10 movie soundtracks that changed music
1. Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Original, rhythmic and strikingly visual, the soundtrack to the Academy Award winning film Birdman relies almost purely on jazz drum solos. As principal composer, Antonio Sanchez took a relatively improvised approach to the score, complimenting the chaotic aesthetic of the film. Placing percussion at the forefront of a soundtrack requires confidence but Sanchez delivers a score that remains fresh and stimulating throughout. The director, Alejandro G. Iñárritu, says the score helped him find the “internal rhythm” of a film which is made to appear to be a seamless, single take. This is a first-of-its-kind soundtrack, experimental without being excessive. It marks a turn away from traditional practises of relying on melody to evoke emotion, and will undoubtedly influence countless film scores to come.
2. The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
Instantly recognizable in two notes, Ennio Morricone’s theme tune to this 1966 Western ensures the soundtrack’s position on this list. Resembling the howl of a coyote, the main theme is employed frequently throughout the film. Desolate, haunting and unapologetically masculine, the soundtrack features twanging guitars, distinctive vocals, and… whistling. It has continually inspired artists from different genres, with the Ramones playing it at the start of tours, Metallica covering it on a tribute album and Jay-Z borrowing from the track ‘The Ecstasy of the Gold’. An epically triumphant score, its integration into music and popular culture is proof of its success.
3. Assault on Precinct 13
Directed and scored by the inimitable John Carpenter, the soundtrack to Assault on Precinct 13 proves that when building menacing atmospheres, less is more. The title track, which is varied throughout the movie, is based upon Led Zeppelin’s ‘Immigrant Song’. Minimalist and magnetic, the electronic rhythm-based score remains current today, almost forty years after its release. Indeed, Carpenter is acclaimed to have popularised the very idea of a film score composed of electronic music. The soundtrack remains heavily influential on hip hop and electronic artists today, including the likes of Gatekeeper and Com Truise.
4. Saturday Night Fever
I’m writing this while listening to the Bee Gees’ ‘You Should Be Dancing’ and I must admit it’s a struggle to sit still without breaking out in dance. The soundtrack to this movie, with the majority of contributions from the Bee Gees and smaller contributions from Kool & The Gang and K.C and The Sunshine Band embodies the disco fever that swept the world in the late ‘70s. The album soundtrack spent 18 weeks atop the UK charts, becoming the best-selling album soundtrack of all time. The pulsating beats and falsetto lyrics of ‘Stayin’ Alive’ can be heard in clubs to this day and, almost singlehandedly, Saturday Night Fever gave birth to an era of hip-popping, disco-dancing, glittering giddiness. (Must-hear track: ‘Jive Talkin’ – Bee Gees)
5. Blade Runner
Greek composer Vangelis’s darkly melodic score for the 1982 film Blade Runner juxtaposes electronic and jazz elements to create a soundtrack that captures both the dystopia of Los Angeles 2019 and the warmth of the characters’ enduring humanity. Influential as it is evocative, Blade Runner has been described as the “pinnacle of synthesiser soundtracks”. Techno artists in 1980’s Detroit were inspired by its futuristic and melancholic melodies and one must only listen to Carl Craig’s ‘Sandstorms’ to appreciate Blade Runner’s continuing influence. (Must-hear track: ‘Memories of Green’ – Vangelis)
6. 2001: A Space Odyssey
A key aspect of 2001: A Space Odyssey’s incredible legacy is its soundtrack. The intensely soaring opening track, an excerpt from Richard Strauss’s ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’, has become synonymous with space travel. Stanley Kubrick blazed new paths in film music, combining early classical pieces such as ‘The Blue Danube’ with modernist classical music composed by György Ligeti. Ligeti’s pioneering use of micropolyphony (sustained dissonant chords) is heard in ‘Atmosphères’ and this style has influenced other composers – and even the likes of Sonic Youth. It is a courageously elegant soundtrack that extends musical horizons in parallel with the physical horizons explored in the plot.
Fantasia, a Walt Disney animated movie released in 1940, was the first movie to use stereophonic sound, and thus marked the end of an era of thin, strained music. The invention of ‘fantasound’, through the use of overdubbing and multi-track recording, ensured that the audience were given a brand new audio experience throughout the film. Fantasia is notable not only for its sound technology but for the soundtrack itself. With Leopold Stokowski as conductor, Fantasia introduced audiences to classical pieces such as Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral Theme’ and Stravinsky’s ‘Le Sacre du Temps’. Fantasia was the first (of many) films to use music from Tchaikovsky’s ‘Nutcracker Suite’.
8. Romeo + Juliet
The 1996 version of arguably Shakespeare’s best-known play features an emotional, searching soundtrack that spans genres from garage punk to alternative rock to soul. The tense bitterness in #1 crush (Garbage) and Talk Show Host (Radiohead) is softened by songs such as Kissing You (Des’ree) and Angel (Gavin Friday). This soundtrack displayed the softer, vulnerable side of alternative rock and marked the crossover of indie music soundtracks to the mainstream, emulated in later years by blockbusters like Twilight. A powerfully edgy soundtrack to accompany a hyper-kinetic movie, ‘Romeo + Juliet’ is a musical journey that fluctuates between the comforting and disturbing. (Must-hear track: 'Talk Show Host'- Radiohead)
This 1996 ‘Cool Britannia’ classic boasts a dynamic soundtrack that swerves around with a youthful restlessness throughout the film. Championing britpop and post-punk movements, the movie rolls out one exceptional track after another. Eclectic choices are seamlessly stitched together to create a bleak yet disjointedly romantic masterpiece. This soundtrack, with songs by Primal Scream, Pulp and New Order, primed the field for the punk-edged techno songs that swept the world shortly afterwards. It remains a stellar soundtrack to this day, and the technique of compiling soundtracks from various popular artists within a given genre has become commonplace in film.
10. O Brother, Where Art Thou?
The soundtrack to the Coen Brothers’ iconic movie was considered so significant to the overall production that it was recorded even before filming began. In contrast to the tumult of hip hop and pop music that flooded the industry in the 2000s, this soundtrack was a rediscovery of bluegrass and country music. Produced by the legendary T-Bone Burnett, it was a contrasting work of both macabre and cheerful songs. Featuring songs by Alison Krauss and the Soggy Bottom Boys, O Brother Where Art Thou? brought about a revival in folk music in popular culture, paving the way for acts such as Mumford and Sons and The Lumineers in the proceeding decade. (Must-hear track: ‘I Am A Man of Constant Sorrow’ – The Soggy Bottom Boys).