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!