Every day, somebody once told me, deserves its own soundtrack. So, according to Hollywood, does nearly every film. But unlike the old days when the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack became as popular as the movie, and films like Dirty Dancing and The Big Chill had soundtracks so successful that they spawned sequels, movie music rarely scales blockbuster heights anymore.
On the Billboard 200 album chart for the week ending January 21, Hollywood only had two albums in the Top 40—the soundtracks for The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part 1 and Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked. So did Florence and the Machine!
Unless the music is linked to the TV series Glee, chart traction is no longer guaranteed, not even for songs from the biggest blockbusters. Bruno Mars scored one of the few big movie hits of recent years with his Twilight Saga track “It Will Rain” (No. 3 on Billboard’s Hot 100), which, astonishingly, was the first chart hit launched by the massively successful vampire franchise.
Nowadays, the studios and indie houses seem to use all of the best music in the movie trailers anyway. Better to hear a familiar pop song (say, Florence and the Machine’s “Dog Days Are Over”) selling a Julia Roberts rom-com (say, Eat Pray Love) than to have to sit through the millionth comic-relief/release oldie sing-along just as the main characters are triumphing over plot-driven (and driving) conflict.
Maybe I just don’t see as many mainstream films as I used to back when Goldie Hawn, Bette Midler and Diane Keaton had their I-will-survive moment in The First Wives Club while singing “You Don’t Own Me,” but thankfully, the number of soundtrack sing-alongs have been waning in recent years.
Still, despite the dearth of hit soundtracks and Motown karaoke moments, music is alive and well in the movies. Here’s how it’s being best put to use these days.
1. To Wake Up Moviegoers: The Constellations‘ “Perfect Day” in Horrible Bosses. Not that anyone needed to be roused from slumber during what was a surprisingly smart and spry comedy, but for those who did doze off and missed the sight of Jennifer Aniston wearing next to nothing, this 2010 track (watch the video here) was the perfect wake-up bomb.
2. To Illuminate the Action”: Desire’s “Under Your Spell” in Drive. Just in case you didn’t get that Ryan Gosling was digging Carey Mulligan in Drive (and the film didn’t exactly, um, drive that point home before deciding that he would die for her), this song’s opening lyric—”I don’t eat/I don’t sleep/I do nothing but think of you“— told the entire love story in under twenty words. More than any film in my recent memory, Drive merges sound and vision so brilliantly that I don’t think the movie would have been nearly as effective without its perfectly placed music.
3. To Reflect the Action: Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde in Melancholia. Who better than the man who wrote an entire opera cycle, Gotterdammerung, devoted to the twilight of the Norse Gods, to provide the backing track for a movie about the end of the world? I’ve always imagined that something by the nineteenth-century German composer would be playing in the background, via some invisible loudspeaker in the sky, when the end of days rolled around.
4. To bring on the waterworks: The National’s “About Today” in Warrior. If you weren’t moved, at least nearly driven to tears, by the family drama or the opening strains of the National’s 2004 track, cued right after the brothers played by Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton re-bonded in the mixed-martial-arts ring, then check the space where your heart should be. There might be something missing.
5. To score an award—or at the very least, a Top 40 hit: Madonna’s “Masterpiece” in W.E. Its Top 40 prospects are grim, but the song Madonna wrote and sung for her second directorial effort is already a Golden Globe Best Original Song winner. Unfortunately, this is the end of its road to the Oscars. To be eligible for a Best Original Song Oscar nod, a tune must be composed specifically for the movie and appear in its body or be the first song that plays when the credits roll. “Masterpiece,” alas, was the second credits tune. By saving the best for last, Madonna killed her Oscar chances. Better luck next film song!