Songs had cropped up in movies before, Easy Rider is rammed full of them. But in Mean Streets, arguably the first film that can be called a true Scorsese film, popular songs of the era or the past are applied to punctuate the emotions of the characters rather than underpin or illustrate a scene. You'd expect a song like Be My Baby to be used in the flash of some romantic moment, but Scorsese uses it so effectively in his opening grainy montage. The song provokes joy, nostalgia and friendship as we meet the characters for the first time. Not a song telling us what is happening, but a song listened to and appreciated as the these candid 8mm shots were taken. The remarkable scene of Johnny Boy strutting through the bar in slow motion to Jumping Jack Flash, contrasts earlier another Stones number Tell Me plays while Charlie drifts/dances/glides through the establishment. Two sides of the Stones reflecting two different characters. And the sequence when a drunk Charlie staggers through the bar, eventually ending up on the floor, the camera mockingly fixed onto his face while the ridiculous Rubber Biscuit accompanies his fall. It's an amazing moment in a film full of amazing moments and amazing music.
These days, the prospect of another collaboration between Tim Burton, Danny Elfman and Johnny Depp is about as appealing as giving John Travolta a shiatsu massage. But it wasn’t always that way. Maybe the law of diminishing returns is to blame, but there was a time when the three of them could work wonders. In 1990 Depp was keen to break away from his teen-idol pin-up status, and took the role of a scarred misfit in Burton’s curiously autobiographical modern-day fairytale. In one flashback scene, we see horror legend Vincent Price piecing together his would-be son, but the fact is, it was Elfman who gave Edward Scissorhands his real heart.
Elfman’s now iconic score manages to be whimsical and witty, gothic and grand, sometimes all at once. And although, in retrospect, it may seem unbearably Elfman-esque, the melody at its core is epic enough to overcome those all-too-familiar idiosyncrasies. For most of its lean 50 minute run-time, Elfman offers snippets of the main theme, but refrains from giving us the big money shot. But after all the teasing, he finally unleashes the full majesty of his composition in a cut entitled, appropriately enough, The Grand Finale. It’s an extraordinary piece of music, at once heartbreaking and uplifting, soaring on the voices of a choir that’s about as close as you can possibly get to heaven without actually turning up your toes.
Is Nicolas Winding Refn’s neo-noir crime drama the coolest film ever? Yes. And what makes it cool, aside from a slick haired, toothpick chewing Ryan Gosling, is its soundtrack.
From Euro-pop vocals to vintage instruments, the music in Drive is like the film itself, a pure homage to the eighties. The Danish director was very specific about the songs he wanted to include and worked closely with the music department. Initially he discussed ideas with Johnny Jewel, a musician who he’d previously worked with on Bronson, before turning to former Chilli Pepper Cliff Martinez.
Since leaving the famous rock band, Martinez has become an experienced composer and has provided original music for a variety of films including Solaris, Traffic and Contagion. For Drive he delivers an electro-pop soundtrack that is ethereal, ambient and quintessentially eighties retro.
Each track anchors to the narrative and focuses on the driver’s perspective, but none more so than the most memorable song, A Real Hero by College featuring Electric Youth, which is used twice in the film. At first it conveys the kind generosity the driver shows for the troubled family, but its second occurrence unmasks the brutal personality he has hidden from them.
Drive may have been snubbed by the Academy, but the sublime official soundtrack album proved to be popular, reaching fifth in the iTunes album chart.
Elfman’s now iconic Edward Scissorhands score manages to be whimsical and witty, gothic and grand, sometimes all at once.
The whole film is a patent leather shiny love letter to nineties pop culture, and even though it's almost 20 years old, it looks, and sounds, dazzlingly fresh. Music is woven into the lives of Cher Horowitz and her pals in the same way that designer clothes and designer slang are. There's the ongoing battle between the "complaint rock" Paul "Josh" Rudd adores and the bend and snap sass of No Doubt and Luscious Jackson. Brittany Murphy gets her heart broken to Coolio. Douchey Elton is obviously a wrong'un because he's got Alanis on his car stereo and carries around Cranberries CDs. The Mighty Mighty Bosstones play at a standard Saturday night party, skater boy Travis is defined by the Less Than Jake stickers on his skateboard and the use of Mott the Hoople's All The Young Dudes to describe teen boys and their failure to pull their trousers up is simply perfect. The soundtrack has the best beginning and ending of any compilation I've ever heard-starting with The Muffs visceral, thrilling Kids In America cover and playing out with Need You Around by the Smoking Popes, a song about everything you want love to be when you're a teenage girl.
When people talk about how integral the score is to the horror genre, Mike Oldfield’s haunting tubular bells from The Exorcist are the first chimes usually heard. However, to my mind the greatest and most effective score comes from Kubrick’s The Shining. Staccato rakes across piano strings punctuate the cuts, injecting more and more energy and tension into the film with every scene.
Horror soundtracks can have a tendency to be overbearing onslaughts full of switches in volume and tone, music that is obviously jarring and disconcerting, but has no real character of its own. Usually these soundtracks occur in films that aren’t particularly scary on their own merit. With The Shining, the score is the complete opposite, working instead to create an overriding mood that escalates as Torrance sinks deeper and deeper into his psychosis. An integral layer in one of finest horrors of all time.
Incoming - or should that be coming in? The lesser-spotted waltz from space. But you’ll be feeling Earth’s gravity threefold under all that work, little boy blue. What a noisy world you’ve got here! Repetition on a motif, like an old romantic movie, like your sister nagging you again and again and again, and makes you feel like you might make a mistake, unless you’re only ever making one continuous mistake. Thrashing out a solo in the Fortress of Solitude, building up to first contact.
You know you’re hopeless when your crush is an alien. Does it count as a blackout when you see colours? What happens when you suspect that you’re the alien invasion? What planet is this, anyway? You’re no Superman, you need wings to fly (and that’s not all he needs, folks!). Yet amidst it all, somewhere, harmony. Aloha! There’s melody in the madness. Carry it home.
He remembers how to fly! The villain’s on the ropes! Pow! Knockout! The music builds, the couple kiss, and we can’t none of us wait to climax. They don’t make ‘em like this anymore, boy, talk about a Healthy Choice. Fortress of Altitude. Fortress of Attitude! So here we go.
When a film is named after an instrument which plays a major role in the picture, the soundtrack has to be better than spectacular. This is no easy task and there are very few composers that can pull this off.
Michael Nyman doesn’t just create music for a film, he creates another character; a character that stimulates your heart and soul. This character makes you smile and want to dance. It makes you fall in love only to break your heart and then pick it up and mend it back together again.
The thing that makes this soundtrack so powerful is that you don’t just hear it, you listen to it. Every note speaks the words that Ada (Holly Hunter) cannot speak. Every chord strums your curiosity and makes you long for more.
The first track ‘To the Edge of the Earth’ sets the mood of the film and creates an atmosphere similar to an ethereal trance that haunts you long after the film is over. It juxtaposes with your emotions, one minute you feel like you’re floating on a cloud and the next you’re suffocating because your ears aren’t used to hearing something so beautiful, so captivating, so dark and yet so energetic and rich.
This soundtrack is the kind of effortless musical poetry that evokes a mental gallery of explosive passion and the overwhelming intoxication of love.
You could be forgiven for not remembering much about "Hannibal," the ill thought out sequel to "Silence of the Lambs." The film was undoubtedly inferior to its ubiquitous predecessor and received mixed reviews. However its soundtrack is so pointedly excellent there is very little room for debate. German composer Hans Zimmer has composed more epic scores than you can shake a stick at, from the buoyant theme to “Gladiator,” to the booming and instantly recognisable refrain featured in “Inception.”
Much of the darkness of “Hannibal,” is born out through the film’s haunting soundtrack and this is no accident. Recognising the importance of the musical accompaniment, director Ridley Scott worked closely with Zimmer to ensure that the music featured in the film appropriately mimicked the intensity and precision of the film's main protagonist, and indeed every minute character development is mirrored in the increasing urgency of the score. The music is largely classical in its composition, with Zimmer employing a symphonic orchestra which acts as a wonderful allusion to Dr Hannibal’s flair for the theatrical. Zimmer particularly excels with a piece entitled “Virtue,” a sombre overture which features a heart rending combination of soaring choral notes, sweet sounding strings and macabre tones, all of which are incredibly affecting. Equally so, are the pieces which feature voice overs from Sir Anthony Hopkins in character. Twinning his monotone voice with expressive instruments as the harp, cello and strings on pieces such as the aptly titled, “Let My Home Be My Gallows,” perfectly recall the sinister and depraved traits which served to make Hannibal such a terrifying character. Zimmer’s thoughtful and intuitive craftsmanship created a score which not only propels Hannibal’s plot, but ensures that it can be listened to independently of the film, an inarguable hallmark of a brilliant soundtrack.
Zimmer particularly excels with a piece entitled “Virtue,” a sombre overture which features a heart rending combination of soaring choral notes, sweet sounding strings and macabre tones, all of which are incredibly affecting.
Slaughters Big Rip Off
There are tonnes of great Blaxploitation soundtracks from the 1970s. Superfly by Curtis, Coffy by Roy Ayers, the brilliant Willie Hutch albums Foxy Brown and The Mack, Isaac Hayes’ classic Shaft, but my standouts come from James Brown around his superfunk Payback era – Black Caesar and Slaughter’s Big Rip Off, both from 1973. A time when Brown was nearing the second enormous peak of his career, moving to less soul singer, more a funky collection of grooves and grunts. Slaughter’s Big Rip Off just nicks it, and that’s solely down to my deep love for the track People Get Up and Drive Your Funky Soul
A Fistful Of Dynamite
In conversation with Alessandro Alessandroni some years ago, I quizzed the Italian soundtrack lynchpin as to which was his favourite out of the numerous Ennio Morricone Scores he’d worked on. ‘Giu La Testa’, replied the venerable ‘Whistling Man’ of Cinecitta, without a moment’s hesitation, his eyes taking on a far-off look as he hummed a measure of the film’s main theme, a sublimely dream-like refrain which comfortably ranks as one of the high points of Morricone’s oeuvre.
Titled for English speaking territories either as ‘Duck You Sucker’ or, most familiarly, as ‘A Fistful Of Dynamite’, Sergio Leone’s fifth Spaghetti western feature has tended to have been dismissed as a poor relation to his Dollars Trilogy and the masterful Once Upon A Time In The West. Rod Steiger’s apoplectic performance as bandit chief Juan Miranda, and James Coburn’s faintly ludicrous Irish brogue have ensured that Fistful is remembered as neither actor’s finest hour; yet somehow Morricone’s musical alchemy elevates Dynamite from what might otherwise have been a creative misfire for all parties. While the script’s earthiness is matched by the comically flatulent ‘Marcia Degli Accatomi’, Morricone transports us to an altogether higher plane, from the celestial choir of ‘Mesa Verde’ to the otherworldly lilt of the aforementioned title theme, over which Edda Dell'Orso’s vocal enchantingly soars.
Like all good soundtracks, Vangelis’ score for Blade Runner works not only as a vital component of Ridley Scott’s classic slice of sci-fi noir but also as phenomenal listening experience in its own right. The bluesy and ambient synthesiser score – punctuated by the odd bit of dialogue from the film and a burst of Demis Roussos– is still a listening experience comparable to the likes of artists such as Brian Eno and Terry Riley as it entices the listener into entering a new aural landscape. Experimental, haunting and beautiful, it still remains one of the best modern soundtracks ever created
In parallel with the film it scores (Scott’s film was something of a commercial failure on release), Vangelis’ work did not find its way to audiences easily. Despite promises in the closing credits of an imminent release, an official Blade Runner album release did not take place until 1994 – 12 years after the initial release of the film and 2 after the ‘Director’s Cut’. In the intervening years bootlegs of the score become popular amongst soundtrack enthusiasts, giving the work an almost mythic status. But, while its legend was partly powered by its rarity, it was ultimately cemented by its quality.
With a 3 disc re-release (which includes unused cuts from the film as well as new tracks ‘inspired’ by Blade Runner) and many unofficial bootlegs collecting other pieces of music that have yet to turn up in the official releases, the future world of 2019 is always only a synthesiser away.
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