This is a blog about soundtracks.

February 19, 2010 § Leave a comment

I am a music lover, not a music expert.  So when I started writing this blog about soundtracks and their functionality in movies, I kept trying to use all these technical terms about octaves and rhythms and all this jargon that would only reveal my stupidity of the subject instead of highlighting any intelligence I may possess.  So what I realized is simply this:  I am a music lover.  I love the way things sound, the way the notes intertwine with each other, the way the lyrics weave in and out of pianic melodies.  Music is the universal unifier.  I don’t need to understand the encyclopedia and the history of the evolution of music, I just need to like it.

And I love soundtracks.

Soundtracks are like the subplots to movies.  Whereas the movie tells a story, the soundtrack has to reinforce that by telling its own story.  The best soundtracks, in my humble opinion, are those that can stand alone.  As in, you can listen to the album from start to finish and feel a story forming within the melodies and the lyrics.  The worst compilations are those that can’t stand without the music to give it depth and meaning.

Such as Away We Go.  I watched this movie for the first time last night and was continually in awe of the songs in the background.  The movie screams simplicity in that it doesn’t try hard.  At all.  It is simply a representation of how messy life is.  And the soundtrack works in the same way:  it doesn’t parade pop culture, it isn’t filled with music played at college parties, it just, simply, is.  Not only that, it weaves the score with the songs perfectly so that, unless you listen hard enough, you probably don’t know when the score ends and the soundtrack begins.

Which brings me, yet again, to The Lovely Bones.  Because I am sadly disappointed that the movie missed out on a major part.  Not only is there no soundtrack—which is also in the case of movies like Harry Potter, 300, and Gladiator—but it misses out completely on an original score. 

Three major things music does in a movie:
1. Provides continuity.  Usually there are two lines of action in a film:  some sort of action/goal-oriented plot of the protagonist and an underlying heterosexual romantic plot between two or more characters.  Music provides a link between the two, smoothes it over so the two don’t seem too unrelated.
2. Music is a manipulator.  It tells us how we’re supposed to feel at a certain time, clues us in on major happenings.  When the guy and girl meet, there is a subtle melody that begins, and throughout the movie, as their love grows, the melody builds. 
3. It enhances the visual.  It becomes the excess, so to speak, so that when you watch a motion picture with silent characters, the music is able to sustain the action.

Things a Soundtrack Needs to be Good
–A good sound.  A soundtrack needs to be able to be played from the first to the last with no skipping, no shuffling.  It has to have enough substance to go from song number one straight to the end.
–Like movies, a soundtrack can’t try too hard.  Like when you make a mix cd and you search for hours to find the perfect songs.  A good soundtrack has to flow.
–It needs to be able to re-create the movie without re-creating the story.  I don’t want to listen to a compilation of songs only to replay the movie in my head.  I would watch the movie in that case.

So, in conclusion, I finish with my very own Best Soundtracks List:

1.  In the Land of Women.  I feel the same way about this movie as Away We Go.  It just doesn’t try hard.  And the soundtrack is the same, a mixture of early 90s and the score by Stephen Trask interweaves throughout the scenes and the soundtrack to make it all unified.

2. Into the Wild.  Not only does it have a great soundtrack, it’s a great cinematic movie.  Indie, yes, but the songs that are picked matches up with the scenes so perfectly I can’t figure out which came first:  the movie or the music.

3. Elizabethtown.  It’s so good, I’m actually using the theme song as my wedding march.  It’s fun because the movie is about the protagonist’s growth after his father dies.  So the soundtrack goes through the same emotional rollercoaster, featuring Tom Waits, and The Hombres.

4. Once.  A movie about boy meets girl, girl joins boy’s band.  All original songs by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova.  Unique voices, unique ways of mixing the acoustic guitars, the piano, and the melodies.  Also, great, really meaningful and purposeful, lyrics.

5. Juno.  Mostly, this is just a real fun soundtrack.  I won’t like, I think some of the songs are very weird, and I probably wouldn’t normally listen to one band unless I was listening to the soundtrack.  It’s just fun to dance and prance around to in my living room apartment with leg warmers and crimped hair.

6 & 7. Twilight and New Moon.  Twilight, is full of songs you’d hear on Houston radio station 94.5 or on MTV University.  It features Paramore, Muse, Linkin Park, and MuteMath with a salute to the Indie/Folk with Iron and Wine’s “Flightless Bird, American Mouth” and an original by Rob Pattinson (Edward Cullen) himself.  Generally, not songs I would want to listen to for an hour in the car, especially because most of them are remixed specifically for the movie.  But it works, mostly because each song is very similar to the song that precedes or follows it.  It works because, for the most part, the film is directed to make you feel as if you’re watching a series of music videos instead of a full-length movie.

And on the absolute opposite side is the Twilight: New Moon soundtrack.  Not only does it salute the Indie world, but it heralds it, bends its knees in reverence to it with Deathcab for Cutie, Eskimo Joe, and Lykke Li.  The soundtrack works because the songs are so different, they’re actually very similar, which is, basically, the definition of good Indie music.  It’s easily a great chill mix.  It’s got smooth rhythms, mellow beats and a nice overall sound.  And the only criticism I have is that pop culture is no longer pop as we know it.  Pop has moved from boy bands and Michael Jackson to Iron and Wine, Hurricane Bells, and Thom Yorke, so the soundtrack not only salutes Indie, but seems to be cultivated purely for this new “Pop” culture.

8. Dan in Real Life.  Not only is it the best role of Steve Carrell’s career, but it is the best soundtrack that was composed by one person:  Sondre Lerche.  And the best song on the album, “My Hands Are Shaking.”  Cute, sweet, and fun to sing to.

This list is not exhaustive.  I could go on, and I realize there are probably better ones out there than the ones I listed.  But I have yet to see all the greats of the movie, like The Graduate where Cat Power also did the entire soundtrack.  But here goes my list.

For now.


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