The Power of the Soundtrack

Jack Knowles explores the importance in film of a good accompanying soundtrack. In light of Kendrick Lamar being the curator for the latest Marvel film soundtrack: Black Panther, it is time to reflect on the best film soundtracks over the past decades and the power they hold.It is crucial to note the differences between a film’s soundtrack and its score. A film score is instrumentals composed to accompany the film and enhance the story. Whereas soundtracks are normally licensed songs occasionally blended in with originally composed songs for the film. Now more than ever, the lines between score and soundtrack are blurred, resulting in a lot of crossover.In recent years, soundtracks like that of La La land and Guardians of the Galaxy have become big hits after the film. Most recently, The Greatest Showman soundtrack has been a huge success, with over 7 million monthly listeners on Spotify.
A great soundtrack doesn’t just feed into pop culture, it is also a powerful device to elevate the film.
A great soundtrack doesn’t just feed into pop culture, it is also a powerful device to elevate the film. The right song in a scene can become as essential as the visuals. When the two become intertwined and connected they can create memorable movie moments.Think of the bathroom scene in Royal Tenenbaums, it wouldn’t be as deeply potent without Elliott Smith's ‘Needle in the Hay,’ or, the ending of Fight Club with the Pixies’ ‘Where is My Mind?’ which evokes the sheer madness of the whole film. Baby Driver relies heavily on a big soundtrack to set the pace of the film and its action sequences.The soundtrack of Guardians of The Galaxy sets the whole mood and it is impossible to imagine the film without it. The same could be said for Suicide Squad, its soundtrack was one of the film’s only redeeming qualities and the original music was a big factor in its commercial success.Some of the best-selling soundtracks are those from The Bodyguard, Saturday Night Fever, and Purple Rain. These each feature heavyweight artists and the soundtracks could stand alone without their respective films. However, the films add an extra element to the music. It becomes a new experience. The films give the music more life and it has proven to lead to longevity in cultural importance in these instances.Certain films go beyond this, they incorporate music into the story. Singin’ in the Rain would not be singing in the rain without Gene Kelly actually singing in the rain. You don’t just hear the music but you recapture the scene when you listen to it. Grease also does this well. When you hear ‘You're The One That I Want,’ you are transported back to the scene. This shows the power of a good soundtrack and its symbiotic relationship with the film.Over the years certain directors have formed a style of soundtrack that they continue to use. Wes Anderson in his early films would normally feature a Rolling Stones song and contain music from the 1960s. Now he’s moved to the domain of original scores. For The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, he has (in very Wes Anderson style) Seu Jorge cover David Bowie songs in Portuguese. Stanley Kubrick would often use classical music to stunning effect. Kubrick didn’t even listen to much music, only to find music for his films.Quentin Tarantino’s first three films Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and Jackie Brown each had fantastic soundtracks. Tarantino has created some incredible music-infused scenes in cinema. There’s little more iconic than in Reservoir Dogs when the members of the heist are walking to George Baker’s ‘Little Green Bag.’
Artists have been composing original songs for films for a long time, just look back to 1959 when legendary jazz musician Duke Ellington composed the music for Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder. Also, who could forget some of Will Smith’s biggest hits, ‘Men in Black’ and ‘Wild Wild West.’ Funnily, the Wild Wild West soundtrack was a lot more popular than the film itself.Composing original songs for film is set to continue as seen this year with Sufjan Stevens composing two originals for the critically acclaimed Call Me by Your Name. His song ‘Mystery of Love’ is nominated for an Academy Award.With a juggernaut in music like Kendrick Lamar being the curator of the music for Black Panther, the question is will we see more of this? The answer is probably not. Musicians have been making soundtracks and scores for years. The difference with Lamar is that he is the curator for the album. This means he reached out to other artists to create new tracks for the film. When the biggest name in hip-hop today reaches out with an opportunity to be on his soundtrack, you accept gratefully. Lamar does appear in some capacity on most of the songs too.
With a juggernaut in music like Kendrick Lamar being the curator of the music for Black Panther, the question is will we see more of this?
In films, we don’t remember the entire film scene for scene. We remember moments. Some of the best soundtracks create the moments that stay with us forever.