These are good times for film soundtracks. Reputable dance acts are now willing to work with a director and come up with music that complements and adds to the visuals, rather than simply licensing a couple of songs to play over the end credits. Instead of a duff compilation or an orchestral suite, soundtrack albums are becoming sharp experimental works with a proper narrative flow.
The big beat boys of the nineties make music that has always had a cinematic edge, and the addition of an orchestral edge to the bounce really opens out the sound. Basement Jaxx’s work on Attack The Block adds theremin to the mix, accentuating the sci-fi. The Chemical Brothers created a jagged, jittery soundscape for Hanna that seems to have influenced Joe Wright’s cutting style.
Then of course, there’s the epic score to Tron: Legacy, which has frankly raised the bar for electronic soundtrack work. The scale and sweep of Daft Punk’s work made the album one of my favourites of last year.
A decent soundtrack album can be a sheer joy, mixing great songs with massive instrumentals and moments of mood and drama. Some don’t work at album length. I’m thinking specifically of John Carpenter’s Assault On Precinct 13, which is simply the same cues played over and over again at different track lengths. Or, sadly, Clint Mansell’s music to Moon, which I love to bits, but is stretched uncomfortably thinly over 75 minutes. The final ten-minute piece Welcome To Lunar Industries (Three Years) gives you everything you need. Tellingly, it’s the one track not available on Spotify.
There are certain soundtrack albums that have managed to find an identity above and beyond their origins, becoming works of art in their own right. Here are my top five. I’m sure there are more. I’m sure you’ll let me know.
Tangerine Dream: Sorcerer
The German electronic pioneers were invited to score William Friedkin’s Wages Of Fear remake, Sorcerer, and in doing so forged a new career for themselves. They would go on to provide music for over sixty Hollywood movies, including Legend and Near Dark. Sorcerer is their first and best. Tense, sweaty and throbbing, and perfect driving music – as long as you’re not toting a bootful of nitroglycerine.
One of the biggest movies of 1989 needed one of the biggest stars to soundtrack it. Prince has never been one for subtlety and his contribution to Tim Burton’s classic is suitably bold, brash and garish. Dayglo paint flung around a museum. The movie was big enough to warrant two soundtrack albums, Prince’s and Danny Elfman’s orchestral score. They are equally entertaining, and equally essential, although if you put a gun with an eight-foot barrel to my head and forced me to choose an album, I’d go for the Prince, purely for the way he integrates the Joker myth with his own, barking out the rules of the game in Partyman like a vodun invocation. Ritual colourways as a calling sign. Black and white. Red and green.
Aimee Mann: Magnolia
Paul Thomas Anderson is on record that the core of the Magnolia script is a single line in Aimee Mann’s track Deathly:
“Now that I’ve found you, would you object to never seeing each other again?”
It’s a line that’s repeated in the movie, and links into the themes of alienation and self-loathing that run through the film, and the idea that these can somehow render you incapable of love. Although Mann’s contributions to the soundtrack include several songs from her 1999 album Batchelor No. 1, they’re sequenced together with new material in a way that tells the story of the film in a far more economical way than Anderson managed with his sprawling three-hour script. Tied in with a couple of Supertramp tracks and instrumentals from Jon Brion and you have a lovely piece of chamber pop with some brutal lyrical content. A rose full of thorns.
Queen: Flash Gordon
The first album I ever bought, I’m proud to say. A major change-up for a band that only three years earlier had made the point of saying “This album was made without the use of synthesisers” on the sleevenotes of A Day At The Races. I think the soundtrack to Flash Gordon has been influenced, however tangentially, by Tangerine Dream’s film work. There’s a motorik throb pulsing through the album, interspersed with alien drones and ethereal soundscapes. It’s a radical departure for a band that were never afraid of experimentation. It was also a massive hit for them, and hangs together as both a dialogue with, a precis of and commentary on Mike Hodge’s camp classic.
Altogether now: “GORDON’S ALIVE?!?!?”
The Bee Gees: Saturday Night Fever
The soundtrack that spawned a movement. An album stuffed full of dancefloor classics and plenty of tracks that will get everyone at a wedding up for a jig about. Disco had many births and was taught by many teachers, but Saturday Night Fever was the point where it put on it’s tightest pants and got itself out on the street. So much of modern dance music, and hence modern pop has this album and the songs within it as a cribsheet. And this from a band who had already reinvented themselves twice over. It’s easy to parody the hair and the voices (and gods know, everyone did), but the songs and the delivery are still masterpieces of the three-minute thrill.
Frankly, if you don’t get the Bee Gees, you don’t get pop music, and your life is a little sadder for that.
(There’s nothing I could find that was embeddable to illustrate, so instead let me offer a link to the Art Of The Title Sequence, who have a lovely HD convert of the titles. Sound and music in perfect harmony. Look at that strut.)
Those are my five. What have I missed?