The all-star cast assembled by Jay-Z for "The Great Gatsby" movie soundtrack got us wistfully thinking back to the days when movie soundtracks were a big deal.
Sure, "The Hunger Games" soundtrack — produced by rock legend T-Bone Burnett, and featuring Arcade Fire, Taylor Swift, Neko Case, Miranda Lambert and Kid Cudi — had power, but that feels like the exception, not the norm.
Most soundtracks are still quickly assembled cash-grabs, but ones like "The Great Gatsby" and "The Hunger Games" clearly hope to join the ranks of the best collections of movie music. Many of the most meaningful ones have come from youth culture films like these, so we dug into the stacks to look at similar soundtracks that matched or transcended the films they came from, and sometimes even helped define a generation.
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This '90s classic fully embodied Gen-X slackerdom, but the soundtrack held its own in the alternative era. The breakout track was Lisa Loeb's "Stay (I Missed You),” which went to No. 1 before the bespectacled singer was even signed. Juliana Hatfield Three, Dinosaur Jr. and The Posies repped '90s alt-rock, but it was a more diverse compilation than some, leaving room for The Knack’s “My Sharona,” a pair of Crowded House tunes and even Ethan Hawke proto-hipster crooning Violent Femme’s all-time classic “Add It Up.”
Pump Up The Volume
Perhaps it’s no surprise that a film about a pirate radio DJ would boast a stellar soundtrack. Christian Slater’s character defined himself in large part by his musical taste, which he then played for his audience, including Soundgarden, Sonic Youth, underrated N.W.A associates Above The Law and the brilliant “UK Surf” mix of the Pixies’ “Wave Of Mutilation.” It also features a number of cool covers, including Bad Brains and Henry Rollins doing MC5’s “Kick Out The Jams” and Cowboy Junkies tackling Robert Johnson’s “Me And The Devil Blues.” Alas, Concrete Blonde’s theme-song cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows” pales next to the original, which is the version that actually airs in the film. Several other great songs didn’t make the cut, either, so as a kid, I audiotaped the whole movie and cut together my own private soundtrack.
When Ice-T boasted about being “nightmare walking, psychopath talking/King of my jungle just a gangster stalking” on the title song, it was the mainstream’s first real exposure to the burgeoning genre known as gangsta rap. The soundtrack subsequently provided a perfect overview of the late-'80s scene, mixing throwback tracks from MC Shan and Roxane Shante with hard-hitters from Big Daddy Kane and Kool G. Rap. But the album didn’t just compile past and present, its musical centerpiece — Coldcut’s pioneering “seven minutes of madness” revamp of Eric B and Rakim’s “Paid In Full,” arguably the greatest remix ever — pointed the way to music’s future.
Natural Born Killers
Long before Trent Reznor won an Oscar for scoring "The Social Network," he helmed the soundtrack to Oliver Stone’s hyper-violent anti-mass media opus. Mixing dialogue samples from film with the expertly selected songs gave the soundtrack a unique identity all of its own, something more akin to a radio play. Perhaps it was the influence of Quentin Tarantino’s script, but the songs are as eclectic as his own soundtracks, with entries ranging from Leonard Cohen, Patti Smith, Duane Eddy and Patsy Cline to L7, Nine Inch Nails, Jane's Addiction and Dr. Dre. Cowboy Junkie’s cover of “Sweet Jane” was a particular standout, stealing the song from Lou Reed forevermore, while Juliette Lewis got her first taste of rock stardom with “Born Bad.”
Dazed And Confused
Most iconic soundtracks feature new music that captures a pop-cultural moment in time, but Richard Linklater’s all-star retro-'70s classic achieves the same goal with a list of decades-old eight-track acts. But with such a strong playlist — ranging from Alice Cooper’s “Schools Out” to ZZ Top’s “Tush” with room for Black Sabbath, Foghat, KISS, Nazareth, The Runaways and War in between — you can practically hear Matthew McConaughey drawl, “That’s what I love about these '70s songs, man. I get older, they stay the same age.”
Grunge took off thanks to a confluence of cultural artifacts coming out at the same time, not least of which was the pivotal soundtrack to an otherwise fluffy romantic film by Cameron Crowe that happened to be set in early-'90s Seattle. Though the film is tantamount to a trivia question at this point, the platinum-selling soundtrack remains a landmark document of the alt-era. The alternative revolution went from a whisper to a scream, with songs from Alice In Chains, Soundgarden, Screaming Trees, Smashing Pumpkins and Mudhoney, whose song “Touch Me I’m Sick” was parodied in the movie band Citizen Dick’s song “Touch Me, I’m Dick.” Pearl Jam, who cameos as Matt Dillon’s bandmates, landed two songs plus the eight-minute epic “Chloe Dancer/Crown Of Thorns" by PJ precursor Mother Love Bone.
This Scottish drug movie and its Cool Britannia soundtrack came out of nowhere to define a generation with his mid-'90s mix of Brit Pop (Blur, Pulp, Elastica) and electronica (Leftfield, Bedrock, Goldie). The producers later said the soundtrack’s popularity was “crucial” to the success of the film, which meshed music and imagery so well that they’re now inseparable. Just try not picturing the movie when listening to, say, Iggy Pop’s “Lust For Life” or Underworld’s “Born Slippy .NUXX." Aside from a few old tracks, including Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day,” the songs were largely recorded or remixed for the film or previously unreleased, a rarity in the soundtrack world which helped cement the album’s cultural status.
It had been some time since a soundtrack had mattered, but when writer-director-star Zach Braff took the reins of the award-winning compilation, too, he helped push indie music into the mainstream with what was essentially a mixtape of what Braff was listening to when he wrote the screenplay. The crux of both the film and soundtrack is when Natalie Portman’s character hands Zach’s a pair of headphones playing The Shins’ “New Slang” and says “You gotta hear this one song — it’ll change your life." But the mid-2000s music scene is captured throughout the album, most impeccably Iron And Wine’s Postal Service cover of “Such Great Heights.”
Here’s a case of a soundtrack outshining the movie it soundtracked. "Judgment Night" the film is an eminently forgettable exploitation flick about Emilio Estevez and his buddies taking a wrong turn and ending up in a very bad neighbourhood. The album, however, was ground-zero for rap-rock, and I don’t mean to damn it with faint praise. While the limp rap-rock acts that followed were undeniably terrible, this album’s lineup hits almost all of them out of the ballpark — Helmet and House Of Pain, Teenage Fanclub and De La Soul, Faith No More and Boo-Yaa T.R.I.B.E., Sonic Youth and Cypress Hill, Slayer and Ice-T and Dinosaur Jr. and Del Tha Funkee Homosapien. I’m nostalgically headbanging while typing this right now!
Between "Swingers" and the "Bourne Identity," Doug Limon directed "Go," a movie about a bunch of kids, including Sarah Polley, going to a rave. The film, despite its critical acclaim, quickly became a footnote, but the soundtrack still provides a great sampling of pre-millennial electronic music, from Fatboy Slim’s upbeat “Gangster Trippin’” and Air’s atmospheric “Talisman” to Esthero’s dour trip-hop “Song For Holly.” Bonus points for including Len’s still-awesome one-hit-wonder “Steal My Sunshine.”
Though goth music has roots that delve much deeper into the past than "The Crow," the film and soundtrack became something of a rallying point for the black-clad kids. The original comic was inspired by musicians like Joy Division and The Cure, so it’s cool that the former get the opening song slot with “Burn” while the latter get their “Dead Souls” covered by Nine Inch Nails. Rage Against The Machine, Rollins Band, My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult, the Jesus And Mary Chain, Violent Femmes and Jane Siberry all show up to show off their dark sides.
Romeo + Juliet
Baz Lurhman's radical revamp of the classic Shakespeare tale was driven as much by its music as its MTV-friendly stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes. Fuelled by unlikely radio hits like Garbage's "#1 Crush" and the Cardigans' "Lovefool," not to mention Radiohead's fan favourite "Talk Show Host," the album went triple-platinum and became an alt-era staple. The film was so overstuffed with music that a second volume came out to release tracks like 14-year-old singer Quindon Tarver's "When Doves Cry" cover. Trivia note: The closing credits featured Radiohead's aptly named "Exit Music (For A Film)" though it wasn't on either soundtrack by Thom Yorke's request, as he was saving it for "OK Computer."
Helmed by Lou Barlow, the "Kids" soundtrack was nowhere near as controversial as the underage sex and drugs film from whence it came, unless one is prone to fighting over which Barlow project is the best. We’re on team Folk Implosion, which applied hip-hop production to Barlow’s usual low-fi guitar rock to nail the classic cut “Natural One” and score the film. Barlow’s other band Sebadoh does make an appearance, too, as do Daniel Johnston, Slint and rap duo Lo-Down — though the absence of other rap cuts from the film, including Crooklyn Dodgers, Jeru The Damaja and Brand Nubian, is kinda whack.
Pretty In Pink
Though "The Breakfast Club’s" Simple Minds theme “Don’t You Forget About Me” was also my high school graduation song, the rest of its soundtrack leaves something to be desired compared to John Hughes’ other Molly Ringwald classic "Pretty In Pink," which was actually inspired by the same-named Psychedelic Furs song that was re-recorded for the movie. The rest of the soundtrack helped to popularize new wave, with tracks from Echo And The Bunnymen, New Order, The Smiths and Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark with their heartbreaker love theme "If You Leave."
At the height of Eminem’s pop-cultural ascent came this unexpected dovetail into credibility. Yes, he was a fine enough actor in the loosely autobiographical movie, but it was the Oscar-winning theme song “Lose Yourself” that turned him into a bona fide mainstream icon. The triple-platinum soundtrack debuted at No. 1 thanks to five new Eminem songs, including the underrated “Rabbit Run,” and also served as an introduction to 50 Cent, who appears several times but makes his big bow with his mixtape banger “Wanksta.”