By the Editors
Oscar weekend is upon us, and so, therefore is talk of movies—and movie soundtracks. Which got us here at Weeping Elvis wondering– what are the best movie soundtracks of all time?
Now, a movie doesn’t need a defining soundtrack to be great … but it it sure helps, especially in the case of generation- and genre-defining pictures.
In discussing and assembling this list, criteria was critical. Film scores, no matter how great (Star Wars, Johnny Greenwood’s work for There Will Be Blood) were out. We’re still essentially talking about pop songs being enlisted to serve a film. But we also largely eliminated retrospective anthologies designed to evoke nostalgia (Big Chill, we’re talking to you) in favor of highly curated contemporaneous soundtracks designed to evoke place, time and mood.
This, then, is our list…
It’s not surprising that a movie about an independent record store and its employees would have a soundtrack that takes a perfect snapshot of the musical zeitgeist at the time. What is surprising is that the soundtrack caught on the way it did despite the fact that the movie was never released theatrically. (See our sidebar feature from the film’s music supervisor, Jonathan McHugh.) While the cast of Empire Records were a bunch of young up-and-comers at the time of its release (1995), they now read like a who’s who of Hollywood. The soundtrack, however, was packed with new, hit songs by some of the biggest bands of the 90s: Gin Blossoms, The Cranberries, Toad The Wed Sprocket, Cracker and introduced Edwyn Collins to the States with “A Girl Like You.” – JEEVES
The soundtracks to these three movies launched more Gen X makeout sessions than Bartles & Jaymes. There was a time in the 90s when you were guaranteed a kickass soundtrack if John Cusack was in the movie, as though he were personally moonlighting as music supervisor in every film in which he starred. Taken together, the soundtracks to the “Cusack Trilogy” are enough to make you want to throw on a Members Only jacket, a pair of Vans and some Vuarnet sunglasses as you recategorize your music collection—not alphabetically, but autobiographically. – HUEY
Curtis Mayfield’s 1972 masterpiece Super Fly is the musical eruption that resulted when 60s soul met 70s funk and spawned a genre all its own: blaxploitation music. One of the few soundtracks in history to outgross the film on which it’s based, the Super Fly LP is the definitive chronicle of the urban blight that engulfed inner city America as a decade of idealism gave way to a stark new reality. From the bongos and high-hat groove of the intro to “Little Child Running Wild,” you’re suddenly deep in the ghetto, and (funky horn section and wah-wah pedal notwithstanding) it’s not a welcoming place. Equal parts James Brown and Gil Scott Heron, the record is so funky that you could easily get caught up in its hypnotic groove, almost oblivious to the trenchant social commentary in Mayfield’s lyrics. Almost. HUEY
Forget the bell bottoms, John Travolta’s hair and dance moves that have become a wedding-reception punchline. There may never have been a soundtrack that defined a moment–albeit a fleeting one–like this. The infectiously upbeat music on this album became the soundtrack for an earlier generation of club kids, whose discotheques were an escape from the urban decay and the Carter-era malaise around them. Sure, the Bee Gees dominate, but the credits read like a murderer’s row of late 70s pop artists, with Kool and the Gang, K.C. and the Sunshine Band and Tavares rounding out the mix. SIR DUKE
4. The Harder They Come
With the possible exception Bob Marley’s 1977 magnum opus Exodus, the 1972 soundtrack to the film The Harder They Come is the greatest reggae album of all time. (If it’s any consolation to Mr. Marley, it took six phenomenal artists—including Toots & The Maytals, Desmond Dekker and The Melodians— to give him a run for his money!) The songs on this accompaniment to Jimmy Cliff’s star turn as a Kingston gangster were curated by Cliff himself and represent some of the purest expressions of ska, rocksteady and roots reggae ever recorded. There are very few examples of absolute perfection in the world; this album is one of them. – HUEY
Nearly everyone of a certain generation can tell you where they were the first time they heard “When Doves Cry,” one of two No. 1 hits spawned here. Innovations like a lack of a bass line, envelope-pushing synth sounds and a brilliant vocal performance by His Purpleness shaped not only “When Doves Cry” but the rest of the soundtrack’s songs as well. Then there were the Grammys, The Oscar for Best Song and sales of over 20 million. Not just great songs, these concert favorites moved the plot of Purple Rain like the score of a Broadway musical. Prince, (who now would add “The Revolution” to his act’s name ) was already well-established in the wake of his breakout 1999 but the success of Purple Rain ratcheted that up another notch as this album/soundtrack managed to be as commercially successful as it was artistically innovative. – CLEM
1. A Hard Day’s Night
Almost alone in pop culture, Hard Day’s Night offers up a groundbreaking film, which still lands on many critics’ top 100 all-time lists, and combines it with a soundtrack that has a place on many all-time great album lists. Released in 1964 just when Beatlemania was in full flower, the accompanying album–their first of all-original material–also represents Lennon and McCartney coming into their own as songwriters, and beginning to build the bridge to what we’d come to know as “the 60s.” Roger Ebert quips: “Untold thousands of young men walked into the theater with short haircuts, and their hair started growing during the movie and didn’t get cut again until the 1970s.” – SIR DUKE