Soundtracks – Does A Film Need The Right Sound To Be Good?

A couple of months ago I wrote a film review about Baz Luhrmann’s adaption of the classic ‘The Great Gatsby’ which he turned in to the ‘Alright Gatsby’ to an extent. Part way through the review I started to discuss the soundtrack that had been picked for the film, which featured quite modern music such as Jack White, Florence + The Machine and The XX. Personally I felt that the soundtrack was actually quite out of place and didn’t really suit the time setting of the film, to which some people obviously disagreed. I felt as though the soundtrack to the 1974 adaption was more suited because it had the loud jazzy feel to it that you would expect at such a time. This had me thinking about soundtracks and how important they are. Years ago in the early days of film where we had silent films, soundtrack was imperative. It guided the audience through the film and aided in dramatic devices such as humour and tension. But in a world where dialogue is very much present in films, the use of a soundtrack is very interesting to think about.  Are there any films in which I felt the same way about the soundtrack to the new Great Gatsby? Are there any films where the soundtrack could have been better? Does having a good soundtrack actually make a film any more enjoyable?

An example that I can think of straight away is the soundtrack to ‘Prometheus’, the Ridley Scott Sci Fi from last year. The soundtrack was composed by Marc Streitenfeld, who’s previous works include the soundtrack for ‘Gladiator’ and ‘Robin Hood’, so I have no doubt in his work because he is clearly experienced. However the problem with soundtrack to Prometheus for me personally was that it was big and loud and bold. One of the best things about ‘Alien’, the original by Ridley Scott was the haunting soundtrack. It was quiet, it was gentle, it gave you a feeling of ‘crikey Charlie, anything could happy at any point’ and it make the atmosphere of the film reach new peaks of tension in the right place. It really suited the Sci Fi / Horror genre of the film and worked very well in the films favour. Now in the case of Prometheus you have this loud and clanging soundtrack in a rather Inception styled collection of songs that really blast out of the screen and accompany the action sequences and set pieces to throw what is happening in your face. Admittedly there were elements of Prometheus that were creepy and still had the essence of Sci Fi / Horror with it, but the soundtrack gave it more of a ‘right the pace is picking up’ and ‘something is about to happen’ feel to it.

If there is a series of films that has quite a bit influence on music it’s the James Bond series. Over the years James Bond has become more and more well known for the title song that represents the film, branching from the early years of Shirley Bassey in the sixties with powerful songs such as ‘Goldfinger’, to the more rocky feel of Jack White and Alicia Keys for the ‘Quantum of Solace’ song ‘Another Way To Die’. The most recent Bond film ‘Skyfall’ had a song that brought about mixed reactions, with Adele singing the title song and having co written it as well. Some people loved it and praised it because it had the essence of a classic Bond film, whereas others took to criticising it, saying it was quite dull and felt too much like it was trying to be Shirley Bassey. Personally I felt that the song was very good and suited the nature of the film, with the lyrics supporting this idea of the character of Bond having to rebuild himself and make this big come back to who he once was. It was quite a soft chilling song but then with a big bold chorus that had quite an empowering feel to it, and from my point of view I found that I liked the song a lot more after having seen the film because I realised just how much it suited the nature of the film. It’s interesting as well because there was a list of acts that were supposedly up for the role of the singing the theme song for the film, including Lady Gaga, Muse, and Noel Gallagher. A lot of people said a better song would be produced by any of those acts, but I think that’s all it would have been; a good song. It wouldn’t necessarily suit the nature of a Bond film, let alone a Bond film that had such strong characters and a deep story line as this film did.

For me the best soundtracks are the ones that match the film perfectly, the ones that stand out as one of the key features that made the film good for you. If someone were to ask you what you thought of a film and what made it as good as it was, if you mention the soundtrack then it shows just how much of an impact it had on you. From this straight away I have to mention as I have done previously in other posts, the soundtrack to the film ‘Submarine’ written by the Arctic Monkeys front man Alex Turner. The soundtrack consisted of six songs, one of which was a mere introduction track based on one of the other songs. For me it was one of the best soundtracks I have ever heard, it was delicate in places but then uplifting in others so it suited the events of the film perfectly. The lyrics written were quite artistic and had quite powerful imagery that painted the perfect picture of what it’s like being in a relationship as a teenager as well as suiting some of the deeper messages behind the film. The sometimes complex imagery embedded in the lyrics really suited the character of Oliver Tate, a teenager who speaks the words of an adult in their mid Fourties so it linked to the characters and was well suited. In fact it’s such a good soundtrack that it gets to the point of not knowing how to describe it because there aren’t enough words in my vocabulary to show the true admiration and respect I have for Alex Turner for making such tremendous work.

Another musician/ composer I feel deserves a lot of respect for their contribution to film is the Radiohead band member Jonny Greenwood. The two soundtracks I have seen from him are from the Paul Thomas Anderson masterpieces ‘There Will Be Blood’ and ‘The Master’. The work he produced for those films was amazing, very abstract but it really adds to the artistic nature of the films. I still remember the first time I watched ‘There Will Be Blood’ and feeling quite unnerved by the opening shot of this vast desert landscape, with this chilling sound of music that strings out as the camera moves, getting louder and louder. It was the sort of moment in film you’re very unlikely to forget, and the sort of moment you don’t necessarily feel on a regular basis. Greenwood is very good at producing tracks for films that really add to the tension of events, rather than being very loud and ear drum bursting, he goes more for the approach of being quiet and mysterious to put you more on edge. The tracks also, as I find quite often, are very good at representing the mindset of the character and showing their emotional state. For example in opening scene of ‘The Master’ in which Joaquin Phoenix’s character is with his fellow army friends on a beach away from home. You see his behaviour and language is quite odd from the outset, with this quiet but repetitive music in the background that really puts you in the mind of this character who isn’t the man he used to be, who has seen things that have changed him. He’s a character that you’re not necessarily scared of, but more wary of because you’re not sure which way is behaviour is going to go and the music was very well suited to the scene. The soundtrack accompanies the films and suits them very well indeed, and it’s difficult to imagine any other type of music being used for such films.

Overall I think the soundtrack to a film, or indeed lack of soundtrack, does matter quite a lot because it aids in presenting the representation the film maker intended. My favourite soundtracks branch from those composed by genius’ of our time such as Hans Zimmer who creates incredible sounds that suit films perfectly, to those soundtracks that feature classic songs that really push forward the messages behind films and the genre that the film maker was aiming for. Soundtracks for films likes ‘The Departed’ which opens the film with the heavy guitar of The Rolling Stones classic ‘Gimme Shelter’ really push forward right from the outset this strong feel of how gritty the film is going to be. I wouldn’t say that soundtracks are the most important element to a film, but it is an element that can have either a really good impact on a film, or drag down and prove to be more of a hindrance. The awards for Best Score and Best Song may be over looked by some but I think they are very important categories and I very much look forward to seeing what work has been produced this year.

As always please feel free to leave any comments you have on the topic, I’d be interested to hear what your favourite or least favourite soundtracks are, plus any comments on the choices I made to reference in this post. Any comments or criticisms are more than welcome.

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