What makes a good soundtrack?
I recently re-watched the 1998 Wes Anderson “Rushmore,” about a precocious prep school student who falls in love with a teacher, and finds himself competing with a local business mogul (Bill Murray, in one of his best performances) for her heart. The movie is pretty terrific, but so is the soundtrack, which is comprised primarily of British pop and rock songs: “Making Time” by the Creation, “Nothin’ in the World Can Stop Me Worryin’ ’bout That Girl” by the Kinks, “A Quick One While He’s Away” by The Who and, my personal favorite, “Ooh La La” by the Faces.
Listening to the “Rushmore” soundtrack got me thinking about soundtracks in general. Specifically, what makes a good soundtrack? Well, the songs, obviously. But what else? Does a good soundtrack conjure up good memories? Does it make you think of your favorite scenes from the film? In an attempt to answer these questions, I glanced at my CD rack. Most of the soundtracks I own are from movies I really like, but at least one — the “Superfly” soundtrack, by Curtis Mayfield — is from a movie I’ve never seen. My general feeling is that soundtracks are more meaningful when you’re a fan of the film, but that really awesome music can transcend unfamiliarity with the source material.
Anyway, here are my favorite soundtracks, in no particular order:
“Say Anything” — This soundtrack has a handful of duds (“Keeping the Dream Alive” by Freiheit, to name one), but also boasts great, diverse music, including my favorite song of all time, “Within Your Reach” by the Replacements. The soundtrack and movie are both famous for turning Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” into The Song All Girls Love, but Fishbone’s “Skankin’ to the Beat” and the Red Hot Chili Pepper’s “Taste the Pain” are just as good.
“Magnolia” — This soundtrack to the 1999 Paul Thomas Anderson film features original music by Aimee Mann (as well as her lovely, intense cover of Harry Nilsson’s “One”), as well as some great pop/rock tunes, such as “The Logical Song” by Supertramp and “Dreams” by Gabrielle. But it’s Mann’s contributions that make this worth buying, with “Save Me” and “Momentum” ranking among her best work.
“Boogie Nights” — Another Paul Thomas Anderson film! Anderson has a knack for soundtracks, and “Boogie Nights” features disco, rock and soul, with “Brand New Key” by Melanie, “Best of My Love” by the Emotions, “Spill the Wine” by Eric Burdon and War and “Sister Christian” by Night Ranger sounding particularly good. My friend Hanna and I used to have a “Brand New Key” obsession, and we played the song over and over again. Much like the movie, the soundtrack feels like a big party ... until it doesn’t.
“Purple Rain” — Well, Prince is a genius, so it’s no surprise that his movie soundtrack is completely brilliant, spawning hit songs such as “When Doves Cry,” “I Would Die 4 U” and “Let’s Go Crazy.”
“The Full Monty” — I’m not really sure this soundtrack merits inclusion on a best soundtrack ever list, but I love it too much to leave it off. I saw “The Full Monty” three times in the theater, mainly because we thought it was hilarious, and because my roommate Melissa had just returned from a semester in Sheffield, England, where the film is set. There’s some great stuff on this soundtrack, such as Tom Jones’ cover of Randy Newman’s “You Can Leave Your Hat On” and Hot Chocolate’s “You Sexy Thing,” but the instrumental theme music is also quite good. My friend Dave used to play the theme music while he walked around campus, and pretend he was a character in the film.
“O Brother Where Art Thou” — A great mix of country and bluegrass, this soundtrack completely evokes the spirit of one of the Coen Brothers’ best films. My favorite track: “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow,” as performed by the Soggy Bottom Boys and Dan Tyminski.
“Requiem for a Dream” — This disc has suddenly become unplayable and I’m really angry about it. All of the music on this soundtrack was composed by Clint Mansell (of the band Pop Will Eat Itself) and performed by the string quartet the Kronos Quartet. This partnership created a haunting mix of classical and electronic music that totally fits the downbeat, spiralling-out-of-control druggy vibe of the film.
“Trainspotting” — Another soundtrack for a film about drugs! But this film makes being on drugs look somewhat exhilarating, which is why you get exhilarating songs such as “Lust for Life” by Iggy Pop, “Temptation” by New Order and “Born Slippy” by Underworld. “Trainspotting” also shows the downside of heroin addiction, so there are some sleepier tracks, such as Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day,” but for the most part this is an exciting album, with a number of songs that can get a whole room dancing.
“Singles” — This is the quintessential soundtrack for people who are exactly my age. The movie itself (like “Say Anything,” a Cameron Crowe production) is nothing special, but the music is an interesting mix of grunge bands such as Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains and Mudhoney, and more straightfoward rock bands such as Mother Love Bone, the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Smashing Pumpkins. Also, Paul Westerberg is on it!
“Pulp Fiction” and “Reservoir Dogs” — Quentin Tarantino also has a knack for soundtracks, and these albums pair well together. Highlights include Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man,” Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together,” “Little Green Bag” by the George Baker Selection and “Hooked on a Feeling” by Blue Swede.
I also, as mentioned before, really like “Rushmore” and “Superfly.”
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