An Ode to Soundtracks

The music of a cinematic life

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Neville Marriner

Neville Marriner, the founder and conductor of the Academy of St Martins in the Fields, passed away on October 2, 2016, at the age of 92. I first heard his music back in the late 1980s, on a road trip across the western United States. I needed tunes for the long drive, but as a poor college student, I had funds for only a single album. I chose one that provided the most minutes of music play per dollar: the two-cassette motion picture soundtrack from Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, conducted by Marriner.

Amadeus is an outstanding soundtrack, and the first one I ever owned, unless you count the Sound of Music eight-track tape I inherited from my parents. That soundtrack is classic, but with the exception of “Climb Every Mountain,” the album generally conveys a single idyllic feeling.

The Amadeus soundtrack was different. While the music is primarily by a lone composer—Mozart—the tone ranges from dramatic to playful, from foreboding to silly, following the ups and downs of the genius composer and his nemesis in the story, Antonio Salieri.

I must have listened to the entire soundtrack ten times during that trip, and enough times in the years that followed so that the warping of the tape in the cassette became obvious. From a classical composer from 250 years ago, through the gifted conducting of Neville Marriner, I learned to love movie soundtracks and scores.

I now own around four dozen soundtracks on CD, plus a few dozen others in my Spotify album list. In memory of the work of Marriner, I provide here some of my favorite soundtrack albums. After scanning this list, you might also enjoy this commentary on what modern soundtracks do for us, and how they often fail.

Hairspray Soundtrack

Musicals: Musicals are an easy choice for soundtrack love, since the entire movie revolves around the compositions. Classic Hollywood musicals from the likes of Rogers and Hammerstein (including the aforementioned Sound of Music), the Sherman Brothers (Mary Poppins) and Irving Berlin (White Christmas) still stand strong alongside those from traditional stage performances like Grease, My Fair Lady, and Fiddler on the Roof. A more recent delight is Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, with the voice stylings of Neal Patrick Harris. The equally enjoyable Hail, Caesar! is an outright attempt to bring back the era of musicals. While I am tempted to give my top choice to The Blues Brothers, I find that the soundtrack from the 2007 movie Hairspray repeatedly brings a smile to my face. Despite being a modern tale in why not to be a racist, the tone is nonetheless upbeat. And with lyrics like “Can’t tell a verb from a noun / They’re the nicest kids in town,” you can’t help but sing along.

Saturday Night Fever Soundtrack

Pop Soundtracks: While many movies hire a single conductor to score the majority of the background music, some opt instead to use current or retro popular music to help drive the story along. The films of Nora Ephron are key examples, and her films Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail (with a score sold separately) are memorable in part because Jimmy Durante and Harry Nilsson are there to support Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. Some of these soundtracks, including Fame and the wildly popular The Bodyguard, outshine the films where they appear, although some like Tootsie and Arthur seem dated by today’s standards. But one pop soundtrack from the 1970s that continues to hold its own today is Saturday Night Fever. Yeah, it’s disco, but even disco can be worthwhile.

Star Wars Soundtrack

Epic Scores: My collection of dramatic scores runs heavy with the music of John Williams, and why not? Williams is a master at taking a simple theme and expanding it into two hours of content that invokes a complete set of emotions. These bombastic scores pair nicely with laser beams and fisticuffs, although soundtracks like The Mission and Superman include gentle and romantic moments among the adrenaline. The fun, even campy, soundtrack to Back to the Future shows that you can be epic without a lot of bloodshed. But if I have to choose, it must be Williams’ always fantastic score for Star Wars: A New Hope. It was a tough decision, since by passing up The Empire Strikes Back, I had to omit “The Imperial March” that follows Darth Vader everywhere he goes. But that first Star Wars album helped established the entire soundtrack craze, and therefore deserves top billing.

The Prince of Egypt Soundtrack

Cartoons and Children’s Films: I swear I bought these when my son was still young. Really. And yet, there are a few kids’ soundtracks that I would likely buy even without a family, especially Hook, The Incredibles, and Mary Poppins. The Prince of Egypt is one such album. Crafted primarily by Stephen Schwarz (who also did Wicked, plus Disney’s Enchanted, another great youth score) and backed up by pop stars like Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men, the songs are an essential component to this specific version of the Moses story.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels Soundtrack

Jazzy Scores: A lot of films reach for a jazz-based score to lighten the mood, even when the film is already as light as it can be. Mancini’s The Pink Panther is a great example of such mood music, custom designed for the film setting. Others movies string together jazz standards with marvelous effect, including Midnight in Paris and When Harry Met Sally. I recently discovered the smooth soundtrack to Good Night, and Good Luck, with the silky voice of Dianne Reeves invoking her inner Ella Fitzgerald. My choice for this section is a bit campy, and not really classic in the jazz sense. But I can’t help enjoying the score to Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (the film, not the musical). It includes one of the best versions of “Puttin’ on the Ritz” I’ve ever heard.

Ragtime Soundtrack

Classical and Period Pieces: Movies set in an older time period frequently provide music to match. Scores for films like Somewhere in Time, Sense and Sensibility, and The King’s Speech transport you back in time, the time that the film documents. In celebration of Neville Marriner’s life, I was tempted to choose the Amadeus soundtrack for this category. But as my collection has grown, my preferences have changed. Randy Newman’s Ragtime score (again, the film version, not the one from the musical) recreates the era of Joplin, and even though I have not yet seen the movie, the soundtrack is enough to carry me back to that time.

Dave Soundtrack

Comedies: If you’re looking for something lighter, a soundtrack from a romantic comedy or an outright comedy might be just the thing. The score to the silly farce Airplane! is surprisingly good, composed and conducted in part by the great Elmer Bernstein, who also crafted classics like The Ten Commandments and the score elements for Ghostbusters. Some of these scores can be quite moving and mainstream; the main theme from The American President, and the patriotic feelings it invokes, can be heard while waiting in line for Soarin’ Over California at Disneyland’s California Adventure theme park, along with other high-flying movie selections. The soundtrack for My Big Fat Greek Wedding provides an international flavor to this lighter category. But my favorite comes from the presidential comedy Dave. It includes a good mix of happy and heartfelt.

[Image Credits: Milken Family Foundation]

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