A film can be enhanced by its soundtrack, often making a good film even more enjoyable. A good director makes thoughtful and smart choices for a film’s music. Sometimes it’s just a song in the background, other times it’s used as part of the narrative. There are also films that are based on musicals and the music just comes with it. However it gets there, music is vital to a film and so we asked ourselves what soundtracks were most effective at enhancing their films?
When I thought about the question of soundtracks, I decided I didn’t want to include pure musicals – films where the music came before the film (Oliver!, Grease, Chicago, etc…). I wanted to select the soundtracks that enhanced a good film and can stand on their own outside the film. My criteria also included that I had to really like the film, so a soundtrack like Pretty Woman – which I really like – is disqualified. I also went with Various Artists, going against picking a soundtrack from a one-artist vision such as Simon & Garfunkel’s The Graduate or Prince’s Purple Rain. Thematically I wanted them to be consistent, I love the soundtracks to 500 Days of Summer and Natural Born Killers, but the genres and tone are all over the place and makes it hard to listen to them separately from the films. Ironically all three of my picks also highlight the times in which the films were made and bring me back to each of those decades. Relistening to them made me feel like I was opening various time capsules.
Some Kind of Wonderful (1987)
I was a big John Hughes fan in the 80’s – I saw every film he directed outside of Curly Sue and most that he wrote. Then I grew up and for some reason held his work in disdain – I hated Home Alone, as an example. After I grew up some more I realized some of his films are really good, although I still dislike Home Alone. The one I always loved regardless was Some Kind of Wonderful. Hughes wrote it and it was directed by Howard Deutch who also did Hughes’ Pretty in Pink. Some Kind of Wonderful is actually a course correction, as the studio had interfered with Pretty in Pink. Hughes wanted to fix the ending so he made a similar film, just one year later. This is what the 80’s felt like for most of us, not over the top like some of the other films of the era or since. Unlike Pretty in Pink, the soundtrack has less known artists. Pink is loaded with hits and well-known and influential artists (INXS, OMD, The Smiths, Echo and the Bunnymen, and The Psychedelic Furs). Some Kind of Wonderful digs deep and goes with many unknown bands both then and now. Hughes must have had an affinity for The Rolling Stones since his title characters are named “Keith”, “Amanda Jones” and “Watts”. He uses the deep-cut Stones song “Miss Amanda Jones”, the original and also a cover by The March Violets. Unfortunately, the Stones version and the films’ most popular song, “Beats So Lonely”, by Charlie Sexton do not appear on the soundtrack. The two most recognizable bands on the soundtrack are Flesh For Lulu (“I Go Crazy”) and The Jesus and Mary Chain (“The Hardest Walk”). Both provide great tracks. Flesh for Lulu is a totally under-appreciated goth/new wave band that has a great body of work. The music is used so well in the film, with “I Go Crazy” popping up multiple times. “Miss Amanda Jones” is used effectively for the getting-ready-for-the-party scene. The most well-known tune (the very different cover of “Can’t Help Falling in Love” by Lick the Tins) is used in the closing scene for perfection. Often soundtracks jumble a bunch of unrelated genres for an inconsistent listen but Some Kind of Wonderful holds up well as a complete album.
Bonus: “Brilliant Mind” the Joy Division influenced song by the British band Furniture actually was a hit in the UK reaching number 21.
MG: Is the 60’s song where the film took its title on the soundtrack? That would seem incongruous with the rest of the tunes. I never sat down and watched this whole movie. I wasn’t aware that “Beats So Lonely” was from it – which is a cool tune that I forgot about (just added it to my Amazon Music 80’s playlist).
DJ: I almost mentioned that, it’s absolutely not on the soundtrack or in the film in any way. I could not tell you why he picked that title. Also glad to enhance your playlist.
Reality Bites (1994)
When I think of how the 90’s were portrayed in films, Reality Bites, the 1994 Ben Stiller-directed movie, and Cameron Crowe’s Singles come to my mind first. Both have a great feel for the decade and great music, but since I have already written about Singles (see Grunge Plunge) I chose Reality Bites. This film has slackers and yuppies and young adults trying to figure out their identities, perfect for me at the time. The film was a part dramedy, part romance, and part coming-of-age. Star Winona Ryder is my age so you could say we “grew up together”, at least through films. When this movie hit I could generally relate to the characters – I “knew” these type of people. She plays a recently graduated college valedictorian hanging with three friends (Steve Zahn, Ethan Hawke, and Janeane Garofalo) while filming them documentary style. The soundtrack was a great mix of 90’s alt-rock/contemporary pop and some 80’s new wave. The big radio hit off this album was Lisa Loeb & the Nine Stories, “Stay (I Missed You)”. It’s a great song that got killed by its constant radio play. The best music scene in the film is when the four friends are in a convenience store and they ask the clerk to turn up The Knacks, “My Sharona” which is playing, and they all start dancing around while Hawke’s character is embarrassed. It’s a fun scene and about the only time that I truly enjoy that song. Crowded House, one of my favorite bands, had two songs in the film: the classic “Something so Strong” and at the time a new single called “Locked Out”. The indie bands The Indians and Juliana Hatfield Three also have two really strong entries. Both these bands deserved to be bigger. The other standouts are the older tracks by Squeeze (“Tempted”) and U2 (“All I Want is You”). The soundtrack fits the tone of the movie and similar to Some Kind of Wonderful stands on its own.
Bonus: There was a 10th-anniversary reissue which included bonus tracks: the great “Confusion” by New Order, the disco classic “Disco Inferno by the Trammps, and other tracks by Lisa Loeb, Ethan Hawke and Arrested Development.
MG: I never sat down and watched this from beginning to end, but was aware of it as a 90’s cultural touchstone and familiar with most of the tracks. The Crowded House songs are great, but I can’t say I was thrilled to hear “My Sharona” saturating the airwaves again. Music was always closely tied to any coming-of-age movie made in (or set in) the 80’s and 90’s, but I wonder if music still plays as strong a role today.
Garden State (2004)
Garden State is my favorite movie of the three. I love this film. Zach Braff and his films often elicit disagreements about their pretentiousness but this one resonated with me and the music played a big part. Braff plays Andrew, a waiter/struggling actor returning to New Jersey from LA for his mother’s funeral. This is based partly on Braff’s experiences. Along the way, he meets Sam played by Natalie Portman. This is one of my favorite Natalie Portman performances, it’s an odd and nuanced performance that elicits empathy and joy. I could write a post about this film separately, but this is about soundtracks so I will save that for our post on favorite films about a state. Braff picked out the music himself and for the most part, it’s very indie. Not sure if he helped with music for his TV series Scrubs but since the show had excellent music as well (even had Colin Hay as a guest star), it makes me think he did. The music in this film works and is an incredibly smooth listening experience. It won a Grammy for Best Compilation Soundtrack Album in 2005, which it deserved. Out of my three picks, this one uses the music best of all. There is a scene where Portman’s character tells Braff to listen to a song because it will change his life. The music and the film work so well together that the music helps tell the story and helps to hit the emotional notes. Colin Hay (formerly of Men at Work), The Shins, Zero 7, Remy Zero and Frou Frou are some of the Indie artists appearing on the album. Simon & Garfunkel, in one of my favorite scenes (“Have fun exploring the infinite abyss”), lend it’s non-single “The Loneliest Boy in New York” to the mix.
Bonus: Lionel Richie’s “Three Times a Lady” is sung at the funeral but doesn’t get a spot on the soundtrack – maybe for the 15th-anniversary reissue.
MG: Ugh. This is one of the films we notoriously disagree on. I never got into the story here, maybe it’s a Jersey thing, but I’ll give Braff credit for bringing a complete vision to the screen, including the careful curation of his musical cues.
As much as I love how songs can enhance the storytelling in films, I initially had a hard time thinking of movies to write about. The eighties truly were the high water mark of soundtracks that had original songs intended solely for the film (even if some of the tracks would later sneak onto some artist’s next album). The obvious heavy hitters in the 80’s were the dance film trio of Footloose, Flashdance, and Dirty Dancing, not to mention Purple Rain – arguably the best soundtrack of all time (though the film, outside of the music performances, is pretty thin). But there were many other non-dance/musical films that had killer soundtracks. As the 90’s finished up, it seemed like soundtracks that charted high on the Billboard Top Album charts were going the way of the dinosaur (or sinking like the Titanic). Nowadays, it seems like all we get are the occasional break-out from a kids film, such as Frozen. It’s time for a soundtrack comeback.
Beverly Hills Cop (1984)
I really miss the great action/comedies of the 80’s, and Beverly Hills Cop was one of my favorites. While most people remember the iconic “Axel F” song by Harold Faltermeyer, who did the non-symphonic score for the film, the soundtrack also had a number of hits, including “The Heat Is On” by Glenn Frey, “Neutron Dance” by The Pointer Sisters, and two Patti LaBelle tracks: “New Attitude” and “Stir It Up”. All of these helped propel the soundtrack up the charts for 6 months, starting with its debut in January 1985 (the film was released in December 84) until it reached #1 in June of 1985. This is probably why I remember Beverly Hills Cop as a summer film because all the soundtrack hits played so much that summer. I will concede that the rest of the album has some definite filler (i.e. “Don’t Get Stopped in Beverly Hills” by Shalamar, or “Rock ‘N Roll Me Again” by The System [?]. However, the singles from it were huge, and I can’t think about the film without hearing “Neutron Dance” in the opening sequence where Eddie Murphy’s cop inadvertently destroys a couple of Detroit streets in a gonzo chase sequence. Additionally, each single had a video on newly hot MTV that featured clips from the film – helping to pump up its box office to a $235 million (the highest grossing film of 1984), soundtrack sales and also set the stage for massive VHS rentals/sales when it was released on video later in 1985.
Bonus: The 1987 sequel Beverly Hills Cop 2 and its soundtrack were a significant step-down, but it did feature the debut of the mega-hit “I Want Your Sex” by George Michael. Despite the song’s enduring popularity, it won a Razzie Award that year for Worst Song.
DJ: It’s funny I can’t say I am a big fan of the Pointer Sisters or Patti Labelle but the songs in this film work and “Stir it up” is a great tune. Axl F could be the most recognizable piece of non-vocal music in a comedy of all time. It’s a great movie to boot.
Donnie Darko (2001)
After getting virtually no studio advertising support, Donnie Darko earned just $7.5 million in its theatrical release – nearly guaranteeing banishment to obscurity, until it broke big on home video and became a certified cult hit. While you will probably never see this film on any top soundtrack lists, I enjoyed how the songs were used to enhance the unique mood of this part coming-of-age, part surreal-mystery, part doomsday storyline. The concept of having teenager Donnie ( Jake Gyllenhaal) having dreams/hallucinations of a figure dressed up in a demented rabbit costume, named “Frank”, who may or may not be a form of split-personality, borrows from Fight Club (and maybe even influenced the same idea in Mr. Robot). I can’t really succinctly summarize the rest of the plot, but it was one of the most unique screenplays I can recall in the past few decades. As the film is set in 1988, most of the songs are from that year, although the best-known track from the movie is the version of Tears For Fears’ “Mad World”, sung by Gary Jules with piano/composition by Michael Andrews, who did the film’s score. (This version was made even more popular when it was sung by Adam Lambert on season 8 of American Idol – considered one of the top 10 performances ever on the show). I loved the use of another TFF song, “Head over Heels”, which accompanies a 3-minute montage of 2-3 long tracking shots that introduce us to Donnie’s high school world, in a semi-surreal way. That sequence resonated with me, as that song was huge during my senior year of high school. Other tracks in the film are “Under the Milky Way” by The Church, “Notorious” by Duran Duran, “Love Will Tear Us Apart” by Joy Division and “The Killing Moon” by Echo & The Bunnymen (which in the director’s cut was replaced by INXS’s “Never Tear Us Apart”, though it was used elsewhere in the film ). In the US, only a score-heavy soundtrack was released, but in the UK there was a 2-disc edition which contained all the pop/alternative songs from the movie.
Bonus: In the Halloween Party scene a Pantera song called “Proud To Be Loud” is played, but in the film’s credits the band is listed as “The Dead Green Mummies”.
DJ: Haven’t seen this film, but it’s on my list. The soundtrack is great, “Love Will Tear Us Apart” and “The Killing Moon” are two of my favorite songs of all time. Both are atmospheric songs that paint a great picture, “Love” basically a cold song about a relationship that was recorded before Ian Curtis’s suicide.
The Graduate (1967)
Outside of a musical or dance movie, when you think of the marriage of film and music, it’s hard to think of a better example than The Graduate. Any time you see a clip from this film it is always accompanied by the iconic music of Simon & Garfunkel. At the time it was somewhat groundbreaking for the film’s creators to use existing songs on the soundtrack. During the editing process, they used songs like “The Sound of Silence” as placeholders, but liked them so much they wanted to keep them. They also asked Paul Simon to write 3 new songs for the film, but he had only written one new song by the time editing was completed. Legend has it that Simon spoke with director Mike Nichols and played a few notes of a song about a “Mrs. Roosevelt” – intended for his next album, not the film. Nichols said “It’s now about Mrs. Robinson” and the rest is history. Certainly, “Mrs. Robinson” captures the central storyline in the film that people remember – that of Anne Bancroft as the married Mrs. Robinson, seducing the much younger college graduate Benjamin Braddock, played by Dustin Hoffman. But the film also has thematic undercurrents of disillusionment and social isolation, and the almost ghostly sounds of a song like “Scarborough Fair”, when combined with imagery of a seemingly lost Benjamin, staring into his fish tank or walking alone in a park, create some truly compelling cinematic moments. It’s been quite a while since I’ve sat down and watched this film, and I have a feeling I’d have a new appreciation for it so many years later.
Bonus: Paul Simon ended up writing two additional songs, “A Hazy Shade of Winter” and “Punky’s Dilemma”, that were rejected for the film but ended up on their next album Bookends.
DJ: “Plastics”. I am a big fan of Simon & Garfunkel but not sure I could ever listen to this soundtrack, Mrs. Robinson is not a favorite song of mine and Scarborough Fair is annoying. Honestly this is on my movie list of overrated and quite possibly dated films.
MG: Actually, I’m not really a fan at all of Simon & Garfunkel and I agree that I don’t see myself ever listening to the soundtrack. I might also be convinced that the film is overrated, but you can’t argue that it successfully fused music and film, and used these songs to enhance the storytelling.