Over the next several weeks, we’re going to focus on how music infiltrates, motivates and ultimately encapsulates the thematic vision of a feature film. Music is a crucial part of a film’s potential success, but few independent filmmakers treat it as such. Several filmmakers view the music for their film as being “a problem they’ll deal with in post,” as opposed to an opportunity to take their film to the next level. Thus, in an effort to turn the tide on the lack of respect for the music placed in films, we’re going to discuss how music makes your film look, feel and taste much better. We’ll discuss the creative and social advantages to placing well-matched music in your film, and we’ll dive into the business aspects of negotiating music rights for your film.
Today our musical focus is on highly successful soundtracks from films released between 1964 and 1980. While there are several films with incredible soundtracks released before 1964, like The Wizard Of OZ (1939), Singin’ in the Rain (1952) and West Side Story (1961) , to name a few, I chose to focus on films that broke the bank with their soundtracks as they utilized the popularity of the music in their film to drive sales.
Filmmakers often times forget how a well-timed song can enhance a scene or solidify a theme in their film by creating a distinct visual memory that viewers will remember forever.
For example: None of us can forget the haunting placement of the Stealers Wheel song, “Stuck in the Middle With You,” during the “ear-cutting scene” in Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992). Not only is the song amazingly appropriate for the scene, but also it douses the horror of the moment with ironic humor.
Throughout the decades, numerous films have had wonderful soundtracks, and I’m sure arguments for them could be made (and won) to be included in this list. However, the following films not only had successful soundtracks, but also were box office and/or cultural hits because of their soundtrack.
Side Note: The following list is in in order of their release year.
A Hard Days Night (1964)
The Beatles are my favorite band, but this black and white gem not only captured the essence of Beatle mania, but it also feature legendary hit songs like “Can’t Buy Me Love,” “A Hard Days Night,” “And I Love Her” and “She Loves You.” This film also topped the Entertainment Weekly list of the top 100 film soundtracks.
The Graduate (1967)
The film was released in December of 1967 and its Simon & Garfunkel infused, generation defining soundtrack was released in January of 1968. The soundtrack featured classic tracks like “Sounds Of Silence” and “Mrs. Robinson.” As for its cultural impact, the term “Mrs. Robinson” became embedded in the English vernacular as a way to describe an older woman who is involved with a younger man. That’s right, Mrs. Robinson was the original “cougar,” decades before cougars started to prowl into the English language. The Graduate soundtrack made it’s way to #1 on the billboard charts in 1968, knocking The Beatles White Album out of the #1 spot.
Harold and Maude (1971)
Hal Ashby’s quirky film about death, love and acceptance flopped at the box office, but then became a cult classic. Cat Stevens provided the soundtrack, which was as peaceful as it was disturbing, given how the songs were utilized.
American Graffiti (1973)
Star Wars guru George Lucas wrote and directed this coming of age comedy, which featured teenage life in the early 1960’s. A few years back, I attended a panel about American Graffiti, at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, where it was revealed that when writing the script, George Lucas thought of the songs he wanted in his soundtrack first, and then figured out how to create a storyline around the songs he loved. Thus, American Graffiti truly is a soundtrack first and a film second.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
How a “sweet transvestite” teams up with Meatloaf and delivers a film that’s still in limited theatrical release 36 years after it was originally distributed, the longest release in motion picture history, is beyond me. Of course it helps that it’s famous for being infamously bad, but that’s the fun of this musical gem.
Star Wars (1977)
Outside the fact “The Force” guided this film to being the most significant of it’s generation, and one of the most significant films ever, the music from its soundtrack is the single most recognizable theme music in the last 34 years, if not ever. Star Wars is an incredible cinematic work with or without music, but its music increases the emotion and intensity of every great scene we remember in the film.
Saturday Night Fever (1977)
If you’re thinking about puking by having to read this waste of celluloid mentioned right after Star Wars, it’s okay to do so. Hell, I’ll even hold the bag. Saturday Night Fever is comically bad and it “holds up” like a roll of wet toilet paper in the middle of a tsunami. However, the 11 million copies of the soundtrack sold in America alone helped John Travolta migrate from being a television heartthrob to becoming “movie star” overnight as it reminded the powers that be just how influential music in motion pictures can be. The soundtrack, filled with music from The Bee Gees, defined the height of the disco era.
Yes, John Travolta spent much of the late 1970’s singing and dancing his way into our hearts, and Grease is no exception. With over eight million copies of the soundtrack sold in America alone, this 1978 film about 1959 brought honor back to the musical genre that has become a relic of decades past.
The Blues Brothers (1980)
Along with The Graduate, this film is tied for my favorite film of all time. And, why shouldn’t it be? The Blues Brothers had a budget nearly four times greater than Star Wars, it still holds the record for the most cars wrecked in a motion picture and it features Steven Spielberg as the “Cook County clerk” in the final scene. In fact, Spielberg has the last line: “…and here is your receipt.”
The soundtrack is pretty unforgettable as well. It features R&B greats like Cab Calloway, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles and James Brown. In my estimation, no other feature film marries music and comedy quite as well as The Blues Brothers does. That’s not a bad feat, considering this film started as a three minute skit on Saturday Night Live, turned into a hit song, (the re-make of “Soul Man”), graduated to a gold album, concert tour, hit feature film, and ultimately became a ridiculously successful restaurant chain called The House of Blues.
Now before I spin out of here, here’s a list of the top 10 selling motion picture soundtracks of all time. While you don’t have to like these films, you should recognize what has worked in the past in order to strategize how to position music in your film.
HIGHEST SELLING MOTION PICTURE SOUNDTRACKS
- THE BODYGUARD (1992) 16 million copies
- PURPLE RAIN (1984) 13 million copies
- SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER (1977) 11 million copies
- DIRTY DANCING (1987) 11 million copies
- THE LION KING (1994) 10 million copies
- GREASE (1978) 8 million copies
- FOOTLOOSE (1984) 8 million copies
- TITANIC (1996) 8 million copies
- TOP GUN (1986) 7 million copies
- WAITING TO EXHALE (1996) 7 million copies
*SOURCE: RECORDING INDUSTRY ASSOCIATION OF AMERICA, DOMESTIC FIGURES ONLY
Okay, everyone, that ends this installment of Going Bionic. Should you find some time on your hands this week, check out a few of the films on this list and see how they utilize music to enhance their visual work. Even you have even more time, drop me a quick e-mail or comment below to let me know which film you saw and what you thought of it. As always, I thank you for lending me your eyes, and I look forward to borrowing them again next Tuesday.