Soundtracks change the feel of movie scenes, they become so deeply associated with each other that it seems impossible to imagine sound and image existing separately. Let's take a look at some of the greatest movie soundtracks that aided and transformed the writing and acting into that complete sensory experience.
Modern films are getting creative with soundtracks, Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice boasting a soundtrack as exciting as its cast, Birdman utilising a solely improvised soundtrack for its single-shot feature and Whiplash drumming up raw new talent on and off screen. There’s something so intrinsically vital about the congregation of film and music. From killer opening tracks to atmospheric compositions crucial to the narrative. Let me take you through 10 of the best film soundtracks out there.
High Fidelity (2000)
Film one, track 1: ‘You’re Gonna Miss Me’ by The Thirteenth Floor Elevators. Prominent in the film’s introduction and a brilliant introduction to (arguably) the first psychedelic band in the history of rock and roll. An engrossing garage rock explosion of distorted guitars, electric jug and tormented lyrics about breaking up. A sufficient opening number to a film about break ups.
Originally a novel by Nick Hornby, High Fidelity is the music lover’s film, set mainly in a record store and loosely centred on the composition of the perfect mixtape. More specifically, the idea of lists is overriding in the film’s arrangement with each list matter-of-factly pertaining to breaking up and getting back together (i.e. top 5 things I miss about her or top 5 songs to make love to). Everything has a ranking order and everyone has a preference. In acknowledging this, both Hornby and Stephen Frears truly capture the complexity of the soundtrack with the story’s overarching statement being that music has the ability to express any of life’s given narratives. The order of life is like the order of a great album and High Fidelity pays homage to this importance. The soundtrack includes tracks by Belle and Sebastian, The Beta Band, Bill ‘Smog’ Callahan, De La Soul, Elton John, The Kinks, Love, Stereolab, The Vaselines and The Velvet Underground to name a few.
This is an abstract film to say the least – a German western set in the Negev Desert in Israel with krautrock gods CAN as a soundtrack. Yep, you heard correctly; a CAN soundtrack! The plot of Roland Klick’s feature is a little vague; a man hides out in the desert following a heist having occasional encounters with a handful of bizarre locals, all of whom wanting a piece of the action (whatever that may be). Visually it is baron, and sunstroke emanates from the screen, affecting our senses while CAN noodle amidst the madness. 'Deadlock' and 'Tango Whiskey Man' were specially composed for this movie. The tracks capture the heat and the scant landscape somehow in a dizzying, nightmarish psychedelic exploration with Damo Suzuki’s characteristic wailing, Jaki Leibeziet’s throbbing drumming and Holger Czukay and MichaelKaroli’s feverish flair.
The songs can be found on the CAN album entitled Soundtracks (1970) where other songs made for equally bizarre films also feature.
Easy Rider (1969)
Dennis Hopper’s bonafide classic road movie captured the nation's imagination with the assistance of an equally classic song listing (and maybe a bit of marijuana), featuring huge numbers from the American counter-culture of the 60s. The Byrds, Jimi Hendrix and Roger Mcguinn (performing the Bob Dylan penned, 'It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)’) all contribute to the ultimate composition of the American Dream as we now perceive it; by not only soundtracking the movie but penning the musical blueprint with which we view an entire generation's social and political issues. However, all things aside, it’s in the opening sequence that goosebumps are prescribed in abundance with Steppenwolf’s "haulin’ ass", Route 66 hit, ‘Born to be Wild’.
The Big Lebowski (1998)
You can’t expect a film centred around a guy named The Dude, not to have a totally rad soundtrack and the Coen brothers certainly don't make any allowances. Providing an eclectic range of retro music from the 60s and 70s to appropriate the hippy lifestyle of The Dude, the film flaunts some choice musical nous with Bob Dylan, Captain Beefheart, The Monks, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Moondog to tie the film together.
It is the ultimate slacker movie with a role model we all, in some respects, aspire to be. In a case of mistaken identity, Jeff ‘The Dude’ Lebowski’s apartment is broken into and ransacked by thugs who demand a large sum of money before realising they have the wrong guy. Having defiled his precious rug, Jeff seeks out the real Lebowski so as to claim reparations for the rug but is instead sent on a madcap mission to rescue the wife of his millionaire namesake (the real Lebowski). In part inspired by the detective fiction of Raymond Chandler, a real rock-and-roll edge is given to the film with each character having their own musical signature; The Dude’s being a bit of CCR.
Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)
It would be easy to praise any one of Wes Anderson’s soundtracks. Much like the magnificent set designs and snaking plot structures, music is the foundation of the weird and colourful world he creates. Anderson’s oceanic foray delves deeper than any of his other films; showcasing a soundtrack as vibrant and eclectic as its cast. Seu Jorge’s beautiful re-workings of classic David Bowie songs are scattered throughout, typically performed live as a sea shanty style interlude.
Anderson also employs post-punk legend Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh to compose classically derived pieces such as ‘Loquasto International Film Festival’ and nautical ditties that comically express the fantastic underwater world electronically (‘Ping Island/Lightning Strike Rescue Op’). Devo themselves get a spin with the pulsing ‘Gut Feeling’ playing during a classic montage sequence and just to heighten the pace further, during one of the film’s more thrilling moments (a pirate attack to be precise), the fuzzed-out punk anthem, ‘Search and Destroy’ by Iggy and the Stooges gets an airing. A personal highlight.
Spinal Tap (1984)
Frank Zappa once asked, “does humour belong in music?” the answer to that question is a resounding yes and Spinal Tap is its endorsement.
It is the greatest rock and roll cliché ever created, producing one of the finest array of satirical songs spanning several decade-defining genres: The Beatles-esque ‘Gimme Some Money’ of the early 60s and the psychedelic-folk pastiche, ‘Listen to the Flower People’ of the early 70s, giving context to their current incarnation as a somewhat redundant hair metal, glam rock band firmly in the 80s. Both film and soundtrack possess the characteristic talents of writers, actors and musicians Michael McKean, Christopher Guest, and Harry Shearer creating a wild world of rock and roll life presented as a documentary.
All the heavy metal, prog, and rock and roll tropes are present; big, gated drums, trite guitar sounds, guitar solos on every song, English heritage and mythic song content (‘Stone henge’). Moreover, tracks like ‘Tonight I’m Gonna Rock You Tonight’ and ‘Big Bottom’ encapsulates the rock god cliché of machismo but to great comic effect. Turn this one up to 11!
Lost in Translation (2003)
Much like the film, the soundtrack is offered to us in dream-like spells. Soft, hazy music mirrors the blurred, twinkling cityscape of rolling Japan as seen through the passing, indifferent eyes of a tired and lonesome tourist. Generally, there is an elegance to the soundtrack appropriate to the emotional depth of the characters and pace of the movie; feelings of isolation that juxtapose the swelling populous of the city – particularly in the film’s most imbuing track, ‘Girls’ by Death in Vegas.
Songs by AIR, Kevin Shields and My Bloody Valentine respectively are also stark and cerebral and gently rouse in us the significance of introspection in desolation, whereas the positioning of certain songs, for instance ‘F*ck the Pain Away’ by Peaches seem almost ironic; reinforcing a kind of detachment from reality. There isn’t much Japanese music in the film although one track, ‘Kaze wo atsumete’ by Japanese folk band Happy End is strong enough to stand alone. And this merely emphasises a kind of western/eastern cultural divide that seems to plague the characters’ sensibilities.
The Blues Brothers (1980)
I can still remember the first time my dad showed me this movie as a kid. Knowing all the lines, he was able to mute all the swear words at just the right moment.
Not only one of the greatest movies ever made but also one of the greatest soundtracks ever performed. Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi traverse the genres of blues, soul, jazz, rock, country and gospel as Elwood and Jake Blues enter into a cross-town quest to find ex-band members, reform their old band and raise enough money to save the Catholic orphanage the two boys grew up in. Along the way, the pair encounter an unrelenting assortment of blues/rock gods such as James Brown, Ray Charles, Cab Calloway, John Lee Hooker, Aretha Franklin, Twiggy and Joe Walsh who all feature at the peak of their game. Abound with car chases, explosions, a raucous rendition of ‘rawhide’, neo-Nazi bad guys, John Candy and all the dancing and singing along you can shake your tail feather at, this movie/soundtrack has it all.
Like Easy Rider, this film is typified by its opening track; Iggy Pop’s massive ‘Lust For Life’, ironically chosen I imagine given the film’s themes of addiction and poverty. Those pounding drums, synchronised with the equally famous opening scene, sets the rhythm of the film. Based on the book by Irvine Welsh, it’s a look at escaping life at the bottom in the grimiest estates in Scotland on the peripheries of high culture. The songs are equally as redolent of social class and addiction, for example Pulp’s ironically up-tempo and spirited ‘Mile End’, Iggy Pop’s Gary Glitter themed ‘Nightclubbing’ and Leftfield’s ‘A Final Hit’; all of which pertain to that heavy, pulsating beat. These songs are not just clever names but a human pulse, slow and fast, going up and coming down.
When lead character Renton overdoses to the eerily apt ‘Perfect Day’ by Lou Reed, we enter one of the most memorable scenes in cinema. Contrasting beauty with the filth of addiction was an intentional move by director, Danny Boyle.
The Virgin Suicides (1999)
In Sofia Coppola’s haunting rework of Jeffery Eugenides’ brilliant novel, the lives of 5 girls in ‘70s, suburban Detroit are played out like a strange Greek tragedy. Following the attempted suicide of the youngest, Celia, the girls’ parents put them under constant house arrest. Narrated 20 years on from the viewpoint of a group of then anonymous teenage boys, infatuated with them from afar, the surreal, suburban nightmare of almost total withdrawal from society culminates in all girls eventually committing suicide.
The most alluring aspect of the story is the girl’s clandestine relationships outside of the four walls, their love of records and the unknown reasons as to why they all killed themselves. The soundtrack is as enthralling with space-jazz maestros AIR scoring the entire movie, including the melancholic ethereal jazz composition, ‘Playground Love’. There are also atmospheric, instrumental pieces to add to the disturbia – ‘Cemetary Party’, ‘Dark Messages’, ‘Ghost Song’ and ‘Empty House’ – and an excerpt from the novel read in a unnervingly low pitch atop the mid-tempo refrain, ‘Suicide Underground’. Additionally, there is a second soundtrack, featuring 70s heroes from the girl’s own record collection, such as Todd Rundgren, The Hollies, Styx, ELO, The Bee Gees, 10cc, and Heart as well as 90s artist, Sloan for the retrospective scenes.
Bonus! This list goes all the way up to 11!
Wayne’s World 1&2 (1992/1993)
“I think we’ll go with a little Bohemian Rhapsody, gentlemen…” a somewhat momentous line which provoked the scene that undoubtedly reignited Queen’s career and became one of the most famous scenes in comedy. I mean, we’ve all recreated it in our parent’s car, right? And it doesn’t stop there, there’s a naked Indian’s bottom and a righteous rendition of Y.M.C.A in a gay bar. That bass line gets me every time! The cult classic(s) not only gave way to some excellent one-liners (“exsqueeze me? a’baking powder?”) but also a bodacious soundtrack spanning both movies. Aerosmith, Alice Cooper, Black Sabbath, Dinosaur Jr., Golden Earing and Jimi Hendrix are but a few who rock up for the party. We’re not worthy!