This selection isn’t about listing the most seminal soundtracks of all time – such lists are a Google search away – this effort highlights various artist soundtracks that make the best mixtapes, leaving traditional scores and single artist soundtracks like Blade Runner, Purple Rain, and The Social Network for a future post. I also allowed my choices to be influenced by the eventual goal of assembling the highlights from each to form a cohesive playlist.
The Squid and the Whale
While I doubt that complementary music taste directly inspired Wes Anderson to produce Noah Baumbach’s lauded arthouse drama, it certainly hints at a shared sensibility that would later find them collaborating on another nautically titled project with A Life Aquatic. Music is integral to not just the feeling of The Squid and the Whale, but also to the mechanics of the script, with a Pink Floyd song dissected to represent the lead’s conflicted emotional state and performed as a cover by actor Dean Wareham. The director’s adolescence is sonically codified with broad pop culture flash points like the theme to “Risky Business” or the Cars’ ubiquitous radio hit “Drive,” paired against more introspective fare by the likes of Lou Reed and Loudon Wainwright III.
The Royal Tenenbaums
With Wes Anderson’s ears ringing, The Royal Tenenbaums emerges as my selection of choice, with many of the director’s other films making convincing cases for themselves. While this, like most of his soundtracks, feature selections from old records set against original scoring by Devo’s Mark Mothersburough, I find myself willing to classify this as a various artists endeavour since the end result more closely resembles a painstakingly curated mixtape than a traditional score.
Replete with critical darlings like Aphex Twin, Boards of Canada, and The Velvet Underground, the soundtrack to Morvern Callar emerged in 2002 as an effective cheat sheet for anyone trying to date a musician. The film tells the story of a young woman from a small town in Scotland who wakes up one Christmas morning to find that her boyfriend has killed himself, leaving behind the manuscript of his unpublished novel, and a mixtape that doubles as this excellent compilation.
While it may not surprise you to learn that the story behind a movie written and directed by Daft Punk involves two robots on a quest to become human, less predictable is the realization that there is no Daft Punk music on the soundtrack. For a band mostly known for a decidedly bold sound, the film they crafted certainly isn’t afraid of silence, with its patience and much of its aesthetic lovingly cribbed from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The inclusion of heavyweights like Todd Rundgren, Curtis Mayfiend, and Brian Eno are probably why this low budget arthouse film couldn’t afford an official soundtrack release, though I’m sure the royalties from "Get Lucky" could have taken care of that if the acclaimed duo wanted it badly enough.
I was almost inclined to leave Pulp Fiction off the list since it seems like such a glaringly obvious choice, and because this film is like an item I’d put in a time capsule in that it is something from the past that I cherish, but is also now something I’d be willing to live without. That said, this objectively remains one of the great examples of music as cinematic iconography, while also being an album that occupied a semi-permanent place in many people's five disc CD players during the mid-nineties.
Natural Born Killers
I’d probably like Natural Born Killers more if I wasn’t so attached to the movie it could have been. The story of Mickey and Mallory was initially conceived as a subplot within True Romance, with Christian Slater’s character Clarence writing a screenplay based on a heightened version of his adventures with Arquette’s Alabama and the two stories told in tandem. Tarantino eventually gave that brain child up for adoption to Oliver Stone, who then rewrote it into something he would quickly disavow: “Stone’s biggest problem is that his obviousness cancels out his energy and his energy pumps up his obviousness.” It’s a fair point.
The soundtrack was helmed by Trent Reznor about a decade and a half before his work on The Social Network would become the most influential score of the century so far. Reznor responded to the frenetic video collage style of the film in kind, working on his laptop while on tour with Nine Inch Nails to, in his words, “abandon the standard notion of a complementary playlist and make more of a collage, weaving them together with jarring edits and random dialogue snippets.” This turbulent approach rendered the perfect compliment to a film that has all the subtlety of a malfunctioning car alarm.
While his desire to fit a Rolling Stones song into every film he makes is starting to border on caricature, Martin Scorsese’s love for his halcyon days spent on the New York music scene seemingly rivals even his love for cinema and unkept eyebrows. The fact that Scorsese’s taste in music never evolved beyond that era is actually kind of admirable. Musically, Marty is like the guy who fell in love with his high school sweetheart and never looked at another woman since. The only other force that has by all accounts defined him both as an artist and a man to the same extent as classic rock is Catholicism, but they won’t be playing "Ave Maria" at Martin Scorsese’s funeral, they’ll be playing “Gimme Shelter.”
Lost In Translation
Before she was a director, the only thing known about Sophia Coppola other than her duly savaged performance in the third Godfather film was that she seemed to have decent taste in music. From her fingerprints on the Phoenix “Funky Squaredance” video directed by her brother Ronan, to her appearance in the Chemical Brothers video directed by her then husband Spike Jonze, she was obviously sitting with the cool kids. Coppola made her own name with her directorial debut Virgin Suicides, which brilliantly enlisted french duo Air for an exceptional original score.
These formative years contribute to the emotional core of Coppola’s sophomore feature Lost In Translation, which uses details of her failed marriage with Jonze as the inciting plot point, and past collaborators such as Air, Phoenix, and The Chemical Brothers contributing music to this relatively low-budget project. Her worst actress Razzie Award probably looks better standing next to the best screenplay Academy Award she received for this obvious labour of love.24-Hour Party People
While technically classified as a mockumentary, this post-modern take on the rise of Factory Records and Manchester’s music scene is as informative as a proper documentary while also being funny enough to entertain those who could give a toss about the subject matter. If there was ever a movie that had a great soundtrack in the bag before the script was written, the mandate for Party People to document the UK music scene invited the inclusion of artists like The Buzzcocks, The Clash, The Happy Mondays, and Joy Division turned New Order, acting as a crash course for the uninitiated.
"Musically, Marty is like the guy who fell in love with his high school sweetheart and never looked at another woman since."
– Scott Eastlick
Grosse Pointe Blank
Grosse Point Blank tells the story of a contract killer and self-described “lone wolf” being coerced into attending his high school reunion. The new wave and alternative soundtrack is channeled through the movie’s love interest – Minnie Driver – as DJ of a local radio station taking a musical trip down memory lane. The film's climax inevitably occurs at the reunion, which doubles as an excuse to play a host of reliable era-appropriate dance tracks from the likes of New Order, The Clash, and Echo and the Bunnymen. That this film was created by the team behind High Fidelity is a fact keen viewers could have surmised with their eyes closed.
Initially conceived as a documentary about the rise of reggae culture, somewhere Rockers found its identity as a scripted feature, which like the aforementioned 24-Hour Party People manages to convey the truth of a particular music scene at least as well as non-fiction. Largely inspired by Vittorio de Sica’s eternally watchable 1948 film The Bicycle Thief, the story of Rockers follows a drummer from Kingston earning his living delivering records to various sound systems around Jamaica, dramatizing the myriad class struggles which are vital to the music the film lovingly explores.
Blue in the Face
It may surprise you to learn that there is a film that stars Harvey Keitel, Michael J. Fox, Jim Jarmusch, Madonna, Lou Reed, Roseanne Barr, Lily Tomlin, and Ru Paul that you most likely haven’t seen. Shot in five days as an improvised sequel to the frankly superior 1995 film Smoke, Blue in the Face breaks free of the more deliberate structure of its predecessor for a loose knit pastiche of vignettes and charming documentary segments that compose a love letter to this era of pre-gentrified Brooklyn. Released on his own Luca Bop label, David Byrne works with an eclectic range of artists suited to depict the cultural diversity which doubles as the film’s heartbeat – from Tejano singer Selena to Indian orchestra leader Vijaya Anand, Michael Franti’s Spearhead, and Zap Mama. Beyond contributing as a performer to a memorable series of scenes that represent an absolute highlight, Velvet Underground frontman Lou Reed also provides the song “Egg Cream” in honour of the sort of local delicacy celebrated in this messy and endearing film.
My hot take of the moment is that the soundtracks to Spike Lee films aren’t as great as they seem like they would be. Do the Right Thing seems like a great soundtrack because "Fight the Power" is possibly the greatest use of music in the history of film, but a lot of the selection falls flat outside of the context of the movie. The soundtracks to He Got Game and Clockers should be integral hip hop compilations, but remain largely forgettable. Summer of Sam is a depiction of life in New York in 1977 contrasting the heyday of disco with the emergence of the CBGBs punk scene, which is one of the more prolific flashpoints in the history of music, yet the soundtrack is just okay.
Beyond being arguably his most underrated film, Crooklyn is also undoubtedly Lee’s most consistent soundtrack. Co-written with his sisters Joie and Cinqué Lee, the movie is a reflection of a shared childhood largely defined by nights spent watching Soul Train on TV, with the soundtrack mostly featuring songs that were played or performed on the seminal show. Beyond being an ideal complement to the movie, at two volumes I would struggle to name a more essential compilation of seventies soul.
Reasonable people could suggest that I’m violating my various artists designation with the inclusion of the soundtrack to Wild Style, wholly produced by Chris Stein of Blondie and rap legend Fab 5 Freddy. I rationalized this exception with the notion that in 1982 rap was less about the beats than the emcees who rhymed over them. With the end result being anointed by critics as the first great rap album, the beats on this seminal release were merely a canvas for the genre’s founding fathers to paint on.
Combining the best attributes of a heist film and a coming of age story, the strength of Juice’s premise was only outpaced by the quality of its soundtrack. I personally find the list of great hip hop soundtracks to be surprisingly short, admittedly biased by the fact that most applicable movies like Boyz in the Hood and Menace to Society were set in Los Angeles during an East/ West divide that found my heart beating for New York. This aversion to my own coast probably explains why I was never really into Tupac’s output as a musician, though his brilliant performance in this film surely depicts a great acting career cut short.
With the lead character as an aspiring DJ putting pressure on the soundtrack to deliver, director Ernest Dickerson entrusted this task to The Bomb Squad, the exalted production duo behind Public Enemy, who Dickerson met while cinematographer on Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing for which the two provided the seminal anthem. The spirit of "Fight the Power" is evident in the energy with which this selection announces itself, with veterans like Big Daddy Kane, Cypress Hill, and Rakim at the top of their game. The tempo occasionally submits to the romantic subplot with new jack ballads reminding us that The Bomb Squad also produced Poison by Bell Biv Devoe. The end result is the essential New York hip hop soundtrack that Lee never made.
2001: A Space Odyssey
The fact that this soundtrack is a various artists endeavor instead of a score wasn’t by design. The original composer left the project after the enigmatic director refused to even speak to him in the process, and the second stayed on long enough to compose an entire score that was summarily rejected. Kubrick then brought in Alex North, who he had worked with on Spartacus and Dr. Strangelove. North eventually found himself working from a hospital bed brought into the studio due to muscle spasms from the unrelenting stress put upon him.
A week before the MGM studio heads flew in to check on their investment, Kubrick sent his assistant to the nearest record store to buy as many classical records as he could with petty cash. The eager teenager loaded up a station wagon with so many albums that the car’s suspension nearly buckled. He then played the LPs one at a time as the director selected what were intended to be temporary tracks. Alex North attended the premier of the film expecting to hear his finished compositions, and became enraged by the realization that Kubrick had discarded the composer's work entirely.
Over half a century later, it feels like these celebrated works of classical music were made specifically for the film. Strauss’ iconic “Blue Danube” is elegantly used to parallel images of spinning satellites with the motion of waltz dancers, and “Zarathustra” doubles as a reference to Friedrich Nietzsche's philosophical novel “Thus Spoke Zarathustra,” which describes humans as transitional beings between apes and the next stage of evolution, deftly reflecting the film’s theme. The resulting soundtrack inspired a resurgence in classical music sales and provided some of the most cerebral applications of music in film.