From a British mod classic to an American existential family drama, Gigslutz presents 12 of the best movie soundtracks…
1. Quadrophenia (1979)
We owe our gratitude to Pete Townshend for a great many things, but popularising the term ‘rock opera’ isn’t one of them. Bored of the three minute pop song format, the Who guitarist wrote Tommy to escape the confines of the traditional rock album. It’s one of the band’s better records, though the film adaptation that followed is a patchy affair, and appearances from the likes of Jack Nicholson, Elton John and Tina Turner merely demonstrate that you while can’t polish a turd, you can roll it around in glitter.
Fortunately, The Who’s next foray into motion pictures proved far more compelling. Like Tommy, Quadrophenia is adapted from a rock opera, but it dispenses with the musical format for a conventional narrative tale. Future ‘Parklife’ vocalist Phil Daniels stars as Jimmy, a troubled young Mod who Townshend based on the four personalties within his band. Set in 1965, the film paints a vivid picture of teenage rebellion and uses Who songs including ‘The Real Me’, ‘5:15’ and ‘Love, Reign o’er Me’ to soundtrack Jimmy’s euphoric weekend in Brighton and subsequent descent into despair.
Along with the original Townshend compositions, the soundtrack also features Mod favourites such as ‘Louie Louie’ (The Kingsmen), ‘Green Onions’ (Booker T. & the M.G.’s), ‘Zoot Suit’ (The High Numbers) and ‘Be My Baby’ (The Ronettes). The cast features Police frontman turned Tantric sex aficionado Sting as Ace Face (immortalised on the brilliant ‘Bell Boy’) and a young Toyah Wilcox (thankfully, neither features on the soundtrack). The Who appear on screen via a performance of ‘Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere’ on the TV show Ready Steady Go! , which Jimmy watches with his bemused father: “I can sing better than that little ape. You call that singing? Sounds like a drowned dog. That’ll make you deaf, you know.”
2. Blade Runner (1982)
Adapted from the Philip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Blade Runner takes place in a dystopian future version of Los Angeles in the year 2019 and asks questions about the ethics – and potential danger – of advanced science and technology. For the soundtrack, composer Vangelis favoured modern synthesisers over classical instrumentation, contrasting the old with the new to reflect the tension on screen between the past, present and future. Director Ridley Scott described his movie as “a 40 year old film set 40 years in the future” and this is apparent in both the music and the retro-fitted landscape, which is futuresque and gleaming in places but elsewhere decayed and old. Throughout the film, Vangelis toys with our perception of these images: the music shifts between majestic electronic symphonies and down tempo noir-esque elegies, as the glittering high-tech skyline above the city is juxtaposed with the antiquated and obsolete buildings on the surface. The effect renders the space on screen as fragmented and out of joint; there’s a strong sense of disunity, particularly around the replicants and the moral ambiguities and contradictions concerning their existence.
Blade Runner addresses the concerns prevalent in the time it was made (mass consumerism, environmental damage) by displacing them in the future. The Los Angeles of 2019 is littered with echoes of past Western guilt, such as slavery and the colonisation of the Americas. At various points, Vangelis also reaches back into the past: the haunting saxophone during the scene where Deckard and Rachel consummate their relationship sounds out of place, as does the anachronistic ‘One More Kiss, Dear’, a 1940s jazz-influenced piano number featuring vocals by Don Percival. The film’s most powerful moment arrives towards the end, following the climatic scene where Harrison Ford squares off against Rutger Hauer. With Deckard literally clinging on for dear life, the tender synthesised piano of ‘Tears in Rain’ soundtracks Roy Batty’s redemption and spine-tingling final words: “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe…”
3. Purple Rain (1984)
The movie is a sumptuous 80s romp through a semi-biographical story of Prince’s musical youth in Minnesota. Although not a bad movie, it’s pretty throw-away and forgettable. However, the accompanying soundtrack went on to become one of the biggest-selling albums of the decade, and has subsequently appeared on every ‘Best Album’ list since. Each song is a hit. Prince is at the height of his musical powers, fusing pop, rock and funk perfectly to make music as poignantly story-telling as it is enjoyable.
Concept albums do not have to be like The Wall: here’s one you can dance to. Standout tracks are obvious. ‘When Doves Cry’ is both innovative musically beautiful in its imagery. ‘Let’s Go Crazy’ is the ultimate ‘shut up and party’ song. The guitar hero tour de force of ‘Purple Rain’. And let’s not forget ‘Darling Nikki’, the song that scared middle-America so much they invented the Parental Advisory sticker. Put together, all these amazing singles tell a sexually charged story of Prince’s collective passions. This album transcends the soundtrack genre as a work of art in its own right. Is it cheating to include it? Maybe. But my musical life would be far less richer without it.
4. The Breakfast Club (1985)
No film epitomises the 80s quite like The Breakfast Club and no 80s film would have made it to cinema without a brilliant soundtrack. In one of the film’s most iconic moments the slow, pulsing guitar riff of Keith Forsey’s ‘Dream Montage’ soundtracks a scene where the characters attempt to stave off boredom during detention: bad boy John Bender (Judd Neslson) light his a cigarette off his shoe, geeky Brian Ralph Johnson (Anthony Michael Hall) hides his boner with a beanie and basket case Allison Reynolds (Ally Sheedy) creates a piece of art using her dandruff. As you’d expect from an 80s film, synthesisers can be heard throughout the film, which blend seamlessly into the background as the different characters come together.
Of course, no mention of The Breakfast Club would be complete without a nod to the anthemic ‘Don’t You (Forget About Me)’, which perfectly encapsulates the film’s message. After their eventful detention and the realisation that they are more than just “a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess and a criminal”, it’s implied the characters will never interact with one another again, and will succumb to conforming with the social expectations of high school life. For a brief moment at the end of the film, such expectations are forgotten, with John Bender’s victorious fist pump to Simple Mind’s most famous song.
5. Dirty Dancing (1987)
A soundtrack to rival all others in my humble opinion, and having sold 32 million copies worldwide, it seems I am not alone. A bluesey, soulful and downright brilliant combination of tracks that truly make you want to dance, preferably with Patrick Swayze at your side. I’ll have to curb the amount of things I wish to say, otherwise we’ll be here all through the ‘Still of the Night’ (see what I did there?).
A personal favourite from the film is ‘Do You Love Me’ by The Contours, which plays during the scene where Baby discovers what real “dirty dancing” is: girls grinding their way up and down their partner’s leg in ways that can only be described as don’t-under-any-circumstances-watch-this-film-with-your-grandma (and yes, I was unfortunate enough to make that mistake.) However, in contrast to this fun and energised track, there’s Swayze’s own ‘She’s Like The Wind’, which soundtracks the beautiful Johnny Castle’s farewell to Baby. Yes, it’s a cheesy track, and no, there is nothing vocally challenging about it, but the scene brought a tear to my eye as I’m sure it has to many others since 1987. And as for ‘(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life’, well, what really can I say? It’s a classic. The guitar riff is completely unexpected when you first hear it, a small stroke of genius, as is the saxophone solo and the entire film for that matter.
6. Goodfellas (1990)
In Goodfellas, legendary master of the movie soundtrack Martin Scorsese tells the decadent story of gangster Henry Hill through a stupendous soundtrack of Rock & Roll, Doo-Wop and Swing. It’s a musical rollercoaster, opening with the upbeat swing of Tony Bennett’s ‘Rags to Riches’, as lead protagonist Henry Hill discusses his childhood ambition of being a gangster. The bodies start piling up to the piano exit from ‘Layla’, a poignant choice as we watch the gruesome discoveries. As Joe Pesci fires the final shots, the two-fingers up snarl of Sid Vicious’ ‘My Way’ blares over the closing credits, cementing the every man for himself attitude that permeates the film.
Scorsese uses song to punctuate special moments, providing an unforgettable extra punch that moves potentially slow montages along at a mile a minute: the three minute steady cam through the Copacabana gets a girlish excitement from The Crystals’ ‘Then He Kissed Me’; Robert De Niro’s Jimmy Conway becomes achingly cool as ‘Sunshine of Your Love’ oozes from his plotting cigarette; the tickled licks of ‘Gimme Shelter’ add to tense drug deals, while the voice of Dean Martin adds glamour to gangster life. As shades of cool go, this movie has them all, with a range of choices only a true music lover could make.
7. Reservoir Dogs (1992)
To some, Reservoir Dogs is the first and last of Tarantino’s great films. Whether or not you agree with that statement, it’s hard to argue with how aptly placed many of these tracks are. Take the opening sequence number, ‘Little Green Bag’ by the George Baker Selection. The song was originally titled ‘Little Green Back’ (in reference to a US dollar) and appears directly after the much loved scene where Steve Buscemi’s Mr Pink refuses to put in a dollar towards a diner breakfast tip: “I don’t tip because society says I have to.” The song has a rather more obvious parallel with the main thrust of the plot: a larger-than-little green bag is what this troupe of gangster circus animals aspire to gain from a bank job which… well, you know the rest.
Who could forget the sheer energy of Joe Tex’s ‘I Gotcha’, or the pure strangeness of Harry Nilsson’s ‘Coconut’? But it’s another Reservoir Dogs number that seems to have topped the collective cultural memory’s list of cinematic moments you won’t forget: ‘Stuck in the Middle With You’ by the unlikely Scottish folk rock group, Stealer’s Wheel. If you haven’t already recalled that particular track, there’s only one answer: you haven’t seen the film. It was largely on account of the scene in which it featured that Reservoir Dogs was banned for video release: the now infamous torture scene, where Michael Madsen helps himself to one of LAPD’s finest’s ears.
Somewhere beneath the sheer outlandish verbosity of Quentin Tarantino, there lies a filmmaker. Perhaps, more surprisingly, there is also a music promoter. If Tarantino’s major talent is taking washed-up actors, on a downward spiral in their previously illustrious careers, and making them shine like never before, he equally knows a thing or two about forgotten musicians.
8. Romeo + Juliet (1996)
Before I wrote this I had to think: Do I do the modern Romeo and Juliet with that guy from the Miley Cyrus film LOL or do I do the brilliant Romeo + Juliet from 1996 that had the ever so perfect Leonardo Di Caprio in? Forgetting about the plot, because, let’s be honest, we all know what Romeo and Juliet is about, the 1996 movie has one of the best soundtracks I’ve ever heard on film. I remember watching it a couple of years ago, and the first song that stood out for me was ‘You and Me Song’ by The Wannadies. It soon became one of my favourite songs of all time (“You and me always and forever” suits the plot of Romeo + Juliet far more than the time it was used on Coronation Street as Gail Platt was driven into the canal. Ah, memories…).
The soundtrack has some amazing songs, including ‘Lovefool’ by The Cardigans, ‘Talk Show Host’ by Radiohead and ‘Kissing You’ by Des’ree (yes, Des’ree – deal with it). These days the Romeo + Juliet soundtrack may sound a little dated compared to the likes of Submarine or 500 Days of Summer, but along with Trainspotting (released the same year) it stands as a defining soundtrack of the nineties.
9. Trainspotting (1996)
If Reservoir Dogs holds the title for sounds of the 70s, Trainspotting holds the equivalent gong for the 1990s. Without even going into the individual songs, just look at some of the names it features: Blur, Brian Eno, Pulp, Lou Reed, New Order, Iggy Pop, and, of course, the all-important Underworld. If I have to choose one song to sum up the film, it’s (unsurprisingly) ‘Born Slippy’. If you’re thirteen years old and you want to know what club music is – true club music, that is – could you do better than to listen to this track? While it isn’t memorable as a clutzy feel-good number – it’s melancholic and strange. I’m not sure if I like it, Mum, turn it off. But it’s so intriguing! Listen… listen. And then you’re hooked.
The clever reasoning behind Danny Boyle’s 1996 tour-de-force is that we have to follow Renton through it all. Through the thigh-shuddering highs, right down to the deep-sewer lows that he walks (or swims, as the case may be). There’s a line in Pulp’s ‘Mile End’ where you clearly hear Jarvis Cocker laugh at his own joke (about re-frying the same fish that make the lift stink), and there’s a point at which you wonder if Iggy Pop wrote ‘Lust for Life’ purely for an early sequence that sees Ewan McGregor being hit by a car (in spite of the fact that he co-wrote it with Bowie twenty years earlier). Something about the arrangement these tracks capture exactly what Trainspotting is: a horror show with a comic edge. The most terrifying and brilliant stage play that leads those watching through all of the grittiest parts of darkest Edinburgh and into the magnificence of the Highlands without once losing the sense that you’re watching a gaggle of petty thieves smeared in clown makeup, trudging through Mordor.
If you really want to stay on the straight and narrow, don’t listen to this soundtrack. Choose life. Choose Rhianna. Choose washing One Direction out of your ears every morning from here to eternity and wonder where the wrinkles came from. Otherwise, choose this, and see how long it takes before you can’t listen to the damn thing on repeat.
10. The Big Lebowski (1998)
The Coen Brothers decided the best way to theme Jeff Bridges’ self-proclaimed ‘Dude’ (‘his Dudeness, Duder, or El Duderino – if you’re not into that whole brevity thing’) was to illustrate the setting before you illustrate the man. You’re in Southern California. You’re cool, though not in the plastic-fantastic way that LA movie stars are – you’re a man of the earth, of the desert. And that means up-tempo numbers with a cult edge.
There isn’t one moment of this picture that can’t be thought of as farcical, and yet we believe in the Dude. We believe in his mission. If you can watch Jeff Bridges sucking on a blunt with the aid of a pair of tweezers whilst driving his beaten up Ford Torino, with Creedence Clearwater Revival’s ‘Looking Out My Backdoor’ blasting through the stereo, and not laugh, well – you’re a stronger person than I am. If you can look at the suitably creep-y-fied John Tuturro bowling with a Mexican rendition of The Eagles’ much-loved ‘Hotel California’ guiding his strike and not laugh, well, you’re a stronger person that I am.
This is a classic movie in every sense. Every scene is memorable; every song is perfectly placed. John Tuturro’s sex-offender Jesus Quintana bowls to the Gipsy Kings covering ‘Hotel California’ because the Dude “hate[s] the fuckin’ Eagles, man”. When the Dude temporarily loses his mind at Jackie Treehorn’s house party, Kenny Rogers’s ‘Just Dropped In’ guides him on a surreal sojourn through the legs of many beautiful women in a dream sequence that touches on the ludicrous. If you really want to see how good this soundtrack is, listen to it non-stop without watching the film. If you can do that and not believe that you’re the Dude himself, well…
11. Almost Famous (2000)
In the film’s closing scenes, young journalist William Miller asks his idol Russell Hammond what he loves about music. To begin with: everything. Almost Famous is the story of a fan who gets taken on the ride of his life touring with his favourite band. But it’s about so much more than that. It’s about those moments when we fall in love with a band, a song, with music. The soundtrack glitters with songs of adventure, love, heartbreak and youth. The tracks chosen are probably more personal to director Cameron Crowe than you or I (see Dave Grohl on how he’d never heard the emphatic ‘Tiny Dancer’ prior to the movie), but the poignancy remains.
Rock & Roll legends such as Bowie, Zeppelin, The Who and The Allman Brothers, to name but a few, feature on this epic soundtrack, as well as the hilarious use of ‘My Cherie Amour’ to lighten a stomach pumping, and hip-thrusting original track from movie band Stillwater. A personal highlight is Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘America’ at the moment Miller’s sister leaves their “house of lies”. It’s a track I’ve used for my own moments of adventure, which aside from music is the big theme of this movie.
12. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
Some critics will tell you that film soundtracks work best when they act as another character beyond what’s on the screen, but that’s a load of rubbish. The most effective bring otherwise mundane drama to life with an almost imperceptible ease, like Michael Giacchino’s graceful theme for Carl and Ellie over the heartbreaking montage at the start of Up or the menace of Bernard Hermann’s repetitive saxophone motif stalking Travis Bickle on Taxi Driver’s dark New York streets. Wes Anderson understands this better than most of his contemporaries and it shows in his selection of songs for The Royal Tenenbaums, the story of a family of flawed geniuses, each dealing in their own way with the mid-life trauma of their upbringing.
Music is used as a storytelling device in several ways; Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh’s score adds levity and a wry wit to Alec Baldwin’s dry narration and the Ramones’ ‘Judy Is a Punk’ helps convey backstory for the cypher that is Gwyneth Paltrow’s Margot and her wild youth. The most famous scene features Elliott Smith’s ‘Needle in the Hay’ playing as Richie Tenenbaum slashes his wrists. A former tennis prodigy killing himself over his forbidden love for his adopted sister, spurned by her previous marriage to a reggae star could be perceived as darkly humourous, but here the song undercuts the moment with all the requisite gravity and is the emotional turning point in the film. From the brilliant instrumental rendition of ‘Hey Jude’ by The Mutato Muzika Orchestra to Van Morrison’s ‘Everyone’, this soundtrack, like the film, is joyfully unique and a delightful curiosity from start to end.