Top 10 Soundtracks

A fun project. I’d probably formulate a totally different 2012 list (and now probably will), but I poured a lot of directionless passion into this puppy…

Summer 2008 will forever be remembered as the first time I started paying my dues to the real world. As an editorial intern at a book press, I met the boring beige underbelly of my beloved, the English Language.  Hours upon hours each day were spent hunkered down in a spare-room-turned-office, watching spreadsheets extend their stultifying tentacles over my computer screen. To cope, I began a side project which quickly overtook my frequent tea breaks and grew into a truly passionate undertaking. “Top Ten Film Soundtracks” encompassed many works which (I felt) deserved exaltation and a place on everybody’s radar. To be fair, there are many fabulous movies on my to-see list that remain yet unseen. However, these five stir me strongly, and give me faith in the beautiful marriage of the auditory and the visual.

Amadeus

“Here! It’s all right here, in my noodle!”

It’s hard to write an educated critique here. What am I gonna say, “Symphony Number 25 in G Minor” was awesome, but I didn’t much care for “Piano Concerto Number 20 in D Minor”? I know very little about classical music and still less about the merits of Mozart, other than his music was revolutionary and his talent was impossible. Obviously a soundtrack containing all his most-revered compositions is of objectively high quality.
However, Amadeus is not valuable as a vehicle for Mozart’s Greatest Hits. I loved this movie and its music because neither are mutually exclusive. The film revolves around Mozart’s creations, deconstructing them and framing them in their original environment of aristocratic opluence and tortured creativity. Mozart conducts a dramatic opera to the point of exhaustion; his archenemy and most devoted admirer Salieri maniacally dissects the genius of each chord and note; the two attempt to transcribe a piece together and Salieri is furious and transfixed as Mozart effortlessly notates what seems to be a musical directive from God.
These moments enact a groundbreaking and fascinating symbiosis I’ve never seen in any other film. Mozart’s music amplifies and brings to life a meticulous study of psychological breakdown, spirituality, and raw ambition. At the same time, the sheer skill of the film’s execution makes the miracle of Mozart’s genius shockingly real.

Requiem for a Dream

“You make me feel like a person. Like I’m me…and I’m beautiful.”

With its masterfully creepy original compositions, the original soundtrack of this film is the musical equivalent of an apocalyptic nightmare. No other soundtrack is as desperate or as driven in its advancement of particular themes.
The film itself is catapulted into the realm of “masterpiece” largely due to its score. The background pieces by Clint Mansell are tense and insinuating, vaguely reeking of electronica and ambient sound. Even the everyday activities of the main characters (shooting up heroin, driving, grinning between kisses) are imbued with a sense of impending disaster and misery.
The most affecting pieces, though, come from the Kronos Quartet, who not only perform the four “seasonal” musical themes, but Requiem’s emblematic composition and the crux of its climax. The musicians perform with chilling precision, driving home the plot’s unavoidable and painful series of events. However, wavering high notes from the violins and the soothing scales of a harp deliver unexpected shots of tenderness. “Lux Aeterna,” that climactic piece, is finally launched with nothing less than exhilarating horror. At the soundtrack’s conclusion, the absence of the both calculated and frenzied music leaves viewers in massive discomfort and emptiness; it feels just like crashing from a high.

High Fidelity

“It’s not what you ARE like, it’s what you like. Books, records, films. These things matter.”

How do you possibly construct an appropriate soundtrack for a film all about snooty aggrandizement of obscure pop music? So much of the script is devoted to tearing apart acceptable tastes, self-medicating with secret aural pleasures, and analyzing the links between emotion, memory, and the billboard charts.
Natch, the soundtrack is expansive and truly runs the gamut. The film team obviously did not feel as qualified as original writer Nick Hornby to narrow down the selection, so we are left with a resulting swirl of forgotten, ragged singles and established hits of yore, identical to the messy musical encyclopedia in protagonist Rob Gordon’s mind.
In some ways, the construction and timing of the songs to the film resembles the way we might see fit to accompany our everyday lives. When Rob is alone and brooding, he blasts classic Springsteen and builds himself up with an imaginary macho chat with the Boss. After extracting from his ex-girlfriend her reluctance to sleep with her new lover, he pumps his fists to “We Are the Champions.” However, in the company of his eccentric, discerning, and hawk-eyed coworkers, he flips the cutting-edge connoisseur switch. He rambles about Stereolab and plays a specific Beta Band snippet over the loudspeakers to lure costumers.
The great thing about this soundtrack is Rob’s, Hornby’s, and the directors’ refusal to ignore their instincts – both for comfort and for intellectualism. When the characters need some classic Aretha to underline the script with warm soul and joy, it is delivered just as readily as the mocking tinkling bells of a Velvet Underground B-side; both sound well-placed and natural.

The Rules of Attraction

“Don’t fuck up my karma, man. Don’t fuck it up.”

A film about such reprehensible people deserves a soundtrack that injects excitement, innocence, and especially originality. Where these characters are flat and emotionless, the music peels down the skin to their suppressed raw youth; when they allow themselves a moment of abandon, these songs elevate each second into brilliant delight. The Rules of Attraction exclusively uses a musical paintbrush to illustrate the strange beauty in one painful year of college, much as we might when we look back on those insane months.
The unquestionable highlight of the collection is Donovan’s “Colours,” which gently brings two characters together on a sparkling morning – at this moment, they both feel inexplicably intertwined. The song is dated, a relic of the hippie era, but splashes some light on a chance meeting which would have otherwise seemed trite.
But there are so many other inspiring tunes here, many drawn from the dark cabinets of has-been 1980s deejays. “So Alive” by Love and Rockets is both eerie and energizing, beautifully paired with uncomfortable sex. Erasure’s “Stop!” brings the story to a punchy close, reassuring the audience and yet assaulting the ears with grating synthesizers. And of course, the most poignant use of music comes during the famous bathtub suicide, when the soft ballad “Without You” builds into a fuzzy, frightening sonic jumble – about as messy as a college student’s mind.

The Truman Show

“And in case I don’t see ya…”

This soundtrack is perfect. That’s why it owns the number one spot in my mind. And you may have a different preferences than me, you may disagree with my list, but the fact is that this collection is untouchable. Seriously, this music is better evidence of a higher power than the parting of the Red Sea.
Truman is actually the ideal candidate for a tongue-in-cheek soundtrack, full of current pop tunes and soaring operating odes. This thinly veiled attack on consumerism, the concept of self, and deity-based religion would have functioned just fine if accompanied by songs emblematic of a capitalist, God-fearing America. However, director Peter Weir was not just aiming to slash at cultural mores. He wished to create a truly humanist film, revolving not around ideas but a man with complete purity of soul. Having found a surprisingly disarming and affecting hero in Jim Carrey (as Truman Burbank), Weir apparently decided that his movie needed to function as more than social commentary.
He succeeded in an unbelievably magnificent way, due mostly to the all-instrumental soundtrack selected. Burkhard Dallwitz and Philip Glass team up to create the most exciting, heartbreaking, and inspiring compositions I have ever heard. The music is precise and artful in its depiction of moments large and small, from a traumatic childhood experience to a simple good night’s sleep. Dallwitz’s main themes are sparse yet driving, lending a sinister glow to Truman’s artificial world. Glass’s contributions are more delicate, prodding at the heart during the film’s most vulnerable and tender moments. “Father Kolbe’s Preaching” brings home Truman’s shocking and excruciating discovery home with a tragic punch. Most stirring of all is “Opening (from Mishima)” which brings Truman to a fascinating resolution.
This movie did implant the famous “is everyone watching?” question into popular culture, but it functions much more importantly as a timeless work of art. The film is evidence that luminaries from every area of media, notably the director, producer, art director, and composers, can come together to create a piece more valuable than the sum total of their work. Truman is the prime example of a soundtrack which enhances a movie so much that its genre and message are altered. It’s a complete triumph for the creators and audience alike.

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