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We’ve already said a great soundtrack reveals things about the filmmakers and provides insight into a scene or a character’s emotional state. Selecting songs for a movie gets more difficult when that movie is that most finicky of beasts: the music biopic. When the film is about the life of a musician, the filmmakers are typically limited to that artist’s discography because that’s what the audience is expecting. This difficulty is compounded by the fact that the soundtrack will get boring if all they do is choose the predictable hits—when that’s all it is we might as well just buy one of that artist’s compilations. It’s important there be something special, something different which makes owning on vinyl worth our while. Below are 10 great soundtracks that have that extra something, be it the actors doing their own singing or it just has that kind of irresistible energy that makes you have to have it.
If you were like me when you heard Joaquin Phoenix had been cast as Johnny Cash in the movie about his life Walk the Line, you shook your head and said, “No way.” Sitting in that theater in 2005, it wasn’t until I saw Phoenix sing as Cash when auditioning with his buddies for Sam Phillips that I warmed up. But you know what really sells the story? Reese Witherspoon’s June Carter. Phoenix’s intensity captured Cash’s hardness, but it was when he was playing off Witherspoon’s sass that the chemistry between them made me believe. This is the film’s backbone right here. Songs like “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Juke Box Blues” and “It Ain’t Me Babe” demonstrate the absolute dedication of Phoenix and Witherspoon to embodying their characters. The music manages to balance the necessity of the film’s setting with the desire to breathe fire into old, familiar songs and connect with modern audiences. The soundtrack won a Grammy, Witherspoon won the Best Actress Oscar and we get to listen to magic with every spin.
Charlie “Yardbird” Parker was an influential jazz saxophonist and pioneer of bebop (Birdland in New York City is named after him) and director Clint Eastwood got a chance to display his love of jazz on Bird, a 1988 biopic about Parker’s life starring Forest Whitaker. The movie, while problematic in many ways, gets it right by not shying away from the drug addiction that plagued Parker’s life and many of his jazz contemporaries. Eastwood, faced with the decision to use original recordings or produce new recordings of Parker’s music, chose a different track. He used isolated Parker solos and had contemporary musicians record the backing tracks. Purists may shriek but seriously, this music bops, swings and moves. Parker’s improvisational brilliance placed in a new setting is really what jazz is all about. It’s a living thing, man, always changing yet never forgetting. Bird takes flight in a flurry of sax phrases on opener “Lester Leaps In” which sets the high energy mood for the album. His sax aches on “Laura” and schools on “Ornithology.” This album is an underrated gem and well-worth a dig through the used soundtrack bins.
La Bamba (1987) tells the story of ’50s rock phenom, Ritchie Valens (Lou Diamond Phillips), killed in a plane crash at age 17 just eight months into a promising career (the same crash that took Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper). While not as well-known in the mainstream (until this movie, that is) Valens, real name Richard Valenzuela, is thought to be the first Latino rock star with a top 10 hit (“Donna”). Los Lobos contribute eight songs to the soundtrack album, six Valens songs which make up all of side one and two other covers, one of which is an obscure garage rocker from 1960 that I just love (“Charlena”). “La Bamba” and “Come On, Let’s Go!” got frequent plays on the radio and launched Los Lobos into mainstream popularity. The album also includes covers by Howard Huntsberry, Brian Setzer, Marshall Crenshaw and a souped-up new version of Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love?” Full of warmth and excitement, the music perfectly captures the optimism of a young man achieving his dreams. Go on, let the needle drop on the title track and try not to dance.
Diana Ross in 1972’s Lady Sings the Blues, a film loosely based on Billie Holiday’s autobiography, was Ross’s chance to show that Motown’s decision to break her out solo away from the Supremes was the right one. No matter what you think about that, you have to admit that Ross absolutely shines here, her performance earning Golden Globe and Academy Award Best Actress nominations. She doesn’t really look like Billie Holiday nor can she hide her smooth pop delivery when emulating Holiday’s singing style, but what she’s able to do is throw herself into the lyrics in the way that Holiday is famous for… Ross lives it, she breathes it. Her screen presence is riveting and is more than a match for smooth Billy Dee Williams. The 2xLP soundtrack includes plenty of dialogue excerpts, letting you relive the sad story. The kicker is side D—which is all music—giving free rein to Ross on songs like “Don’t Explain,” “Strange Fruit” and “God Bless the Child,” which are forever linked to Holiday and are brilliantly rendered here.
With lyrics so matter-of-factly describing violence, sex (and misogyny), and being fed up with oppressive police, the constant barrage of profanity is actually the tamest part of N.W.A. They created rap which more closely reflected the harsh realities of young black men in Compton and South Central L.A. It was an in-your-face-fuck-you to authority, a new kind of rebelliousness which appealed to inner-city and suburban youth alike. Named after their 1988 album, Straight Outta Compton (2015) tells a slightly sanitized story of the group’s rise to fame and their battles with managers, labels and each other. It’s a thrilling reminder of what made N.W.A. one of the most influential rap groups out of the West Coast. The soundtrack is a choice selection of some of their well-known tracks like “Straight Outta Compton” and “Fuck tha Police,” songs from Parliament and Funkadelic, and tracks from Eazy-E, Ice Cube, and Dr. Dre. This soundtrack is a great compilation to throw on when you’re feeling amped and want to hear a little bit of everything.
For people looking for a documentary about punk and what it all meant, this isn’t it. Sid & Nancy (1986) is a stylized portrait of the destructive relationship between Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious (Gary Oldman) and groupie Nancy Spungen (Chloe Webb) in the late ’70s leading up to Sid being charged for her murder and his fatal overdose a few months later. While some would argue it romanticized their addiction and co-dependency, Sid & Nancy clearly tells the tale of drug-fueled dysfunction between two young people who couldn’t figure it out. What’s fascinating about this soundtrack is its lack of songs from the Sex Pistols and Sid Vicious. We get two songs from Joe Strummer (“Love Kills,” the film’s original title, and “Dum Dum Club”), moody contributions from the Pogues (“Haunted” and “Junk”), John Cale, Circle Jerks, Steve Jones and Oldman doing his best Sid on “I Wanna Be Your Dog” and “My Way.” Filled out by several beautiful score pieces from Pray for Rain, the soundtrack encapsulates the all-consuming nature of love, which is itself consumed by heroin addiction. Love kills indeed.
Round Midnight (1986), a love song to bebop, is a bit of a cheat on this list since the main character is actually a composite of saxophonist Lester Young and pianist Bud Powell. But it stars jazz saxophonist Dexter Gordon and is based on the real-life friendship between Powell and fan Francis Paudras. Gordon stars as Dale Turner, a down and nearly out jazz player in 1959 struggling with alcoholism who moves to Paris and takes a regular gig at the Blue Note, where he meets Paudras, who tries to save him from his vices. The film is atmospheric, focusing on a few months in the life of an artist hanging on by a thread, but it’s really all about the music which was recorded live (on a set of the Blue Note specifically built to have great acoustics) and produced by Herbie Hancock. It includes standards like Monk’s “Round Midnight” and Gershwin’s “How Long Has This Been Going On?” as well as original Hancock compositions like the dissonant “Bérangère’s Nightmare.” Gordon’s tenor sax and Hancock’s piano are sublime, in addition to stellar performances from bassists Ron Carter and Pierre Michelot, drummer Tony Williams, Chet Baker on “Fair Weather, and more.
Love & Mercy (2014) is a powerful story about musician and songwriter Brian Wilson, founding member of the Beach Boys. Starring Paul Dano and John Cusack as the younger and middle-aged Wilson, respectively, the film goes back and forth between the 1960s and 1980s. It focuses on Wilson’s initial nervous breakdown and subsequent creation of the now highly regarded Pet Sounds and aftermath, and on Wilson in the power of a controlling therapist, misdiagnosed and heavily drugged. Truly, it’s one of the best depictions of the creative process that I’ve ever seen. Composer Atticus Ross’ layered and genius score is moody and atmospheric, capturing the chaos in Wilson’s life and mind. Having access to all the original music and individual tracks, Ross uses samples to intersperse and twist pieces of familiar tunes—“Silhouette,” for example, takes elements from “God Only Knows” and “Sloop John B,” among others. These score pieces along with a few tracks from the Beach Boys and Wilson, including “One Kind of Love”—which Wilson wrote for the movie—make the album worth repeated listening.
Loretta Lynn was already a country legend at the time of 1980’s Coal Miner’s Daughter. With hit after hit throughout the ’60s and ’70s, and an autobiography under her belt, it only made sense to make a movie about her life. It’s said that Lynn wanted no one but Sissy Spacek to play her after seeing her in a photograph. Spacek has a knack for portraying fresh-faced resilience and she effortlessly personified Lynn’s determination to keep moving forward despite life’s curveballs. Spacek also did her own singing, won the Best Actress Oscar and even earned a Grammy nomination for her version of “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” a song which tells of Lynn’s humble beginnings in Kentucky’s coal country. The album includes many of Lynn’s hits as sung by Spacek, as well as Levon Helm (he played Lynn’s father) singing “Blue Moon of Kentucky” and Beverly D’Angelo (as Patsy Cline) singing a few of Cline’s well-known songs. Like the film and Lynn herself, the soundtrack isn’t flashy but it sure packs a wallop.
What’s there not to love about 33 Bob Dylan cover songs and one previously unreleased Dylan song from the Basement Tape sessions with The Band? With contributing artists including Eddie Vedder, Cat Power, Yo La Tengo and Calexico, it’s like the most amazing 4xLP tribute album ever. And I’m Not There (2007) is one of the most innovative music biopics in the last 20 years, which makes this soundtrack all the more special. Given the complexities of a life that refuses to be pinned down and understood, filmmaker Todd Haynes eschewed a conventional film in favor of nonlinear storytelling with six actors (like Cate Blanchett and Heath Ledger) playing Dylan in different periods of his life. But they’re not just playing Dylan, they’re playing a piece of his personality as a fictional character in sometimes fantastical settings. The movie does include more actual Dylan songs and not a whole lot of the songs heard here but that just makes the soundtrack a bonus. Like the film, we get a new view of Dylan by other artists’ interpretation of his songs. Personal favorites include John Doe’s “Pressing On” and Charlotte Gainsbourg’s “Just Like A Woman” with Calexico.
Marcella Hemmeter is a freelance writer and adjunct professor living in Maryland by way of California. When she's not busy meeting deadlines she frequently laments the lack of tamalerias near her house.
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