Favorite Soundtracks [Snob Seven]

"I got music. Who could ask for anything more?" - George Gershwin
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Music is one of the most amazing things our species has ever encountered and it is with us throughout our lives to varying degrees.  Some devote their lives to playing it; for others, listening is a hobby that can reach obsessive extremes.  People are united by anthems and divided by tastes.  Music has been used as a force for good and seen as a force of evil.  It brings lovers closer together and soothes a broken heart.  Because music can evoke so many moods, it's no surprise it's an integral part of many movies. 

Before technology made movies as accessible as they are today, people could re-experience them through their soundtracks, featuring the movie's score and/or collection of songs.  At the suggestion of Sentry Greg Barbrick, we are going to mention some of our favorites.

Saturday Night Fever (1977) selected by Greg Barbrick

Okay, I admit it. I was one of those "Disco Sucks!" guys back in the late seventies. The music was freaking ubiquitous, and it looked like it would never go away. It wasn't too much later that it did though, and we were able to look back and assess what had been left behind. I changed my tune, as did a lot of people. Songs like Chic's "Good Times" and Lipps Inc.'s "Funkytown" just cannot be denied. But it remains the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever (1977) that stands as the ultimate disco collection. It was actually a very good film, in fact it was the late critic Gene Siskel's all-time favorite.

Thirty-five years later though, it is the soundtrack that remains the essential document. The Bee Gees were at their apex, and wrote and/or performed eight of the sixteen tracks on the double album. Incredibly, every one of those songs were huge radio hits. "More Than A Woman" appears twice, both by the Bee Gees and Tavares. For anyone who loves Philly-style soul, Tavares are a must, pick up their Greatest Hits right now. The absolute monster though is the 10:52 closer, "Disco Inferno" by The Trammps. Unbelievable. "Burn, baby, burn, disco inferno..." Good Lord, man, this is one of the greatest tracks ever written in any genre.

Saturday Night Fever was an unstoppable cultural juggernaut upon release in 1977, and introduced the idea of the mega-soundtrack. Others would follow, such as Grease (1978), Flashdance (1983), and The Bodyguard (1992). But to these ears, nothing stands up quite as well as Saturday Night Fever. There is not a bad track on it, and I suggest you revisit both the film and the soundtrack to see what I mean.

Star Wars (1977) selected by El Bicho

Before it became known as Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, this movie soundtrack turned many a young Gen-Xer into a classical music fan when I was growing up.  Sure, we had heard Beethoven in Peanuts and Mozart somewhere, but John Williams was the most responsible for making me appreciate what classical music could do. 

Almost every important scene in the movie is made memorable in part because of the music.  The fanfare of the "Main Title" that plays under the scrolling text lets the viewer know adventure awaits as the orchestra plays themes revisited throughout the film, followed by the ominous sounds during "Imperial Attack" as Darth Vader takes over Princess Leia's ship.  The strings evoke the sadness of "Ben Kenobi's Death" though there's no time to mourn as the militaristic "TIE Fighter Attack" soon reveals.  During "The Last Battle," Williams revisits a motif related to Ben when the Jedi speaks to Luke Skywlaker from beyond and then the piece builds to the moment the rockets are fired off in an effort to destroy the Death Star.  The film concludes with the pomp and circumstance of "The Throne Room" scene.

The soundtrack received an Oscar, three Grammys, and led to a #1 single when Meco created a disco version of the "Main Theme/Cantina Band," though I'll take the intergalatic jazz version of the latter.

Footloose (1984) selected by Kit O'Toole

"Cut loose, footloose, kick off your Sunday shoes..."

Any '80s kid should instantly recognize those words, as Footloose and its soundtrack were inescapable in 1984. Today, the film and its songs stand as a charming capsule of early 1980s pop culture, a golden era when rock and cinema seamlessly merged to produce MTV-influenced modern-day musicals. While full of synthesizers and now faded stars such as Kenny Loggins, Bonnie Tyler, and Shalamar, many of the songs have weathered the test of time. Obviously the title song still inspires foot-tapping, with its memorable guitar riff and very danceable beat. His other contribution, "I'm Free (Heaven Helps the Man)" emphasizes lead character Ren McCormack's (played by Kevin Bacon) frustration at his town's prohibition against dancing, and the release felt through that form of expression.

Other standouts include Deniece Williams' monster hit "Let's Hear It for the Boy" (in an interview for TV One's Unsung, she admitted that she initially hated the song and refused to record it), an upbeat tune that provided the rhythmic backdrop for Ren teaching klutzy Willard Hewitt (Christopher Penn) how to dance. Injecting a little R&B into the proceedings, Shalamar performs the risqué "Dancing in the Sheets," which refers to the town's prudish attitude toward moving to the music. Ren's "angry dance" in the middle of Footloose, where he executes flips and punches the air, is set to Moving Pictures' rocker "Never." In 1984, no junior high or high school dance was complete without hearing Footloose's love theme "Almost Paradise," the Mike Reno-Ann Wilson duet that combined the forces of the lead singers of Loverboy and Heart.

Another early '80s stalwart, Bonnie Tyler, reprises her "Total Eclipse of the Heart" collaboration with Jim Steinman, previously best known for his theatrical compositions for Meat Loaf. Here, "Holding Out for A Hero" is an uptempo continuation of the dramatic ballad, with her emotional cries for a "hero 'till the end of the night/ He's gotta be strong and he's gotta be fast/ And he's gotta be fresh from the fight." Sure, Steinman's cheesy production and Tyler's somewhat over-the-top vocals lend the track a corny quality, but it remains a guilty pleasure. An underrated track, "Somebody's Eyes" is a soft-rock chestnut from Karla Bonoff, who previously had a hit with her 1982 single "Personally." Bonoff's voice has a Christine McVie-like tone, and that smokiness perfectly fits this moody, midtempo song.

The 1998 15th Anniversary Collectors' Edition Bonus Tracks edition includes popular singles from the era that appeared in Footloose, but not on the original soundtrack. Foreigner's "Waiting for A Girl Like You," John Cougar Mellencamp's "Hurts So Good," and Quiet Riot's "Mental Heath (Bang Your Head)" instantly transport the listener back to early '80s Top-40 radio. Perhaps it is this nostalgia that largely propels still-solid sales of the Footloose album. However, many of the songs retain their appeal because they represent good pop that effectively drives the film's timeless story.

Purple Rain (1984) selected by Michael Nazarewycz (@ScribeHard)

Dearly beloved.  We are gathered here today to get through this thing called life.

Let's face it: we were just trying to get through the movie.

As films go, 1984's Purple Rain is ... meh.  Come on.  Morris Day got third billing, and as for its star, Prince ... well, to paraphrase The Kids in the Hall, Prince isn't really an actor at all; he's just a guy from Minnesota.  Purple Rain wasn't even the best movie from the 1980s with "purple" in the title.  It was third! (See: The Color Purple and The Purple Rose of Cairo for Win and Place.)  Honestly, the film, which co-stars '80s-hot Apollonia, is a lot like porn - the flimsy plot and bad acting serve no other purpose than to get you from good part to good part ... only this time, the good parts aren't sex scenes, they're songs.

And that flimsy plot and bad acting are worth suffering because the soundtrack is not only my favorite, it's one of the best of all time.  The track listing is now the stuff of soundtrack, album, and artist legend: "Let's Go Crazy," "Take Me With U," "The Beautiful Ones," "Computer Blue," "Darling Nikki," "When Doves Cry," "I Would Die 4 U," "Baby I'm A Star," and "Purple Rain."

It's the '27 Yankees of albums; a Murderers' Row of tracks.

But beyond the crank-it-to-ten hit it opens with, and the 8:41 anthemic title ballad it closes with, and every sweet ("Take Me With U") and dirty ("Darling Nikki") song in between, Prince - the musician, not the actor - constructs songs that are anchored by real bass lines and real drum beats, layers in keys (and sometimes strings), builds in the best of the '80s computer-synth craze (but never gets near Pet Shop Boys territory), and tops it off with Jimi Hendrix-caliber guitar riffs, licks, and solos so you'll keep the volume cranked.  It isn't Phil Spector's "Wall of Sound" per se, but if the Spector of the '60s started producing music in the '80s, he'd produce Prince's music.

But what I like best about the album is that even though it's a soundtrack, for the most part, I don't associate it with the movie.  The movie is that mediocre, but more importantly, the album is that great.

Singles (1992) selected by Mat Brewster

I came of musical age in the early '90s which put me right in line with the time grunge and alternative rock hit big.  I grew up, you might say with Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Dinosaur Jr., and the like as my soundtrack. I grew my hair long, developed a fashion sense hewed in flannel and Dr. Martens and banged my head more times than I can count to the heavy sounds Seattle. 

Though it was made before Nirvana broke the scene wide open, Cameron Crow's ode to the unmarried, hit the screens just as it was ready for the zeitgeist.  Personally I've never cared much for the film but the soundtrack is darn near perfect.  It has an all-star line-up of grungers (Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Mudhoney, Mother Love Bone, and Alice in Chains) who mostly feature previously unreleased material - and it is all really good.   To lighten things up Crow also tossed in some classic Jimi Hendrix, an acoustic Heart dubbed the Lovemongers who somehow best Led Zeppelin covering "Battle of Nevermore", one of the Smashing Pumpkins best songs every laid down, and a recently made former Replacements' lead singer Paul Westerberg making some terrific pop noise. 

I've long since gotten over my love of all things grunge and generally lend my ear towards non-guitar heavy licks, but I still find myself pulling this one out and giving it a spin.  Twenty years after the fact and it still holds up surprisingly well, which is more than can be said for the majority of the bands it features.

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2002) selected by Mule

Bluegrass and Homer and The Soggy Bottom Boys

There are some soundtracks so unlikely, so apt and so clever that they actually take on a life outside the movie they're a part of. The music used in O Brother, Where Art Thou by the Coen brothers is one of those. Inspired by Homer's poem The Odyssey and set during the Great Depression of the 1930's in the deep south this tale follows Everett, Pete and Delmar as they encounter good people, and bad, while trying to get back home.

The soundtrack is overall an incredibly smart use of diegetic music as an integral part of setting the scene and enhancing the tale that's being told. The action opens on a chain gang working hard in the sun, singing "Po' Lazarus" and that sets the scene and tells the viewer exactly when, and where, we are. The sirens sing "Didn't Leave Nobody But the Baby" performed by Emmylou Harris, Allison Krauss and Gillian Welch. There's a version of the old Appalachian dirge "O Death" sung by the bluegrass musician Ralph Stanley that'll make the hairs at the back of your neck stand on end. The same goes for Alison Krauss' version of "Down to the River to Pray". Anyone who has seen this movie will have vivid memories of "The Soggy Bottom Boys" performing "Man Of Constant Sorrow".

The soundtrack actually became a big hit, selling over five million copies and won Country Music Awards for Album of Year and Single of the Year, as well as winning a Grammy Award for Album of The Year (2002). There are a lot of solid performers from the folk, country and bluegrass sphere on the soundtrack and that's probably one of the reasons it all works so well. As unlikely as this combination of classical literature and traditional folk music is, it actually makes you smile, which is sheer genius on the part of the Coen brothers.

And now for something completely different...

The Album of the Soundtrack of the Trailer of the Film of Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) selected by El Bicho

Yes, I know.  This column was introduced singing the praises of music, and there were many, many more titles I could have selected.  The songs from Head or Swingers not only evoke those films but the era they were released.  The Godfather and Manhattan have memorable scores.  However, this soundtrack is one of my favorites and put a wonderfully inventive spin on the concept. 

During the 3:10 showing at The Classic Silbury Hill, the listener gets to hear sketches from Monty Python and the Holy Grail ("Bring Out Your Dead" and "A Witch?") combined with bits of new material (A logician critiquies the arguments laid out in the "A Witch?" sketch but it quickly unravels after the revelation his wife screws the rancid Pakastani milkman, who she relies on for her orgasms because he doesn't love her anymore) to create a very funny listening experience.  Make sure you get the Executive Version, which has exclusive announcements, is three minutes longer, and contains little offensive material, but since they only occur in the opening introduction you will pass them quickly.

Was your favorite soundtrack selected? If not, tells us what it is below.

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