Soundtracks #10 – Grand Finale – Why Soundtracks Just Don’t Work

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[This is the final post in this splendid series, and a massive thank you to all who have taken part. This all started a couple of months ago when Ian, guitarist with Toad favourite Broken Records, sent me a message about having a soundtrack rant brewing. It went largely along the lines of ‘don’t get me started’. Mrs. Toad then suggested making it into a feature where everyone can make a contribution, and here we go. I think I let it go on a little long – maybe a week maximum next time – but it has been splendid fun, and I thought it only fair that Ian, the man whose fault the whole thing is in the first place, be allowed the final say.]

My rant about soundtracks is a bit different to Mr Toad’s previous postings on the subject of the great “music-inspired-by” rip-off. My main truck with soundtracks is that, on the whole, they are thoroughly unsatisfying to listen to as albums. Now, you may think that a little unfair – soundtracks are meant to work in conjunction with the film and this is arguably the best context in which to appreciate them. But if you like the music you might well be tempted to buy the album as well and more often than not I’ve found myself thoroughly disappointed with the final results. And here’s why.

To make this clearer I think there are two main types of soundtrack. First is ‘The Compilation’ which usually involves various artists often from differing eras and vastly differing musical styles. This is all well and good for undemanding teen-comedy-high-school-frat-boy bollocks [Mrs. Toad sharpens claws!] where the music is often not much more than a background collage of whatever current bland pop nonsense has been in the charts that year. But this is not the sort of soundtrack I’m going to listen to anyway. I’m as guilty as anyone of becoming a sucker for the shuffle function on my ipod but I’m also a traditionalist who likes to listen to albums from beginning to end and it should be no different to soundtracks. When a compilation soundtrack tracklisting jars horribly and there are only a couple of decent tracks on there you might as well be on shuffle.

A case where I think a compilation soundtrack probably comes closest to working as an album is 24 Hour Party People. You may argue it’s no more than a “Best of Factory Records” album, but the songs are integral to the film (they bloody well should be in a music biopic!), well chosen and chronicle the development of a musical movement over time. Sure the Durutti Column songs jar with the Happy Mondays, but this is not such an issue because they have a shared context. There’s also an excellent beefed up mix of Joy Division’s “She’s Lost Control” which is worth the price alone.

Another fairly successful soundtrack which I’ll defend to the bitter end is (deep breath) the Forrest Gump soundtrack (don’t hurt me!). Dreadful film. Great soundtrack. As a compilation it follows the development of American pop music from Elvis to Lynyrd Skynyrd. On top of that it’s chronological which makes it less of a jump in style and as a result the whole thing flows rather nicely. My only criticisms are the omission of certain songs that featured in the film (The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, etc) but this was probably down to legal and licensing issues, and the addition of Alan Silvestri’s original score piece “Forrest Gump Suite” in all its overly sentimental and bland glory. But at least it’s at the end of a double album and you’ve probably got your money’s worth by that point.

It seems that what often makes a good soundtrack is the directorial input and proper use of the songs in the narrative of the film itself. One director whose soundtracks usually hit the mark, despite a positively deranged level of eclecticism is Mr Tarantino. Almost. He probably gets away with it because the song choices can be pretty obscure and he seems to have an uncanny knack for melding the songs with the images to create iconic scenes. He’s been so successful at this that I defy anyone who’s seen Reservoir Dogs to not immediately think of ears and razor blades any time they hear Stealers Wheel. But what makes Tarantino soundtracks fail as great-to-listen-to albums is the constant interruption of snippets of dialogue from the film itself. I don’t think many would say the man doesn’t have a talent for language and witty dialogue, but by Christ do they grate on about the 4th or 5th listen. I’ve therefore removed as many dialogue tracks as possible when transferring these sorts of soundtracks to iTunes just for preservation of my own sanity.

The other main type of soundtrack is the “Original Score”. In theory, this should be more satisfying to listen to because it ought to be a more coherent piece of work as a whole. It will probably have been composed to match the footage and will likely have a consistent theme. But I’ve often found that this is another way that soundtracks fail to satisfy. In many cases the composer will start with a theme and develop, repeat and vary it for the duration of the film. While this may work well in conjunction with the film, as a soundtrack album such repetition can become very trying. If the music is composed to fit a scene of a certain length this usually results in some very short album tracks of under a minute but where bugger all happens other than a main theme played a slightly different way. And that just becomes tedious.

Two examples of this are the soundtracks for The Proposition and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, both by Nick Cave & Warren Ellis. The Proposition is probably the reason I got thinking about soundtracks in the first place. When Mr Toad pointed out that one of our Broken Records tracks had an (unintentionally) identical opening couple of bars to one of The Proposition tracks, I began wondering how I hadn’t noticed. I realised that although I had listened to it a couple of times it hadn’t sunk in to listen to as an album because there was so much repetition and very short tracks. Don’t get me wrong – I love Mr Cave and I think as a soundtrack to accompany the film it is incredibly atmospheric and coherent (I suppose it helps that the script and the soundtrack were both written by him), but it’s not something that would go on my stereo regularly. And, for me, with it’s longer pieces and wider variety of themes, the Jesse James soundtrack is far more palatable to listen to.

Probably the best example of a composer getting it so right and so wrong is Michael Nyman. While his score for The Piano has some of the most beautiful pieces of music ever put to film (I drove my flatmates to near violence when trying to learn how to play The Heart Asks The Pleasure First – but it’s their fault for buying me the sheet music in the first place!), it suffers from annoyingly short tracks and over-repetition of the main theme in an uninspiring variety of tempos. Where he gets it right is his soundtrack for The Draughtsman’s Contract. All the pieces are full length (often clocking in at over 6 minutes), each one significantly different in theme, and brilliantly coherent in style with its minimalist pastiche of baroque. It works perfectly with the film, and on its own. The main track, Chasing Sheep is Best Left to Shepherds, is so good it was later nicked for A Cock and Bull Story.

Probably the worst (ok – massively disappointing) soundtracks fall into a category somewhere in between. The ones that don’t know what they’re trying to be by combining original score with painfully incongruous compilation tracks annoy the tits off me. A Clockwork Orange does everything so well with the contrast between the traditional orchestral versions of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony and the Walter/Wendy Carlos Moog versions. Then Singin’ In the Rain comes out of nowhere and just ruins everything. Why on earth is it on there? I know it’s a key scene in the film but it simply doesn’t fit. And Burgess hated it, so there.

But the one soundtrack that pisses me off so much that my teeth begin to itch is Out of Sight. It’s a good film and the David Holmes score is really quite funky. But whoever put the soundtrack together is an appalling excuse for a human being and thoroughly deserves to have their ears removed with a rusty razor-blade (cf paragraph on Tarantino….). In this case the tunes admittedly don’t jar too badly, with the Isley Brothers and Dean Martin nuzzling up to David Holmes lazy funk, but it would have been better if it was just a David Holmes-only score. It’s guilty of pretty much everything cited above – crap dialogue inserts, tracks that don’t go anywhere and just a general lack of coherence. More film stars should be like George Clooney. He’s just a bit too cool with his 50’s matinee idol style his renaissance-man skills for acting, directing, writing and production. But after listening to him use up the first minute and a half of the soundtrack effortlessly smooth-talking his way through a bank-job while simultaneously smooth-talking his way into the cashier’s gusset, it all gets a bit smug. But then, THEN, the intro to It’s Your Thing wafts in. Which is great. But Clooney still hasn’t finished cracking on to the scared, yet curiously aroused, cashier and it just spoils everything.

A similar thing happens at the end of Dean Martin’s Ain’t that a Kick in the Head. It’s all going brilliantly until the final line is cut off by faux radio static. Why would anyone think that’s a good idea? Why? That aside, the whole soundtrack is peppered with intrusive and infuriatingly mediocre dialogue. I’m not sure which fuck-wit is responsible (and I hope it isn’t Soderbergh, please let it just be some studio goon) but they’ve really arsed the whole thing up. At least Tarantino has the decency to make dialogue tracks separate. Out of Sight is just destroyed by crap dialogue inserted over the music. What a bloody waste.

I could go on about many, many more soundtracks but I fear I would either bore you or make myself incredibly angry. However, these are the ones that I think work and those that really don’t.

Got it Right:
Michael Nyman – The Draughtsman’s Contract (see above)
Clint Mansell – The Fountain (Good long tracks and varied but coherent themes. And a dream partnership of Mogwai/Kronos Quartet!)
Various – 24 Hour Party People (see above)
Yann Tiersen – Amelie (works well on it’s own and nicely reworked instrumental versions of his older songs. Although points off for being lazy and recycling some tracks in his soundtrack for Goodbye Lenin)

Got it Wrong:
David Holmes/Various – Out of Sight (Bollocks. See above.)
Various – Friday Night Lights (Don’t bother – just buy The Earth is Not a Cold Dead Place by Explosions in the Sky instead.)
David Holmes/Various – Out of Sight (Again. It really has made me that angry.)

The Isley Brothers – It’s Your Thing
The Michael Nyman Band – Chasing Sheep is Best Left to Shepherds
Joy Division – She’s Lost Control
Dean Martin – Ain’t That a Kick in the Head
Yann Tiersen – Comptine D’un Autre Été: L’après Midi

Posts in this series:
– Crash Calloway from Pretending Life is Like a Song writes about The Commitments.
– Nate, who plays viola in The Young Republic explains why some terrible films have excellent scores.

– My dearest darling Mrs. Toad sings the praises of the High School Movie.
– DC, presenter of The Waiting Room, goes on a truly interminable ramble about the great Tom Waits and One From the Heart.
– Brother of Toad talks about how the context of music can interfere with its use in a movie.
– John sums up Natural Born Killers in three sentences.
– I have a go myself by writing about the art of referencing films in your song lyrics and what it lets you do.
– Tim from The Daily Growl digs away at the sensual texture of In the Mood For Love.
– Matt from Draped in Velvet might never forgive the false start of the world of rap-rock.
– Ian from Broken Records delivers the rant that started this all off: why soundtracks just don’t work!

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