Did You Notice the Film Score?: The Importance of Original Soundtracks

By Erin Caine
Elm Staff Writer

Just as a film can garner a cult following and “classic” status from a quotable script and memorable cast of characters, so, too, can it gain attention for an exceptional original soundtrack. Where would film franchises such as “Star Wars,” “Jaws,” and “Indiana Jones” be, after all, without John Williams’ masterful music compositions? Soundtracks are a bit different from traditional score work, though, and encompass not just brief instrumental pieces, but also full-length recorded songs, typically with vocals. From a cynical viewpoint, granted, they’re just another crafty way Hollywood makes money off of the success of a film. Filmmakers usually commission popular artists to write original songs for movies, which boosts sales for the albums. So what is the real worth of something so evidently contrived to line the pockets of a few industry executives? In short, it’s a matter of style. The feelings a film wants to convey, the aesthetic mood it wants to create—these things are decided most potently by what a film sounds like. The aim isn’t (rather, it shouldn’t) necessarily to be “stylish,” per se, but to develop a unique and unmistakable artistic style of its own.

John Williams
American composer John Williams scoring “Jaws.”

One of the most successful and stylistically consistent soundtracks to come out of the new millennium is that of the 2000 Coen Brothers film “O Brother, Where Art Thou,” which won Grammies and became a best seller. Set in Mississippi during the Great Depression, the soundtrack’s blend of bluegrass, country, folk, gospel, and blues helped fully immerse the viewer in the time period. The album was recorded before filming, as the music was intended from the beginning to be a major facet of the film.
An important distinction must be made here, though: the album is not necessarily an “original” soundtrack, since all of its songs are re-recordings of older tunes. What kind of creative difference can be rendered through this distinction, then? Let’s look at the 1978 film “Grease.” The most successful songs off the soundtrack album were written specifically for the film: “Grease,” “You’re the One I Want,” and “Hopelessly Devoted to You,” which was nominated for an Academy Award. The commercial edge original material has over a re-recording or appropriation is simply this: these are the songs that most fully capture the “essence” of the film, and transport us back to it. Also, these are the songs without which the film would feel incomplete. Imagine watching “Grease” without John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John’s iconic duet at the end. It wouldn’t be quite the same film.
These days, films aimed at younger audiences in particular are almost uniformly designed to incorporate their own inventory of original songs—complete with that persistent feeling of, “They’re about to break into song any minute now, aren’t they?”  More recently, we’ve seen movies like “Moana,” which scouted the creative talent of Lin-Manuel Miranda, writer of the wildly popular stage musical “Hamilton.” Miranda infused the soundtrack with the charm and magnitude of Broadway (at its most potent in tracks such as “How Far I’ll Go”), while singer-songwriter Opetaia Foa’i brought to the table a regionally traditional musical style and Samoan and Tokelauan lyrics that perfectly suited the Polynesian setting of the film. In other words, the creators of the film and soundtrack were aware of the fact that vaudeville bravado could only carry the film so far; it was essential that the music encapsulated the culture and spirit of the film’s vibrant location.

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