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soundtracks

8.8.98

"I like Tarantino's sense of how he structures stories. I hate what he's done for soundtracks, though. It's not all his fault. It started before him. 'Let's buy pop songs by the yard and put them over the film.'"
- Jim Jarmusch

When I heard last week that a Buffy the Vampire Slayer soundtrack album is on the way, I had decidedly mixed feelings. True, I'll probably buy anything Buffy-related (including the forthcoming VHS sets of the first episodes), but even as I shell out the money I'll resent doing it -- resent how commercialized my beloved show is becoming. But I also balk at a Buffy soundtrack for another reason: What could possibly be on it? A remix of the Nerf Herder theme song? All the songs we heard ten seconds of in the background at the Bronze? Yes, Cibo Matto has appeared on the show, and they used a nice Sarah McLachlan song on last season's finale, but I have a feeling it's going to be another example of that dreaded phenomenon: "Music From And Inspired By."

It's the "And Inspired By" that annoys me. I mean, no offense, I don't want to step on any toes here, but if you bought the Godzilla soundtrack, you're part of the fuckin' problem, okay? And I don't mean the actual score, which is available separately; I mean the collection of songs that either weren't anywhere near the actual Godzilla movie or were heard for two seconds. That's hardly the only recent example, but it's probably the most glaring.

Soundtracks used to be so simple. You saw a movie, you dug the songs or the instrumentals, you went out and bought the album. Well, Prince changed all that. Not with Purple Rain, which was an honest collection of songs you heard in the movie, but with Batman. Confused consumers had two soundtracks to choose from: Danny Elfman's score or Prince's songs. Personally, I wasn't confused at all: If it didn't say "Music by Danny Elfman" on it, I didn't buy it. And it wasn't even really Prince's fault, though his songs for Batman were lame. It was Warner's fault for forcing Prince on Tim Burton, who buried the Prince songs as best he could. Hence the soundtrack album of songs you barely heard in the movie.

Well, that was a bad precedent. Now you routinely get two versions of a soundtrack, one of which is the actual soundtrack, the other of which should properly be labelled A Compilation CD Sponsored by a Movie Studio.

Another soundtrack trend I don't go for is the multivolume soundtrack. You see this a lot with period movies chockablock full of retro songs. Grosse Pointe Blank, Romy and Michele's High School Reunion, and The Wedding Singer all have two soundtrack albums out, the rationale being that they couldn't fit all the songs on one CD. To which I retort, Why not just put out a double-CD set to begin with? Because then they can't get as much money out of you -- a two-CD set is generally less pricey than buying two separate CDs.

And it's not as if it's impossible to put together a soundtrack that evokes the movie and stands alone as a great disc. The cream of the current crop are the soundtracks for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Out of Sight. Both include dialogue from the movie, original compositions, and an eclectic selection of tunes that were actually in the film.

I'm not a hardcore soundtrack collector, tracking down out-of-print pressings of the E.T. picture disc or whatever, but I do speak as a lifelong appreciator of movie music. The Star Wars album started me off; John Williams was God for a while. Then, in the '80s, something terrible happened to soundtracks. They began to be...cheesy. As I've said before, the songs in today's retro '80s movies are a thousand times better than the songs in actual '80s movies. And the market began to slide away from instrumental music and towards the works of Kenny Loggins, Deniece Williams, and Harold Faltermeyer. There was money to be made and awards to be won: Berlin's awful "Take My Breath Away" for Top Gun actually won an Oscar for Best Song. It was a dark time for the rebellion....

Some may point, in refutation, to the runaway success of James Horner's music for Titanic. Big whoop. It was Titanic, for Christ's sake -- two hours of fucking kazoo music would have won an Oscar and sold millions of copies as long as it had that soggy Celine Dion single on it. And Horner isn't my idea of a great composer, anyway. Most of his stuff is generic pump-you-up stuff, and his Titanic score should've had "Property of Enya" spray-painted across it. His current work for The Mask of Zorro hasn't done much to alter my opinion.

But then, what Oscar-winning movie composer in recent years has deserved it? Anne Dudley won last year for The Full Monty. For doing what?? You had a bunch of cool disco songs, and then you had her bland score that sounded like the generic stuff you used to hear in the theater before the lights went down. Danny Elfman was nominated in both categories and lost, of course. He'll never win. Neither will David Holmes (Out of Sight) or Elliot Goldenthal, who has done subtle and amazing work for Neil Jordan films, or Howard Shore (Silence of the Lambs, Seven, Crash) or Angelo Badalamenti (Blue Velvet, Lost Highway).

The only solace here is that those multi-musician "Music From And Inspired By" soundtracks automatically don't win anything. Occasionally a song may get nominated by default because there's so little competition (who the fuck remembers hearing the nominated song from Con Air?). And I cringe at the prospect of Steven Tyler accepting an Oscar for Aerosmith's "Love Theme from Armageddon" or whatever the hell it is. But mostly, the producers of these albums have to content themselves with good sales.

Personally, the one soundtrack I'd rush out and buy, which I'm sure is well on its way, is a South Park CD. Kyle's impassioned rendition of "A Lonely Jew on Christmas"...Chef's greatest hits like "Love Gravy" and "Oh Kathie Lee"...and perhaps a Dust Brothers remix of "Kyle's Mom Is a Stupid Bitch (in D Minor)."

And hold onto your wallets: DreamWorks' upcoming Prince of Egypt is said to have not one, not two, but three soundtrack albums. Why don't they just put out a fucking boxed set and get it over with?


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