-- Michael Fraiman
Before we talk about soundtracks, like with most media, we must distinguish the art from the crap. There’s the crap of soundtracks--horror films’ staccato violins, orchestras playing the same song for every epic and romance, and “Moonlight Sonata” for any depressing scene. I accept that soundtracks, in this light, can seem trite, even detrimental to one’s moviegoing experience.
But then you’ve got films like The Royal Tenenbaums and directors like Wes Anderson who choose just the right song for each scene--imagine “Go, Mordechai!” to any song other than “Hey Jude.” You’ve got Garden State, introducing The Shins to the world with the exclamation that “New Slang” will change your life. If nothing else, it changed that film--the innocence of the track complemented Portman’s character wonderfully, and the soundtrack went on to win awards because of the intelligence behind the choice. Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction was made so much more sultry and retro because of its groovy soundtrack. It’s hard to imagine the film without “Misirlou” opening it up.
There are dozens of these examples. Wise directors who don’t just throw metal into action scenes deserve credit for how the soundtrack complements the film’s messages--though, granted, 300 was made a hell of a lot more fun because of the intense metal.
Most prominently, Ghost World’s soundtrack consists almost entirely of 1920s and ‘30s blues--modest yet mournful songs about lost love and fulfillment that can’t be found. The characters in Ghost World epitomize these sentiments, and more than that, they love this music for what it means. It speaks to the characters the same way that the film tries to reach the audience.
That, my friends, is what a soundtrack exists for. It brings meaning inseparable from the film--an aural parallel in theme.
-- J.P. Gorman
Movie soundtracks date to silent pictures. Before dialogue and natural sound, music cued viewers in to the desired mood of a piece. Even after “talkies” hit the scene, picking the right music remained an integral part of the moviemaking process. A soaring melody as two lovers kiss or the thumping of a spy movie rocker over screeching tires goes a long way toward instilling films with whatever it is people refer to when they talk about “movie magic.”
The synergistically released albums of those soundtracks, however, very rarely and almost never matter in any degree. Soundtrack albums amount to a collection of whatever songs the studio could obtain the rights to resell; invariably, most of the cool songs in a movie’s defining scenes don’t fall into that category, and after buying a soundtrack you are left holding a glorified clay pigeon awaiting your purchase of a shotgun to fulfill its destiny.
Of course, as with everything else, there are exceptions. The soundtrack to Pulp Fiction is as iconic as the film involved, a further extension of Tarantino’s unique artistic vision. The album for Braveheart transports listeners to the foggy hills of Scotland. The makers of Boogie Nights and Grosse Pointe Blank were able to release multiple soundtrack albums after so perfectly nailing the music of those films.
But think about this: By all measures that corporations care about (units sold, radio airplay, overall cultural ubiquity), the most successful soundtrack of all time is probably Titanic, reason being the film’s success combined with that of Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On.” And let’s not forget The Big Chill. Both debase the form in its entirety.
For the most part, soundtracks are just another corporate tie-in hoping to cash in on whatever buzz the film involved generates. Nothing more, nothing less.