Take any scene from a film, particularly a scene that from you personally managed to invoke a very emotional response. Now play that scene back but remove all the sound from it, in particular any music that may be playing. What does this do to your scene? Hopefully you did pick a scene from a film that you actually really enjoy so it’s probably completely butchered now.
But why? Why does the removal of something so simple completely change everything about that scene?
There’s a very simple answer to that – A good soundtrack is single handily one of the most important tools when it comes to conveying the emotion, tone, style and atmosphere of a film. What happened to those songs though? What happened to the standalone soundtrack that you could listen to and be reminded of that gorgeous scene or film? Has the soundtrack seemingly gone with the wind?
On the topic of film study there was a long time when academics seemed to ignore the aspects of music within film. Academia around film was solely focused on the visual aspects as in its inception that is what film was, a visual medium. The idea that music could play a pivotal role was looked over, so much so that an author such as Roy M. Prendergast would title his work Film Music: A Neglected Art. Fortunately for us now film and television are now encouraged to use exceptional music as well as visuals in order to achieve the best possible response from an audience.
In the last decade audiences have really only just begun to realise how enjoyable and important a good soundtrack is to a film. Music already has an innate ability to draw emotion out of each individual person. This is can be enhanced to the absolute peak when paired with appropriate visuals. You see this all about setting the tone which is absolutely critical when making a good piece of film or TV.
Our familiarity with the elements of music that invite interest and emotion are the same ones that we find in speech patterns. They help us identify when we should feel sympathetic or antagonised, when we should admire or have distaste, music does of all these things without having to tell you how you should feel. Music is so important in film because it is a universal language; it conveys emotion without words and is able to set a scene without spoken exposition.
We’ve seen some master class examples of film defining (near genre defining) soundtracks both in past and present. The 80’s and 90’s housed some of the best examples of music in film. Look at Top Gun, as soon as you mention that name most people are instantly going to think “DANGER ZONE”.
The effortless blend in the intro of a score piece transitioning into the Kenny Loggins’ classic rock banger accompanied by the crisp sunset visuals of high octane military jet practices sets everything on the table for the audiences expectations for the rest of the film. Danger Zone as a piece of music helped establish the tone of Top Gun so perfectly and so early on in those opening moments of the film that it cemented itself completely as “that song from Top Gun”. It’s why the two go hand in hand and why people remember it.
More recently you get a rare instance like Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy films, of which both soundtracks have received high praise. Writers will constantly promote these soundtracks as some of the best in film. These soundtracks manage to perfectly encapsulate the character of Star Lord in the films as well as the events and misadventures that they are often set to in scene. It’s no wonder why these soundtracks alone managed to sell so well on their own.
While films like the ones sampled above have managed to really hone in on the power of music in film, audiences are still flooded with what can only be described as absolute garbage soundtracks. The slapped together mess that was the Suicide Squad soundtrack shouldn’t even be mentioned, but it will be just so everyone can shudder in disgust on mass.
It’s as if big Hollywood studios have lost their lust to have artists and musicians create songs for films anymore, they would rather just pay for licensing rights and then insert popular songs into scenes that don’t make tonal sense. The 80’s and 90’s golden era of movie soundtracks is practically gone, we’ve seen some exceptions but it’s incredibly rare that we get soundtracks to the likes of Top Gun, The Breakfast Club, hell even the western release of Pokemon: The First Movie pulled together some fantastic songs that really cemented the childlike 1990’s glee of the film.
Wait a minute… Pokemon… Japan… Soundtracks… What are soundtracks in Japanese media like?
To hone in on what is Japan’s most well-known and prolific media industries, the anime industry, they treat soundtracks like gold. Studios often take the same amount of care on the music of the animation as they do the animation itself. Tracks are seemingly written alongside every aspect of the animation and take every concept into account when making them.
In almost every anime series an opening track and ending track are made, most commonly referred to as the OP and ED. Both the OP and ED are meant to highlight almost everything about the series in a mere 90 seconds, so studios will make sure that their tracks are often explosive, catchy and paired together with eye catching visuals.
I’m sure you can see the difference here in creating tracks for a series or film as opposed to mashing together a bunch of seemingly unrelated tracks and then calling it a soundtrack. It’s not as if the method that Japan takes isn’t financially viable either, as the OP and ED tracks that are made have the potential to sell well, and they do.
The soundtrack certainly isn’t dead, but to look back on what Prendergast said in his writing it most certainly feels neglected. Even something as stellar as Guardian’s soundtrack is still just existing tracks paired with the film. Where’s the creativity? You would be justified in saying that there’s some media-culture bias here, but knowing that an artist went into the studio with the idea of making a song specifically for a piece of media feels so much more authentic, and it shows too. Japan absolutely kills it with the structuring of OPs and EDs in anime which the reason that first and last 90 seconds of an episode is so popular.
Show us those creative muscles Hollywood, bring back the flare of the soundtracks of the past that you were once so good at. With the re-hashes and revivals of a slew of ideas and concepts from the 80’s and 90’s, you should be trying just as hard to up the ante in the soundtrack department. Consider this the turning point, make soundtracks great again.