Michael Montalto, guitarist for the East Bay country outfit Red Meat, just about fell off his couch during the Oscars when his band’s song “Broken Up and Blue” came pouring out of the orchestra pit during Halle Berry’s win.
The song was featured on the Monster’s Ball soundtrack, and proves a good point: Even though most soundtracks are compilations for people who rarely buy music, they also are great vehicles for talent that normally has no national outlet. Case in point: O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Most of them are for housewives and little girls, but there are some great ones out there. In honor of National Film Score Appreciation Month, here’s a list of the ten best soundtracks of all time. You may notice the absence of Henry Mancini, Burt Bacharach, and Ennio Morricone, whose fantastic output should be judged more as a body of work than for one particular score. You may also notice the absence of any musicals, which suck.
The Third Man
This 1949 Orson Welles film written by Graham Greene is jarring on many levels, but the offbeat soundtrack truly makes it an ahead-of-its-time classic. As the story goes, a zither maestro named Anton Karas was playing his instrument for a tavern in Vienna when the director, Carol Reed, wandered in. Maybe it was the booze talking, but instead of going with the standard film noir orchestrations, Reed asked Karas to score his entire movie on the spot. The jaunty yet dark music fit perfectly, and though it could easily sound dated and corny today, it doesn’t. In fact, it sounds like something you’d hear on the Sundance Channel, fer crissake. This was maverick and brilliant use of music in a film.
The Harder They Come
This soundtrack is a consistent seller even today, for the simple fact that it stands alone as a great reggae record. In fact, this movie introduced reggae to American hipster honkies in 1973, and helped Jamaican immigrants feel vindicated for being completely impossible to understand. Jimmy Cliff stars in it, and also is the star of the soundtrack, with fantastic songs such as “Many Rivers to Cross” and “You Can Get It If You Really Want.” Rock-steady cutie Desmond Dekker’s “Shanty Town” has the most oft-misheard lyric “dem a loot, dem a shoot … a shantytown” which us kids have bastardized into “I’ve got poop in my shoot-a, I have to go.” Anyone can own Legend, but it takes a real in-the-know yuppie to own The Harder They Come.
A Clockwork Orange
If heard apart from the movie with no idea who the groundbreaking composer Wendy Carlos is, this soundtrack could very well be the worst thing ever recorded. Bastardized ‘n’ cheesy versions of baroque classics played on synthesizers? No tankee. But played whilst psychopaths terrorize the innocent? Now you are onto something. Carlos also gets bonus points for originally being a man named Walter, and of course for studying under synthesizer architect Robert Moog and thereby helping to pioneer electronic music. For that, we can forgive her for unleashing New Age music upon the world.
Italian filmmaker Dario Argento isn’t exactly a household name, but to his followers he is God. In the ’70s, he created some fantastic horror films which combined so-so plots with cool sets and lighting. The best of these was Suspiria. But the real frosting on his deathcake was the soundtrack by the Italian prog band Goblin, who also scored his other films as well as George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. The music is persistent and clangy with an undercurrent of rock guitar and some subtly demonic vocals. Argento had the foresight to hire a rock band to do his scoring, something a bit eccentric for a horror film at the time. Finally, prog rock had some purpose other than to appease guys named Nigel who lived in their parents’ basement and collected Asterix comics.
Contrary to popular belief, this movie was lame. The soundtrack was its saving grace, artfully integrated into the dreck like a swirl of hot fudge in a shit sandwich. On their own, most of the songs on this record aren’t that exciting (Chad and Jeremy doing “A Summer Song”?), but this is an ensemble cast. The standout cut of course is the Creation’s “Making Time,” but there is also that, shall we say, flamboyant Who song “A Quick One While He’s Away,” as well as the Faces and the Kinks. The song sequencing is perfect on this record (with Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh’s scoring throughout as well) and it was put together so well that all of the songs sound like they could’ve been written by one person. It even makes Cat Stevens palatable.
The first and the finest of the old-school hip-hop movies, simply for the fact that when this was made in ’81, The Man didn’t know enough about the form yet to exploit it. The plot is basically an old Bob Hope “Road” movie, but with Fab Five Freddy and Busy Bee hanging with a young graffiti artist, stumbling into verbal battles and those other impromptu rap situations we all seem to run into. Grandmaster Flash cuts and scratches on a kitchen table and the Cold Crush Brothers take on the Fantastic Five. Double Trouble, Rammellzee and Shock Dell with Grand Mixer D ST, and Rodney C all show up as well. The soundtrack is also out on Rhino, which would be smart to also unearth the soundtracks from Krush Groove, Breakin‘, and Beat Street.
Planet of the Apes
For a right-wing bastard, Charlton Heston sure ended up in some homoerotic movies. This 1968 film was his best, with a soundtrack created by Jerry Goldsmith (Alien, Chinatown). The moodier stuff is spartan and clunky yet full of tension, and the more dramatic music — i.e. “The Hunt,” with its great bleats of a ram’s horn — sounds like, well, a pack of man-hating gorillas chasing hot chicks in loincloths. Goldsmith did some odd things to get the sounds he wanted. He employed a cuica, a Brazilian instrument that sounds like a chimp wailing on a hot tin roof. He also had the French horn players reverse their mouthpieces and blow air through the horns. The results were avant-garde and trippy. This truly stands the test of time as cool background music for housecleaning.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarves
Who can argue with the perfect simplicity of “Someday My Prince Will Come”? Okay, probably Andrea Dworkin. But she was just pissed because she looked like she’d been asleep for one hundred years, and wasn’t nobody lining up to kiss her ugly ass. Released in 1937, the film was Disney’s first, and the twee vocal stylings of then-eighteen-year-old Adriana Caselotti give the soundtrack that rich, tinny ’30s feel. “One Song” is a haiku; short and sweet. The dwarves are straight off the hip-hop tip, too, with “Hi Ho!” Besides Cinderella, this is consistently the best Disney soundtrack. Cartoon songsmith du jour Randy Newman needs to stop writing all his songs about “bein’ pals” and kick it old-school with some yearning love dirges.
Rhino was bright enough to release this fantastic soundtrack on CD: The Plimsouls, Josie Cotton, the Psychedelic Furs, and one-hit wonders Modern English combine all the best “true” ’80s popular music. It’s really just a K-Tel collection of ’80s music, not so much an artfully chosen soundtrack. But who cares? This was a perfect movie, save for the fact that the “popular” crowd in the ’80s wouldn’t have been caught dead listening to New Wave, which is so liberally sprinkled into the main party scene of this film. Men At Work, yes. Oingo Boingo, no.
Saturday Night Fever
Yes, it’s an obvious pick, but how many soundtracks actually start entire movements of parents learning how to disco dance in night school? The home movie footage of that is worth the price of admission alone. “Disco Inferno” by the Trammps is simply the best disco song ever recorded, and the Bee Gees are underrated geniuses. ‘Nuff said. — Katy St. Clair
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