"Now, the making of a good mixtape is a very subtle art. Many do's and don'ts. First of all, you're using someone else's poetry to express how you feel. This is a delicate thing."-High Fidelity
Talking about Crazy Heart last week really set me thinking about soundtracks, and what makes one really memorable or perfect for a movie. Like a mixtape, there's an art to it, and it goes beyond just picking good songs. Anyone can pick twelve good songs (okay, not anyone, but most people) and put them all into their movie, but at its best, the soundtrack should convey a time and a place, a mood, the mental state of the characters involved. It can be used ironically, playing a happy song as everything goes wrong, or to underscore what's happening inside of a character. A soundtrack has the power to take a song that isn't great and transform it (I'm thinking of the jukebox scene in Say Anything) or to take a song that's already great and give you an entirely new association with it ("Tiny Dancer" in Almost Famous).
For me, Almost Famous has the ultimate soundtrack. You can probably say that about any of Cameron Crowe’s movies, which use forty years of pop music in every scene, but this one is the best pairing of music to image. From that scene with “Tiny Dancer” on the bus to the clip of “Misty Mountain Hop” as the car rolls into New York City, the music choices work on every level. There’s a sense of time, a sense of the shifting musical scene in the early 70s, and the feeling of an impending crash. At times, the soundtrack almost seems to be in conversation with the movie: there’s a part early on where two characters discuss Lou Reed sounding like David Bowie, and much later in the movie, a Bowie cover of “Waiting for the Man” plays over the action of the story. It’s just this little moment that shows how much care went into connecting the soundtrack to the plot.
I could probably go on for 2000 words about what makes a good soundtrack and what completely ruins it for me (but I won’t). Sometimes what works in one movie is horrible in another. An example: I love the way the soundtrack of 500 Days of Summer works, and the way the characters interact with the songs. The repeated use of the Smiths that initially connects the characters works really well, and the point where “Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want” moves from Joseph-Gordon Leavitt’s computer speakers to being played over the action is a well-crafted moment. They call attention to the music in the soundtrack, but it’s in such a character-defining and relevant way that it seems natural to do so. Contrast this with the moment in the movie Garden State when the characters call attention to the Shins’ “New Slang,” a moment that I think completely takes the audience out of the narrative.
What are your favorite soundtracks? I’m a personal fan of Wes Anderson’s because I think in addition to using great songs he utilizes them really well. Cameron Crowe always has really great music in his movies as well—I would argue that the soundtrack in Elizabethtown is its own character. What are the best? What are the worst?