to love the use of "Nothin' in This World Can Stop Me Worryin' 'Bout that Girl" in Anderson's Rushmore, or "This Time Tomorrow" in The Darjeeling Limited.
In the right hands, music can define time with surgical precision. Think about the Coen Brothers' brilliant O Brother! Where Art Thou?, the soundtrack of which had my head ringing with Depression-era music for months. Half the reason Forrest Gump was so much fun was because its soundtrack swiftly pinpointed each year of Forrest's march through history. American Graffiti would have been nothing without its nonstop stream of vintage rock and roll hits. I didn't even see the movie Bobby, but I've got the soundtrack -- as an aural portrait of 1968 it can't be beat.
Even more so lately, it's become a reliable index to the hipster quotient of a film to have a witty soundtrack compiled of alternative tracks mixed with lesser-known album cuts from classic artists. The Zach Braff film Garden State had a brilliant soundtrack that introduced me to tons of cool indie bands. Go back a couple of years farther to Empire Records, which assembled a great bunch of songs for its story about a day in the life of an indie record shop. Even better is the soundtrack John Cusack put together for his record-store geeks in High Fidelity. (And even better than that was Cusack's soundtrack collection for Grosse Pointe Blank.)
Just in the past year, I loved the soundtracks for (500 Days of) Summer (cool use of the Smiths!) and the deeply evocative period piece Taking Woodstock. The charming little film Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist was so totally about music, and what it means to certain kids, that it absolutely depended on having a killer soundtrack. Same with Pirate Radio -- you can't tell the story of the UK's 1960s offshore radio stations without a stream of the kind of music that those stations championed.
But it's late, and I'm sure I'm forgetting some. So tell me -- what are YOUR favorite music movies and movie soundtracks?