I have a theory about soundtrack albums, and that theory is that buying them is usually a mistake. Now, when I say soundtrack albums, I’m not talking about soundtracks to movie musicals or to Broadway shows. Usually, buying those kinds of soundtracks is pretty safe. The music is a huge part of the movie or show experience, so picking up an audio version to take home isn’t usually all that risky. What I’m talking about are soundtracks to non-musical films. There’s nothing like seeing a good movie and being so enthralled with it that you talk yourself into buying the score or the “music from or inspired by” album, only to see it collect dust on your shelf after one or two listens. How many of those people that picked up the Titanic soundtrack listened to it? I’d venture to say that not many did.
I act like I’m immune to this – but I’m not. The idea of a soundtrack album is almost always better than the reality. Divorced from the movie, most scores just don’t really translate well to home listening for me. But this is not always true, and so I’ve rounded up five different examples of soundtrack albums that still get play today, most of them many years after that initial impulse purchase. (Note: I deliberately left I’m Breathless off this list – that’s too low-hanging of fruit.)
1) Bright Lights, Big City / Various Artists
I’m starting off easy. This is easily one of my favorite film soundtracks. I acquired this CD in 1993 and even then, it was long since out of print. Not surprising since the movie didn’t do much at the box office. But I traded my Belinda Carlisle Live Your Life Be Free CD for my friend Jeff’s Bright Lights, Big City soundtrack CD. I think I got the better end of the trade. Featuring tracks from Prince, New Order, M/A/R/R/S and Depeche Mode, it’s a perfect slice of a passable movie based on one of my favorite books.
Choice cut: Donald Fagen – Century’s End (The real choice cut is Prince’s “Good Love” but good luck finding Prince anything on YouTube.)
2) The Cider House Rules / Rachel Portman
The Cider House Rules is probably the only adaptation of a John Irving novel that works as a movie. This is due in large part to the fact that Irving wrote the screenplay for the film. Rachel Portman’s score is understated when it needs to be and also sweeping as you might expect from an Oscar nominated score. It’s one that I don’t listen to as much as I used to, but I listened to it the other night and was glad that it held up as well as it has.
Choice cut: Main Title
3) Brokeback Mountain / Various Artists
This is actually the movie soundtrack album that got me to thinking about this list. A mix of both Gustavo Santaolalla’s sparse score and older country songs as well as original music, there isn’t a bad song in the bunch. It manages to capture both the era during which the movie takes place and the quiet desperation of Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist. Rufus Wainwright and Teddy Thompson update Roger Williams’ “King of the Road” and my favorite Linda Ronstadt song “It’s So Easy” also makes an appearance. Santaolalla’s main theme “The Wings” was even remixed for the clubs, proving that just because you can remix something for the clubs doesn’t necessarily mean you should.
Choice cut: Jackie Greene – I Will Never Let You Go
4) Straight Talk / Dolly Parton
Unlike all these other soundtracks, I bought the soundtrack to Straight Talk before I saw the movie. This was kind of the beginning of the second coming of Dolly in my life, so it wasn’t surprised that I bought this, completely unheard. The movie, in which Dolly’s many-times-divorced, fired dance instructor character Shirlee Kenyon takes off for Chicago, only to be mistaken for a radio psychologist is extremely cheesy and it’s full of classic Dolly one-liners. However, that’s a significant part of its charm. Dolly also resurrected a 70s album cut “Light of a Clear Blue Morning” as the opening theme song, turning it from a slow burn country song to a full on country pop self-empowerment anthem. I saw the movie in the theater 4 times and, as I’ve said before, probably contributed to at least 50% of its box office take.
Choice cut: Dolly Parton – Straight Talk
5) O Brother, Where Art Thou?
A Grammy-winner for Album of the Year, the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou? should get at least a little bit of credit for repopularizing roots and Americana music. There are a handful of old tracks, but by and large, it’s all new recordings. O Brother, Where Art Thou? is one of those films that is almost a musical – that’s how prominently the music is featured in it. But it doesn’t feature anyone bursting randomly into song so it still counts. This is one of those films (and soundtracks) that is long overdue for a revisit.
Choice cut: I Am A Man of Constant Sorrow
Did I forget anything? Let me know what some of your favorite soundtracks to non-musicals are in the comments of on the Facebook link!