Movie soundtracks are an interesting subset of today’s music. With the slow death of CDs and physical records, there will probably never be another soundtrack that sells 17 million copies like Whitney Houston’s production for “The Bodyguard”. However, the cultural and commercial impacts of soundtracks in today’s world cannot be denied.
In fact, we are living in a historic time for success for movie soundtracks.
Now more than ever, a movie’s soundtrack can have just as much of a cultural impact as the film itself. There are three distinct types of soundtracks right now, and each has proven to be remarkably successful.
The first is the kind that you would see in movies like “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Baby Driver.” There are no original songs, but the specific combination of classics makes for critical and commercial success. Baby Driver, in particular, was centered around the manner in which the music played along with the action on screen. Both films allowed the music to dictate the cadence in their opening scenes, which adds playful nostalgia and flow to immediately draw in the audience.
The use of popular songs that have long held a place in the cultural canon can be a risky move if not executed correctly, but both films made sure to use the songs as effective set pieces. Younger generations may not necessarily have that nostalgic connection to the songs that their parents may have, but utilizing these less saturated songs can be very financially successful. “Guardians of the Galaxy’s” Awesome mix finished as the eighth highest selling album of 2017 to double down on the original’s success.
While “Guardians’” soundtrack was a playlist of old and cool songs and “Baby Driver” was mostly the same with three unique songs thrown in at the end, movies like “Black Panther” and “The Greatest Showman” take a different approach.
Instead of relying on old standbys to play off of nostalgia, these movies prove that new soundtracks can be just as cool and successful as the old stuff. “Black Panther’s” soundtrack literally developed its own hype separate from the movie that it was connected to, and rightfully so. The Kendrick Lamar-produced epic is a who’s who of today’s rap and R&B artists that play a large part in the film’s financial success. If casual fans weren’t excited by the action, cast and social timeliness of the film, Lamar’s soundtrack was often enough to bring them to the theater. The editor’s notes for the album on Apple Music praise the album as “a marriage of sound and vision, a movement and a movie.”
The Greatest Showman is Hugh Jackman’s second grand foray into musicals on the big screen, after the success of Les Misérables in 2012. Unlike Black Panther, The Greatest Showman did not have an entire industry’s A-list for its production. Instead, Jackman and the rest of the cast did their own songs and managed to still have a lasting cultural impact — so far.
The soundtrack for the album has already been certified as gold by the Recording Industry Association of America, and it is the best selling album of the year so far. It certainly is not a critically-acclaimed masterpiece like Black Panther’s soundtrack and nor does it add significance by commenting on social issues, but it is clearly enough fun to be successful.
It is important to note that these are soundtracks and not scores. They do not fall into the same category as works by Hans Zimmer and John Williams, but they have similar effects on the movies they accompany. Lord of the Rings and Titanic both became worldwide sensations for many reasons, but one of the most important is that the music made for the movies masterfully added color and feeling to what was going on in the screen.
“Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Baby Driver” obviously did not have original music, but they utilized already-notorious songs to double dip in the way music makes us feel and the memories that we have associated with older pieces. “Black Panther’s” soundtrack will go down as one of the most hyped soundtracks for any movie, thanks to its “Avengers”-esque roster and importance outside of the actual movie. The Greatest Showman may not have necessarily been a successful movie without the wide appeal of its soundtrack.
The music that goes with each of these movies are not just cogs in the machine of the films themselves. They have lives of their own outside of the theater, and we should be thankful for the remarkable run of incredible soundtracks that have infiltrated the airwaves recently.
Jonah Baker can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @jonahpbaker