From Psycho to Reservoir Dogs: Decade-Defining Soundtracks
An in-depth look at the film soundtracks that have helped to define their times, from John Barry to Cliff Martinez.
Since the first public film screening by the Lumiere brothers in 1895 the moving picture has been accompanied by music in one form or another. For the first 25-30 years this was played lived using pianos, organs and sometimes even full orchestras, and although pre-recorded scores became more common after 1927, it wasn't until jazz blew the doors off in the 50s that scores began to flourish.
Over 60 years later and we're lucky enough to live in a time where soundtracks and scores are the norm, almost overwhelmed by the variety on offer. To celebrate our love of the soundtrack we've stepped back in time from the 60s through to the present day to pick out some of the best soundtracks ever to grace the big screen.
The social upheaval that took place during the 60s led by the first post-war generation can be heard in the evolution of the movie soundtrack. Composers like John Barry, Ennio Morricone and Lalo Schifrin introduced their own individual styles and techniques. Later in the decade, the arrival of soundtracks featuring pop and rock music in films like The Graduate or Easy Rider marked the start of what would become known as 'The New Hollywood'.
A shocking (for a film released in 1960) and iconic scene needed a masterful piece to accompany it and Bernard Herman's Psycho score has transcended the film itself. He ditched the rest of the orchestral sounds to terrify and stab the minds of the audience every time the knife plunged down into Janet Leigh's exposed torso.
It was only three years later the world was given another unforgettable musical cinematic moment with the release of John Barry's Dr. No (1962) soundtrack. No, it wasn't the calypso-pop that stuck in the mind, but Barry's re-arrangement of a theme that is now as important to the film series as James Bond himself.
Federico Fellini's 8 ½ (1963) may have been a modernist masterpiece but the soundtrack by Nino Rota was equally as diverse and eclectic with its musical choices. It embraced the surreal alongside lounge music, cool jazz, classical and even circus music, always keeping the listener's ears primed for the unexpected.
A Hard Day's Night
A year later, the travails of fame burdened The Beatles in Richard Lester's A Hard Day's Night, a simple yet revolutionary film that would go on to form the foundations of the music video as we know it. Most of the songs were still light and breezy but slight changes to their rock 'n' pop sound were starting to make themselves heard.
The Good, The Bad & The Ugly
The western genre and Ennio Morricone go together like Clint Eastwood and steely glares, and The Good, The Bad & The Ugly (1966) was one of many outstanding examples from its golden era. It's probably his most famous because once that two-note flute melody hits you are transported straight back to Sad Hill cemetery.
The Planet of the Apes
In 1968, cinemas goers marvelled at the shocking twists and turns of The Planet of the Apes while Jerry Goldsmith's unorthodox score challenged their aural expectations. Goldsmith was just as affected by the whole process, apparently donning an ape's mask during recording sessions.
From sci-fi to horror, Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby (1968) slowly evolves into a domestic nightmare and the score by progressive Eastern European jazz artist Krzysztof Komeda gradually shifts into full-blown paranoia alongside the characters. Atmosphere was everything in this horror classic and Komeda's work went a long way to establishing the unnerving soundscapes which now come as standard in the genre.
'68 also saw the King of Cool, Steven McQueen, paired with Lalo Schifrin, a man whose soundtrack work was slickness personified at the time, on classic thriller Bullitt. The impeccable car chases may be what most people associate with the movie, but Schifrin's gritty jazz soundscape is a classic of the Silver Age.
The old studio order was now defunct, and we entered into the 'New Hollywood' era, a time that many consider one of cinema's best. Soundtracks drifted from the early paranoia-led political thrillers in the early part of the decade, through to abstract electronica experimentation, classic funk and soul in the Blaxploitation era, and the melodic orchestral motifs that came with the arrival of the blockbuster towards the end of the decade.
The Harder They Come
Jimmy Cliff's The Harder They Come arrived a year after Shaft, bringing with it the sights and sounds of Kingston, Jamaica. It is a flawless 12-song set that paved the way for reggae's international success, followed by Bob Marley a few years later.
Released the same year, Tarkovsky's seminal sci-fi masterpiece Solaris is still being dissected today and Edward Artemyev's accompanying score remains equally as mysterious and abstract. There are few who could match the vision of the Russian director, and perhaps that's why Artemyev was selected to score a number of his films during the decade.
Equally as haunting was the tragic yet menacing brass-led waltz that signalled the arrival of Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather (1972). It's a soundtrack that evokes the old Italian traditions of the country and the Corleone clan: family, honour and respect.
The Wicker Man
Much like the unsettling finale of The Wicker Man (1973), Paul Giovanni's music retained a quietly dark and sinister undertone underneath its playfulness. Edward Woodward plays an outsider unable to connect with the suspicious locals and Giovanni's score perfectly captured this twisted take on a stranger in a strange land.
From the cult to the occult, 1973 also saw the release of a true horror legend, William Friedkin's The Exorcist. Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki added a few of his own touches, but it is Mike Oldfield's unforgettable 'Tubular Bells' that took the soundtrack to the next level.
His 17 Oscar nominations give a solid indication of how important Jerry Goldsmith's compositions have been to cinema over the past 40 years. The Chinatown (1974) score may only be 30 minutes long but it's an evocative and mood-driven piece that Polanski's film noir could not live without.
Skipping forward to 1976 and there was a lesson to be learned from Richard Donner's The Omen. Steer clear of children called Damien. Goldsmith's score somehow taps into Satan's personal record collection, full of echoing bells, haunting choral chants and unbearably tense strings. A few years later, in 1979, Goldsmith was also responsible for the Alien soundtrack. Ridley Scott's chest-bursting classic continues to heavily influence sci-fi films to this day and, although the director tampered heavily with Goldsmith's original ideas, the score is just as chilling.
Assault on Precinct 13
Working to a fraction of Spielberg's budget, John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) proved that you don't need the glitz and glamour of a full orchestra with synth score flooded the imagination to make it sound just as imposing and threatening. 1978's Halloween continued Carpenter's dual role as director and composer and, thanks to a perfect blend of creepy visuals and sinister soundscapes, is considered the definitive slasher flick. He was a master at creating a disturbing atmosphere both through his cinematography and his musical experimentation.
Star Wars: A New Hope
Then, as the 70s were drawing to a close, a movie emerged that redefined people's perception of both sci-fi and blockbuster cinema. Star Wars: A New Hope (1977) saw John Williams resurrect classic orchestral styles in an age of electronic-based scores. While the stirring theme is legendary in its own right, he also re-introduced the idea of using leitmotifs to create a timeless soundtrack for the ultimate battle between good and evil.
Suspiria / Dawn of the Dead
To score two horror classics in the space of a couple of years takes some doing but that is exactly what Italian prog-rock maestros Goblin achieved. First up was Dario Argento's Suspiria (1977), which featured a score every bit as bonkers and beguiling as the film itself. A year later came George A. Romero's seminal zombie film, Dawn of the Dead. The insane European cut is the one almost everyone turns to, displaying the group's enviable ability to pile together a ridiculous collection of ideas into a coherent whole.
The era of the blockbuster was in full effect with John Williams and James Horner becoming prominent and Danny Elfman beginning to make his mark. It was also the decade of the synthesiser which dominated both horror and sci-fi, while power ballads and bouncy pop songs become the norm in films targeted at teens. It was a mix and match decade which ushered in an increasingly diverse approach to music across cinema.
1980 saw the release of ghostly scare-fest The Fog, yet another in a long list of John Carpenter classics characterised by eerie synths and spine-tingling atmosphere. Ghost pirates may sound more like the basis for a funny sketch than frightening villains, but Carpenter's musical cues lend them a sense of true menace.
Raiders of the Lost Ark / E.T.
A year later, Raiders of the Lost Ark offered up one of the most stirring scores in modern cinema courtesy of John Williams. There are few people alive who can resist humming along to the iconic theme, and they need a good talking to. The entire soundtrack is 43 minutes of retro-comic perfection. In 1982, Williams teamed up with Spielberg yet again for E.T. which some argue is the best soundtrack he has ever done for the beardy auteur. It evokes all of the childlike magic of Elliot and his little alien friend's journey together.
Tron / Blade Runner
'82 also gave us two bona fide sci-fi classics, albeit at different ends of the scale. Wendy Carlos' Tron score isn't characterised by her usual synthesiser work, instead relying heavily on the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Meanwhile, Ridley Scott's dystopian masterpiece Blade Runner still dominates the imagination of today's sci-fi directors, in large part thanks to Vangelis' sweeping noir-synth soundscape.
Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence
On the subject of electro pioneers, Ryuichi Sakamoto's Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence (1983) soundtrack is led by a beautiful title track that has lost none of its power over the years. He also starred in the film alongside David Bowie, although unfortunately the two never had the opportunity to work together musically.
Nearing the mid-point of the decade, Purple Rain (1984) saw Prince flaunt his genius to the world in a soundtrack so good you can forgive the many mistakes made in the actual film. Despite often being overshadowed by the title track, every song sounds so good it's almost impossible to pick out a favourite.
The same year saw the legendary Harry Dean Stanton given a rare lead role in Paris, Texas and his terrific performance repaid the faith director Wim Wenders had in him. Ry Cooder's moody acoustic score evokes the journey of a man haunted by his past, creating a soundtrack that has gone on to influence musicians such as U2, Kurt Cobain and Dave Grohl.
1984 really was the year that kept on giving. The Terminator remains Arnold Schwarzenegger's most iconic role, and Brad Fiedel's skull-crushing, metallic soundtrack set the tone for the arrival of the relentless killing machine. It's stripped back and minimal but the perfect fit for an all-time classic sci-fi.
Then came Labyrinth, a 1986 fantasy film that existed long before the genre became a cinematic mainstay. The soundtrack was a collaboration between David Bowie and composer Trevor Jones, although it is mostly the original tracks written for the film by The Thin White Duke that are remembered fondly by fans.
'86 also saw the triumphant return of Sigourney Weaver's Ellen Ripley. It's rare for a sequel to match the quality of the first film, let alone potentially surpass it yet that is exactly what Aliens achieved. James Horner's work on this action-packed sci-fi favourite is relentlessly heavy and dripping with the same menace as the remorseless Xenomorphs.
The Lost Boys
A year later, cinemagoers were treated to a new approach to horror. Joel Schumacher's dark comedy about teenage vampires, The Lost Boys, featured a soundtrack that celebrated the decade's music with the likes of INXS and Echo & The Bunnymen while adding a knowing touch of melodrama courtesy of Gerard McMann's theme 'Cry Little Sister'.
Although it was released in 1987, it took a decade-and-a-half for Predator's score to be officially released. The film remains a classic of the action genre and Alan Silvestri's soundtrack is bursting with percussive rhythms, exhilarating orchestral tracks and an unbeatable high-paced energy.
A similar relentless pace was evident in Katsuhiro Otomo's 1988 manga Akira. There are shades of Philip Glass to Shoji Yamashiro's score which is bursting with inventive and imaginative sonic ideas. Much like the film, it felt ahead of its time on release and is a worthy addition to any soundtrack retrospective.
The 90s signalled a change in direction for soundtracks. Scorsese set the tone with his Goodfellas pop culture selection and he was soon followed by the likes of Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson and Spike Lee. It was the decade of rap, grunge and techno, bringing the underground over into the mainstream and, as a result, countless soundtracks. While orchestral scores retained their popularity, it was indie and alternative films that helped to reinvigorate people's love of the soundtrack during this period.
Although it was their third film, Miller's Crossing (1990) was the moment the world sat up to take notice of the Coen Brothers' talent. Composer Carter Burwell had never provided an orchestral score before this film, yet it is so evocative of the story being told it is impossible to tell.
The early 90s also saw the Grunge revolution make its mark on cinema, most notably with films like Singles (1992). The usual Seattle crew were rounded up for the soundtrack, including Pearl Jam (who even appeared in the film), Soundgarden, Alice in Chains and Mudhoney, along with Smashing Pumpkins and Screaming Trees.
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me
There were no screaming trees in any of David Lynch's films but there's plenty of evil forests. If his films don't terrify you then Angelo Badalamenti's scores will. The score for Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me remains just as sad, scary and mysterious today as it did over 25 years ago.
1992 set a new benchmark for what crime movies could be. It wasn't just the references to cult and classic exploitation movies that made Tarantino stand out but the effortless cool of his soundtracks. Reservoir Dogs had this in spades, led by George Baker Selection's 'Little Green Bag' which is now synonymous with that slick, black-suited opening. After making such a stunning debut, how do you go about following it up? If you're Quentin Tarantino, you make Pulp Fiction (1994). It's a masterclass in music choice with Kool & The Gang, Al Green, Dusty Springfield and Dick Dale & The Del-Tones' 'Misirlou' all making an appearance, before ending with Samuel L. Jackson's epic “Ezekiel 25:17" speech.
Dazed and Confused
Another auteur with an ear for great music, Richard Linklater filled his stoner coming-of-age film Dazed and Confused (1993) with memorable tunes from the likes of Black Sabbath and Lynyrd Skynyrd. The soundtrack perfectly captures the mood and feeling of the period with a great collection of carefully curated rock music. There were actually two soundtracks released, with Even More Dazed and Confused following a year later.
'93 also saw the first instalment of a franchise that refuses to become extinct. Life-like dinosaurs stomped across our cinema screens courtesy of advances in CGI technology that would change film forever. Both John Williams' classic soundtrack and Spielberg's original film remain timeless, and with so many outstanding cues it's hard to pick an absolute favourite -- “Welcome to Jurassic Park.”
The Nightmare Before Christmas
Danny Elfman's work with director Tim Burton goes back to the mid-80s and his score for The Nightmare Before Christmas remains one of his best. While Burton didn't direct (that role was filled by Henry Selick), his fingerprints are all over everything from the visuals to the tone. Elfman not only composed but also sang on a number of tracks, creating the perfect Halloween accompaniment.
Natural Born Killers
Natural Born Killers (1994) didn't get off to the best of starts, Quentin Tarantino left the project after a dispute with the producers and Oliver Stone's take on lovestruck serial killers Mickey and Mallory divided critical opinion. However, since then it has gathered a substantial cult following. The soundtrack is arguably even better than the film, featuring the likes of Cowboy Junkies, Leonard Cohen, Nine Inch Nails and Patti Smith.
1996 saw a true celebration of the era's music (as well as a sobering take on drug culture) courtesy of Danny Boyle. The soundtrack and movie are so crucially intertwined it's unlikely you'll ever be able to hear Underworld's 'Born Slippy' without thinking of the heroin and hedonism that defined Trainspotting. The soundtrack is stacked with great music, featuring New Order, Leftfield, Blur, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed and Brian Eno amongst others, all of which feel right at home in this modern classic.
A year later, it was impossible to escape Celine Dion's 'My Heart Will Go on' as it invaded the airwaves before, during and after the release of Titanic. James Horner's score is often overlooked because of this but its Celtic influences, dramatic orchestral pieces and sweeping strings perfectly complement the most iconic cinematic love story of the past 20 years.
While James Cameron's historical epic shot Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio into superstardom, Kon Satoshi's anime Perfect Blue was busy critiquing fame and celebrity. Masahiro Ikumi's soundtrack veers from the ecstatic to the harrowing, featuring a spectrum of music from J-Pop to powerful mood pieces.
Buena Vista Social Club
As the 90s was winding down, Wim Wender's Buena Vista Social Club (1999) shone a spotlight on forgotten Cuban artists like Compay Segundo, Ibrahim Ferrer and Ruben Gonzalez, giving them a new lease of life late in their careers. The documentary was a huge success and the newly formed group toured the world demonstrating the infectious Latin flavours everyone can't help but love.
The same year saw the release of Fight Club, the pseudo-psychological thriller beloved for its gritty testosterone-fuelled atmosphere and endlessly imitated twist ending and Brad Pitt spending the majority of the runtime shirtless. The Dust Brothers' soundtrack was a perfect companion, its high-energy style propelling the film forward and working just as well as a standalone record.
The Virgin Suicides
Sofia Coppola's powerful 1999 debut, The Virgin Suicides, was met with critical acclaim. Air's score features the expected prog-rock influences from the French duo but is one of the best things they've ever released, perfectly capturing the erratically shifting emotions of adolescence.
The 00s became a decade of more experimentation that was representative of the coming together of a whole host of genres in the music world. Mixtape soundtracks continued their popularity because of this, and the increased accessibility of digital equipment saw a boom in indie filmmaking and offered an ever-wider variety of scores away from the big money of Hollywood.
Requiem for a Dream
Having former Pop Will Eat Itself frontman Clint Mansell working with Darren Aronofsky seemed like the perfect fit. His beautiful score for Requiem for a Dream (2000) performed by The Kronos Quartet mirrored the oppressive mood of this cautionary tale. The film may have developed a cult status, but it is 'Lux Aeterna' that has grown a life of its own, its gorgeous violins haunting countless TV shows and film trailers ever since. At the opposite end of the decade, Mansell also provided the soundscapes that washed over the tale of isolation and loneliness in Duncan Jones' Moon (2009). He went solo for this score stripping it down to simple string and piano arrangements to keep in line with a small scale but highly effective sci-fi story.
O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Back down on earth, O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) displayed another side to the Coen Brothers, with producer T Bone Burnett reeling off catchy number-after-number on the soundtrack. From Dan Tyminski's rousing 'Man Of Constant Sorrow' to Alison Krauss' haunting 'Down To The River To Pray' it's an endless stream of soulful bluegrass, gospel and folk to make it one of the best soundtracks made in any decade.
As the 90s rolled into the 00s, Hans Zimmer hadn't quite become the most dominant and influential composer in the film industry just yet, but he was about to show everyone why that was about to change. His work on Gladiator (2000) is highly regarded, deftly moving from pensive to electrifying, perfectly matching the heroic arc of Maximus Decimus Meridius. A year later, Zimmer was at it again with Hannibal - conjuring up a terrifying score that soared beyond the limitations of the film. It is one of his most classically influenced soundtracks while still being chilling enough to ensure you remember Ray Liotta's brain being served up for supper.
2001 also gave us Donnie Darko, a fear of large rabbits called Frank and Michael Andrews' ethereal, melancholic score. Alongside Gary Jules, he also turned Tears for Fears' 'Mad World' inside out to create a melancholy breakout single that achieved a popularity arguably greater than the movie itself.
At the opposite end of the emotional spectrum came Amélie (2001). A modern-day fairy-tale defined by visual flair and filled to the brim with whimsy. Yann Tiersen was able to do exactly the same with a soundtrack that used everything from pianos and accordions to bicycle wheels and typewriters.
As fans of his movies will know, Tarantino places huge importance into his soundtracks. After a brief detour into an entirely soulful selection for 1997's Jackie Brown, he returned to mostly familiar ground in the first part of his samurai saga Kill Bill (2003). Ranging from the sultry tones of Nancy Sinatra's 'Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)' to the ecstatic chorus of Santa Esmeralda's take on 'Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood', the music perfectly captures the wild ride of the movie.
Dead Man's Shoes
Back in the UK, most gangster films were running through East End clichés one-by-one. However, Shane Meadows' Dead Man's Shoes (2004) shifted the compass towards the Midlands. The soundtrack also ran through an eclectic collection of tracks from the likes of Aphex Twin, The Earlies and Calexico to set the scene for a brother's dark revenge.
Another decade and yet another great Scorsese mob movie: The Departed (a remake of Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs). Composer Howard Shore has been nothing short of prolific throughout his career and his score for this 2006 film leans heavily into the rock genre from the storming angst of Dropkick Murphys' 'I'm Shipping Up To Boston', all the way through to sleepier tracks like Roy Buchanan's 'Sweet Dreams'.
There Will Be Blood
A year later, Daniel Day-Lewis rightly won the Oscar for best actor after his towering performance in There Will Be Blood, but it remains a mystery how one of the best films of the decade didn't sweep the board. Even more confusing is how Jonny Greenwood's magnificent score didn't even get a nomination. Its blend of aching strings, lonely pianos and striking percussion tells the story of the megalomaniac oilman all on its own.
It's impossible not to keep referring back to Hans Zimmer, especially at a point where his wall-of-sound style has dominated blockbusters for the past decade. Huge-scale action epics and comic book films co-opted this sound to form a style that became equally as prevalent. Mid-budget films have effectively disappeared, leaving you to choose between the aggressive, grandiose soundtracks of Marvel's cinematic universe or more experimental sounds associated with a thriving independent movie scene.
Cliff Martinez's synth-heavy score for Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive (2011) is easily one of the most influential of the decade so far. The euro-house tracks from a collection of dance artists never sound out of place in this neo-noir and the entire mood of the soundtrack has been lifted countless times since.
Under The Skin
One man who can't be accused of imitation is director Jonathan Glazer. His soundtracks are renowned for being just as impressive as his limited filmography and Mica Levi's work on Under the Skin (2013) is probably the pick of the bunch. His unnerving score forms a chilling atmosphere that never lets up, even as Scarlett Johansson disappears into a thick, black gloop.
The same year, in Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity, a team of astronauts found themselves in danger of drifting off into the black emptiness of space. The 3D cinema version was notoriously dizzying, and composer Stephen Price provided an accompanying score which enhanced the experience even further. Full of atmospheric cues and tense moods, the soundtrack takes the listener above the clouds into a weightless vacuum.
Hans Zimmer's working relationship with Christopher Nolan has defined the Hollywood blockbuster soundtrack for the past decade and never is that truer than with Interstellar (2014). It's as big, bold and overwhelming as anything Zimmer has done before, sending audiences on a journey across the universe (although the answer is behind the bookcase, of course).
The Theory of Everything
From interdimensional to biographical, 2014 also saw Eddy Redmayne play Steven Hawking as he unpicked the mysteries of the universe in The Theory of Everything. The late Johann Johannsson's score is warm and uplifting, embodying the wonder of life on Earth and man's tireless search for scientific answers.
Jonny Greenwood's work for Paul Thomas Anderson's Inherent Vice (2014) continued to demonstrate how versatile and visionary he remains as a composer. It's more accessible and lighter than his previous efforts for the director, complementing the seedy underbelly of L.A. while displaying heart and a sharp sense of humour.
Guardians of the Galaxy
The music used in Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) played a key role in setting the tone and providing an emotional anchor for Chris Pratt's Star-Lord. A retro vibe drawing heavily from the 70s and 80s was in full effect every time the loveable space rogue turned on his Walkman, and the soundtrack keeps on the hits coming, featuring David Bowie, 10cc, Marvin Gaye and Five Fairsteps.
Novelist Alex Garland's first effort behind the camera saw him when a lot of admirers. The Ex-Machina (2015) score by Portishead's Geoff Barrow and composer Ben Salisbury is cold and lonely, creating an unwelcoming and troubling atmosphere that works incredibly well with the film's disconcerting underground setting.
Although titled Good Time (2017), it was anything but for Robert Pattinson in one night of madness. Oneohtrix Point Never's score ratchets up the tension with piercing synths and harsh electro noise, before the closing track for the film, Iggy Pop's melancholic 'The Pure and the Damned' might just bring a tear to the eye.
Call Me By Your Name
The same year saw the release of Oscars darling Call Me by Your Name with a breakout performance by Timothée Chalamet earning him a host of award nominations. The soundtrack proved to be just as popular, combining classical pieces with stirring 80s pop songs to enrich the story of Oliver and Elio even further.
The soundtrack for Baby Driver (2017), was even more crucial to proceedings, playing a pivotal part in the narrative of Edgar Wright's ode to classic American car films. It is shamelessly upbeat, throwing down everything from Beck, Blur, The Damned and the percussive mastery of the Incredible Bongo Band.
Then came a ground-breaking movie focusing on the polarising race issues prevalent in the US and beyond from, of all places, Marvel. The Afrocentricity of Black Panther (2018) could be seen and heard in every atom of the film and score. Not all of the songs on the soundtrack are in the film – which makes it all the more worth listening to in its entirety. When producer Kendrick Lamar can rely on the talents of people like The Weeknd, Vince Staples and James Blake, you know you are in safe hands.