I bought a soundtrack to a fifty-year old movie this week.
Which, of course, got me thinking about my favorite movie soundtracks. (Why, doesn’t it you?) I’m going to exclude musical soundtracks; that’s kind of cheating, since the soundtrack essentially is the movie. Or a large portion of it. So, no Sound of Music (ugh), no Funny Lady (double-ugh), and most definitely no La-La Land.
Good movie soundtracks are usually unobtrusive; they make the movie better, but don’t take attention away from it. Great movie soundtracks, however, not only make the movie better, they become a character themselves, a character so good that you can’t help but notice them. (Like having Dame Judy as a supporting actress.)
In addition to making several of the best movies of the last twenty years, including this year’s Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan has also had some of the best soundtracks, thanks to Hans Zimmer with or without James Newton Howard. I could pick any of three or four, but the one I remember the most from my first time watching the film was The Dark Knight. The music that follows the Joker all the way through the film1 feels like an extension of him — menace and anarchy and chaos and perhaps a bit more menace. And yet, unlike most soundtracks, there isn’t an overuse of repetition. The atmosphere of all three of Nolan’s Batman movies benefited greatly from their music, but this one especially.
Similarly, the many moods of the Lord of the Rings trilogy were perfectly matched by Howard Shore’s fantastic soundtracks. Unlike The Dark Knight, which was generally dark throughout, LOTR has moments of joy, of fun, of shyness, of battle, of despair, of ominousness, of rest. Shore has the music for all of it. In the Shire and Rivendell the notes soar and swirl and make you wish you could stay there forever, and with the Orcs the music is as loud and intimidating as their war cries. Just as the movies cannot and should not be separated, neither can the soundtracks. Buy them all.
At one point in The Big Chill, a then almost unknown Jeff Goldblum goes over to the stereo while Whiter Shade of Pale plays, picks up an album (yes, kids, an actual vinyl album, the kind your grandparents listened to while they were feeding their pet dinosaurs) and this conversation takes place.
Michael (Goldblum): “Harold, don’t you have any music from, you know, this century?”
Harold (Kevin Kline): “There is no other music, not in my house.”
Michael: “There’s been a lot of terrific music in the last ten years.”
Harold: “Like what?”
That tells you all you need to know about this soundtrack, which contains some of the greatest songs of the 60’s, including a hilarious rendition of a Rolling Stones’ song. This was the soundtrack where I found out that “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” wasn’t a Stones song (they didn’t play the Temptations version on the Zoo). Most soundtracks with oldies on them (see Remember the Titans) have some great ones as well as some duds. The worst song on The Big Chill’s is a really good song, and the best ones are, simply, the best. It’s hard to go wrong when you open with Marvin Gaye and end with The Band. But this soundtrack is more than eighteen great songs. More than any other soundtrack with popular songs I’ve ever heard, these fit the movie. Every song goes perfectly with the elements of Lawrence Kasdan’s terrific screenplay. Unfortunately, you can’t get all eighteen songs in one place; they broke up the soundtrack into two albums with filler and missing pieces, and even the deluxe edition is missing a song. The only way to get the entire soundtrack is to piecemeal it together. It’s worth it.
Which brings us to the one that kicked off this concert. It’s said that if you can remember the 60’s that you weren’t really there, but that’s a very college-age Haight-Ashbury centric version of events. For those of us who were pre-teens in Texas, we spent the sixties watching a lot of movies. Drive-ins were still the primary (and sometimes only) way to watch a movie. Admission was a buck, and on the weekend kids under twelve got in free. That meant a movie for a family of four was $2, and since Dad worked in a fast-food place during a good portion of this time, dinner was often free, too. The end result is that we spent a lot of Friday nights at the movies.
And by a lot of movies I don’t mean a lot of kids movies, I mean a lot of movies, period. Sure, we saw Snow White and several of the Disney movies of the time (I knew who Kurt Russell was before he got involved with Goldy Hawn), but we also saw movies you might not let your nine or ten year old see today. Movies like Georgy Girl, The Sterile Cuckoo2, Bonnie and Clyde3.
And The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.4 “Spaghetti western” was originally meant as an insult, but my dad was ahead of his time.5 The day after we saw GB&U, Mimi was at the house and made the mistake of asking me about the movie. I launched into a re-telling that I suspect might have taken longer than the three-and-a-half hour runtime of the movie itself.
The music was, of course, iconic. That was obvious from the opening title, echoes of which found its way into much of the rest of the movie. We loved it so much that Dad bought the soundtrack album for mother6 for Christmas two or three years later as we found ourselves living in Colorado. Mother entered the living room that morning to the sounds of “Aieieieie-yiaiaiaia-yaiaiaiaia”, because nothing says Christmas like the dulcet tones of Ennio Morricone.
But while the title track gets all of the attention (a portion of which I use to announce texts on my phone), it’s the penultimate track that has always been my favorite. “Ecstacy of Gold” is in my opinion the finest three-plus minutes of music ever put in a movie. This is Morricone at the peak of his powers, starting with just a piano and taking over a minute to build up to the whole orchestra and a wailing soprano and enough energy to drive ten trains. Halfway through he comes to a screeching halt, with just some strings and a piano key that feels like its about an octave lower than exists on a piano to carry us through the bridge and then building up to and surpassing the first half’s energy level. It’s a song that can only be played at eleven. Maybe twelve.
If it’s so wonderful, why did it take me until now to buy it, you ask. Well, I’ve owned the soundtrack for many years, but it’s the same as the one my dad bought all those many years ago, and while good it was only the “greatest hits” from the movie. This week I stumbled across an import of the full soundtrack on Amazon, and quickly hit the buy button.
So there you have it. I would love to stay and hear your favorites, but I have some Aieieieie-yiaiaiaia-yaiaiaiaia waiting for me.
- Many of the song titles on the soundtrack are lines the Joker said in the film. ↩
- Starring an unknown young ingenue named Liza Minelli. She lost the Oscar to Maggie Smith, but would win three years later for Cabaret, a movie that, ironically perhaps, I’ve never seen. ↩
- I didn’t understand until I was an adult and saw it again why they felt like they had to shoot up Bonnie and Clyde like that. There’s a cautionary tale about the power of (false) narrative there somewhere. ↩
- Leone and/or the studio didn’t believe in Oxford commas. ↩
- He was G&T before they knew what that was, too, and paid the price. ↩
- Maybe it was for himself, I don’t remember the details. ↩