Six of the best: Film soundtracks written by popular musicians
We take a closer look at the artists who have left a lasting impression not just on the pop charts, but also the world of cinema too.
Last updated: 14th Nov 2018. Originally published: 6th Nov 2018
Image: Apple Films Limited
Words: Daniel Lovatt
As is often the case, there are moments in life where words fail us, and we have to reach out to the great beyond for something to express how we feel. This can be anything from rampant joy, to great sorrow or even a dizzying adrenaline rush. The failure of words, or perhaps more so the victory of music, is never more apparent than it is in cinema. A truly captivating film is defined by its soundtrack, as much as it is by the acting performances and use of setting.
Musicians pedal their career on their ability to depict how we feel when words alone fail us, so it seems rudimentary that when an artist or a group are called upon to create a soundtrack to accompany a film, it is a match made in heaven. There have been countless cases of this formula working superbly in practice, and you may come across me rattling on at 3am to establish just how vast these cases are, but there are particularly notable cases where a film that may not have been standalone genius, or not made with an intention of sweeping up Oscars, where a soundtrack has been the decisive factor in elevating it to the next level. With that in mind, here are five great film soundtracks written by musicians.
1. Alex Turner, Submarine
If you ever find yourself in a self-defining ‘undesirable’ bar surrounded by black denim jackets, middle partings and cans of red stripe, one ice breaker that is failproof is discussing the cult classic film Submarine. Specifically, the hauntingly melancholic soundtrack provided by Arctic Monkeys’ slick sensation Alex Turner. The film was released in 2011, the same year that Arctic Monkeys peaked as a profoundly and materially poetic outfit with their ‘Suck it and See’ album.
Turner segregated himself from the band to dedicate time to his solo project, but the clear influence and lyrical shift of his new material bled through into creating one of the greatest indie soundtracks to a film of the 21st century. As the film orientates around the hopelessness, depravity and all-round turmoil of teenage life, Turner masterfully produced songs like ‘It’s hard to get around the wind’ and ‘Glass in the Park’, that not only perfectly encapsulated those themes, but validated the idea that the film could have been written for his album, and not the other way around. Not only does his lyrical prowess truly shine, but the diversity of tone is exemplified here. Before this, Turner may have only been the father of the likely lads in scraps with broken knuckles, now he had established himself as the father of the kids in duffle coats enduring existential crisis’.
2. Curtis Mayfield, Superfly
Superfly was the immediately loved title of Curtis Mayfield’s third studio album released in 1972, but also provided the soundtrack for the Blaxploitation film of the same name released in the same year. One of the promotional slogans for the film states ‘He’s got a plan to stick it to the man!’ Although this makes reference to the protagonist Youngblood Priest, played by Ron O’Neill, it could easily be applied to Mayfield as one of the gods of the soul genre.
The plot follows Priest’s attempts to escape from the underworld drug business forever, but the plot is also saturated with political messages about what opportunities black people had to become rich other than the narcotics industry. Mayfield challenges this continually through each song, especially in ‘Eddie, You Should Know Better’, ‘Pusherman’ and ‘Militant March’ and like all great soul artists enact, creates a future vision of happiness, equality and prosperity for the oppressed black communities. Which isn’t exactly an easy task to complete in the space of 93 minutes. Beyond the political undercurrent of Super fly, there are also moments of nail biting, intense action that are perfectly accompanied by the fast brass and orchestral sections of Mayfield’s music, alongside his naturally swift rhythm. A remake of this classic was released earlier this year and didn’t quite hit the same note as the original, and maybe this was primarily due to not using Mayfield’s original soundtrack. The mark of a truly great musician.
British Sci-fi film Attack the Block is not a classic by any stretch of the imagination, but as mentioned above, I don’t think that was ever really the intention of the creators. What Attack the Block is, is a fast-paced, action-packed, often funny easy ride centralising around a teenage gang who have to fend off an alien invasion on a council estate in south London. Sounds cool right? Well the film became even cooler when makers enlisted British electronic heavyweights Basement Jaxx to lay down some piercing, ominous instrumentals to bring the bumps in the night and swinging baseball bats to an emphatic climax.
Besides the tumultuous, bassline driven numbers ‘Tooling up’ and ‘The Ends’, the rest of the twenty-track soundtrack consists of eerie synths and foreshadowing beats, that build upon the air of tension. The duo replicate this in each of their 90 second installations and as this was a path that they had not ventured down before, they did a fantastic job in gripping fans in pulsating moments. If you were to listen to the soundtrack without the film, it would be evident that it could stand alone as a respectable album, or at least a headbanging collection of mixes.
British comedy-drama About a Boy is much more than a run of the mill Hugh Grant movie, and is more of an exploration of maturity, maternal responsibility and friendship, packed with both hilarious and tear-jerking moments aptly suited to a Sunday on the settee. With this in mind, singer songwriter Badly Drawn Boy also known as Damon Gough took to his guitar to produce a 16 track score that captured the fluctuation of the narrative and also stayed true to his folk-rock roots. There is an equal divide of instrumentals and lyric laced tracks, but jangly 'Something to Talk About', evocative “Silent Sigh” and agitated 'A Peak you Reach' stood out to directors and author of the original novel Nick Hornby as not just highlights within the film, but also highlights of the songwriter’s career to date.
Badly Drawn Boy may not have been a blatantly obvious choice to take on the responsibilities in compiling these songs, but the critical reception not only solidified About a Boy as a tremendous film adaption, but also plummeted Badly Drawn Boy into the album charts and the mainstream eye, even outside of the U.K. Hornby was later quoted saying: “It will make film companies think again- you can do something so interesting musically and help sell the film.” From that moment on, Gough made several light-hearted comments about the increase of couples attending his gigs, so he must have done something right.
Not content with writing the music for just the one film, The Beatles (like with everything else they did) took things to the extreme, providing the soundtracks to four feature films in their seven year stint together. Firstly a Hard Day's Night followed the bands busy working schedule, with a heap of comedic japes thrown in for good measure while its follow up Help! followed more of a script placing Ringo at the centre of proceedings as the film's main protagonist who found himself on the end of a plot to steal a particularly valuable ruby ring from him in a number of life (and career) threatening ways.
Later came the bold, cartoon psychedelia of Yellow Submarine (which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year) but prior to that came 1967 surreal comedy television film The Magical Mystery Tour, which was originally aired on BBC1 on Boxing Day 1967 in a monochrome transmission. Despite the film being received poorly by fans and critics (because most had only seen the film in black and white) at the time of transmission, its soundtrack shows the band at their independent best, via its three main songwriters. The whimsical, yet hauntingly poetic 'Fool On The Hill' is classic Paul, 'Blue Jay Way' makes explicit George Harrison's ability to be ominously melancholic, while Lennon's nod to Edgar Allen Poe via 'I am the Walrus' needs little introduction - and we've not even spoken about the blisteringly brilliant fanfare of the title track. Having released Sgt Peppers earlier in the year, its clear the band were still in a rich vein of form come creating this soundtrack, and while the film itself didn't quite deliver, its soundtrack more than makes up for it.
To play us out we have the undisputed legends of electronic music. French electro duo Daft Punk must have been praying for the opportunity to branch out into cinematic composition after dominating the electro pop scene for the past two decades. Luckily for them, the director and music supervisor Jason Bradley for teen sci-fi film Tron Legacy came knocking, specifically requesting the duo’s services to help create a sensory explosion of a movie. Daft Punk came prepared for the humungous occasion, and rather than replicating a simple albeit effective electronic score, also combined an 85-piece orchestra to fulfil the director Kraninski’s dream of an orchestral and electronic fusion. Like any great soundtrack, there is a diverse thematic exploration, with both dark, murky tracks and lively, momentous tracks whenever the hero was on screen.
One half of the duo, Thomas Bangalter even remarked that he was assigned to compose the heroic themes, whereas his counterpart Guy-Manuel De Homen-Christo composed the darker musical cues. This proved an effective method, as the film actually ended up being cut and edited in accordance to the music, when it’s usually the case that composers arrive at the end when everything is finished. They may not have been a notable standout track, but this is one example where a soundtrack has been given equal importance to the film itself and both elements have combined to create something truly amazing and engrossing. I suppose it’s difficult not to give Daft Punk a fundamental role in the process. Touching on the harrowing realities of technological dependence, it seems Daft Punk foreshadowed the years to come before most of us had clocked on, as well as contributing to a really enjoyable film. A track 'Computerized' re-surfaced a couple of years later with a vocal from Jay-Z, that too outlining the doomed future of humanity with “I-touch, but cannot feel.” To spare the children from nightmares, only the instrumental was included in the film.