-Whatever Happened to the Music?

I got to thinking about movie music recently. While I have always been a believer that music in the movies is of crucial importance, it came into focus for me in two very clear, very different ways recently. The first was upon viewing The Dark Knight. The score, by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard, is nothing short of brilliant, and is getting lost in the shuffle of the glitz and the glamour of the blockbuster. In all the discussions I’ve heard and read of this monster critical and commercial hit, NO ONE has raved about the music, when it is the score that propels the mood, the energy, the vibe and the tension of the entire film. Credit should be given where credit is due. There are two stars of The Dark Knight, in my estimation: Heath Ledger and the score. Bravo, bravo, bravo.

The other totally random, but totally relevant, event that made me contemplate music and movies happened while at work. During the day I listen to an alternative ‘80s station (of course)—www.KROQ.com (shout out)— and I heard an ‘80s alt classic, “Eyes of a Stranger” by the Payola$. I know….random. But I love, love, love that song and I hadn’t heard it in a while, so I made a note to go home and buy it on iTunes. But, when I got home, I discovered it’s one of the 10 songs that’s NOT on iTunes. So….now determined to find it, I discovered the only place this awesome song exists is on the Valley Girl soundtrack. Yes, Valley Girl, the classic 1983 flick starring a very young and still hip Nicolas Cage and, as it turns out, featuring one heck of a soundtrack. As I glanced over the songs, I found myself back in the movie, back in the feel and the atmosphere of it and I completely remembered the whole movie just by looking at the track listing. Valley Girl was one of those films that truly captured its time and the music was such a critical element, one couldn’t have existed without the other. It got me to thinking about how important music can be to a film and sometimes vice versa.

Is it just me, or does it feel like soundtracks used to be a much bigger deal than they are now? I remember when movie soundtracks were just as big, if not bigger than any other album. Some of my favorite albums as a kid were movie soundtracks, like Pretty in Pink, Some Kind of Wonderful and Footloose. Even the soundtracks that featured oldies were really great: Stand By Me, The Big Chill and Dirty Dancing. Do they even make soundtracks anymore?

I remember some of the biggest albums of the ‘80s and early ‘90s were soundtracks: Purple Rain, Top Gun, Footloose, The Bodyguard… OK, some we don’t need to remember, but whatever happened to the movie soundtrack? It seems, these days, nobody is writing songs for movies anymore. Instead, already-established pop and rock songs are finding their ways into films or are being re-made just for a movie and are being squeezed in just to be used for marketing purposes. Didn’t the Bee Gees write every song on the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack just for the movie? Now, except for the occasional Bond theme song, it seems nobody is writing songs specifically for film anymore. Songs are being written first and then picked to play in a movie later. Are the days of writing a song for a film gone?

I remember hearing the story of how OMD wrote “If You Leave” specifically for John Hughes and Pretty in Pink. Director-writer Hughes came to them and asked them to write the theme song. He gave them the cut of the film, they went away, spent months writing the song they thought was perfect and came back and played it for Hughes. Hughes hated it, and sent them away to try again. Time was running out, so they came back with “If You Leave” in, like, ten minutes, and it turned out to be not only their biggest hit but a key part of the movie. When was the last time you heard a top ten song on the charts that was written for a film? It used to happen all the time. Sad. (OMD ended up putting the original song they wrote, “Goddess of Love,” on their Pacific Age album.)

Yes, I realize I have digressed. The point I’m trying to make here is that music can make or break a movie. Can you even imagine Saturday Night Fever without THAT soundtrack? So it got me to thinking about the films that I have seen that have been most influenced or enhanced by the music, both the soundtracks and the scores. And I do have to separate between soundtrack and score because even though they may seem to serve the same purpose—to create tone and mood—they truly cannot be compared. They are apples and oranges, in my opinion. I cannot, in good conscience, compare Footloose to The Piano and feel good about myself in the morning. (And I had to leave musicals out, or the soundtrack list would be all musicals, starting with West Side Story and ending with Funny Girl).

So, with that, here are my top five favorite soundtracks and scores. Debate, discussion and disagreement encouraged:

1. The Piano Score by Michael Nyman
2. Star Wars Score by John Williams
3. The Truman Show Score by Burkhard Dallwitz
4. Brokeback Mountain Score by Gustavo Santaolalla
5. Gladiator Score by Lisa Gerrard and Hans Zimmer
Honorable Mention: The Godfather, Bagdad Café, Benny & Joon, Dances With Wolves, The Hours

1. Some Kind of Wonderful
2. Kill Bill
3. Footloose
4. Billy Elliott
5. Amadeus
Honorable Mention: The Jazz Singer, Pretty in Pink, Saturday Night Fever

And it wouldn’t be right if I didn’t mention the worst score of all time, for such a dubious distinction should be noted in film history and remembered by cinema historians and noted for eternity as the biggest audio disaster in the history of film: Eyes Wide Shut, score by Jocelyn Pook. The piano key from hell. Make it stop…..MAKE IT STOP!

Original post: 10/2008