From Jaws to Star Wars: Genre-Defining Soundtracks
An in-depth look at the film soundtracks that have helped to define their genres, from Hitchcock to Tarantino.
We all have our favourite genres of music and cinema, but one of the hidden charms of the latter is its ability to create an entirely new context to songs you've always loved or hated, making you see them in an entirely new light.
Every genre of film has a basic formula that most directors rarely deviate from too wildly, and the same can be said for the composers who often provide the last piece of the puzzle after production on the film has wrapped. There are, of course, more film genres than we could ever hope to cover - and an ever-growing list of sub-genres of the those of genres - but here we have picked nine of the most popular to shine a spotlight on some of the essential soundtracks that have graced our screens in the last 60 years.
Whether it's a secret agent saving the world through charm, a muscle-bound soldier fighting aliens in the jungle, or a kick-ass woman kicking serious ass, cinemagoers have never grown tired of action films and probably never will. But it isn't just the heroes that make us punch the air once that ass has been kicked. Action movie soundtracks make thrilling set-pieces even more memorable and keep them playing in our minds long after the credits have rolled.
The car chases across San Francisco in Bullitt remain some of the best ever put to film. Steve McQueen in his prime putting a 68 Ford Mustang through its paces - what more could you want? Well, since you ask – a Lalo Schifrin soundtrack wouldn't be a bad start. The score had an effortless swagger with enough loose basslines and funky horns to perfectly complement the relentless action onscreen.
It's hard to imagine a time when there wasn't a James Bond movie in the works. However, Dr. No is the one that started it all off over 50 years ago and its composer, John Barry, would go on to score eleven more 007 films. While we all know and love the opening strains of the iconic Bond theme, not many people know that its basic melody originally came from A House for Mr Biswas, a musical that never made it the stage in the 60s.
Jaws / Raiders Of The Lost Ark
It's hard to think of a more distinctive musical motif outside of Jaws. It is a genius composition by John Williams that remains just as effective as it did on release back in 1977. Two notes are all it takes to get your palms sweating as that fin slices through the water.
If there was ever a theme that could make you believe all you need is a hat and whip to save the day, then 'The Raiders March' from Raiders Of The Lost Ark would be it. The complete score is another masterclass from Williams whose work set the standard for modern day blockbuster films.
No-one expected an ex-Mr. Universe to become a bona fide bankable movie star but who was going to tell that to Arnie? Playing the leader of an improbably muscular mercenary group on a rescue mission gone wrong, his stoic performance in Predator is the stuff of action movie legend. Alan Silvestri's hectic score felt as big as the Austrian Oak himself and remains a gem of the genre.
Brad Fiedel worked his magic to create an iconic soundtrack for the most terrifying cyborg in movie history (a title previously held for decades by Westworld's Yul Brynner). Arnie's towering physical performance as the T-800 cemented his position as action royalty. The Terminator score set up an ominous, futuristic atmosphere that almost made us believe the machines were about to rise up – which, of course, they haven't (yet).
The best comedies bring more than just laughter to the table. Even a classic slapstick Chaplin flick or the latest Adam Sandler vehicle have human pathos wrapped inside the gags. The best comedy soundtracks always have real heart and drama pulsing through their veins and know when it's time to change the tempo. You probably won't laugh at the music, but its presence will make you chuckle that little bit harder.
O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Homer's Odyssey was brought to the Deep South courtesy of the Coen Brothers and T Bone Burnett. There is a strong argument to be made that O Brother, Where Art Thou? is loved because the soundtrack is so essential. Plus, the musical framework was created before anything else, so it's the main ingredient that brings it all together.
Dazed and Confused
Richard Linklater channelled the very essence of a vibrant decade into Dazed and Confused, but even if you weren't alive in the 70s it's a film that feels so ingrained in its period setting that you feel you were. That's helped no-end by a fantastic soundtrack steeped in classic rock, at a time when it felt like the songs meant more than just music. Plus, it's a hilarious coming of age comedy.
The Blues Brothers
The Blues Brothers never struck it big at the cinema, but it eventually became a cult comedy classic as the years rolled by. The film gave us music and appearances from Ray Charles, James Brown, Aretha Franklin and John Lee Hooker, while the soundtrack threw in tracks from Sam & Dave, Elmore James and Kitty Wells. That's a pretty formidable line-up.
Pretty in Pink
The soundtrack for this essential 'Brat Pack' era rom-com was a perfect example of the New Wave line-ups that became the norm for teen comedies and dramas in the 80s. Psychedelic Furs provided the title track in the form of 'Pretty in Pink', while they were joined by the likes of OMD, The Smiths, New Order and INXS. The music formed a perfect backdrop to a heartfelt story of high school outcasts.
The Breakfast Club
Director John Hughes spoke for a generation with The Breakfast Club which remains a film remembered dearly by millions of Gen-Xers. However, it was the storming 80s soundtrack, most notably 'Don't You (Forget About Me)' by Simple Minds that sealed the deal for many viewers. Whether you're a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess or a criminal – you'll find something to love in this 10-song mixtape.
The best crime-thrillers dare to put us on the side of the anti-heroes living out a criminal fantasy we can only dream about. Their stories are accompanied by scores that grip us with peaks of tension and anticipation of their downfall or ingenious ways to get away scot-free. Even when you sit down to watch them again, the power of the score can help keep the scenes fresh and energised.
Sometimes a soundtrack will go on to define the film itself – Isaac Hayes' Shaft is one of the most notable examples. It was wildly popular in its own right, mainly thanks to Ike's unmatched soulful delivery. It works perfectly well with or without the film, managing to tell the story of John Shaft and emphasising what life was like in Harlem at that time. As the bad mother himself would say, “Right on”.
A year later came the don of all mobster films, The Godfather. It spawned an equally as impressive sequel (we won't mention the third) and Nino Rota's original score merged together Sicilian traditions and American glamour. On one hand, you have accordions, trumpets and mandolins, while bolder symphonic tones address their new life of grandeur in the States.
The soundtrack to Drive carries with it a slick, retro-future vibe courtesy of Cliff Martinez who drew heavily on influences from the 70s synth revolution. It set a dark, atmospheric tone around the blank canvas of Ryan Gosling's character to carry the listener deep into the underworld of this seedy neo-noir. Who needs dialogue when you could be listening to Kavinsky's 'Nightcall'?
Reservoir Dogs / Pulp Fiction
While most praise for Quentin Tarantino's films is usually aimed towards his snappy way with words, it's the music that provides the real heart. His first two films are classics in their own right but so too are the soundtracks. Can you imagine Mr. Blonde in Reservoir Dogs delivering the ultimate earache to any other song apart from Stealers Wheel's 'Stuck in the Middle with You'? The same could be said for Dick Dale's 'Misirlou' in Pulp Fiction, a barnstorming opener that instantly signals to audiences that they're in for a wild ride.
Natural Born Killers
Produced by brooding Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor, now a mainstay in soundtrack circles, Natural Born Killers wasn't a film that demanded subtly of song choice. What resulted was a collection of garage and surf-rock numbers much like you'd expect in a Tarantino flick, alongside the likes of Leonard Cohen, L7, Dr Dre and Patsy Cline. Despite having a line-up crazier than Mickey and Mallory, it feels like a natural extension of their chaotic rampage.
Sometimes drama scores can be a little too on the nose as they attempt to point out the emotions of the characters on screen without much subtlety. But when they get it right, you form an intimate bond with the story and its protagonists that will connect with your own human experience. That's what great drama is capable of and how powerful the right choice of music can be.
North by Northwest
Hitchcock is always the best starting place for anyone looking to examine the work of Bernard Herrmann given their many collaborations, and North by Northwest is up there with the best of his compositions. It's as edgy and thrilling as Cary Grant's frantic journey across the US, with the main theme setting a brisk tone that rarely lets up.
Barring slower-paced numbers from Lou Reed and Brian Eno, the soundtrack for Trainspotting is a full-on adrenaline rush that offers a snapshot of the British musical landscape in the mid-90s. Over the two soundtracks released we are given Britpop at its peak as well as legends of the 80s. It also helped to turn Underworld's 'Born Slippy' into one of the decade's most iconic songs.
David Lynch's themes for Twin Peaks were formed behind the white picket fences of Blue Velvet and Angelo Badalamenti knew how to tease them out sonically. A mixture of classical compositions and popular music serves to ramp up the unease keep the story untethered from time with his mysterious, haunting score sat somewhere between a bizarre fantasy and a dark reality. Unsurprisingly, it was the start of their long working relationship.
A Single Man
Tom Ford's directorial efforts are as precise as his classic tailoring and Polish composer Abel Korzeniowski's score for his debut, A Single Man, measured up in every way. The soundtrack is mostly a traditional, string-heavy set of compositions that complement the melancholic day-in-a-life view in the film, aided by classic blues and soul from the likes of Booker T and Etta James.
Horror soundtracks and scores have probably been some of the most influential in the cinema over the past fifty years, going beyond the movie screen to inspire artists in almost every field. As Hitchcock said many years ago: 'There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.' Memorable horror soundtracks have managed to scare the life out of the audience on that simple premise, helping to build the fear in their minds before it even becomes a reality on screen.
The influence of German Expressionism can be seen across much of early cinema, and F.W. Murnau's 1922 classic Nosferatu features some of the medium's most frightening and iconic moments. James Bernard's 1998 score is one of many, but it remains the most acclaimed due to the complex mixture of emotions and soundscapes it creates.
The success of Bernard Hermann's score for Psycho is not simply due to the way it worked with the action on-screen, but the way it got inside the heads of the characters involved. Of course, there is the unforgettable cue, yet without the rest of the indelible score, it probably wouldn't have been half as effective when it came time to take that fateful shower.
It's hard to imagine now that Lalo Schifrin almost landed composer duties for William Friedkin's The Exorcist. He wrote the deranged score for the trailer, but the director rejected his score when it came time to decide on the final soundtrack. Instead, the film turned 'Tubular Bells' into a phenomenon and pretty much set up Mike Oldfield for life.
Dawn of the Dead
George A Romero's original Dawn of the Dead set the standard for modern day zombie films, and who better than Goblin to score it? The Italian soundtrack veterans match the oppressive tone of Romero's visuals, delivering a blend of aggressive prog-rock and twisted synth symphonies that create enough visceral tension to send the undead shambling back to their graves.
Halloween / The Fog
It's hard to separate John Carpenter's soundtrack and directorial work, not because he was responsible for both, but because they were both so good. Halloween and The Fog are hugely influential horror films supported by his truly iconic scores. Carpenter's groundbreaking synth sound has been copied so many times it is now simply referred to as 'Carpenteresque'.
The Fog saw him draw on his love of Goblin to produce something uniquely as sinister and eerie. However, many would argue that Halloween is his finest hour behind the camera and as a composer and it's hard to disagree. The score is a masterpiece that has gone on to define what fear should sound like at the cinema.
It's not often you get a song called 'Hail Satan' (Ave Satani) nominated for Best Song at the Oscars, but Jerry Goldsmith managed it with The Omen soundtrack. As we all know, the scariest horror villains imaginable are spooky children – just look at the thriving J-Horror genre – but it's the suspense generated by the score that makes viewing unbearably tense, at times sounding like evil incarnate.
In the commercial sphere, it's hard to look beyond Disney for the best animation soundtracks. Even the many classics released by Pixar (technically also Disney, of course) struggle on that front. However, once you look outside of Hollywood into Europe and Asia and you'll find decades of cutting-edge animation and scores that have proven to be just as innovative.
The Jungle Book
Let's get Disney out of the way first. They have given us some stone-cold classic films and songs over the years but The Jungle Book remains one of their best, which is fitting as it was the last film Walt personally worked on. The timeless track listing which includes classics like 'The Bare Necessities' and 'I Wanna Be Like You' has lost none of its potency decades on, still capturing the imagination of kids worldwide.
The Nightmare Before Christmas
From talking animals to undead ghouls, The Nightmare Before Christmas took a very different approach to children's animation. Danny Elfman's score still doesn't receive the praise it deserves as it clearly defines the story and action in the film. Plus, his demo voice tracks for Jack Skellington were so effective they ditched the professional singers and stuck with the composer.
Studio Ghibli (Assorted)
When it comes to dreamers, there isn't anyone who has been able to keep up with Japanese animation genius Hayao Miyazaki at Studio Ghibli over the past 30 years. Composer Joe Hisaishi has been responsible for scoring many of their classic releases, including My Neighbour Totoro, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away and Ponyo creating soundscapes as magical as the worlds they help to build.
La Planete Sauvage
René Laloux's La Planete Sauvage (Fantastic Planet) is still one of the strangest yet enchanting pieces of psychedelic animation ever seen in cinema. Alain Goraguer's soundtrack has been sampled to death by anyone and everyone and it's easy to see why. The variations of the main theme never tire, moving effortlessly between light and dark passages that enhance this mind-bending experience.
Akira marked the moment when the Western world realised that all animation didn't start and end in America. It's deservedly cited as one of the crowning examples of hand-drawn animation on the big screen. Geinoh Yamashirogumi's soundtrack is a mesmerising ride threading together European choral work, traditional Japanese drums and futuristic synths mashed with electric guitar. And yet it all makes perfect sense under Yamashirogumi's expert guidance.
A memorable soundtrack is an essential part of creating the feeling of shared, outsider experience that cult films and TV shows require. Cult shows require an edge, and getting the music just right can make the difference between a production becoming an object of fervent love or sinking into obscurity.
A Clockwork Orange
Wendy Carlos's soundtrack to Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange was comprised of both classical music and, more importantly, a supremely influential form of early day synth music. The fact that it influenced most if not all synth experimenters who came along later in the decade is one of the many reasons this soundtrack is seen as an innovative ahead-of-its-time masterpiece.
Originally David Lynch wanted to use This Mortal Coil’s ‘Song to the Siren’ in Twin Peaks but after that didn’t work out he asked composer Angelo Badalamenti to come up something similar. The most famous piece is the theme song ‘Falling’ which, with Julee Cruise’s vocals, has now become a classic in its own right. But Badalamenti’s soundtrack as a whole has a perfect sense of mystery and melancholy that fits the series, aided and abetted by Lynch's own lyrical efforts on three of the tracks.
Assault on Precinct 13
Recorded in just three days, the score for Assault on Precinct 13 was unique at the time for using synth driven melodies, drum machines and drones to create the perfect atmospheric and menacing soundtrack (that Carpenter also directed and edited). Released for the first time on vinyl in 2003 and subsequently re-issued a decade later on Death Waltz, the soundtrack has been hugely influential to modern day composers such as Johnny Jewel and Cliff Martinez.
The soundtrack to Suspiria was one of the famed 1970s soundtracks by spooky Italian progressive rock band Goblin. Following on from their hit soundtrack for Profondo Rosso, the band reconvened in 1977 and hired what they called a ‘big Moog’ in order to produce the soundtrack's innovative sweeping synth sound. Goblin’s influence has grown over the years with modern day bands and composers such as SURVIVE, Zombi and Umberto influenced by their sound...and even one John Carpenter has admitted openly he stole a few of their ideas.
OK, it's not a film. But this one brings us right up-to-date yet, and its soundtrack meant we couldn't ignore it. With feet planted firmly in the past, the Stranger Things soundtrack was heavily influenced by 1970s innovators like John Carpenter, Goblin, Vangelis and Tangerine Dream. Composed by Michael Stein and Kyle Dixon, two members of electronic act SURVIVE, the original soundtrack consists of 75 pieces by the duo mostly using dramatic retro sounding synths and pulsing electronics. A love letter to past composers perhaps but perfectly fitting in with the retro science fiction/horror feel of the series.
Placing us into a world far beyond our own - usually in a future timeframe - rarely works without the right composition to set the tone. This could be anything from giving each character a distinctive theme, to creating a soaring soundscape, to cementing the otherworldly feel. Like horror, the best sci-fi soundtracks and scores extend beyond the films themselves, often influencing the musical landscape for decades to come.
The Fifth Element
Luc Besson's bonkers space fantasy brought out the very best and worst in the French director, all of which you can't help but admire. Eric Serra was given the task of putting together the score for The Fifth Element which manages to be just as wacky and like the film is never anything less than entertaining.
The style and themes in the Wachowski's The Matrix have reached beyond cinematic influences since its release at the tail end of the 90s. The soundtrack side-stepped typical sci-fi expectations to stick with the mixtape formula made popular throughout the decade. It was electro and rock heavy, featuring songs from the likes of Rage Against the Machine, The Prodigy and Rammstein.
Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope
The majestic score for Star Wars: A New Hope is one of cinema's most recognisable and impressive musical feats. This shouldn't come as a surprise from the man who also gave the world Jaws and Superman themes. There are hot streaks and then there's John Williams. All of the superlatives have been said about his soundtrack to a Galaxy Far, Far Away already and it continues to resonate with fans new and old with every passing year.
Vangelis' influential work on the Blade Runner score had a huge impact on sci-fi as a whole. The opening flyover shot of a dystopian city coupled with soaring synths will always be looked to as a benchmark for quality. A succession of replicants has tried their best to mimic Vangelis' approach which has since become so iconic. Even in a period where synthesizer soundtracks were ten to the dozen, it still had the strength of character to stand out on its own.
Han Zimmer's aggressive wall of sound in Interstellar took us out of this world entirely as the crew journeyed halfway round across the universe. His approach to scoring movies goes hand in hand with the powerful visuals favoured by frequent collaborator Christopher Nolan. In total, he used 24 woodwinds, 34 strings, 60 choir singers and four pianos, but it was the powerful five-note melody that really struck a chord.
Johann Johannsson continued his frequent partnership with Denis Villeneuve on sci-fi chin scratcher Arrival. The score is symbiotically connected to the themes of the film and works best when seen in that context. However, there is plenty here to dig into sonically, at times the soundtrack feels as out-there as the idea of aliens landing on Earth, using effects such as tape loops and unique vocals to create eerie results.
The drama of conflict requires soundtracks that are just as bold and dramatic. It can be anything from an aggressive cue that pitches us into an epic battle to a slow-building composition that reaches a heart-stopping crescendo as two battle-scarred men face off one-on-one. Both bring us closer to cinema's exploration of our ugly obsessions with revenge, control, power and death.
A Fistful of Dollars / The Good The Bad & The Ugly
The work of Ennio Morricone in the heyday of the Western probably characterises a genre more than any other composer has managed in the history of cinema. Despite being what he calls his 'worst ever score', A Fistful of Dollars is adored by almost everyone else. Each cue paints a canvas the film couldn't live without and places you under that sweltering hot sun back in San Miguel.
The final part of the Dollars Trilogy, The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, manages to top the previous releases and is widely regarded as the score that defined an entire genre. The classic flute and harmonica combination are supported with melancholic brass sections while 'Ecstasy of Gold' may well send you levitating out the window such is its power.
The Hateful Eight
Tarantino has used pieces of Morricone's work in previous films but when he came to make his own western, The Hateful Eight, getting the great man to return to a genre he left behind over 30 years previously seemed like the only sensible option. It proved to be an inspired decision as the soundtrack deservedly picked up an Oscar that year, even triumphing over another returning genius in John Williams.
The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford
Nick Cave's sound and poetic themes always seemed like the perfect fit for a modern western and so it proved with his work on The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford. Warren Ellis and Cave's score was filled with beautiful minimalism, creating powerful moments of reflection mirroring the unheroic fate that awaited the characters.
There was no shortage of heroes in Dunkirk which saw Christopher Nolan viscerally recreate the triumphs and tragedy of a key turning point in WWII. Hans Zimmer's relentless score ticks in rhythm with the pounding heartbeats of the men, never giving the listener time to breathe and just like their experiences it lingers in the mind long after you have left the battle behind.
Full Metal Jacket
Many people would be intimidated to be placed in charge of the notoriously demanding Stanley Kubrick's Vietnam War opus Full Metal Jacket. However, Kubrick's daughter Vivian (alongside Nigel Goulding) rose to the challenge, creating a collection of dark, eerie cues which squared up against a mishmash of pop, post-punk and pro-war country songs. People of a certain age might even remember 'Full Metal Jacket (I Wanna Be Your Drill Instructor)' which somehow became a hit across Europe.
Francis Ford Coppola's epic Apocalypse Now took both the audience and everyone involved in making the movie to hell and back – although, in fairness, a tense viewing experience hardly compares to Martin Sheen's heart attack while shooting. The director and his father, Carmine, oversaw the iconic soundtrack which captures the twisted paranoia and hellish descent into the pits of darkness that makes the film such a harrowing experience.