Making Tracks

popularization of the soundtrack

During the first days of moviemaking, audiences did not have the luxury of purchasing a companion collection of music to listen to after the movie. Soundtracks were, prior to 1938, unheard of. The music and songs that existed in relation to movies were recreations of scores heard during the film. Original movie music on record simply had not come into being.

1938 proved to be a turning point for the soundtrack. Walt Disney’s Snow White was the first film to offer a companion record that actually featured music heard in the film. Though only consisting of five songs, the Snow White soundtrack was the first of its kind, paving the way for such stellar moments in soundtrack music history as 1967’s The Graduate, 1979’s Apocalypse Now, and 1999’s American Beauty.

Of course, much has happened between Snow White and American Beauty. Perhaps central to any discussion of movie music must be a discussion about the rise of rock ‘n’ roll. As movies shifted in the 1960s, so did their background music. No longer consisting of simply a Franz Waxman or Alex North score, soundtracks like The Graduate‘s featured songs of the time; more specifically, popular songs that were written for the film. The Graduate, unlike many other films prior, boasted not only a popular soundtrack, but also a film with folk and rock ‘n’ roll music imbedded in the narrative structure. Never had rock music featured so prominently in the narration of a film. In past films, such as Jailhouse Rock, there is a break in the action as Elvis performs the title track. Performances like Elvis’ were, at best, loosely included in the plot line. In fact, I believe that films like Jailhouse Rock are more similar to the structure of MGM musicals, where the formal action of the film breaks for such songs and dances, rather than Mike Nichols’ Graduate. The Graduate broke away from such a tradition and skillfully blended the action of the film with rock music. The rock ‘n’ roll in The Graduate was transformed into an evocative, reflective form of music.

Much of the soundtrack consists of Simon and Garfunkel’s timely classics, such as “The Sound of Silence,” “April, Come She Will,” and of course, “Mrs. Robinson.” What is interesting to note about the song “Mrs. Robinson” is that the version heard in the film is not the one included on the soundtrack. Only snippets of an instrumental “Mrs. Robinson” are included in the body of the film. Ironically, this song was written specifically for The Graduate, and is arguably the song most closely associated with Nichols’ classic film. This is, of course, not a phenomenon that has been phased out during the history of soundtracks. Today, we have many examples of songs written not for the actual movies, but for the soundtracks.

This year’s surprise hit, the quasi-documentary, The Blair Witch Project, features such music on the soundtrack. So as not to alter the documentary feel of the film, the soundtrack titled Josh’s Blair Witch Mix, consists of music supposedly compiled by the character Josh and played in the car on the fateful trip to the woods. The music on this “companion piece,” however, is not actually heard in the movie. This serves as an extreme example of how music is often separated from the film. Were it not for the snippets of dialogue included on the soundtrack, it would have little direct bearing on the film. Many soundtracks have become separate entities from the films with which they are engaged, as they are both products of the films as well as works of art to be taken on their own merit.

Recent years have seen this separation of films and their music reach grand heights. It is interesting to note that this separation of music and film comes at a time in our entertainment history when these worlds literally are closer than ever. Now consumers can shop in multimedia entertainment superstores. One doesn’t even have to travel to a separate video store anymore, for one can buy or rent movies in the same building as one buys the latest radio hit. For instance, one can rent Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me and upon returning the video, purchase the soundtrack, complete with Madonna’s hit, “Beautiful Stranger,” at the same location.

We see a greater number of music stars engaging in film roles – from Alanis Morisette in Kevin Smith’s recent Dogma, to folk songstress supreme, Jewel, starring in Ang Lee’s latest, Ride With the Devil. David Bowie has, of course, created a film career almost parallel to his music career, citing many films to his credit, including Basquiat and Labyrinth. These musicians serve as examples of how many popular music stars wish to involve themselves in films, within an arena that is separate from music. This recent resurgence of music stars as film stars (or producers, in the case of R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe, who produced 1998’s Velvet Goldmine and this year’s Being John Malkovich) is not unlike the current situation of the movie soundtrack. Often, the producers want to separate the soundtrack from the film. As is the case with The Blair Witch Project, the soundtrack, in effect, has very little to do with the actual film.

Any discussion of soundtracks would be remiss in not mentioning the money involved in such ventures. As we have seen, with soundtracks such as Titanic and City of Angels, Hollywood movies often capitalize on their wild popularity through huge music sales. The soundtrack for Titanic broke numerous records, the most-well known being that it is the most popular and financially successful soundtrack in all of Hollywood’s history. Like Simon and Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson,” Celine Dion’s insipid radio-friendly ear candy, “My Heart Will Go On,” is not even featured in the film. Rather, it is strictly background music for the closing credits. Interestingly, much of Titanic‘s groundbreaking sales rested heavily on the popularity of this song. In the film, only the instrumental version is featured.

In the case of the Nicholas Cage/Meg Ryan vehicle, City of Angels, the rock group Goo Goo Dolls hit radio airwaves with their ballad, “Iris.” Though featured in the film, this song was put into heavy rotation long before it was released on the Goo Goo Dolls album, Dizzy Up the Girl. In fact, the song received so much airplay, it helped to rocket the City of Angels soundtrack to the Number 1 position on Billboard’s Top 200, harkening back to the days when Saturday Night Fever and Grease reigned supreme. Record executives who compile these soundtracks often do so in the shadows of hits like City of Angels and Armageddon (featuring the Aerosmith mega-smash hit “I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing”). These executives hope that their pet project will offer up similar hits for general radio consumption.

It is fair to say that for every soundtrack containing songs that take the radio airwaves by storm, becoming so popular that they are no longer associated with the film, there are many that capture the film’s essence perfectly. The original soundtrack for Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now features dialogue and music directly from the film. In essence, a great deal of the 2 LP soundtrack is taken directly from the body of the film, much like Neil Young’s original soundtrack for Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man. This provides the listener with an experience that is akin to watching the film, though admittedly, soundtracks such as these can unnerve and distract the casual listener.

This discussion should not terminate at, but instead lead to the soundtrack for the recent film, American Beauty. Boasting no radio “hits,” this soundtrack is an infusion of past and present rock ‘n’ roll and modern instrumental music. (The latter was composed specifically for and used in the film.) The soundtrack features modern reworkings of classic rock ‘n’ roll tunes, such as Elliott Smith’s version of the Beatles’ “Because,” side by side with The Who’s “The Seeker.” The soundtrack for American Beauty is an example of a random (and perhaps haphazard?) melding of different periods and styles of music. Where else could one find Peggy Lee on the same album with indie-rockers Gomez? American Beauty‘s soundtrack is of interest because it poses no radio hit; it offers no Celine Dion equivalent. It offers something very different than the soundtracks for Titanic or Apocalypse Now or even The Graduate. What it offers us is the perfect postmodern companion piece to the film. It is at once engaging and evocative, reflecting the mood of the film as well as providing us with a separate listenable entity.