Image via WikipediaThe soundtrack can maketh the movie! Music and the absence of music in a film do more than set the tone, they shape how we feel about the picture. If we look at the controversial end of filmmaking "Scum" doesn't have a soundtrack and this helps bring the realism of the picture to life. However, a film like "Irreversible", which is arguably more shocking and certainly not low on realism uses tricks with their soundtrack that purposefully unnerves its audience. Below are several examples of soundtracks that either not only "made the movie", but even took on a life of their own.
Like Jaws, Resident Evil's main strength lies in its soundtrack. Films inspired by video games are rarely going to get critics excited, but I think in many ways this film is overlooked. The soundtrack is fantastic for building a sense of impending menace not really experienced since Jaws and The Omen. The film keeps you on edge by the repetitive use of its main score, best exhibited early on when several characters are wiped out by an unstoppable lazer defence system. No zombies need apply for this, perhaps the film's best scene in the way that it constantly raises and dashes hopes. It is brilliantly accompanied by an uncompromising score, which marches relentlessly. I guess my bias for this film's soundtrack also comes from being a fan of the work of Marilyn Manson. Manson shows some great innovation, utilizing sound effects designed to make you feel uncomfortable. You could listen to the whole soundtrack and feel on edge without any visuals. All in all it's a great example of the horror model being applied to a soundtrack.
If ever there was a film that could challenge the best of Alfred Hitchcock's work it was Jaws. Like the best of Hitchcock's work, a good proportion of the suspense created in the film comes from its innovative soundtrack. Initially thought of as a joke, John Williams was arguably ahead of Steven Speilburg in understanding the primal feeling of the movie. The shark is a monstrous renegade of nature, terrorizing a typical seaside resort - the fictional Amity Island - in America, tearing away their society and its quaint leisure rituals with a reminder of what lurks "below the surface". Williams beautifully contrasts this with his uplifting theme for the resort against the very simplistic notes of the Jaws theme. The Jaws theme, of course, does build into a fully well-rounded piece of music, but it is the simple rise of the E and F notes, which mimics the heartbeat of a hunting shark, accompanying the shark's eye view taken by the underwater camera that all audiences will remember. See my review on "Ten Best Horror Films" for more on how much what think of this great film and its score.
Lord of the Rings
Lord of the Rings is an undeniable work of love done on a massive scale. The music is reflective of this with Howard Shore producing a soundtrack that, like the book and the films, is both epic and cosy - contrasting the grandeur of the story's events with the humbleness of those entrusted with its greatest task. Those who bought the extended editions will understand what I mean about the warmly familiar theme that plays throughout the documentaries. Shore has worked on some of my truly great films, Se7en, Ed Wood, Silence of the Lambs, Mrs Doubtfire and many more, but these features will forever be considered the bar he set for future epic soundtracks. With the music being produced by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the same orchestra responsible for producing Star Wars, Lawrence of Arabia and The Mission, it would seem odd for the soundtrack not to be memorable. The soundtrack also features songs by two of my favourite artists, Annie Lennox and Enya, the latter providing the folkish feel that is, of course, very much in line with the whole Tolkein vision.
Star Wars does not rest easy with me as a science fiction film - it is a space opera. It's a sword and sorcery saga, half-planned and half made-up as the auteur went along, that just happens to superficially resemble a science fiction film. With this in mind, John Williams does little to indicate the futuristic image of the story and instead composed music that spoke of epic mythology. The original Star Wars certainly was ahead of its time in terms of special effects and all successive entries have at least been on the cutting edge of the current visual and sound technology, but it is the operatic score that has a major influence over the scale George Lucas clearly wanted to project. Star Wars from the spectacle and pomp of its signature track and the Throne Room to the militaristic darkness of the Imperial March via the softer pieces such as Princess Leia and Yoda's themes, the original trilogy had it all firmly in place. However, the prequel trilogy was not without its own classic moments. The Phantom Menace's Duel of Fates is motion picture gold in terms of drama with a dark tinge throughout. By using an all male choir it evokes the same sense of danger we felt in Return of Jedi's Emperor Theme, representing darkness and evil, and sets it against lighter chords used to represent the side of light and good. The Duel of Fates is most memorably used in the excellent climatic two-on-one duel in The Phantom Menace. However, in Attack of the Clones its use is more subtle and comes in to represent Anakin's internal struggle when he goes to rescue his mother.
Bram Stoker's Dracula
If ever there was a soundtrack to take you on a journey, it is Wojciech Kilar's to Francis Ford Coppola's beautiful Gothic romance, "Bram Stoker's Dracula". The film just feels operatic as its stunning visuals move with Kilar's powerful score. All the orchestral scores are wonderful from the boomingly ominous dirge of a theme to the angelically purity of the ascension piece, which played out just before the end credits. However, the piece that really appealed to me was "The Storm" with its fantastic contrasts of brassy power, a foreboding male choir and the creepy soprano vocals of Diamanda Galas with the sound of an innocuous music box. It says everything about Gothic drama.
Moving away from the music used to move the film along; we come to the single released to promote the film. Annie Lennox's beautiful "Love Song for a Vampire", which is one of my all time favourite songs. The song is rightfully not played immediately as the end credits role, but is served up as a wonderful reflection on the idea of a love that carries over centuries that is central to Coppola's interpretation of the Dracula story. Please see my "Ten Best Singles" review for more on why I love this track so much.
Like Jaws, Psycho's rising anxiety and savage ferocity is driven by its music. This is to take nothing away from either Spielberg or Hitchcock's masterful direction, but both directors understood how important the music would be for their respective pictures. When the emphasis is on the unseen then it is obviously crucial that sound is delivered effectively. It has to work overtime. Psycho has a fast-moving theme - provided by Hitchcock favourite Bernard Herrmann - that runs through most of the picture. It gets us on the edge of our seats in the thrilling first act, which acts almost like a red herring setting us up for the real shocks. These real shocks are provided by the shrieking violins that accompany the iconic attack in the shower. For more of my views on Psycho please read my list of "Ten Best Horror Films".
Looking at many of my selections I am suddenly aware that I like my evil portrayed by male choirs. The film that best demonstrates this usage is The Omen and its sequels. Omen's soundtrack is probably one of the most frequently incorrectly remembered. Since I was a child I remember people referencing O Fortuna as the theme for Omen, which although a brilliant if over-used piece of classical music, is a sad insult to Jerry Goldsmith. Goldsmith is easily up there for John Williams, Danny Elfman, Bernard Herrmann and others as one of cinema's greatest motion picture soundtrack composers. And it was for this film that he received his only Oscar. The film's soundtrack is a great balance of light and darkness.
The most memorable piece on the soundtrack is "Ave Satani" (Latin for "Hail Satan") and is a type of Black Mass, inverting typical Christian Gregorian chants in favour of Satan. Real Black Masses, of course, had been around since the days of the occultist and great charlatan Alistair Crowley, but from a musical point of view Goldsmith was years ahead of the Death and Black Metal bands who would be busy scaring Conservative America in the late '80s and early '90s. Like Psycho and Jaws the key to the building suspense in Omen comes from the unseen. Unlike either picture you do get a rather disturbing or explicit, for its time, death sequence. In Psycho and Jaws your anxiety may be raised to fever pitch, but you feel there is some hope enough to shout at the intended victim to look out. Both films provide the feelings of a race and, of course, eventually the bad guy doesn't win. However, the religious sounding element to Ave Satani helps create something different in The Omen - inevitability. Once that particular track starts playing you know that there is no way out, the character's fate is sealed.
Natural Born Killers
In the early 1990s a new trend occurred with movie soundtracks. Starting with "Mission: Impossible" many soundtracks bore the line "Music from and inspired by the motion picture". It was a blatant cop-out. Many tracks that appeared on these albums and had not appeared on the film were clearly not inspired. Most of these tracks had been released before the film was made anyway. However, one artist did seek to do something completely different, which should have revolutionized the way we think of movie soundtracks. That person was the musical auteur Trent Reznor, the only real member of the post-industrial band "Nine Inch Nails". Reznor had developed an uncanny way to be successful and not sacrifice his own integrity to the point that most of his work could be seen as much self-indulgent and it is experimental.
The soundtrack for Natural Born Killers meshes music from various artists, including Reznor, with dialogue from actual scenes in the movie. It almost plays like a musical. There is a rich diversity of music, reflecting a huge unseen respect Reznor has in the music industry. According to the movie's director, Oliver Stone, once Reznor was brought on board a wide diversity of artists became willing to be part of the project. Artists vary from Patti Smith to Dr Dre to Bob Dylan to Lard to Leonard Cohen and so on. It speaks of the underbelly of America, the flipside of the American dream which is pretty much the image the film was trying to portray. The soundtrack is best listened in one sitting as a separate experience from the film.
Interview with the Vampire
The long awaited big screen adaptation of Anne Rice's novel about a brooding vampire couldn't have been timed better. After the previous year's success with "Bram Stoker's Dracula" that saw the monstrous count portrayed as a Byronic hero, American cinema goers were ready for the tortured Louis and the roguish Lestat. The importance of an atmospheric and comprehensive soundtrack also seems to have had an influence. The resulting work is a brilliant piece of contemporary classical music that ranges from creeping pianos and organs to eccentrically dizzy fast pieces.
There is undeniably an eerie supernatural feel to the work, but like the film there is no need for any sense of imposing doom or even a clear cut battle between good and evil. The story took you inside the vampire's mind, giving his view as an ageless traveller. Likewise the soundtrack moves you along this surreal premise taking you through the ages and places covered in the film. Many have remarked on the old feel given by the hugely creative composer Elliot Goldenthal, but it is the piece feel of exoticness that I think sets it out from other film soundtracks that deal with the supernatural. The appeal or fear of the vampire when they became popular in fiction during the Victorian time was partly linked to their foreignness. By not making any direct links to any set culture, Goldenthal creates a soundtrack that somehow feels very alien in its strangeness. The soundtrack, like the film, ends with the Guns 'n Roses quite reasonable cover of the Rolling Stones song, "Sympathy for the Devil", the beginning of which seems to carry on the darkly festive feel of many of Goldenthal's upbeat pieces.
At the time of its release, "Nickelback", "Saliva", "Moby" and "Rob Zombie" seemed to have been guaranteed the lion's share of action fantasy movie soundtrack work over recent years and their appearance here was of no surprise to me. By now I would have expected their songs to be a little "conveyor belt", but this is not the case. Their entries are very memorable, particularly Zombie's collaborative piece with "Drowning Pool", "The Man Without Fear." The title says it all and it is a worthy fast-paced tribute to the Daredevil character. However, it is tracks like Fuel's "I Won't Back Down" and newcomer at the time Evanescence's fantastic "Bring me Back to Life" that were the real gems on this album. In fact it is this latter track, used to accompany Elektra's training sequence, which probably prompted most fans of the film to buy the soundtrack.
There are few weak tracks on the album; although some of the songs played by less well known artists (in Britain at least) may seem to lack any individual charm (there are some obvious "Manic Street Preachers" and "Greenday" clones on it). Having said this, they provide enough musical diversity to make the album entertaining to listen to as a whole.
"Lost Highway" for Trent Reznor's second attempt at a movie soundtrack concept album; a largely jazz influenced compilation that featured memorable work from David Bowie, Marilyn Manson, the newly emerging Ramstein, The Smashing Pumpkins and a least of third of the tracks supplied by David Lynch regular Angelo Badalamenti amongst others. Like Natural Born Killers it also features a lot dialogue from the film.
The work of Danny Elfman: His association with Tim Burton has produced some great warped fairytales. "Edward Scissorhands", "Sleepy Hollow" and "The Nightmare Before Christmas" are undeniable classics, but my personal favourite is his work on "Batman" and "Batman Returns".
Name Your Link
If you like your cheese cranked up to octaves of stilton then you can't go far wrong with the soundtracks of the mid-80s. Both "Rocky IV" and "Transformers: The Movie" have special places in my heart for a variety of reasons. Both films also exhibited contributions from now very rarely heard of artists: Vince De Cola and Stan Bush. De Cola composed some genuine classics for both these pictures, "Training Montage" in Rocky IV standing out as the best work I have heard him do. Bush seems to have been made to speak to the air punching soft-rockers of the mid-80s and his corny celebratory lyrics can't but bring a smile to my face every time I hear them.
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