What The Hell Happened To Movie Soundtracks?

I can remember it as clear as day. I’m 12 years old, in the movie theater watching the greatest action hero of all time at the peak of his powers in a self-referential, almost too meta for it’s own good commentary on the monstrosity that was ’80s and ’90s cartoonish action films. The iconic star was Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the subpar, but subsequently under-appreciated film was Last Action Hero. Ripe with anticipation, a kid in a theater (me) watched another kid in a theater, watching a movie within a movie. The rabbit hole runs deep.

In the film within a film, Jack Slater, the title sequence literally explodes on-screen to the roaring riffs of the song “Angry Again” by one of my all-time favorite metal bands, Megadeth. This song wasn’t a previously popularized hit from a famous, big-selling Megadeth album. It was only available on the Last Action Hero soundtrack (and later on the Hidden Treasures EP) which also featured incredible tracks by AC/DC, 2 songs from Alice In Chains, and a superior-to-it’s-original rendition of Aerosmith’s “Dream On” accompanied by ’90s era composer du jour Michael Kamen and orchestra.

For the most part, these songs were actually IN the movie. They were part of the narrative. They coloured how the film sat within our conscious memories. I can’t think of “Big Gun” or “What The Hell Have I?” without thinking about Last Action Hero. I can’t think about the film without thinking about those songs. It’s a feeling of a time and place that’s unique to it’s own positioning within our lives. Call it “nostalgia”, but for me, it’s autobiographically time stamped. Back then, these songs were so important to the films, Schwarzenegger himself appeared in the Guns N’ Roses video for “You Could Be Mine”, which was featured in the movie Terminator 2, and the lead character listening to GnR told you something about his rebelliousness.

Whether it’s Last Action Hero, or The Crow, Judgement Night, Singles, Purple Rain, Boomerang, New Jack City, there was a finite era where cross-pollinated film soundtracks were the norm. Filmmakers curated a sonic aesthetic that matched their vision , and the soundtrack helped promote the film. The soundtrack was usually populated with contemporary music that helped make the film an artifact distinct to it’s era, with exceptions being films that took place in the past (Forrest Gump, Dazed and Confused) or set a particular tone by hearkening to the past (Pulp Fiction, High Fidelity).

QuentinTarantino is uniquely skilled at finding old songs that have been forgotten in the zeitgeist, and reintroduces them in a way that makes you think about Tarantino, not the era in which the songs were created. I would say the same for “Bohemian Rhapsody” being featured in Wayne’s World. Not being a child of the ’70s, I can’t speak to how that song sat in our culture before Wayne’s World, but how we feel about the song now is definitively owed to Wayne’s World. You could make an argument it has supplanted “Stairway to Heaven” as the world’s most popular rock song. This is the power of conjoining these mediums in an inventive way.

I don’t know what’s happened to the modern movie industry outside of becoming a cloning factory or intellectual property wax museum comprised of sequels, reboots, spin-offs, and shared universe building. The same philosophy that has Hollywood strip mining our ’80s childhood toy box for movie ideas, has infested the comic book cinema landscape with worn out musical relics.

The soundtrack for Marvel’s Iron Man 2 featured classic tracks exclusively by AC/DC. I love AC/DC as much as the next man, but does a band started in the 1970s distinctly represent a film property that debuts in 2008? And why buy an AC/DC greatest hits album just because you slapped an Iron Man logo on it? Much to my chagrin, the soundtrack was a huge success, garnering platinum and gold records all over the world.

Maybe the thinking is that your property becomes more timeless by not featuring contemporary music. It’s not a bad argument. But our culture, especially youth culture, loses out by not capturing that moment in time. They don’t get to have their The Graduate, “Mrs. Robinson” moment.

… or their The Breakfast Club, “Don’t Forget About Me” moment…

…or their Closer, “Blower’s Daughter” moment…

…or their Shaft moment…

…or their Tales From The Crypt: Demon Knight, “Hey Man, Nice Shot” moment…

The most egregious and bull-headed display of this soundtrack by way of Pinterest-nostalgia collage is the recent DC blunder, Suicide Squad. Outside of being an untethered mess of a production, this film commits what I consider to be an unforgivable soundtrack crime, which is using songs that were made famous or have already been canonized by other films or songs that are just played out and hackneyed. This includes “Bohemian Rhapsody” (wish I could have been there to see who brought that up in a meeting), “Sympathy for the Devil” by The Rolling Stones, Creedence’s “Fortunate Son” (featured in every movie about the ’60s or Vietnam), some AC/DC and “Paranoid” by Black Sabbath, if they couldn’t ape Iron Man more so, “Super Freak” by Rick James, “Black Skin Head” by Kanye, which although new-ish was already used in The Wolf of Wall St. trailer a couple years earlier, and “12 Nation Army” by The White Stripes, which is fresh idea if you’ve literally never been in public or turned on a radio in your life. This is a staggeringly impressive lack of imagination. While these songs appear in the movie, apparently the actual soundtrack did feature a fair amount of modern music, and sold very well. I know they were probably trying to tap into the better-executed, Member Berry soundtracks of Guardians of the Galaxy and Deadpool, but try to carve your own path next time instead of following the most recent successful formula.

I really don’t want to be that Andy Rooney “back in my day” guy, but you don’t have to be that old to remember when many of the big movies had a song about the movie, that featured the title of the movie in the song. As corny as it is, and there were a LOT of corny songs, it was fun and spoke exactly to the property it was referencing. Everyone knows the Ghostbusters theme, but one of my favorite songs ever is Bobby Brown’s “On Our Own” from Ghostbusters 2, where he drops an entire rap verse detailing the film’s plot.

I hope some of you remember these gems.

#NeverForget…”My hat is like a shark’s fin”…

I should make it clear to distinguish between film scores and soundtracks. I believe the state of film scoring is very healthy with some of my favorite music in recent years being that of great composers like Hans Zimmer, Tyler Bates, Clint Mansell, and even a resurgence of ’80s style synth-based,  John Carpenter-esque music as evidenced by the Stranger Things and It Follows scores.

With that said, I just looked at the top 10 grossing films 2016, and I can’t think of 1 song that stands out to me outside of Salt N’ Pepa’s “Shoop” from Deadpool and  System of a Down’s “Bounce” being featured in the trailer for The Secret Life of  Pets.  Both fun and cool, but nothing new; nothing that we will distinctly remember as being of the 2010s.

I don’t know why this doesn’t happen anymore. I know there are some exceptions to this trend like “Let it Go” from Frozen or “Glory” from Selma, but the trend is undeniable. Maybe it’s the studios being cheap or not wanting to take a risk with artists or songs that aren’t already in the cultural zeitgeist. Independent films are becoming more and more marginalized, and giant tentpole franchises have sucked up all of the oxygen, leaving a barren movie middle class.

I can say that soundtracks comprised of contemporary, cutting edge music was really fucking awesome, and consider this my lobbying campaign begging for a comeback.

Check out Doc’s Favorite Soundtrack Songs Spotify Playlist!

4 thoughts on “What The Hell Happened To Movie Soundtracks?

  1. I feel the same way, however I understand why the older music. I can’t speak about the whole country, but I can’t imagine that Richmond, VA is completely different than everywhere else. You’ve been here. You know we’re average.

    I listen to the radio a lot. PBS, primarily. I listen on the way to and from work. Sometimes I jump around (jump up, jump up and get down!) and we have 3 “classic rock” stations. I mean classic rock rawk, with Nirvana and a lot of “our” music now considered “classic”, yet debuted after I turned a quarter century. I’m a sixties baby. Well, barely. I was born in the last month of 69, but I made it, damnit. These three classic radio stations exclude the “greatest hits of the 70s, 80s, 90s, and today”, or “Top 40 Years”. We have 4 and a half of those. 2 of our 3 “Urban Contemporary” are more like “Urban Conservative”. I feel like we have half of a new music radio station. These stations with tried and true sound is where all the advertising is spent.

    Newer music is seldom consumed on FM wavelengths anymore. If you have satellite radio, you have 40+ narrowly-curated choices. New choices. But the reason satellite radio isn’t in all of our homes is because it arrived too late. Streaming had arrived. Mobile, consume whatever you want wherever you want convenience. THAT is where new music is shared and enjoyed. And especially younger people don’t mind paying monthly for an iTunes, Spotify, Napster, etc connection that supplies exactly what you want, when you want it, wherever you want it, which includes narrowly-curated stations and playlists by the MILLIONS. “Dude, Doc just mentioned this awesome stoner metal band, Devil to Pay. Let me search for them.”

    People more inclined to own a physical album are more likely to buy online albums, too, as opposed to only streaming. While not true of all people in this category, many of these same people dwell more in older music. They’re also a lot more likely to listen to the radio, instead of bluetoothing Pandora to the car. I’m in no way capable of pinpointing the specific symbiosis, but there is a tie-in here where someone is lubing someone over the cross-market promotion.

    Older people go to the movies more now. So many of my friends (specifically many of those who have birthdays right around 1980) haven’t stepped foot in a theater in years. They download and stream everything. My teens rarely go to the theater. Man, in my early to mid teens I was at a theater or at the roller rink every weekend. Not now. For blockbusters, yeah, everybody’s going, but a lot of the people who enjoy a lot of movies in theaters, I’m sure, are also popping on “The best of classic rock in America’s heartland” before or after the film.

    John Hughes and company lured their prey by incorporating their target demographic’s music. Most new movies are doing the same. The demographic has shifted. Now, some movies have the “inspired by Suicide Squad” album. That does drum up the requisite interest in the new music crowd. Right now I’ve had Heathens on loop in my head since I read Suicide Squad above. But everyone, young and old, will recognize more classic stuff when it blasts in the theater. So that is where you spend your in-movie licensing money.

  2. This is an awesome article and something I talk about all the time. If I remember correctly movie soundtracks stopped even using previously unreleased material around 2003. Take the Freddy vs. Jason soundtrack, tons of great up and coming metal bands on it, but none releasing original songs, just using whatever their single was at the moment. Last Action Hero was absolutely the greatest soundtrack of all time, followed closely by Demon Knight and The Crow. Back in those days that was how you discovered new bands!! Honorable soundtrack mentions; the Jerky Boys, Spawn, Son In Law, The X-Files, Beavis And Butthead Do America, Strangeland, Singles, Bill And Ted’s Bogus Journey, Mortal Kombat, Private Parts. That’s all I can remember right now. Also the Beavis And Butthead Experience.

  3. Excellent piece of writing. In addition to Angry Again by Megadeth, may I add one of the greatest but unknown Pantera songs ever written: Avoid the light, featured on the Dracula 2000 soundtrack.

    This song has it all: reversed spoken-word intro, undecipherable awesome riffing and a truly glorious solo by the great one. Be sure to Check out the hommage to ‘Big log’ in the solo. Classy.

    I’ve met quite some fans not knowing about this song. If you are one of them… …thank me later ok? Greetings from the Netherlands

  4. Excellent piece Doc! You have the same general views and feelings I do towards this topic. Soundtracks were VITAL to me discovering new bands to listen to, not just that but making sure a soundtrack had a few ‘exclusives’ on there you couldn’t get anywhere else pretty much guaranteed I’d make a purchase. It’d sad that no one puts together anything like the Spawn or Judgement Night soundtracks – exclusives galore and blending genres but still keeping it all within and somehow relatable to the film.

    A good soundtrack for me enhances and expands the experience of the film on a grander scale.

    Last Action Hero and Crow (and subsequent sequel soundtracks too actually) rank very highly but Escape From LA might be my favourite of all time – this one had it ALL! Exclusives from White Zombie and Deftones too!

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