Thursday, November 11, 2010

Eight Notable Soundtracks

by Brendan Cavanagh

Two of my biggest passions in my life are music and movies. Often people will lean towards one or the other, or neither at all. Luckily I'm able to enjoy both. What makes me appreciate both even more (if possible) is the fact that most movies contain a soundtrack or original score that usually captures the essence or feel of the story. I've compiled in this blog post a list of eight of my favorite movie/soundtrack combinations, though these are by no means my definitive eight favorite movies or soundtracks. In alphabetical order:

One. The Big Chill

The Big Chill is a classic movie which details the reunion of seven best friends from college who have reassembled in their young adulthood in order to attend the funeral of their buddy, Alex. If you watch only the first ten or fifteen minutes of the movie, you would think it's the beginning of a two-hour depressing sobfest. But when one of the seven, Karen, gets up during the funeral and plants herself down at the organ in order to play "one of Alex's favorite songs" (The Rolling Stones' "You Can't Always Get What You Want") during the recession, the other six smirk to themselves in a knowing manner. At this point the tone shifts to one of rich, dark comedy and heavy musical nostalgia. Everyone spends the weekend at their friends' nearby plantation-style guest house, reliving the glory days of collegiate youth and lack of responsibilities. Although several arguments and even more hookups threatens to put a rift in their already strained friendships, they come to recognize the mutual interests and bonds that made them so close-knit, often revolving conversations and situations around one of their tightest foundations, music. Attending college in the 60's has imbued in each of them an extensive taste in the classic Motown and Rock 'n' Roll hits of the day, such as Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Bad Moon Rising," Marvin Gaye's "I Heard It Through The Grapevine" and Procol Harum's "A Whiter Shade Of Pale." Several scenes (such as the amusing and highly-relatable Kitchen Scene) really accurately show how music, for the aging college buddies as well as for all of us today, has a deep connection to what we do each day. A mutual appreciation for music can enhance social gatherings and solidify relationships with a magnitude unparalleled by many other factors.

Two. Cool Hand Luke

Cool Hand Luke, on the other hand, features an original score by Lalo Schifrin that is alternately haunting and ebullient and depressing and uplifting, and musically follows the story of Lucas Jackson, who undergoes life on a chain gang and subsequently vies for escape. One scene in particular, in which Luke discovers that his mother has died shortly after her brief visit to see him, features Paul Newman (who plays Luke, and actually supplied the vocals for the song) tearfully strumming a banjo as he quietly sings the comforting tune "Plastic Jesus" to himself. It makes you feel like your mom just died, too. Then at the end of the film, the End Theme (start at 3:55) plays solemnly over the gut-wrenching sight of Luke's lonely buddy Dragline as he contently does his work on the side of the road in his new set of leg chains, sweeping up into an aerial shot of the chain gang with a tremendous crescendo. Cool Hand Luke's score does a fantastic job of capturing the most natural, often melancholy moods of the characters and the audience.

Three. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

This score is by no means one of the best around, but it's definitely my favorite of the Harry Potter films'. For the first time in the series, John Williams declined to return to his post of composer, which meant less chamber-style, orchestral, easily-identifiable leit-motifs, such as his ever-enduring "Hedwig's Theme." Instead, Patrick Doyle took the reins and created this ominous, solemn score that portrays the building fear of the Death Eaters' rising, completing the Triwizard Tournament, and facing Voldemort. But there are also several tracks devoted to the whimsical mood of the Yule Ball and learning to dance. Humorously, there are even three songs performed by a faux-wizard band from the Yule Ball called The Weird Sisters. But more than the fact that the soundtrack adequately relates to the movie and captures a wide range of emotions and feelings, the fact that it was the first Harry Potter soundtrack to really relate to me in a sense was striking. There's a scene at the end of the movie where Harry strolls the courtyard as his peers cheerfully and boisterously say goodbye to one another and their international guests. Instead of partaking in the festivities, Harry just observes from afar, still getting back on his feet from facing Voldemort, his arch-nemesis. The song, "Another Year Ends" (skip to 4:08) plays a somewhat mournful tune throughout until Harry breaks a faint smile and realizes how much he's glad to be alive and surrounded by people he loves and who love him, and then the mood of the song lifts to match his mood. I've often ambled about, observing people I know and people I don't know, lost in deep, introverted thought, ultimately reaching the same conclusion as Harry. Listening to the song causes me to initially reflect, and ultimately rejoice.

Four. Jesus Christ Superstar

In eighth grade, Jesus Christ Superstar Mania swept my class, stemming from a "Culture Hour" in which we joined together to watch the movie. Not only was the movie ridiculously popular among my peers and I, but the soundtrack began to make its prevalence among the junior high's underground, bootleg-CD racket. Depicting the Jesus' last week on Earth and ultimate Passion (his painstaking final hours for you non-Gentiles), "JCS" presents the story as a rock opera, featuring and lyrics by Andrew Lloyd Webber. The soundtrack has all the understandable angst Judas felt- with a catchy guitar riff!; all the suffering of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane- featuring Ted Neely literally howling his agony!; all the love between Jesus and Mary Magdalene- with disco favorite Yvonne Elliman offering the soothing and heartbroken and necessary female vocals! Never before were the Gospels so appealing to me. you don't even have to be a practicing Catholic to enjoy the blatant 70s spin on the story of Jesus.

Five. No Direction Home

Not exactly a notable movie soundtrack, but not many others have been so influential in my life. In order to solidify what little I knew about Bob Dylan and in order to catch some note-worthy song titles, a few years back stuck it out through the three hours of this Bob Dylan biography, detailing his life from his quiet life in Minnesota as a boy to his peak of fame in 1966. Rather cleverly defying to accompany the movie with a compilation of his obvious greatest hits, of which there are many, the soundtrack features numerous rare and often previously-unheard home-recordings, outtakes, alternate takes, demo-recordings and live versions of both his popular and lesser-known songs. The live song I hyperlinked above is the end of the movie, featuring footage of one of the tracks on the soundtrack, the infamous "Judas!" live version of "Like A Rolling Stone." I don't think I've ever taken so many songs off one album in order to make my myriad various mixes. The film and soundtrack properly laid the foundation for my obsession with Dylan.

Six. O Brother, Where Art Thou?

An odyssey across the Depression-era American South reminiscent of Homer's most famous work, the Coen Brothers' classic O Brother, Where Art Thou? features an award-winning soundtrack composed by the brilliant T-Bone Burnett with modern reworkings of music of that era. The album has a feel good, old-timey quality about it that instantly relaxes the listener and rids one of worries, replacing those perturbations instead with pleasant thoughts of fields, sunsets, campfires and homemade moonshine. I think it's the only reason I was able to make it through my freshman research paper, about Jack London incidentally. I was stressing out in my attempts to come up with thirty notecards and ten sources until I bought a copy of O Brother, Where Art Thou?'s soundtrack. Immediately, at least in my memory, I fully realized that it was the end of the school year- it was getting warmer, and the room filled up with mild, brownish-yellow light recalling the color of faded old Depression-era photos might take up. Everything about the album is like this- from Norman Blake's sorrowful, finger-picking-riddled rendition of "You Are My Sunshine" to the fake Soggy Bottom Boys' hit, "Man Of Constant Sorrow" to Alison Krauss and Gillian Welch's bubbly, ethereal approach to the spiritual "I'll Fly Away." As with any Coen Brothers movie, the soundtrack and the songs they choose are very important to them, and I believe they simply nailed it perfectly when planning the soundtrack for O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Seven. Summer of '42

Fifteen-year old Hermie falls in love with twenty two-year old Dorothy while living at his summer home during World War II. He initially watches her from afar and fantasizes about being with her. He then performs some chores for her, beginning to get to know her and realize that she has a beautiful personality to match her looks. Towards the close of the movie, he discovers that her husband whom she just married has been killed while serving in another country, leading to the most painfully depressing and romantic sexual encounter ever chronicled in film. The film is beautiful, but how could the director adequately convey the agony and tribulations of a teen in love without a score to match it? He found his man in French composer Michel Legrand, who did a leGrand job of capturing the film's heartbreak and triumph. The haunting "Theme From Summer of '42" while serving as the soundtrack's basic motif, is also played on a vinyl record before the ultimate love scene (kind of like foreplay for what is the longest and most agonizing silence of any movie), as if it is a real song in Hermie and Dorothy's universe. The song rises and falls with gripping emotion. The initial simple four notes on the piano are all you need to burst into tears.

Eight. To Kill A Mockingbird

When you start To Kill A Mockingbird, you witness a young girl, presumably the heroine, Scout, drawing with crayons as the title credits begin to roll across the scene. The sheer simplicity of the scene accurately exemplifies the meaning behind the soundtrack for To Kill A Mockingbird. Elmer Bernstein, the composer, expressed in an interview once that in order to come up with the soundtrack's main theme, he simply sat down and fingered random keys in the hopes to come across something striking and profound. What he discovered instead is that the soft, uncomplicated progression of notes interestingly resembled the way a small child would toy with piano keys with his or her index finger. From there, he composed an elaborate and sweeping score that reflected the beauty in the simplicity of childhood and the inherent goodness it contains. Aside from the racial and legal overtones that occupy a large part of To Kill A Mockingbird, the story is mostly about being a kid. And I think Bernstein really understood this and incorporated the idea into his score. Often the soundtrack evokes basic emotions of youth- those lazy and quiet summer mornings, or the brisk walk to and from school in late autumn, or the fear of isolation and the unknown that darkness incurs, or the comfort one finds in a parent. I can remember the fourth time I read To Kill A Mockingbird in eighth grade, when I played the soundtrack as I read, hoping to gain a more well-rounded perspective of all aspects of the story (novel, movie and soundtrack). For the only time in my life, I somehow read through the final scene, in which Scout nostalgically reflects on the years contained in the story and all the people she knew then, at the exact same pacing as the song which closes the film, called "End Title." If that's not explicit enough, what I mean is that each moment that the song covers in the film was covered at the same time as I read the scene. So basically, it was as if I was watching the movie in my hands. Get it? Anyway, it was really meaningful, and at that point in the movie, Scout talks about the people she knew then, and ultimately says, as her voice cracks, "...and Atticus" Just then the song swoops into the rousing, orchestral and comforting finale.

. . .

A lot of people focus on one specific aspect of a movie in order to judge its merit. I like to take in the whole thing- acting, writing, direction, cinematography and accompanying soundtrack. I find that there is an important correlation between a movie and its soundtrack. Movies, with their acting and writing can honestly reflect the occurrence of real and unreal situations alike, but in my opinion, they can't properly convey the most basic human emotions unless they have some form of accompanying soundtrack, unless the lack of music provides some sort of artistic aesthetic. Even the most fantastical movies can still maintain a level of relatability if they're able to capture the essence of human emotion, evoking sadness, happiness or utter nostalgia.


  1. my 1 through 3 is howard shore and each of the lord of the ring movie soundtracks. . .

  2. Lord of the Rings had a good score. I don't think there was one happy song in the trilogy, but it was well-done nonetheless.

    And I think Disney and Daft Punk should have teamed up a long time ago. Don't you think the themes of The Little Mermaid could have been enhanced by something like Human After All?

  3. no there's a couple happy inspirational ones- the breaking of the fellowship and the return of the king and into the west