Sometimes, on this blog, I like to provide a little educational tool that I haven’t seen elsewhere in textbooks or on the internet. In this case, I answer the musical question: what are the most historically important soundtracks?
My editor at film debate.com recently asked for our three favorites, and I and my colleagues gave him those. However, what I left out of that was not necessarily the best (that’s easy to google), but the most historically important soundtracks ever made in America. I don’t believe this exists as a proper list; film history textbooks tend to treat each of these in isolation.
Historically, the six most important scores/soundtracks probably were:
King Kong (1933) – the first truly “scored” feature film, meaning the first time a composer had written more than an hour of original music for a film. And Max Steiner didn’t exactly phone it in: each character and backdrop had their own distinct theme and arrangement. Breathtaking in every way, this soundtrack put Steiner at the top of Hollywood’s composer A-list for decades, which is why he was hired to create scores for some tiny little films you may have heard of like Gone with the Wind, Casablanca, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and about 230 others.
Psycho (1960) – one could argue for four or five other Hitchcock films on this mini-list; the Master well knew the power of music, just as he knew the power of silence. For what arguably became the most famous movie scene of all time, composer Bernard Herrmann won the argument for music over silence. Hitchcock thought the shower scene would play better without music, and the DVD of Psycho lets you play both versions…and somehow, Herrmann and Hitchcock were both right. The film is also masterfully orchestrated from start to finish – that’s one reason you know you’re not in an episode of (then current) “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” – but there’s a reason that as soon as things in our lives get creepy, we hear that “eee-eee-eee” noise…after appearing over the moment that changed all the movie rules forever, that song is now written on our souls.
The Graduate (1967) – two of this landmark film’s greatest achievements were bringing pop-rock music into movies and bringing music lyrics fully into the lead character’s internal monologue. Somehow, neither had really been done before (unless we’re counting Elvis’s films, where his music always seemed watered-down); somehow, even as Mike Nichols’ film can seem dated as patchouli oil, the soundtrack still works. Simon and Garfunkel’s “hello darkness my old friend…”, played over Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin, gave voice to deep American alienation and existentialism at a level most Americans could actually understand and enjoy. A singular, visceral pleasure ride.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) – before this film, space wasn’t associated with classical music. Stanley Kubrick, however, did a lot more than repurpose Blue Danube and Also Sprach Zarathustra for the space age. He was equally effective at deploying creepy hums and odd tendrils of dissonance, and thanks chiefly to its soundtrack (and mind-bending star gate sequence) 2001 remains one of the biggest-budget avant-garde films ever made. This is a soundtrack that brings you on an unforgettable, sublime journey to infinity and beyond.
American Graffiti (1973) – if you like Guardians of the Galaxy, if you like Pulp Fiction (a film that has no so-called “score” at all, only songs), if you basically like a kick-ass rock-oriented mix soundtrack, it all comes back to this film. Rock songs had been used to fill in dead spots in films like Easy Rider (1969), but this was the first time songs had been properly blended with each other and with the other noises on the screen (okay, mostly cars) to create a truly seamless soundscape, assuring sound editor Walter Murch godlike status among his peers for the next decades (oh, and assuring the director the green light to do whatever he wanted, musically and otherwise, for his next film, a little ditty you may have heard of called Star Wars). And if you like rock from the 50s and early 60s, American Graffiti holds up; and when we say it holds up, we mean the soundtrack holds aloft the sometimes-wooden rest of the film.
Purple Rain (1984) – It isn’t a perfect film, but it’s by far the best rock album to be a narrative film and not a concert movie; the soundtrack including the non-Prince songs is even slightly better than any of the 12-song compilations that made up each of the five Beatles films. Purple Rain actually seems more astonishing now than it did in 1984, partly because of the sheer audacity of Prince convincing Warner Bros. to make a starless film on the strength of what was, in the simplest financial terms, two modest hits, “1999” and “Little Red Corvette.” It would have been like if Paramount had committed to a Rick Astley movie after “Never Gonna Give You Up” and “Together Forever.” We also now have thirty more years of evidence that most artists coming into their career peak don’t bother to make compromises with major movie studios to make cinema of their magnum opuses. Eminem’s 8 Mile certainly had the masterpiece song “Lose Yourself,” but the rest of that soundtrack doesn’t hold up to Eminem’s better albums the way Purple Rain holds up to, well, anything.
While we’re here, others that you should know to be considered Soundtracktually Literate:
The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
The Red Shoes (1948)
On the Town (1949)
An American in Paris (1951)
Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
Carmen Jones (1954)
A Star is Born (1954)
The King and I (1956)
South Pacific (1958)
West Side Story (1961)
Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)
A Hard Day’s Night (1964)
The Sound of Music (1965)
The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1966)
Funny Girl (1968)
Easy Rider (1969)
The Godfather (1972)
Lady Sings the Blues (1972)
The Harder They Come (1972)
What a year, 1972!
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
Star Wars (1977)
Saturday Night Fever (1978)
Superman (1978) (but really, only for the opening theme, perhaps the greatest movie instrumental song ever written)
All That Jazz (1979)
The Blues Brothers (1980)
Stop Making Sense (1984)
Krush Groove (1985)
Back to the Future (1985)
The Mission (1986)
New Jack City (1991)
Pulp Fiction (1994)
Boogie Nights (1997)
The Buena Vista Social Club (1999)
O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000)
Moulin Rouge! (2001)
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
24 Hour Party People (2002)
Tron: Legacy (2010)
eventual Hamilton movie (2018?)