The Lost Art of the Soundtrack: Examining a Few Wonderful, Largely Overlooked Motion Picture Soundtracks
Would a great movie still be a great movie without a great soundtrack? Some might argue that music in films is somewhat ephemeral in many cases, especially considering the recent trend towards ‘home movie’ styled cinema. But there are many of us who feel the motion picture soundtrack is a lost art form.
Sure there are classic examples that still herald praise, such as the classical score to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Prince’s soundtrack album to his own Purple Rain, but there are hundreds more that appear to have slipped through the cracks.
Here are 4 great very different films that have overlooked soundtrack albums that will stand amongst some of the very best records in your collection.
Harold & Maude
Hal Ashby’s 1971 cult classic comedy is a film that will ring true with anyone who has ever felt disillusioned with where their lives are ‘supposed’ to be heading and is fondly remembered as one of the first counter-culture romantic comedies. A huge part of the film’s charm is the gorgeous soundtrack by Cat Stevens, which perfectly captures the reflective mood of the film. Though the idea of a romantic comedy in which a suicidal, wealthy young man in his early twenties falls for a quirky old woman might sound more than a little odd (and ever-so-slightly sinister), there are few who have failed to be won over by its warm heart.
The obvious highlight of the piece is the song ‘If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out’, which was written specifically for the film. Though it has now become a staple of Stevens’ catalogue, at the time it had a particular resonance with the themes of the film that has only increased with the passing years. The original soundtrack for the film was re-released in 2007 and is a perfect companion piece to one of the most heartfelt films of the 1970’s. Played today through a high quality modern hi-fi system or luxury home cinema system, the results will send shivers up your spine, especially if you’re already familiar with the tragic, but hopeful tale of the title characters.
Where The Wild Things Are
Though this delightful film was sadly overlooked on its initial release (perhaps largely due to the fact it might have proven a little frightening for younger children), it’s slowly developing something of a cult following amongst indie music fans thanks to its wonderful soundtrack and unique visuals. In fact, at a time when the vast majority of movie soundtracks seem to have been compiled by scanning the charts and hitting the iTunes ‘Genius’ button, it’s incredibly refreshing to see a modern film try to do something truly original with its music.
Director Spike Jonze hired his ex-girlfriend and Yeah Yeah Yeah’s front woman Karen O to score the film and she brings a cast of indie peers to the table, including her band-mates, as well as members of Deerhunter, Liars and The Dead Weather. To all intents and purposes, it’s an indie-rock supergroup and the music they create is at once tribal, childlike and subtly dark. ‘Worries Shoes’ especially is a truly beautiful song, which (in my humble opinion) should have been earmarked for an oscar. Of course, this was an honour Miss O was to receive for Jonze’s next film, ‘Her’, but this is the Spike Jonze soundtrack all audiophiles will want blasting through their hi-fi speakers or headphones.
A ridiculous, but endlessly enjoyable camp classic, Flash Gordon was a commercial bomb when it was first released back in 1980. The great VHS boom of the mid to late 80’s, however, saw more and more people discovering the film at home and in turn, discovering Queen’s completely bonkers soundtrack. The film itself combined both Queen’s synth-heavy score and Howard Blake’s full orchestral score, but it’s the Queen cuts that have stood the test of time.
The recent trend for re-releasing classics on Blu-ray has seen some lazy conversions which serve only to boost the resolution without improving the basic quality of the film. The restoration artists have done a great job of bringing Flash Gordon into the 21st century, however, with the rich, vividly colourful painted skylines and daft costumes really popping in 1080p high definition on the latest release.
The sound matches this sheer vibrant clarity and while the over zealous original soundtrack might not be the everyone’s tastes it fits the uber-camp style of the film perfectly. In fact the soundtrack is just another of the factors which makes the film so unintentionally hilarious, the closing assault on Ming’s palace is drawn out indescribably with the endless throbbing piano chords only compounding the sense of ridiculousness which infects every scene of the film.
Lost in Translation
Much as with Sofia Coppola’s other big ‘mood’ film, The Virgin Suicides, which relied heavily on Air’s scrumptious soundtrack, Lost in Translation would not be half the film it is without the washed-out, hazy distortion of My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields. Alongside Shields’ original compositions for the film, there are also similarly atmospheric cuts from the likes of The Jesus and Mary Chain, Death in Vegas and Air filling out a record that sounds just as wonderful through towering, floorstanding hi-fi speakers at home or on tinny car speakers as you hurtle through a sleepless, neon city.