Often the visuals of a film are what make them recognisable epics that creep up in every “Top 10” list that comes out. With technology developing as fast as it is, new cameras and CGI can sell a film on its own and soundtrack seems to become more overlooked. That’s why I’m going to do a rundown of five memorable film soundtracks.
Also I won’t be putting any Star Wars on the list simply because if I had to try and choose one film in particular this post would never see the light of day.
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
If not for the soundtrack of Guardians of the Galaxy, it would not be my favourite Marvel movie. I’m still a decade or so behind (with the most recent watch being Iron Man 3) but Guardians felt different to the formulaic experiences I came to expect.
Released in between established sequels like Iron Man 3 in 2013 and Avengers: Age of Ultron in 2015, this broke a three-year streak of Marvel not releasing a fresh IP. The result is a script taking five years to write focused on character development under the helm of Nicole Perlman. Perlman was then later accompanied by Guardians director James Gunn in 2012.
Guardians opens on a dramatic story written to provoke an emotional response and establish the link between soundtrack and characterisation. Opening on 10CC’s “I’m Not in Love”, the removal of the headphones tells the audience that (some) of the music heard is that of the titled “Awesome Mix Vol. 1”. Passed down by his terminally ill mother, the soundtrack of Guardians transcends into an emotional piece of Quill while being a handy storytelling tool to justify the use of 70’s rock and soul in a contemporary action film.
I just love the opening scene where Starlord trudges through the alien planet with his gleaming red eyes. Once the helmet is removed to reveal the “quirky” and recognisable star of Chris Pratt, the score fades out and the identifiable Walkman again harkens to the nostalgia factor the film possesses. What plays next is Redbone’s “Come and Get your Love”; effectively pulling a double bluff and introducing the fun and heart of Guardians.
Reservoir Dogs (1992)
The opening scene establishes that Reservoir Dogs is a film about characters and less about the scenarios that happen around them – mainly through dialogue. Although the film maintains a unique and nostalgic soundtrack, only having the Foley of a café and the atmos of cigars communicates to the audience the high importance of these characters interacting with each other.
Within this, there’s reference to a radio station “K-Billy’s Sound of the Seventies” which establishes the soundtrack for the rest of the film. All fifteen songs on the soundtrack are 70’s pop songs creating a consistent tone for the backdrop of the film. This is started by George Baker’s “Little Green Bag”. Despite the film being recognisably auteurist, its use of music qualifies another aspect of high-concept cinema: high originality.
Along with the “Ooga Chaka” sequence where Blue Suede’s “Hooked on a Feeling” cuts in abruptly to alleviate tension, Mr. Blonde’s torture scene is the most iconic use of soundtrack in Reservoir Dogs. This sequence is highly visual, focused in emotion and the characteristically extreme violence is truly unique. Working diegetically, Mr. Blonde switches on a radio to the aforementioned “Sound of the Seventies” while toying with a bloodied cop.
Stealers Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle with you” plays while a horrific scene of violence (evidence of Tarantino’s auteurist decisions) is depicted for an effective use of contrapuntal sound. The song is upbeat utilising high pitched guitar riffs with carefree lyrics that create a harrowing depiction of Mr. Blonde’s mind. Accompanied by the fun-loving nature of the song’s melody, this could be a sick joke Tarantino is telling about Mr. Blonde finally finding joy in an otherwise dull scenario.
Back to the Future (1985)
To me, Back to the Future (1985), is the most iconic soundtrack of the last few decades. I’m sure that many would argue a strong case for some more obvious choices like Inception (2010), The Lion King (1994) or any of the Star Wars originals – and I’m sure there’s a compelling point to be made.
Again, the score to this film is unparalleled in my mind (although I am aware that this is mostly subjective). Alan Silvestri deserves all the credit that is given to this classic 80’s soundtrack and how its melody is now associated with every DeLorean across America and further.
As interesting as the theme itself is its placement within the first movie. Unlike the other iconic themes of its time, the melody doesn’t rear its head until around half an hour in where the DeLorean makes its first great escape. Of course, the original score of Back to the Future is not all that is audibly memorable.
Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” will forever be stamped in cinematic history for its use in the “Enchantment Under the Sea” sequence. Aside from the justifications seen in this list already (emotional enhancement, theme recognition and the likes), the use of music in this scene is simply an enjoyable payoff that encapsulates how powerful soundtrack can be.
Baby Driver (2017)
As director Edgar Wright’s passion project for two decades, Baby Driver is advertised as a “dramatically charged ride fuelled by car chases, young love, and a high-octane soundtrack spanning era and genre”. Wright utilises obscure songs and covers – unrestrained by period or genre – to create a unique soundtrack.
“I’d been earmarking these tracks that I hoped would never show up in another movie” – Wright
Going further, protagonist Baby’s tinnitus becomes a consistent sound effect overlaid on top of the now iconic soundtrack. The sound design becomes less of a non-diegetic accompaniment and more of a diegetic story telling tool. Similar to how letterboxd has film lists where the setting becomes a character of its own, I see Baby Driver’s sound design as its own character.
By blending the soundtrack with the film space, Baby is given an almost godlike quality where the world around him seems to bend to at his will. When Baby is behind the wheel with his music he appears unstoppable. Baby Driver contains a narrative that is aided by Wright’s use of distinct soundtrack and stylish sound design.
How to Train Your Dragon (2010)
As well as being one of my favourite films from animation studio DreamWorks, How to Train Your Dragon is my ultimate productivity playlist. Songs like “Forbidden Friendship” have been the driving force for some of those tough uni assignments when “Lofi Beats Mix 4000” becomes too repetitive.
There is a saying that individual elements of a film can only boost an already solid foundation. If that is the case, How to Train Your Dragon would be a great example of this. Everything from the world building, narrative and visual direction sets up the gorgeous compositions by John Powell to elevate the film that step higher.
Most of the films on this list are here because of their memorable use of pop music that becomes ingrained in the viewer. This film, however, is here for its exceptional score to deliver one of the most emotional films of the studio’s history.
With How to Train Your Dragon III having such a tremendous performance at the box office, it’s clear that the foundation was well laid with the first film in the trilogy. The tradition of presenting an evocative soundtrack may have dipped slightly with each release. But to fall slightly from the height of the first is still commendable by any means.