This post has been updated to account for the release of A Star Is Born.
Blame Kenneth Anger. Back in 1963, the underground artist and puckish provocateur debuted his movie Scorpio Rising, a 30-minute barrage of erotic imagery and American iconography, scored to unlicensed rock and R&B songs by the likes of Elvis Presley and Ray Charles. A staple of art-house cinemas and university film programs, Scorpio Rising influenced the way that aspiring directors like Martin Scorsese would come to think about the juxtaposition of moving pictures and popular music. When Scorsese’s generation took over Hollywood at the end of the 1960s, they carried Anger in their hearts and minds.
Cut to 2018, and if early projections hold, one of the year’s most popular albums is going to be a soundtrack. Director/star Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born is the latest updating of a story that’s been a cinematic perennial since the 1930s; and it’s already a hit at the box office. A big part of the marketing has been focused on the music, with videos of performances by Cooper and his co-star Lady Gaga quickly going viral, well before the film’s release. The intersection of alluring images and catchy songs remains a reliable money-maker.
With A Star Is Born out this week, we decided it was time to determine the 40 best movie soundtracks of all time. For this list, I leaned almost exclusively on the Scorpio Rising model: films scored from a variety of musical sources, many of them preexisting. There are a few exceptions. It’s hard to skip over Shaft or Superfly, even though they were created by single artists, exclusively for those projects. I’m also allowing movies that feature diegetic musical performances (like Purple Rain. Once, and, yes, A Star Is Born), though in order to avoid making this list too unwieldy, I’m excluding straight-up musicals. (Sorry, Disney; sorry, MGM; sorry, Grease.). I’m also skipping conventional original instrumental scores … even when they’re unconventional, like Miles Davis’s soundtrack to Elevator to the Gallows, or Anton Karas’s inescapable The Third Man zither, or the Brazilian bossa nova of Black Orpheus.
Instead, what you’ll mostly find below are song-driven soundtracks that had significant cultural impact, in various ways: by becoming best sellers; by introducing (or reintroducing) songs to heavy radio rotation; by summarizing entire musical subgenres; or by helping to create singular cinematic moments. To cover as much ground as possible, I limited filmmakers known for their great soundtracks (like Spike Lee and Sofia Coppola) to one entry each. But just about every modern musical genre is represented, from hip-hop to grunge to avant-garde classical.
Let’s drop the needle….
Just like the N.W.A biopic, its soundtrack tracks the history of the hip-hop group from its earliest recordings to its post-breakup solo work. But the Straight Outta Compton album also includes some of the funk and R&B legends (in particular George Clinton and Roy Ayers) who helped inspire Dr. Dre’s laid-back, bass-heavy West Coast sound. This isn’t just a collection of some of the most influential recordings of the ’80s and ’90s, it’s an origin story for how they came to be.
Some of the best single-artist soundtracks function as de facto compilations. AC/DC has never released a proper “greatest hits” collection, but their album Who Made Who — featuring new and old songs that the Aussie hard-rockers let Stephen King use in his lone directorial effort, Maximum Overdrive — comes closest. “You Shook Me All Night Long,” “Hells Bells,” “For Those About to Rock” … these are staples of classic-rock radio and sports arenas, and a signal from King that his movie about killer trucks is meant to be good, dumb fun.
Australian filmmaker Baz Luhrmann loves the big emotions and unapologetic artifice of old Hollywood movies and Top 40 music; so throughout his career he’s been unafraid to score scenes with catchy tunes, even when they may seem on paper like a mismatch. His boffo Shakespeare adaptation is daring in the way it puts the Bard’s words into the mouths of warring crime families in a modern coastal city. But Luhrmann then intensifies the anachronism by having his star-crossed lovers (played by an impossibly young and sweet-looking Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes) smooch and swoon to posh songs like the Cardigans’ “Lovefool” and Des’ree’s “Kissing You.” The soundtrack went triple-platinum in the U.S., signaling pop culture’s move away from gruff grunge and toward danceable romanticism with a synthesizer sheen.
Sofia Coppola’s best film makes analogies between privileged royals and overexposed, misunderstood 21st-century celebrities. The soundtrack too plays up those similarities across centuries, letting music by modern dance-pop acts and ’80s post-punkers paint Marie Antoinette as a typically moody kid, who unwinds by clubbing. Coppola’s previous soundtracks for The Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation were similarly hooky and foggy, but Marie Antoinette is the finest example of how the director uses music to add dimension to her characters and setting.
French filmmaker Mia Hansen-Løve based Eden on the experiences of her brother Sven (who co-wrote the script), a moderately popular DJ whose career was overshadowed by his more successful EDM peers, including the guys in Daft Punk. The official soundtrack — which runs twice as long as the movie — is a fairly comprehensive survey of what Europeans kids were dancing to in the ’90s. It’s not essential to understand the fine distinctions between “house” and “garage” and “jungle” to enjoy all the swift tempos, bumping beats, soulful voices, and spare samples on Eden’s score. Just grab a glow stick and hit the floor.
The Oscar-nominated song “Beautiful Maria of My Soul” — performed in English by Los Lobos and in Spanish by Antonio Banderas — is probably the best-remembered part of the non-hit movie adaptation of Oscar Hijuelos’s novel The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. But the gold-selling soundtrack’s lively revival of mid-20th century Latin jazz (with an emphasis on Puerto Rican and Cuban styles) is an outstanding intro to the genre, and caught the ears of a wider audience a few years before the Buena Vista Social Club became an international sensation. The film of The Mambo Kings is a stirring story about how music helped two immigrant brothers find a place in America. The winning performances of Tito Puente, Celia Cruz, and Arturo Sandoval helped sell that tale.
This ludicrously twisty, overheated crime picture would be pretty justly forgotten were it not for its one-of-a-kind soundtrack: an experiment in creating a new musical genre. It’s not that rap-rock didn’t exist before Judgment Night; acts like Body Count, Anthrax, Urban Dance Squad, and Beastie Boys had all produced some interesting hybrids prior to 1993. But unlike the “grinding metal meets bro boasting” format that would become commonplace in the late ’90s, Judgment Night put some unlikely collaborators in the studio together: De La Soul with Teenage Fanclub; Sir Mix-A-Lot with Mudhoney; House of Pain with Helmet; and Cypress Hill with both Sonic Youth and Pearl Jam. The results weren’t always especially musical, but they did demonstrate refreshing openness and imagination.
One of the bleakest movies ever made about American teenagers — following a bunch of small-town burnouts conspiring to cover up a murder committed by one of their friends — is accompanied by one of the harshest soundtracks ever recorded. At a time when other ’80s high-school movies were pepped up by jangly college-rock and bouncy British synth-pop, River’s Edge leaned on the bludgeoning sludge of Slayer, Hallows Eve, and Fates Warning. No poseurs allowed.
Though this self-consciously goofy comedy is about teenagers who desperately want to meet the Ramones, the soundtrack’s actually a hodgepodge of late-’70s New Wave and art-rock, putting arguably the most important American punk band of all time in the context of performers like Nick Lowe, Brian Eno, Devo, and Todd Rundgren. Still, what makes this an essential document are the Ramones songs: the jet-fueled title track, the swinging retro-ballad “I Want You Around,” and an 11-minute live medley that preserves the stage presence that made this band into rebel heroes.
The high-schoolers in Richard Linklater’s 1976-set suburban Texas slice of life are convinced they’re living through one of the lamest eras in American history. The songs blasting out of their car stereos suggest otherwise. Maybe these kids missed the rebellious ’50s and the radical ’60s, but the beatniks, hippies, and early rockers who came before them at least cleared the way for them to smoke dope all day and listen to Foghat, Alice Cooper, and ZZ Top. In the year of the American bicentennial, teenagers had never been so free.
At its heart, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights is a smart-ass cinematic prank, answering the question, “What if a filmmaker applied the sweeping, emotionally intense, visually dynamic storytelling of Goodfellas to a movie about porn?” The soundtrack is part of that joke. In the place of Martin Scorsese’s collection of classic pop, rock, and R&B, Anderson fills his movie with catchy cheese like Melanie’s “Brand New Key,” Walter Egan’s “Magnet and Steel,” and Night Ranger’s “Sister Christian.” Because what better way is there to score a film about guilty pleasures?
It has a better reputation now, but when Empire Records was released in the mid-’90s, it bombed at the box office and underwhelmed critics, who pegged this “day in the life of a record store” dramedy as a cynical attempt to polish and sell the post-Nirvana alt-rock scene. Nevertheless, the movie resonated with a small but fervent audience, who helped elevate it to cult status, while clinging passionately to a soundtrack filled with modern rockers like Gin Blossoms, Better Than Ezra, Toad the Wet Sprocket, Cracker, and the Cranberries. Both the film and its score document an era when the eccentricities of early-’90s music were straightened out and floated into the mainstream, and both make the case that even something blatantly commercial can still be meaningful to the people who buy it.
Cameron Crowe started writing the movie that would become Singles not long after he moved to Seattle, where the former Rolling Stone reporter was immediately impressed with the then-underground music scene. By the time Crowe finished the film, his friends in bands like Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, and Mudhoney were some of the biggest rock stars in the world. Singles only pulled modest box-office returns, but its soundtrack album was huge — not just because it captured “grunge” at its peak, but because Crowe framed the movement well, adding songs by ’80s alt-rock hero Paul Westerberg, ’70s FM star Nancy Wilson (Crowe’s wife at the time), and legendary Seattleite Jimi Hendrix to show where the likes of Alice in Chains and Screaming Trees came from.
Photo: Twentieth Century Fox, Warner Home Video, Gramercy Pictures and Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.
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