A good soundtrack can make or break a film. If you don’t believe me, try watching Jaws without the music. A good soundtrack is as integral to a film as a good cast, a good crew or a good script. Without a soundtrack to keep the audience engaged, the film is incomplete. And a lacklustre soundtrack is almost as bad as no soundtrack at all because it can take you right out of the movie.
I’ve chosen two films today, one for each type of soundtrack. First there’s the instrumental score, which is anything from a full orchestral accompaniment to the electronic soundscapes of Tron Legacy’s soundtrack, to the incessant jazz drum solos in Birdman. It’s the traditional soundtrack, the one that gets your heart pumping for the car chases and gets the tears welling up for the dramatic death scene.
There are any number of amazing composers who’ve brought life to classic films over the decades. What would Psycho be without Bernard Hermann’s screeching strings? Jerry Goldsmith’s contribution to genre cinema is staggering, and of course there’s the legendary John Williams. These people are just as important to the filmmaking process as directors, though they’re surrounded by less glamour.
And when it comes to Westerns, there’s none greater than Ennio Morricone
The Good, The Bad and The Ugly is a brilliant film with an amazing soundtrack. It’s as wide an expansive as its desert setting, as iconic as the star’s performance. The main theme has cropped up in parodies everywhere, and you only have to cry ‘aaaAAAaaa!’ in a crowded room to get a ‘wa wa wa’ response. When I’m out and about in my hat, at least once a month there’s someone who cries ‘aaaAAAaaa!’ at me. Because originality is for suckers.
Ecstasy of Gold, the track featured in the scene above, is one of my favourite pieces of music of all time. It’s hauntingly beautiful and builds to a great climax as Tuco runs around the graveyeard searching for… well, watch the movie. It’s also the track that opens every Metallica concert, so it’s got great connotations of rocking out.
Ennio Morricone and Sergio Leone were a perfect fit for each other. Those movies would certainly still be good with different soundtracks, but they wouldn’t be as memorable. There’s something bittersweet melancholy in each of the scores, even the rollicking Fistful of Dollars intro. But for my money, this film’s soundtrack is the best of the Spaghetti Westerns for consistency in quality. It never lets you down.
That’s my choice for the first type of soundtrack. For the other…
The other type of soundtrack is of course the jukebox soundtrack. Feature a bunch of songs in your film, throw them together on CD, instant sales as people will buy the albums to relive their favourite moments from the films. This sort of soundtrack is tricky to get right, as it can be a delicate balancing act with regard to which songs you choose. Quentin Tarantino is the undisputed master of this type of soundtrack, packing his films with often-forgotten gems that get a whole new lease on life in pop culture thanks to their inclusion. See also the Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack which I talked about last week sometime.
Empire Records has one such soundtrack, and it’s great – nearly every track is a singalong treat, and it’s got a great mid-90s vibe. Pop music back then was coming out of a lite hiphop & eurodance phase and was about to hit the bubblegum boyband boom, so it was in a pretty interesting awkward-inbetweener stage. The best part of the soundtrack was that it really added to the film, making retail look more fun than it may be (disclaimer: I have never worked in retail and so cannot comment on how fun it may or may not be). Ok, the relatively laidback manager and funloving staff did a lot to give that impression, but the soundtrack helped massively.
Are either of these two the best soundtracks of all time? No, absolutely not, of course not. That’s not the point of these blog posts. They’re just two films I love, two soundtracks I love, and if you’ve not seen the films then maybe if you give them a try you’ll love them too.