Back in the days before VCRs and sell-through VHS/DVD titles, a soundtrack was your only tactile souvenir of any entertainment experience. Certainly, you had your memories, and the emotions created or considered via the film, television show, or musical in question, but the only real way to relive the moment — at least in your mind — was to trot on down to your local record store and pick up the official companion LP. A look back at the history of the Billboard charts confirms this — all through the ’50s and ’60s, soundtracks did incredibly well with audiences, with Great White Way triumphs like West Side Story and My Fair Lady achieving massive mainstream popularity. By the ’70s, it was John Williams and his work on Jaws, and more specifically, Star Wars, that created a commercial frenzy.
But as the years wore on, the basic instrumental score was replaced by a more teen-friendly, pop song oriented approach. Tapping directly into this growing demographic, compilations for such films as Top Gun, Footloose, and The Breakfast Club became cultural, as well as financial, milestones. Unfortunately, home video more or less destroyed all that. The rationale, of course, is simple: why own just the music from a movie, when you can own the film itself. Certainly, there were flaws in this logic. Sometimes, a song featured prominently on a tie-in album barely made an appearance in the film and most music fans weren’t about to fast-forward a beloved videotape just to re-experience a 30-second clip of a favored track. While the VCR and the DVD player were not the sole technological elements that conspired against the soundtrack, it was the marketplace that measured, and then modified, their importance.
In fact, unless you’re talking about the original cast album from a current Broadway show (or television production), the release of an accompanying CD is usually no cause for concern. Even blockbusters like The Matrix and theatrical successes like Wicked barely register a blip on the common cultural consciousness. Take Disney’s latest attempt at mainstream musical success. Following close on the heels of Beauty and the Beast and the inventive, if overhyped, The Lion King, the House of Mouse asked former Genesis frontman Phil Collins to expand his work on their 1999 animated adventure Tarzan, turning it into a full-scale theatrical extravaganza. Writing a series of new songs, while modifying others that appeared as part of the original score, Collins concocted his typical trite and twee compositions. He then made sure to add the prerequisite jungle rhythms and occasional tribal chanting to modify the MOR mix.
The result is an original cast recording that is solely saved by the actors, not the man behind the music. All throughout this similar sounding sequence of songs are an amazing array of vocal performances, examples of how trained professionals within an equally serious setting can draw emotion and meaning out of even the most mundane tune. The proof is in the comparison. When John Strickland (as the legendary ape man) sings a poignant ballad about his search for identity (“Everything that I Am”), there is a power and resonance in Collins’ regretful lyric. But when the artist himself reprises the tune as a “bonus track” on the LP, it sounds wheezy and bored — the characteristic adult contemporary drivel. In fact, everything about Tarzan screams of homogenization and blandness. If it weren’t for the actors behind the voices, these plain pop anti-show tunes would barely register at all.
Tarzan symbolizes one of the many reasons why the soundtrack, as an experience keepsake, is floundering. The Broadway musical score has lost a lot of its luster since the days when A Chorus Line, Cats, or Rent made a dent in the charts. While the cultural significance of such a souvenir has a lot to do with the availability of multimedia options since the early ’90s, there is also an elitist view of the stage show that tends to drive this downward trend. Indeed, the musical art form is viewed as something haughty and non-populist, pushed by the wealthy patrons of New York’s theater district. The connection to the common man is lost amidst the glitz and gaudiness of the overall environment. Still, the soundtrack of said shows remains a vital link in its life. It provides an obvious immortality to a very transitory entertainment ideal.
The Cineplex of the Mind
In some ways, this is the thinking behind the cinematic soundtrack. While the preservation of film has come a long way in the century since the start of commercial moviemaking, the music behind a production is still seen as a lasting memento of the overall production. That is why with most soundtrack albums, the intent is simple — provide the musical cues employed by the production, preserve the performances, and consider your contractual obligation to the composer over. Maybe even give the man (or woman) a chance to write some insightful liner notes. Use all your marketing savvy to link the CD to the movie, add in a few bonus features (extra tracks, remixes, DVD content), and pray that the public shows some interest.
This is definitely the approach to many of the current collections in the marketplace, and one followed closely by John Ottman’s slight and superficial score for the Summer 2006 disappointment Superman Returns. Included amongst the cloying, copycat compositions (more on this in a moment) are computer-accessible trailers, and a mild making-of featurette. Hoping that by taking a “digital” approach to the presentation, much like their aluminum disc brethren, they can amplify the attention on the title, Warner Brothers and Rhino want you to believe you are getting more bang for your instrumental buck. Unfortunately, what you end up with is one of the oddest movie soundtracks in memory, festooned with similarly unimpressive facets.
Ottman makes it very clear in his comprehensive essay that he feels an almost nerd-like loyalty to the original 1978 version of the Man of Steel’s story. He even carried this concept over into his work on the music for the movie. Instead of coming up with his own themes, styling the sonic signatures to mesh with a post-millennial approach to the character, both he and filmmaker Bryan Singer decided to rip off almost everything that director Richard Donner and composer John Williams created nearly three decades before. In fact, there are so many musical “shout outs” to the previous work by the legendary blockbuster composer that you keep looking for his co-credit on the tracks. Even more disconcerting, Ottman employs a wild, unruly style when forced to fend for himself. During the “Main Titles”, we shift from the obvious Williams riffs to an odd, almost spaghetti western feel. Eventually what we learn is that Ottman intends to reference (or “pay homage,” if you like) to many of the silver screen’s more determined music masters. There are hints of Bernard Herrmann, Ennio Morricone, Phillip Glass, and even Danny Elfman in his compositional crazy quilt. While there is some inherent beauty to much of what Ottman attempts (“How Could You Leave Us?” and “You’re Not One of Them” are delicate and nicely drawn) the constant referencing of others’ work makes for an ultimately unsatisfying experience.
It’s the same with another summer 2006 soundtrack — except this time, the composer appears to be plagiarizing himself. Anyone familiar with Hans Zimmer’s work knows that he tends to borrow liberally from his past canon when he looks to his next project. In fact, most musicians tend to look backward rather than forward when faced with the daunting task of underscoring a film. It’s what makes their sound distinct and their style so very much their own. But Zimmer just can’t stop being Zimmer. Like his work on other films, his efforts for the Pirates of the Caribbean sequel Dead Man’s Chest, are all long sustained ominous notes, distinct orchestral phrasing and staccato string parts. Mixing in hints of sounds both Gothic and Gaelic, the score never really explores the considered clichés of the swashbuckling adventure. Instead, Zimmer piles on the bombast and considers his contribution just part of the movie’s massive scope.
Unfortunately, it’s all rather generic. Without the titles, we’d never know that “The Kraken” was written around a massive sea creature, or that “Dinner is Served” is set inside one of the film’s finer action sequences (Captain Jack Sparrow’s escape from a cannibalistic tribe). The nonspecific approach to the music — never imaginative or even indicative of the environment in which it is set — turns the entire soundtrack into a long, laborious listen. You keep waiting for something fun and up-tempo (it eventually arrives with the Riverdance outtake “Two Hornpipes (Tortuga)”), anything to break up Zimmer’s seasick soundscape. With the pointless inclusion of a ridiculous remix, the problem with this version of Pirates of the Caribbean is clear. Without the Disney attraction theme song to bolster the score, and the obvious artistic decision to avoid any and all shanties, we are left with Zimmer’s zombified mood music. Like Superman before, it just doesn’t work without the visuals to support it.
As a matter of fact, that’s the biggest problem with most movie music. Unlike a Broadway show, where narrative and characterization can be contained within the song, or something like The Chemical Method’s Drive: Nike + Original Run — a brilliant stand-alone electronic companion piece created as kind of a “virtual training partner” for runners — most film soundtracks are lost without their images. Luckily, this is not the case with Graham Reynolds amazing work on Richard Linklater’s sci-fi “cartoon” A Scanner Darkly. In a clear instance of subject matter (full-force future shock) dictating thematic approach, Reynolds relies on some tried and true tricks, as well as a few up to date inventions, to create a kind of mechanical mindfuck. He throws the entire subgenre of techno into the mix, combining ambient, house, trip-hop, and even some space age bachelor pad riffs to keep the mood off-kilter and fresh. There is even a Theremin (or the sampled equivalent of one) and some bows to the dissonant drive of industrial to further confuse them.
Granted, Reynolds has his obvious influences as well. A clear emulator of Angelo Badalamenti and his work with David Lynch, A Scanner Darkly can occasionally feel like the byproduct of a 24-hour Twin Peaks jag. There is also a reliance on the archetypal speculative fiction formulas (extraterrestrial blips and beeps, interstellar synth effects) that create an almost campy or kitsch effect. Still, Reynolds provides proof that, in rare occasions, a soundtrack can work well — or even better — than the film it is featured in. It is easy to see tracks like the country-flecked “Strawberry Pie” taking on a life of their own. In fact, this sort of soundtrack creates an excellent sense of cinematic synchronicity. Not only does it exist as a separate memento of the film going experience, but it is so engaging that it makes you want to see the movie it’s connected to, if you haven’t already.
The same can be said for David Julyan’s endeavor for the indie horror film The Descent. Again, there is a main reference point to this composer’s approach. Aside from the moments of terror where a cacophony of atonal horns is supposed to signify the horrific, Julyan looks to the quite capable Carter Burwell to inspire and shape his symphonics. Famous for his work with the Coen Brothers, Burwell builds layers of natural instrumentation, letting the tones merge and meld into an unsettling stormfront of emotional underpinning. It’s the same with Julyan’s more synthetic sonics. Aside from the obvious scare moments, which are cheap and cheesy in their brass brashness, the mood music he creates for the film really gets under your skin. You sense its atmosphere; its claustrophobic impression, and ever increasing menace. In fact, if you take away all the shrill shockwaves, you would easily have a kind of new age masterwork. By channeling instead of copying the Miller’s Crossing muse, Julyan develops his own unique identity. It makes The Descent‘s musical companion piece that much more autonomous of its source.
With that being said, some similarly minded soundtracks just don’t know when to quit. They aren’t satisfied with providing a lush, evocative score that exists almost completely on its own. No, they have to go and find a way to mess it up, to draw the magic back and infuse some marketing. Lady in the Water suffers significantly from such a strategy. As one of the few excellent aspects of wounded whiz kid M. Night Shyamalan’s breech blockbuster, James Newton Howard delivers some wonderfully ephemeral work. There is a real attempt here to mix the fairytale elements of the narrative with the real world setting of the story. Using arcane instrumentation to maintain the otherworldly effect and juxtaposing the delicate against the deliberate to underline the film’s fractured themes, we end up with an assortment of lovely lilting moments that are, more times than not, much better than the movie they served.
Unfortunately, after 12 enticing tracks loaded with tangible structures, definitive musical cues, and an evocative sense of whimsy, we come face to face with a quartet of atrocious Bob Dylan covers. None of the interpretations, from Whisper in a Noise’s Nine Inch Nails take on “The Times They Are A-Changin'” to Silvertide’s quasi-rocking revamp of “Maggie’s Farm”, even begin to improve on the originals, while their presence here comes as a kind of sonic shock. After Howard’s hour of calm, considered cinematic canvas painting, these obvious commercial ploys play as confused as the central story in Shyamalan’s movie. They have no place here, except as examples of merchandising desperation. Obviously concerned that Howard’s work can’t stand on its own (it does), the powers that be decided to hedge their bets and toss in a few covers to sweeten the salability. Unfortunately, all it does is dampen the overall mood of the music.
In essence, this represents the dichotomy between the score and the soundtrack, which over the years have really come to mean two totally different things. The former is a look at the music specifically composed for a project. It is not usually spiked with current pop hits or golden oldie favorites. It’s not composed of b-sides and outtakes from popular bands. No, it’s the latter that can occasionally appear like a sub-par version of one of those Now Hear This CD compilations. Either in an original or found music approach, these are the albums that people seem to identify with far more easily than something containing nothing but evocative instrumentals. Yet, unless there is someone working behind the camera (a Tarrantino or a Scorsese) who understands how to turn a set of divergent tracks into a cohesive sonic statement, all we end up with is a glorified sampler.
Lost and Found
Now, it’s true that some movies actually demand a pop song approach to their soundtrack. After all, a film like This is Spinal Tap or Hedwig and the Angry Inch is wholly made up of such specifically sanctioned tunes. They are really more like a traditional musical than any other type of film. Another recent example of this style of score comes from the 2005 novelty Brothers of the Head. A mockumentary made by real life documentarians Kevin Fulton and Louis Pepe (responsible for the brilliant Lost in La Mancha), this supposed story of the rise and fall of ’70s punk band The Bang Bang has one of those typical idiosyncratic twists that indie features love to fool with. In this case, the group in question was “led” by conjoined twins Tom and Barry Howe (actually real-life separate siblings Harry and Luke Treadway) and fell somewhere between the Sex Pistols and Parklife-era Blur in their approach to song craft.
What we get then, as part of the wonderfully wicked “lost album” that makes up the soundtrack CD, is a crackerjack collection of fuzz guitar drive, Me Decade ear candy. With Buzzcocks-like melodies, laughable lazy sod lyrics, and a Johnny/Joey/Dee Dee inspired source of musicianship, we’re awash in the three-chord equivalent of Tap’s terrific mock metal. Tossing in a few live tracks and some demos to keep up the phony façade, the result is a wonderful picture of the overall production. It also illustrates how difficult it is to match music to a movie. In the case of this film, it all comes together with a power and a panache that is uniquely its own.
Still, other filmmakers try to meld already existing material to the mood and tone of their cinematic experience. Unfortunately, the results aren’t always successful. One such hit-or-miss moviemaker is Woody Allen. This comedian-turned-craftsman has long believed in raiding his own record collection as inspiration for his scores. Sometimes, he manages a compelling mash-up (see Manhattan‘s mix of grit and Gershwin, or any of his nostalgic glimpses into New York’s Tin Pan Alley past). Other times, like with his classical heavy approach for his latest film, Scoop, the combination just doesn’t gel. Relying on the works of Tchaikovsky (“Swan Lake”), Grieg (“Peer Gynt”), and Strauss, Allen hopes to create an aura of calm sophistication over his London-based story surrounding an American journalist, an aging magician, and a serial killer. Somehow, when one thinks of a crime story, even one being filtered through Allen’s unique sensibility, the “Sabre Dance” by Khachaturian or a Xaxier Cugat rumba doesn’t instantly come to mind.
This is why filmmakers tend toward music purposefully created for their movie, or in other instances, compilations with a clear, cohesive overview. The songs selected by Michael Mann for the big screen update of his ’80s cop rocker Miami Vice offer proof positive of such a strategy. Many remember the TV series for its MTV-esque approach, complete with flashy fashion and the regular injection of current pop hits. Instead of mimicking this idea for the cinema, Mann applied the same creative conceit as he employed with the film itself. Gone were all references to the original series (no Jan Hammer theme, no current chart acts) and in their place was a tendency toward techno and all its international flavorings. Even the occasional cues created by John Murphy were left off-disc, providing room for more Mogwai and Moby.
Thankfully, this is not all keyboard-based droning supported by shuffling backbeats. Because of the South American/South Beach setting within the film, there is some excellent Hispanic flair flying in between the sampled trip-hop tendencies. Both “Pennies in My Pocket” by Emilio Estefan and “Arranca” by Manzanita add significant spice to what can occasionally sound like a slow night in a European disco. Truth be told, any chance to hear Nina Simone work her low, moody magic or experience Goldfrapp’s delicate danceability deserves a listen. Still, there is something strangely antiseptic about the entire CD. It feels overly programmed, almost purposefully sapped of all its eclectic juice.
Something similar happens to the otherwise peppy complement to that wacky web phenom Snakes on a Plane. Grabbing a group of post-modern rock acts who aren’t afraid to pump up the volume and party, and then culling a collection of their more significant tracks, it would appear that we’d have an excellent post-modern presentation. And after hearing cuts like Panic! At the Disco’s “The Only Difference Between Martyrdom and Suicide is Press Coverage” and Armor for Sleep’s “Remember the Feel Real” we’d find it hard to disagree. But Snakes is equally obsessed with keeping everything “hip” and “contemporary.” As a result, they actually REMIX the entire album, attaching funky dunky bass and beats to almost every track.
On the one hand, it has the desired effect. It renders the slightly distinct styles of each band into one big example of dance floor delirium, and truly reflects the spirit of the film. At the same time, it tends to wipe away the originality we expect from each performer. Indeed, should Fall Out Boy sound like Gym Class Heroes? Do we need the title cut (an original effort by Cobra Starship — with a little help from their friends) to set the sonic tone for the entire CD?
It’s a similar reaction one has to the rather odd album that accompanies the ESPN reality series 7th Inning Stretch. A supremely surreal idea, this Summer 2006 show followed Smithereen’s frontman Pat Dinizo as he used baseball as a means of rehabilitation after being diagnosed with a near fatal nervous system disorder. Bloated on steroids and lost in a wave of depression, he found solace in America’s pastime. With the help of his bandmates and some professional athlete-friends, Dinizo managed to cure himself both physically and mentally. It’s an inspirational story that deserves an inspirational soundtrack.
Unfortunately, what we end up with is something akin to Jock Rock X. Let’s face it — any compilation that begins with George Thorogood’s grossly overplayed “Band to the Bone” is too obvious for its own good. Even worse, Dinizio decided to re-record three classic tracks from the Smithereens back catalog for this project. With the rest of the group in tow, they manage to massacre their own “Only a Memory”, “Blood and Roses”, and “A Girl Like You”. Instead of updating the originals, they bury them. While the collection also contains excellent selections from the Kinks, Todd Rundgren, and the Ramones, this is one vanity project that didn’t need a digital keepsake of its time in the entertainment spotlight.
As usual, it’s the unsung project, the outsider entry unknown to most of the mainstream public, to leave the biggest impression. Very few have heard of the film Peaceful Warrior, and with good reason. After only a limited showing this past June, Lionsgate has held off on a wider national release. While this may or may not be a reflection of the film’s quality (it’s a typical sports coming of age story with a surprisingly unique twist) or the reaction people have to another cinematic offering from scandal-plagued filmmaker Victor “Powder” Salva, it definitely undermines this terrific soundtrack album. Former gymnast Dan Milliman used the semi-autobiographic story of athletics helping to overcome adversity as a kind of trippy testament to the power of new age philosophizing. Indeed, the CD itself reflects this, offering a mixture of music and spoken word “inspirations” from the author himself.
Alternating tracks, what we end up with is an amazing array of ballads and soft rock anthems interspersed with the CD equivalent of a motivational speaker. And yet, it all works — both as a cohesive album concept and as a souvenir. Anyone curious about the style or sentiment of this film need only listen to the amazing work of David Gray, Kelly Sweet, or Great Lake Swimmer to realize its plaintive, pastoral scope. Even without the possibility of seeing the film upon which it is based, the notion of playing to the cinema inside our mind, of recreating imagery based on the visual cues inherent in music, is strong in Peaceful Warrior. No matter the actual reality of the release, it fits the role of metaphysical and musical souvenir quite well. Too bad all soundtracks can’t find this kind of perspective and balance. Maybe their pop-cultural impact would then be reestablished.