Vernon_Penny_LaneBy the time you read this, the latest Tween wallet milking franchise, The Hunger Games: Catching Syphillis, will have opened in Octoogleplexes the world over to record breaking box office glory for a second time. Not since someone glued a lightning HungerGamesbolt to Radcliffe’s forehead or sparkles to Pattinson’s nipples has there been such a nauseating ballyhoo from teenaged girls and creepy middle-aged women. Every aspect of the movie has been gleaned, dissected and analyzed by the fodder feeding media including the outrage by fans of the books that inspired the franchise who were shocked to find out that the black characters were portrayed on screen by…black actors!

OST_songsThe first installment of the film had a movie soundtrack that debuted on the Billboard album chart at #1. Not surprising given the viral nature of the promotional campaign and theatrical explosion. However, the little Hunger Cretins were handed a bait and switch at the iTunes check-out counter because the movie itself had no songs in it, per se, save for a tune performed by the film’s star Jennifer Lawrence and an instrumental piece from the 1970s by composer Laurie Spiegel used in a montage – neither of which were onHunger Games: Songs from District 12 and Beyond’. Three contemporary songs appeared in the end credits of the film including the sleeper hit “Safe & Sound” by Taylor Swift and Grammy Award winners The Civil Wars. The remainder of the soundtrack was songs ‘inspired’ by events in the film assembled with great care by Music Supervisor T-Bone Burnett (O! Brother Where Art Thou). He searched for artists and music that evoked the feeling of futuristic folk tunes from indie artists such as Birdy, The Secret Sisters, Miranda Lambert with The Pistol Annies, Punch Brothers, Kid Cudi, Carolina Chocolate Drops, The Decemberists, and Neko Case. To keep the studio weasels happy he also dropped in Academy Award winner Glen Hansard, Maroon 5, and hipster kings Arcade Fire.

OST_JamesNewtonHowardMeanwhile, anyone watching the film herd the original score by James Newton Howard (Pretty Woman, King Kong, Dark Knight) who was brought on board by Burnett at the last minute to replace the incredibly busy Danny Elfman (The Simpsons, A Nightmare Before Christmas, Beetlejuice). The studio, of course, released this material as a separate soundtrack album unto itself – no doubt in an effort to wring just a few more dollars out of Tween completists [“oooo….this music sucks…there’s no, like, words or anything. GAWD!’]

The cynic in me began yearning for the days when a soundtrack was assembled to enhance the film not just produce another after-market sell-through product like so TMNTmany Darth Vader bed sheets or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles  action figures [with apologies to Robbie Rist]. But it shouldn’t surprise me. Somewhere between Hollywood writing vehicles specifically to showcase Judy Garland, Gene Kelly http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rmCpOKtN8ME, Danny Kay and Bing Crosby song-and-dance films the music started taking a back seat in the wake of films specifically designed as blockbuster juggernauts. So much so that movie soundtrack budgets are almost a tenth of what they once were. Like the free-download society we now live in, music is becoming less about characterization in movies and more about wallpaper in the background.

dazed_and_confusedAs with other aspects of the faltering music business, the soundtrack industry fueled by companies who now own both the studios that make the films and the record labels that provide the music have produced less than a dozen truly memorable ‘hit’ related soundtracks since the ‘90s that have stuck to the roof of our collective, ADD riddled, psyches. I took a straw poll on Facebook this week and came up with the previously mentioned Rushmore plus Singles (Grunge’s answer to The Big Chill), Garden State, Almost Famous, Dazed & Confused, Eurotrip, Mallrats, Wedding Singer, So I Married An Axe Murderer, The Bodyguard (which was given a half-life after the passing of Whitney Houston this year), Repoman, and The Piano. Some underrated soundtracks that I’ve noted also include both of Tarantino’s Kill Bills (Tomoyasu Hotei’s “Battle Without Honour or Humanity” has now gained pop culture ubiquity http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F0Rgwqa3c0o), Pulp Fiction,  Jackie Brown, and Reservoir Dogs (you will never listen to “Stuck In The Middle With You” the same way again), Hans Zimmer’s Inception, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, and believe it or not the fifth Fast & Furious movie.

What attracts us to soundtracks is as varied as the soundtracks themselves. Below is a user guide to what type of soundtrack you might find yourself grooving to:

chitty-chitty-bang-bangTraditionally movie makers hired a team of songwriters to craft specific tunes tailor-made to be sung by the stars of the film like Sound of Music and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. The Wizard of Oz comes immediately to mind as one of the earliest memorable soundtracks. Judy Garland’s plaintive “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” becoming as famous as her. The late Israel Kamakawiwo’ole would launch a new trend in Ukelele Pop when his remake appeared not once, but twice, in the television show ‘Scrubs’. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V1bFr2SWP1I

Then there was poor Elvis Presley who left the army to not only be crushed on the charts by the attacking Elviscuteness of the British Invasion but to become a shill for his own album soundtracks in 31 cheaply made, predictably plotted big screen vehicles like Love Me Tender, G.I. Blues, Roustabout, Harum Scarum, Fun In Acapulco, Viva Las Vegas, King Creole and the laudable Blue Hawaii (where he subjected us to such degrading musical pap such as “Rock-A-Hula Baby”, “Island of Love” and “Ku-U-I-Po” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8EfOn_45IPw). It was also nominated for a Grammy Award so what the hell do I know?

The Beatles, of course, decided that the Elvis gig looked like fun and cranked out two back-to-back giggle-fests with A Hard Day’s Night and Help! which yielded smash hit soundtracks. Leave it to McCartney, then, to take it all too seriously and cobble together the Faust meets Dali clusterfuck known as Magical Mystery Tour with, thankfully, a career-saving soundtrack http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SyPvGsSPsZg. The 1968 animated acid-trip Yellow Submarine was The Beatles’ first true soundtrack film as they didn’t star in it but contributed new songs alongside several of their previously released hits amongst orchestrated re-workings by George Martin. Let It Be, by contrast, was not a musical but a documentary featuring concert and rehearsal footage that failed as a movie and as an album soundtrack.

LastWaltzThe Rolling Stones would excel at the genre for more than 30 years releasing concert movies (including the tragic Altamont concert) and leading the charge for other big name artists to follow like U2 with Rattle & Hum – which was an inspiring look at the band on tour but only half-a-great soundtrack album. The most successfully rendered of these was Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz featuring the final performances by The Band and their group of friends and hangers-on.

rutlesMusical documentaries are in and of themselves filled with bloated pretense so it came as no surprise that Monty Python’s brain trust would back a hilarious and musically clever skewering of the Beatles story in The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash. With the new ‘mockumentary’ genre wide open actors Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer upped the ante by creating a fictitious amalgam of every bloated heavy metal band (and their inherent clichés) in the often quoted This Is Spinal Tap. It didn’t hurt that all three actors are gifted musicians as well bringing not only an authenticity to their on screen performances but the novelty-like soundtrack as well. The trio would also do the same for folk music in the grossly under-appreciated A Mighty Wind many years later.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N63XSUpe-0o

ThatThingYou_DoFake bands and fake artists have also become hot screen/soundtrack properties with That Thing You Do (a Tom Hanks directed movie featuring several songs written by Fountains of Wayne’s Adam Schlesinger), Purple Rain, Stardust, That’ll Be The Day, Almost Famous, Dream Girls (the fictitious retelling of The Supremes story with Jennifer Hudson), Still Crazy, Idolmaker, Eddie & The Cruisers, The Commitments and Hard Core Logo.

The most successful big screen musicals have always been those based on stage plays from West Side Story (which was parodied on Alice Cooper’s ‘School’s Out’ album) WestSideStoryto Oklahoma to South Pacific and beyond. They not only made name stars out of green actors (many reviving their roles from Broadway) but the songwriters as well. It wasn’t until the late 1970s that music label executive Robert Stigwood – on the back of the record setting soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever – revived the genre to its former glory with a little Broadway musical called Grease. Stigwood didn’t just use the original stage songs by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey but hired some of the industry’s best songwriters to augment the soundtrack. With Olivia Newton-John as the movie’s musical star her producer, John Farrar, supplied “Hopelessly Devoted To You” and the massive hit “You’re The One That I Want” sung with co-star John Travolta. For good measure Stigwood also included Barry Gibb’s title track performed by Frankie Valli http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N5mhbvutsuI [featuring a live performance with The Commodores]. Other stage plays also made the transition with varying degrees of success – Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Jesus Christ Superstar, Richard O’Brien’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Abba’s Mama Mia, Hairspray (which was a play that became a John Waters film that was remade and is now a play again) and coming soon – Rock of Ages starring Tom Cruise as a 30 something long-haired Axel Rose-like lead singer [shudder].

Sgt PepperThe Who would take the whole idea in another direction by snubbing Broadway (or more accurately, being snubbed BY Broadway) and optioning Pete Townsend’s full concept albums like Tommy and Quadrophenia – where the songs told the story – directly to the big screen. Pink Floyd would revive the idea in the early ‘80s with The Wall. Something similar has been done on two occasions with Beatles songs with the embarrassing third Robert Stigwood musical Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (where the songs were great and the Bee Gees’ acting oh, so bad) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TCHvuGJBFTc, and the most recent Across The Universe.

The most popular of all movie soundtracks is what’s known as ‘the needle drop’. It’s the equivalent to a jukebox or mixtape (as McG prefers) featuring pre-existing songs used to evoke mood and accentuate plot points.

TheGraduateIn the 1960s studios were still leaving composers in charge of music scores and an orphan pop song would be thrown in to the mix as a means to gain attention through radio – where the movies would also be advertised. Classic examples include Lulu’s “To Sir With Love” from the movie of the same name, Simon and Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson” from The Graduate,  and B.J. Thomas’ “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head” from Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5rkS-aORoUE. Alas, the pop music fan base that these songs were geared to weren’t buying movie soundtracks.
George Lucas, of all people, changed everything by playing the nostalgia card in a movie that featured nothing but the hits – American Graffiti. The formula would be repeated with All This And World War Two (which set Beatles songs against WWII newsreel footage), The Big Chill and Diner. The flip side was the more risky new music gamble that mines songs from artists who’ve either recently had hits or provides an exclusive new tune in hopes that it will become a hit (a practice that nearly killed the movie soundtrack business when the Springsteens and Madonnas were tossing their worst outtakes into the mix as nothing but name-brand filler).

heavy_metalAside from the record breaking one-offs like Heavy Metal, Against All Odds, 9 ½ Weeks, St. Elmo’s Fire, the Bee Gees fueled Saturday Night Fever and Whitney Houston’s career making The Bodyguard , the undisputed champ for the needle drop was teen-angst director John Hughes in the 1980s. As a monster music fan, his soundtracks were usually as big as the movies they were extracted from: Breakfast Club, Pretty In Pink, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Weird Science, Sixteen Candles, and Some Kind of Wonderful. Bands like Simple Minds, Echo & The Bunnymen, Psychedelic Furs and Yello owe part of their musical success to having been brought to a wider audience as part of Hughes’ movies. It was also the last time an actual Beatles recording was used in a major motion picture (Ferris Bueller’s ‘Twist & Shout’ scene). http://youtu.be/0af1bEGkxoA

Mag 7Some of the most riveting and haunting movies have no pop music in them at all; merely incidental music scores by some of the most unrecognized conductors and musicians in the world. Many would be hard pressed to cross reference the names Elmer Bernstein even if they’d seen The Great Escape, The Ten Commandments, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Magnificent Seven or even Ghostbusters. Similarly, Jerry Goldsmith with Planet of the Apes, Alien, Chinatown, Poltergeist and five Star Trek films. Ennio Morricone started out scoring spaghetti westerns for Sergio Leone (A Fistful of Dollars, The Good The Bad & The Ugly, and For A Few Dollars More)  before becoming one of Hollywood’s most respected modern film score creators for his work on Exorcist II: The Heretic, The Mission, The Thing and The Untouchables. When Quentin Tarantino couldn’t get Morricone for Kill Bill he paid for samples of music from Morricone’s previous films. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MuyQQD-EAOQ

closeencountersOf course, the dark side to this is the now reviled factory pressed soundtracks by John Williams – elevator music for the soundtrack impaired. He brought us the memorable Superman theme that defined Christopher Reeves’ film presence and his early work with Steven Speilberg started on the universally recognized Jaws theme http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZvCI-gNK_y4, Close Encounters and E.T. But aside from the rousing Indiana Jones signature theme his work with George Lucas paled in comparison. The initial Star Wars soundtrack was orchestrated gold in 1977 but Lucas had him mine the same thematic sounds for another FIVE flims. My son owns the soundtracks and Darth Vader’s procession music is the basis for every mood altering passage – nearly seven hours worth. It makes the listener long for an anal probing by Ewoks.

MacheteRock musicians would also take a stab at it with Ry Cooder (Crossroads), Robbie Robertson (Color of Money, Carnie) and, most famously, Pink Floyd (Obscured by Clouds, Zabriskie Point, More)

My personal favourite music score is by John Debney (son of Disney producer Louis Debney) with Passion of the Christ. I’ve never seen the movie but Debney conducted a 20 minute suite, live, with all the original performers from the soundtrack at that Music Supervisor’s conference I attended in 2004. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room. Debney also scored ‘hipster’ points with me when he formed a rocking mariachi band with director Robert Rodriguez for the movie soundtrack to Machete http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7B8u9zbujcY. Proving that music scores aren’t always created by committee.

Highway 61Hats off to Music Supervisors everywhere for the near impossible task of creating musical menus to please executives and audiences alike; More so for the ones working in Canada where pickings are slimmer. Unsung heroes like director Bruce McDonald (Roadkill, Highway 61), Ron Proulx, Amy Fritz and Velma Barkwell (who put together the awesome Trailer Park Boys big screen soundtrack) are keeping us competitive!

P.S. – I control the rights to over 400 songs in my Bullseye Records catalog and we recently placed a 1986 Swedish Fish song, “Clever Girl”, in the Vincenzo Natali (The Cube) horror film ‘Haunter’. Feel free to talk to me about using any of them for your next film project!

Send your CDs for review to this NEW address: Jaimie Vernon, 4003 Ellesmere Road, Toronto, ON M1C 1J3 CANADA


Jaimie’s column appears every Saturday.

Contact us at: dbawis@rogers.com

DBAWIS_ButtonJaimie “Captain CanCon” Vernon has been president of the on again/off-again Bullseye Records of Canada since 1985. He wrote and published Great White Noise magazine in the ‘90s, has been a musician for 35 years, and recently discovered he’s been happily married for 17 of those years. He is also the author of the Canadian Pop Music Encyclopedia and a collection of his most popular ‘Don’t Believe A Word I Say’ columns called ‘Life’s A Canadian…BLOG’ both of which are available at Amazon.com or http://www.bullseyecanada.com


  1. David Basskin Says:

    You missed one of the greatest soundtrack composers ever: Nino Rota. Play a few bars of his theme from “The Godfather” and the whole movie comes sweeping in on you. It’s one of the main reasons I’ve long called “The Godfather” the greatest opera ever written that doesn’t have singing in it.

    Oh yeah: Dimitri Tiomkin, Alex North, Bernard Hermann, Erich Korngold, et al.

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