The era of the celebrated cult movie soundtrack is something of the past. It has long since been used as a decisive marketing ploy and operates as an essential and cloying part of the movie-making process. In recent years we’ve had our Juno and Nick and Norah’s Ultimate Playlist, but what are they really but product placement for record labels and their acts? From the moment when Natalie Portman lifted up her headphones in Garden State and decided to share The Shins with the rest of the world it was all over.
Using contemporary bands or music in film is nothing new. Film-makers would choose music as incidental pieces, background tunes who’s placement held no relevance to the plot. They didn’t have to sell the film with some well-chosen music. Nowadays, a hip movie has to have a hip soundtrack with a hip member of the cast be-bopping along to it, or even miming along on acoustic guitar. Who is selling what to whom, and why? The two shouldn’t be marketed together simultaneously. One should accent the other, but not overwhelm it, lest the cynics sneer above their overpriced popcorn that sooner or later someone will make a film about making a mixtape…
The rise of the ‘alternative’ soundtrack hit its peak during the early ’90s, with an absurd amount of bands being asked to contribute new material to film soundtracks, be it specially written for the film or just ‘give us something new to sell the soundtrack to our audience’. What on earth was PJ Harvey and Nick Cave doing on Batman Returns or The Cure on Judge Dredd? Were these soundtracks aimed at the ‘collector’ who had to have everything released by their favourite artist? It’s sad to think I’ve been suckered into purchasing several terrible soundtracks to bad films (Tank Girl anyone?) just to secure that unique, unreleased track (suckered no more!).
There are bound to be a few soundtracks lurking in even the most humble of record collections. They were probably purchased because you liked one song, or maybe you liked them all. But what are the films that after viewing sent you down to the record store to purchase the soundtrack? What are the films that had you staying till the end of the credits to find out who sung that song? What are the soundtracks that you doggedly refuse to get rid of and what are those sentimental soundtracks that take you back?
Some of these selections are pretty obvious. Some are from movies you’ve probably never seen nor have a desire to ever see. Some are from movies where the soundtrack was essential to the film as the actors were and some were just a matter of choosing the right song for the right moment. There are more than enough worthy selections not covered out there (Hi-Fidelity has been snubbed purely because it’s the rock snobs wet dream movie soundtrack), but here are just a few of my own personal favourites.
1. Xanadu (1980)
This is no guilty pleasure. I’ll sing the praises of this soundtrack, and in fact this movie, far and wide. A roller-skating/disco musical like this has no peer, and a commercial flop as it may have been, the soundtrack, largely assembled by the prog-rock band ELO is truly a beauty to behold. Olivia Newton-John sings some of her best material and ELO are at the pinnacle in their career. Musicals are probably not everybody’s cup of tea, but their appeal hinges on having a solid collection of songs and Xanadu has it in spades.
Key tracks: “Xanadu” by Electric Light Orchestra & Olivia Newton-John, “Dancin'” by The Tubes & Olivia Newton-John.
2. Starstruck (1982)
This cult Australian film that has seen a modest re-awakening with a long-awaited release on dvd a couple of years ago. Like Xanadu, Starstruck is another musical with more of a pop/new wave influence than Xanadu’s disco and swing. A story of a Sydney barmaid attempting to win a talent contest to save the pub she works in, its charming in its Australian-ness and a pleasant reminder of the old Sydney. The soundtrack unfortunately remains out of print and was never released on CD. The contributions by Australian band The Swingers, originally asked to write the soundtrack gave the film its strength as well as the tracks sung by lead actress Jo Kennedy.
Key tracks: “Starstruck” by The Swingers, “Body & Soul” by Jo Kennedy.
3. Dogs in Space (1986)
Celebrated post-punk Australian film starring Michael Hutchence set in Melbourne during the late ’70s. Hutchence gives a decent performance as Sam, the drug-abusing lead singer (a performance not too out of character) living the decadent musician lifestyle of parties, gigs and girlfriends. With the rumoured re-release of Dogs in Space on DVD nearing completion one hopes this collection of Australian post-punk gems and era-specific tracks by Iggy Pop, Gang of Four and Eno gets a re-release too. Released in two editions, one black sleeved (and R-rated) featuring the songs interspersed with dialogue from the movie, and the white sleeved edition with just the songs, this was one incredible compilation and it still goes for ridiculous money on eBay.
Key tracks : “Win/Lose” by Ollie Olsen, “Rooms For The Memory” by Michael Hutchence.
4. Grease (1978)
Now for the first of our heavy-hitters. For those who still remember the ’70s, the Grease soundtrack was an ubiquitous part of your life, especially in Australia where several of the singles topped the charts, and Olivia Newton-John was proudest export. There was something here for everyone, John Travolta crooning ‘Sandy’, the two of them duetting on “You’re The One That I Want”, the slick funk of the title track (written by Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees), all the ’60s doo-wop numbers, Stockard Channing dropping the tough girl exterior on “There Are Worse Things I Could Do”. It’s still a soundtrack that would probably endure ridicule if ever pulled out of your collection, yet I’m compelled to dig it up every once in a while and say ‘hey, whatevs’.
Key tracks: “Grease” by Frankie Valli, “Totally Devoted To You” by Olivia Newton-John.
5. Reservoir Dogs (1992)
The soundtrack to Reservoir Dogs was an anomaly for films at that time. Here was a modern film with a soundtrack that would do its hardest to date the picture. The slick suits, the sharp dialogue, and then you have this iconoclastic soundtrack playing opposite to what you’d expect. The then newly created and designated Gen X’ers warmed to Reservoir Dogs and Quentin Tarantino and took him to heart. You couldn’t not love this soundtrack. It was so quirky and eclectic and contained tracks that most people had never heard before, and were too young to have heard first go round away. It gave you an instant nostalgia for the past without actually having any recollection of it. How we all loved that soundtrack, nodding away thinking, “Yeah, Stealers Wheel, whatever happened to them?”
Key tracks: “Little Green Bag” by The George Baker Selection, “Stuck In The Middle With You” by Stealers Wheel
6. Trainspotting (1996)
This soundtrack to Irvine Welsh’s novel about Scottish drug addict ne’er-do-wells had a who’s who of the Britpop scene circa 1996 (Blur, Sleeper, Elastica, Pulp) appearing on it, as well as choice cuts from Brian Eno, New Order and Lou Reed. Underworld’s “Born Slippy” was the stand-out track and something you would hear all summer long in the UK (where I coincidentally found myself) as I gave wide berth to the sunburned English yobs shouting ‘lager, lager, lager’ whilst throwing their pints of Carling around. I can honestly say I haven’t touched this soundtrack in well over a decade, but it definitely is worthy of making the list, and did no harm at all in revitalising the career of Iggy Pop or giving the Britpop kids one last hurrah before extinction.
Key tracks: “Born Slippy” by Underworld, “Perfect Day” by Lou Reed.
7. Saturday Night Fever (1977)
Saturday Night Fever soundtrack was the biggest selling album ever until Michael Jackson’s Thriller came along. If you aren’t old enough to own it, chances are it’s collecting dust in your parents record cabinet. Released during the height of the disco craze, Saturday Night Fever established John Travolta as a sex symbol (those words make me shudder) and made the Bee Gees both a household name and a point of ridicule for their high-pitched harmonising. There is no real reason to play this soundtrack in entirety unless you really want to piss off the neighbours or are in the throes of a ’70s themed party. It’s always fun to sneak in a track from this on a mix disc for shits and giggles.
Key tracks: Side A of this beast is practically flawless. You can’t beat a disco four-play that goes “Stayin’ Alive”, “How Deep Is Your Love”, “Night Fever” “More Than A Woman”.
8. Pump Up The Volume (1990)
Was this one of the first ’80s alternative music derived film soundtracks? You can throw your John Hughes soundtracks at me all you like, or your punk rock documentaries, but anything that mixes in Peter Murphy and The Pixies, along with Bad Brains and Soundgarden should be given its props. Hardly any of the acts on this soundtrack were pulling in big bucks, so a cynical cash-in for this alternative crowd this wasn’t. Christian Slater plays the shy outsider, a follow-on from his Heather’s role, and his taste in music dominate the film. I wanted my own pirate radio station after watching this. Apparently some friends in school managed to get the equipment together to broadcast their own, but I called bullshit. I could never hear anything.
Key tracks: “Everybody Knows” by Concrete Blonde, “Kick Out The Jams” by Bad Brains with Henry Rollins
9. Singles (1992)
First film to capitalise on the burgeoning Seattle scene and rake on the bucks on the lumberjack shirt wearing slackers toting guitars. The film wasn’t much chop and seemed to pre-date the whole lounging around in coffee houses contemplating life (a la Friends) and Matt Dillon, while convincing as a dope fiend in Drugstore Cowboy, his portrayal of Cliff, the long-haired goatee wearing musician was just too cartoonish to be taken seriously. The bound-for-the-moshpit best-selling soundtrack, released before the film, (those fooled by the title thinking it was about records – ha, the joke was on you) was the best part of about it. Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, all the heavy hitters were there in their bare-chested glory. So Nirvana wasn’t in it. So what.
Key tracks: “Dyslexic Heart” by Paul Westerberg, “Nearly Lost You” by Screaming Trees.
10. Bandwagon (1996)
There are only probably a dozen people who ever saw this in the theatres and I was happy to be one of them. Filmed in Raleigh, North Carolina, Bandwagon was the indie rock version of “This Is Spinal Tap”, or at least that’s how it was marketed. It was more a band-on-the-road road movie about a girl, which in theory isn’t so special, but what made the film so watchable and indeed memorable (not including superb acting from Kevin Corrigan as the stoner wildcard Wynn) was the soundtrack largely written and composed by Boston scenester/musician Greg Kendall. All songs played by the ‘fake’ band “Circus Monkey” were written by him and rate at the height of indie rock pop perfection in the vein of Buffalo Tom and R.E.M. Why this film isn’t yet on DVD is ridiculous.
Key tracks: “Rest of The World” by Circus Monkey, “So Long (Ann)” by Circus Monkey.