Soundtracks often add an important dimension to films, imbuing the narrative with more vitality and forging a unique connection between the audience and what is happening on screen. Indeed, ever since Al Jolson first broke the sound barrier in film with his intermittent performances in The Jazz Singer, picture and sound have had an inseparable relationship in cinema. But this relationship goes far beyond the mere diagetic sounds in a given film. Whether diagetic or non-diagetic, soundtracks help films establish an ethos. A film set in the seventies, for example, can transport its audience back to that time with contemporaneous and carefully selected songs. As such, soundtracks are not pointless and can be just as vital to a film’s execution as costumes and sets.
That is not to say that film soundtracks exist solely for the narrative world’s benefit. Soundtracks do serve economic purposes, as films like The Bodyguard have become known more for their soundtrack and less for their merits as a film. Successful soundtracks, especially those featuring original songs, tend to get released as albums, which, in turn, market films to music-listening audiences. The film and soundtrack, when packaged as two separate products, are mutually beneficial, but this relationship, strengthened by ceaseless consumerism, does not need to be viewed in a negative light. Long after the ending credits have finished rolling, the re-released soundtrack reminds viewers of that poignant scene with the ideal musical accompaniment. The soundtrack, that is, reignites those emotions that the film initially sparked, carrying listeners away from the mundane drudgery of their everyday lives and back to the theatre or couch.
As that example intimates, there is a cyclical relationship between soundtrack and film world, one which bolsters the connections viewers make with films and music. Unless the point of the film is to alienate viewers, as is the wont of so many avant-garde films, the soundtrack establishes avenues that move to and from the film world. When, for instance, a character in The Big Chill puts The Temptations on the record player, the song connects the diagetic world with the real world; audiences remember hearing that song in their own lives and begin drawing connections from their lives to the film. As such, the song paradoxically immerses the audiences in the diagesis, while forcing the audience to engage with themselves.
In celebration of sound and film, this list looks at ten classic film soundtracks. Some of these films’ soundtracks feature original songs conceived for the film, while others are just excellent compilations of great songs that invigorate the film. This list has tried to be ecumenical, as it features soundtracks that appeal to a wide range of tastes. Let us know what your favourite film soundtracks are.
10 The Big Chill (1983)
Featuring an incredible cast and equally incredible soundtrack, The Big Chill is one of the finest “hangout” films every created. The premise is straightforward, if slightly morose: close friends from college reunite after one commits suicide. The film’s shrewdly selected soundtrack accentuates the highs and lows that the characters experience throughout. The film opens with Marvin Gaye’s “Heard It Through the Grapevine,” and from that point on there is no shortage of nostalgic music to dance along to. The soundtrack high from this film, as the opening intimates, occurs when the characters dance insouciantly and joyously to The Temptations' “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg.” If only for the soundtrack, this film should not be missed.
9 Armageddon (1998)
This selection will irk and probably—well, definitely since it’s the internet—irritate certain readers, since Armageddon is one of the most overblown dramas in recent memory, but no one can deny the effectiveness and piquancy of Aerosmith’s “Don’t Want to Miss a Thing,” a song that still enjoys regular airplay on radio stations everywhere. That awkward scene between Ben Affleck and Liv Tyler, where Affleck plays with cookies atop her breasts, is made sufferable by the inclusion of the song “Leaving on Jet Plane,” though this writer would have liked the Peter, Paul, and Mary rendition over the cover. However, with this film, all roads lead back to that killer and heartfelt Aerosmith song.
8 Love Jones (1997)
For those sleepers out there, Love Jones is a legitimate classic from the 90s. Though the film flounders towards the end, the dialogue in this film is highly engaging. The soundtrack, though, underpins this film, giving it added piquancy. When Nina (Nia Long) agrees to let Darius (Lorenzo Tate) play her a song, he plays the eternally moving John Coltrane and Duke Ellington hit, “In a Sentimenal Mood.” Passion emanates from the song’s plaintive melody, and the music enfolds Nina and Darius in an atmosphere of love. The biggest high from this film’s soundtrack, however, is Lauryn Hill’s heartfelt song, “The Sweetest Thing.” She wrote this song for the film; it might be the best song of her solo career, and that’s saying a good deal.
7 The Bodyguard (1992)
The Bodyguard’s soundtrack remains one of the best-selling soundtracks of all time, which is no surprise. Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston are great in this film, despite the predictable and hackneyed plot. However, Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” injects life into this otherwise bland film and is the source of its success. Her voice, when at its best, can move the most hardened and stolid individuals into states of extreme emotion. Especially in light of Whitney’s recent and tragic death, film buffs should give this film a watch. If not, go and search that song.
6 8 Mile (2002)
Personal opinions about rap aside, 8 Mile has a superb soundtrack. This film capitalized off of Eminem’s mammoth mainstream success in the early 2000s but it is not—contrary to what people conjectured before seeing it—kitsch; Slim Shady actually puts forth a rich performance, stealing the spotlight from acting veterans like Brittany Murphy and Kim Basinger. In addition to his surprising performance, Eminem teamed with other songwriters to write all the freestyles for this film, and those short raps, delivered in the dimly lit club where the characters perform, are electrifying to watch. However, the major soundtrack highlight from this film is Eminem’s single, “Lose Yourself,” which is one of his most impressive lyrical efforts since adopting the Slim Shady persona.
5 The Sound of Music (1965)
Again, love it or hate it, no can deny the indomitable power of The Sound of Music—or, as Christopher Plummer remarked disparagingly, “The Sound of Mucous.” Plummer’s deprecations aside, anyone who has watched this film will certainly remember their favourite scene in connection with the song that’s sung in the scene. Indeed, Rodgers and Hammerstein hit it big with the songs they created for this film. From “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” to “Do-Re-Mi” to “My Favourite Things” to the eternally beautiful “Edelweiss”—this film has an incredible and memorable soundtrack.
4 Almost Famous (2000)
Almost Famous, Cameron Crowe’s magnum opus about a thrill-seeking, precocious wannabe writer who tours with a rock band, has, like The Big Chill, an uplifting soundtrack glutted with songs from notable musicians. Featuring musicians the likes of The Who, Elton John, Led Zeppelin, Cat Stevens, Simon and Garfunkel—to name a few—the soundtrack emphatically punctuates the highs and lows of the narrative, immersing audiences into the diagesis. Even the fictional band from the film, Stillwater, performs an original song. Indeed, the soundtrack underpins the rock-and-roll ethos that the narrative creates.
3 Dazed and Confused (1993)
Dazed and Confused, Richard Linklater’s “hangout” classic about celebratory teenagers, opens with Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion,” which lays the foundation for a menagerie of great 70s rock music. Like Almost Famous, Dazed’s soundtrack is glutted with songs from eminent bands and musicians. This list of musicians and bands includes: ZZ Top, Fog Hat, Alice Cooper, and KISS. As the characters cavort around town, the music helps convey the teenage spirit and joie de vivre. One of the best parts of the film overlaid with music is when Matthew McConnaughey’s character enters the pool hall to Bob Dylan’s classic, “The Hurricane.” There is something ineffably cool about that scene.
2 Last Days of Disco (1998)
Whit Stillman’s dialogue-driven classic, Last Days of Disco, is set during, well, the last days before disco became universally detested. The film is part paean to a bygone era of music and style and part witty narrative. The characters are all well-educated New Yorkers, and the dialogue is a real highlight of the film, but the film is nothing without its excellent soundtrack of late-70s and early-80s disco classics. Songs by Blondie and Diana Ross, for instance, make viewers want to get up dance, imbuing them with an odd sense of nostalgia for an era that people glibly deride. The film ends with a dream-like dance party in a subway car, which further suggests that this film is nothing without its soundtrack.
1 Hard Day’s Night (1964)
A marketing smash-hit, The Beatles released the film Hard Day’s Night in conjunction with their album of the same name. 1964 was a good year for the legends from Liverpool, and this film encapsulates why The Beatles were massively successful in the 60s. Of course, the film stars all the members of the band, who all sport their trademark looks and haircuts. While the film is semi-factual, the creative liberties taken with the script add a good deal of whimsy to the film. Songs like “A Hard Day’s Night,” “I Wanna Be Your Man,” “All My Loving,” “Can’t Buy Me Love,” and “She Loves You” imbue this film with vitality. Of course, the film was always going to feature The Beatle’s music. For any fans of The Beatles, this film should not be missed—period.