“Now, the making of a good compilation tape is a very subtle art: many dos and don’ts.” –Rob Gordon, High Fidelity
At its base level, a film soundtrack is just a mix tape. A good soundtrack will mirror the film it’s meant to accompany; it will accent all the highs and lows of the plot, and may have a standout track that really drives a powerful scene home or acts as the movie’s theme song. A great soundtrack will do all of this, but also manage to stand on its own. There are a number of ways a compilation can accomplish this feat. Let’s jump into the top five approaches.
1.) The Perfect Score
Okay, so hiring a composer to write music specifically for a film might seem like cheating, but it totally counts. Most of the time, a film score does its job and no more. Charlie Clouser’s scores for the Saw films did a decent job of increasing tension as the films went on, but if you were to listen to his digital soundscapes outside of their context, you might get a little bored.
On the other hand, Clint Mansell’s score for Requiem for a Dream is a masterpiece. Listening to it all the way through will take you on a frantic, chaotic journey that can exist independently of Jared Leto’s onscreen misadventures. Likewise, John Williams’ scores for the Star Wars movies are as integral to the franchise as any character on the screen, but listening to these songs on your iPod or in a symphony hall can be extremely powerful, even if you’re not all that invested in the space wizards they were written about. Some fans would even argue that the soundtrack was the best part of a certain movie in the franchise.
2.) The Period Piece
Many films are grounded in a certain time in history, and often these films will need their soundtracks to grant authenticity to that period. The Rules of Attraction opens with The Cure’s “Six Different Ways” in homage to the Bret Easton Ellis novel on which it’s based (even if it did star James Van Der Beek, whose beautiful face will always be associated with the 90s in our hearts). On a similar note, Donnie Darko uses its soundtrack to place viewers into the 80s, which – aside from a passing mention of the Dukakis campaign and a brief shot of a high school student snorting cocaine by his locker – the script fails to do on its own.
Even comic book movies have adopted the period piece method. Perhaps the most memorable scene in X-Men: Days of Future Past (subtitled, incidentally, after a Moody Blues album) involves Quicksilver breaking a fellow mutant out of an underground prison in the early 70s as he rocks Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle” on his headphones. Watchmen uses Bob Dylan’s “Times They Are a-Changin’” in its opening montage to similar effect, helping viewers understand that the film takes place in an alternate version of the United States that began dramatically diverging from our history in the 1960s.
The success of a period piece soundtrack hinges on whether the chosen songs can actually encapsulate a period in history. This creates a certain allure: a great period piece soundtrack will truly feel like a mix tape from a decade past, featuring a mix of hits and deep cuts by beloved artists.
3.) The Anachronism
The yin to the period piece’s yang, sometimes movies that take place in the past are livened up with contemporary music. If you think a medieval story about jousting featuring olde-English poet Geoffrey Chaucer falsifying documents sounds boring, don’t worry: A Knight’s Tale has a soundtrack featuring Queen, David Bowie, Thin Lizzy, and Third Eye Blind. This Heath Ledger classic has a decent story, but the movie’s heart is housed in its soundtrack.
Baz Luhrman’s 2013 take on The Great Gatsby features another beautifully done anachronistic soundtrack. While the script remains relatively faithful to the 1925 F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, Gatsby’s soundtrack is entirely modern. It features standout tracks from Sia, The xx, Jack White, and Jay Z. Despite some weird pacing, questionable script decisions, bizarre overuse of green screen, and a handful of subpar performances from great actors, Gatsby’s soundtrack made the film a huge hit with millennials. Every generation gets the Gatsby movie they deserve, but at least ours came with that kickass Lana Del Rey song.
Anachronism in movie soundtracks works in a very different way than the period piece. Often the out-of-context music will have a profound effect on the tone of a film as a whole, whether that means adding playfulness like A Knight’s Tale, a surrealist element like Gatsby, or just spicing up the already over-the-top approach of films like Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained.