By Cormac McCarthy
Next month will mark the 1000th week in a row that the soundtrack to Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction has rested in the top 100 soundtrack album charts. An incredible feat of an estimated 8 million units sold, it speaks to the enduring quality not just of the songs themselves but also to the association they have with the films themselves.
It asks the question: Would the film be of the same quality if not for that particular arrangement of songs?
The answer is of course, absolutely not. Songs such as Dick Dale’s “Miserlou” and Chuck Berry’s “You never can tell” are so intensely associated with the film their opening chords instantly brings to mind the scenes in which they feature.
When used correctly, the soundtrack can perfectly capture the tone of the film as well as the personality of the characters. Of course, this means more than the tired cliché of the nerdy characters walking in slow motion to the beat of a hip-hop song, to highlight them going out of their comfort zone.
The soundtrack can often make a break a film, instantly setting the tone, guiding the audience through the film.
This is especially true for films such as Grease, Saturday Night Fever and Purple Rain, where the iconography of the pop songs chosen for the film carry the weaker plot and unpolished characters. The audience is so enthralled with the songs themselves that they do not care about such menial elements.
After all, what is more of an icon of 70s Disco culture than John Travolta strutting down the street to the opening riff of the Bee Gee’s “Saturday Night Fever”?
The concept itself was initially used as a means of promotion within films where musical artists, by having their songs featured in a film, could expand their audience. It quickly evolved to become the art form that it is today, where the songs are so carefully picked and expertly chosen for having just the right mood.
Directors such as Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino and Robert Zemeckis were perhaps the strongest early proponents of the soundtrack. Their wide range of musical knowledge assisted them in perfectly conveying the tone and mood of the film. The soundtrack to Scorsese’s Goodfellas perfectly captures the devolution of Henry Hill’s character from a young man eager to prove himself to a deranged, drug abusive madman.
In recent years, there has been a certain boom in the number of films using a soundtrack in place of a score to convey the mood of a film.
Filmmakers such as Edgar Wright and James Gunn are two such filmmakers who have managed to master the art of the musical compilation.
Gunn’s Guardian’s of the Galaxy varied collection of 70s and 80s soul-pop perfectly highlights the care-free nature of Peter Quill as well as being his very last connection to the real world. Gunn carries this over to the sequel where the songs chosen are deeper in subject matter and shows Quill’s growth as a person.
Edgar Wright’s talent for soundtracks was perfectly illustrated through his film Baby Driver. Here, the music itself dictates both the pacing and the direction of the film. The film’s many car chases and exciting moments are edited to the beats of the song playing. Genuinely, it is as exciting as it is fascinating to watch. The technical mastery from the filmmakers is a sight to behold.
What really is quite special is when a single artist is chosen to write and perform the entire soundtrack album. Notable examples include Simon and Garfunkel’s work for The Graduate and Queen’s bombastic scoring of Flash Gordon.
Here the artist’s own style of playing often defines the tone of the film. Simon and Garfunkel’s softly spoken American folk perfectly captures the sense of Ennui within the film whereas Flash Gordon’s flamboyantly camp plot is complemented by Queen’s operatic gaudiness.
Like it or not, music is a universal element of our part of day to day lives. So, it seems obvious that it should reflect accordingly in cinema. A song can catapult a film into cinematic hall of fame.
After all, Mike Myers, upon hearing that the producers were thinking of cutting Bohemian Rhapsody from the opening scene of Wayne’s World, threatened to leave the film. He explained that no other song would work as perfectly for the scene. The producers relented, and the rest is history.