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The Evolution of Movie Soundtracks


When the movie "Elizabethtown" opened this month, it received less than flattering reviews, but director Cameron Crowe was praised for the film's soundtrack.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) From this day on, I own my father's gun.

MONTAGNE: Cameron Crowe combines songs by some of today's best singer/songwriters with lost gems from the '60s and the '70s. It's become his calling card in films like "Jerry Maguire" and "Vanilla Sky," and music journalist Ashley Kahn says the compilation soundtrack has eclipsed the tradition of creating original music scores for films.

(Soundbite of "Jaws" soundtrack)

ASHLEY KAHN reporting:

There's no doubt that the right piece of music can make a movie.

(Soundbite of "Jaws" soundtrack)

KAHN: When a director finds a singular match of sound and image, it can forever link a piece of music to an enduring cinematic experience.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. CAMERON CROWE (Film Producer): The soundtrack, whether it's "The Exorcist" or "Jaws," first and foremost be a souvenir of the experience you give people with your movie, the piece of music that can help you summon up the feeling of the movie.

KAHN: Cameron Crowe is the film director who started out as a music reporter for Rolling Stone magazine. He has a long list of favorite movie moments that are defined by the music, like this one from Martin Scorsese's film "GoodFellas," starring Ray Liotta.

(Soundbite from "GoodFellas")

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) You can climb a mountain. You can swim the sea.

Mr. RAY LIOTTA: (As Henry Hill) I was going to be busy all day. I had to drop off some guns at Jimmy's to match some silencers he had gotten. I had to pick up my brother at the hospital and drive him back to the house for dinner that night, and then I had to pick up some new Pittsburgh stuff for Lois to fly down to some customers I had near Atlanta.

Mr. CROWE: Leave it to Scorsese, you know, who is obviously one of the great music lovers to ever pick up a camera and film. He knew that, used in the right way, "Jump In The Fire" would feel like cocaine. It's an aggravating song that you can't get out of your head, that toxic, adrenalized feel.

KAHN: Soundtracks that rely on popular songs are a Hollywood tradition that stretches back decades and that have long upstaged another older tradition, the original film score.

(Soundbite of "Stayin' Alive")

BEE GEES: (Singing) Well, you can tell by the way I use my walk, I'm a woman's man, no time to talk. The music's...

Mr. CROWE: When the Bee Gees' "Stayin' Alive" hit in "Saturday Night Fever," 'cause that was such an important kind of moment in movies, everybody noticed that that soundtrack sold a gazillion copies, and suddenly you're a studio president and you're saying, `Well, you know, I think that kind of orchestration thing can be replaced by what about The Four Seasons?'

KAHN: To many who continue to compose original symphonic music for films, today's jukebox approach to creating movie soundtracks is a step backwards.

Mr. LALO SCHIFRIN (Composer): Now what's happening now, there's no respect for the contribution that a composer can make to a film.

KAHN: Lalo Schifrin is one of Hollywood's most celebrated composers. He's created music for over a hundred movies and television programs since the early '60s.

Mr. SCHIFRIN: When we write, we're not trying to write something popular. We're trying to write something that works for the movie or for the television show.

(Soundbite of "Mission: Impossible")

KAHN: Schifrin is best known for composing the "Mission: Impossible" theme.

(Soundbite of "Mission: Impossible")

Mr. SCHIFRIN: The difference between score and soundtrack is soundtrack is just the CD or the album that the studio made deals to have their record released, in many, many cases, none of the music and the record is in the movie.

KAHN: Schifrin sees himself as part of a vanishing breed, a brotherhood of great composers who created original music for the screen.

Mr. SCHIFRIN: John Williams with "Star Wars" is a big example, Jerry Goldsmith, the theme of "Patton," James Horner with "The Titanic." Oh, Elmer Bernstein with "The Magnificent Seven."

(Soundbite of music)

KAHN: By the end of the '60s, composers were joined by a new person on the Hollywood lot, the music supervisor. His job was to help maximize the profit that could come from the movie soundtrack. Cameron Crowe feels it's best to avoid them.

Mr. CROWE: And I would say to these young filmmakers, `Don't hire a music supervisor that's going to come in and try and tell you what records to use and how you can sneak them in in scenes where the music doesn't really belong.'

KAHN: An example of a song that Crowe feels does work is in the movie "Jackie Brown." It's an old soul tune that accompanies the beginning of a love affair between two characters played Robert Forster and Pam Grier.

(Soundbite from "Jackie Brown")

THE DELFONICS: (Singing) Didn't I do it, baby? Didn't I do it, baby?

Mr. ROBERT FORSTER: (As Max Cherry) It's pretty. Who is this?

Ms. PAM GRIER: (As Jackie Brown) The Delfonics.

Mr. FORSTER: (As Max Cherry) It's nice.

Ms. PAM GRIER: (As Jackie Brown) Mm-hmm.

Mr. CROWE: Tarantino played the Delfonics song "Didn't I Blow Your Mind This Time" in "Jackie Brown." I lost it. I love that song. And I was sort of like watching also as a director, going, `Damn I had that in my pocket. He got there first.'

(Soundbite from "Didn't I Blow Your Mind This Time")

THE DELFONICS: (Singing) Didn't I do it, baby? Didn't I do it, baby?

KAHN: Crowe is right. After seeing "Jackie Brown," there's no way to hear that song again and not be transported back to the movie. And that indelible link is what every director hopes for, whether it comes from an original score or from a popular song.

Mr. CROWE: Now you just sort of create the best of both really, a world-class marriage between score and song that's really great, really contemporary and still holds up.

KAHN: Can popular songs in original scores find a happy future together? Lalo Schifrin is skeptical.

Mr. SCHIFRIN: It could be a marriage or it's going to be shotgun wedding or it's going to be love. And I don't know.

KAHN: To find the music that fits the scene, sells the soundtrack and still manages to create timeless movie magic, that's a hard thing to pull off, even in Hollywood, a town that's known for unusual mergers.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: Ashley Kahn is author of the book "Kind of Blue: The Making of Miles Davis Masterpiece."

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP (Host): And I'm Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ashley Kahn
Ashley Kahn is an American music historian, journalist, and producer, as well as a regular commentator on Morning Edition.