How do you file the soundtrack albums in your collection? The Vinyl Connection library has them alphabetically under ‘Soundtrack’, a nice little section sitting snugly between Sonic Youth and The Soup Dragons (the CDs) and a bigger vinyl section sandwiched comfortably twixt The Someloves and Joe South.
If you browse any collection of soundtrack albums you can’t help noticing how oddly varied they are. Here are a few sub-groupings for starters…
This used to be the most widespread and remains the least interesting sub-category. Someone (not always the most creative member of the team) compiles an album of existing songs that have appeared in the film, perhaps only for a few seconds, whacks a cinematic still on the cover and the company pushes it into the market in the hope that some poor sods who enjoyed the movie will shell out for this uninspired collection of unconnected songs. It’s true that these perfunctory efforts have become less common, and it is also fair to say that if you have a modest collection, sometimes these comps can fill a few gaps cheaply, yet generally they offer limited return on your investment unless you have such a strong connection to the film that such a collection transports you to another place and time.
Compilation with Benefits
Occasionally a rarity will sneak onto the disc, increasing the interest factor and perhaps making the album a lil’ bit collectible. An example is Against All Odds, an album I bought not for the Phil Collins title song, but for the contribution by previous Genesis frontman Peter Gabriel. ‘Walk Through the Fire’ has the moody intensity that characterises much of Gabriel’s work and while not a lost classic, is a solid—and rare—addition to the artist’s songbook. I also find it amusing that the two Genesis singers are separated by Stevie Nicks. Rumours abound.
Another type of benefit is when the soundtrack album contains snippets from the film or is configured in such a way as to provide an entertaining listening experience in its own right. One favourite in this category is the soundtrack album for Canadian Ron Mann’s 1999 film Grass: A History of Marijuana. After a catchy, electronically funky opening song by Mark Mothersbaugh (Devo) entitled ‘Quit Playing Games With God!’, we jump back to 1932 for a rollicking Cab Calloway number (remember him in The Blues Brothers?), ‘Reefer Man’. The soundtrack proceeds in a roughly chronological order via a couple of drug staples (‘Itchycoo Park’ by the Small Faces and the Quicksilver Messenger Service classic ‘Fresh Air’) and a mandatory reggae number (Peter Tosh ‘Legalise it’, the lyrics of which are an absolute hoot) to a closing bracket of three 90s songs. The rap one leaves me unmoved, but William Topley’s ‘(I don’t wanna go) Uptown’ is darkly grooving.
There is a fun Chevy Chase Saturday Night Live sketch, but my favourite dialogue excerpt is from the ‘science experiment’ segment. A volunteer has been administered (under controlled conditions, of course) a substantial hit of, er Fresh Air. Asked whether he would participate in a similar study again, he does not hesitate.
So it was a very pleasant experience for you—
…Any time you want…
Do you think it would be—
ANY time at all…
Do you th—
Day… or… night…
Composed for the film, often during the early editing stages, these soundtracks aim to underscore the story arc and enhance the emotional impact of key scenes. Yet I find that, separated from the images, such works often sound like so much posturing. Dragging them out of the enclosed darkness of the cinema can reveal grandiose clichés and a patchwork of filmic tropes that are rarely satisfying listening experiences.
But not all composed scores consist of dramatic swathes of strings and swelling orchestral waves. Where the Director and composer go for a smaller scale music, the results can be pleasing. An example is the music written for Brideshead Revisited by Geoffrey Burgon. Although it is a TV series and, strictly speaking, inadmissible here, I’m not going to let that stop me.
I was always going to be biased towards the music due to a long-term infatuation with Evelyn Waugh’s great 1945 novel of awakening and disillusionment, yet the melodious ‘classical’ themes and chamber orchestra arrangements have a patina of elegance and the scent of a different, less troubled world. If you played this during an autumn afternoon tea with your Great Aunt Amelia, she would approve. You’d be eating cucumber sandwiches, of course.
Music played live and captured on film is a large category all on its own. From Jazz On A Summer’s Day, the 1960 film of the Newport Jazz Festival of two years earlier, to the almost mandatory tour film by today’s supergroup, diverse artists and events have been preserved on film and presented to the public via a theatrical release. For some, both album and film attain some sort of immortality due either to the brilliance of the musical performances or the historical significance of the concerts, or both.
As far as events go, no-one would argue against Woodstock being a pivotal moment in sixties youth culture. The film was popular at the box office when it was release a year after the festival in 1970, while the triple live album has had an enduring fascination for several generations.
What it says on the packet. Or in this case, jacket. A soundtrack composed by an artist or artists who have taken the film commission seriously enough to attempt to create an entire album of quality music that works on its own.
One of my favourite film adaptations began life as a children’s picture book containing just over 330 words.Yet the music by Karen O and the Kids for Spike Jonze Where The Wild Things Are is boisterous and touching.
Like a part-punk, part waif leader of a pack of eight-year-olds, Karen O (Yeah Yeah Yeahs) delivers a set of songs both innocent and gutsy. The film of Maurice Sendak’s book (novelist Dave Eggers co-wrote the screenplay) is a bit the same.
The original Sendak story is so very good that it is worth having a child just so you get to read it to them. I’m not sure the film/soundtrack is quite in that procreative category, but it is a wonderful, human work populated by charming (and sometimes slightly scary) wild things. And ‘All is love’ is a great song in any context.
One for the Max in all of us.
Of course, the most fascinating and frustrating aspect of all music collecting (and writing) is its absolute refusal to be divided into neatly defined sections. You could, for example, approach this particular task by looking at film genres.
Horror, Western, Rom Com, Sci Fi, Musical…
All categories are incomplete, partially inaccurate, and somewhat contrived. That doesn’t stop us trying to shove stuff into the boxes, but certainly limits the success. So we must cheerfully accept that attempts at sub-division are, at best, a rough and sketchy map and that many—perhaps even the most interesting—musical soundtracks comprise hybrids, variants or even uncategorizable offerings demanding individual attention. An example is When The Wind Blows, featured a while back at Vinyl Connection, where new and pre-existing material are combined successfully to create a cohesive and fascinating album.
Being curious about which soundtracks float the cinematic boats of others, I invited some blog colleagues to share their favourite soundtrack albums. A number bought tickets immediately.
So, fanfare please, as we proudly announce… the inaugural…
A special page has been added for the Program