If I were to ask you what the highest selling album of this year was so far, thoughts of Ed Sheeran, Coldplay or Sam Smith might enter your head. But no. The most successful album of 2014, so far, is the Frozen soundtrack, a film that was catapulted to being the highest-grossing animation and the fifth highest-grossing film of all time by its music and songs. Beyond just financial success, soundtracks have always played a vital role in the popularity and effectiveness of cinema. And so, inspired by this, we decided to look back on the best soundtracks from the annals of film’s history.
The first distinction between the great soundtracks of cinema’s history is between orchestral and non-orchestral scores. Within the purely instrumental oeuvre, canonical landmarks like the haunting harmonica melody from Midnight Cowboy, The Godfather’s swelling symphony, or the piercing violin staccato of Psycho all stand out. Not only were these fantastic musical constructions themselves, but also integral to the story-telling and atmosphere creation of their respective productions. The ethereal and poetically moving use of classical music in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey was, in many ways, the apogee of demonstrating the impact that these instrumental soundtracks could have.
The 2000s saw a mini ‘Golden Age’ for orchestral movie soundtracks, begun by Gladiator’s heroic musical backing. Created by music impresario Hans Zimmer, creator of the soundtrack for any film worth mentioning over the last twenty years, the score was not only Oscar-nominated, but went on to inspire the music for Pirates of the Caribbean as well. Zimmer also wrote the score for Inception, that boomingly menacing mélange that includes the track Time, an utterly entrancing and invigorating piece. And of course, The Lord of the Rings won two Oscars for its brilliantly composed, and now iconic, music.
On the compilation side of soundtracking, Quentin Tarantino is often credited as the contemporary master of movie music. It speaks volumes that Reservoir Dogs is as well-known for its use of ‘Little Green Bag’ as anything else, just like Pulp Fiction’s opening credits can immediately be recognised by the surf-rock mania of Dick Dale’s rendition of ‘Misirlou’. Equally, Paul Thomas Anderson’s who’s who of disco classics that scored Boogie Nights is a feel-good trip, which culminates in the truly awesome scene of Alfred Molina’s chrome bathrobe-clad coke addict singing along to ‘Jessie’s Girl’. Obviously, when talking of disco soundtracks it’s impossible not to mention Saturday Night Fever, with its Bee Gees dominated playlist, so adored that it reinvigorated the sales for disco albums.
Many of these soundtracks were so great because they were put in the hands of prodigious musical talents. The truly frightening and ominous tone of the soundtrack to There Will Be Blood, which perfectly complimented the demented protagonist of Daniel Plainview, was the brainchild of Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood.
There’s also The Lion King, with a soundtrack famously written by Elton John and so well known it’s hard to imagine a cinematic world without it. Even last year’s The Great Gatsby, though critically divisive, was roundly praised for its cracking soundtrack, which was executive produced by Jay-Z.
What makes all these few examples, or any other fantastic film score, so emotive and exemplary is that they are intimately tied to the films they accompany. Far from being mere compilations of amazing music, they become integral parts of the plot development, atmosphere creation or scene-setting of their respective productions. Just imagine The Magnificent Seven without its galloping, brassy theme, or Darth Vader without the marching band drumming and horns blaring in the background. And lucky for us, as the Frozen and The Guardians of the Galaxy soundtracks, which went to the top of the Billboard chart in the US, attest, modern cinema clearly hasn’t lost sight of the value of a brilliant movie soundtrack.