Soundtracks can make or break movies. A world-class soundtrack stands on its own as a separate work of art and elevates the rest of the film exponentially. Here are eight of the greatest soundtracks of all time.
1. ‘American Graffiti’
The ground-breaking “American Graffiti” (1973) put now-legendary filmmakers George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, and Ron Howard on the map, not to mention movie stars Harrison Ford and Richard Dreyfus. It was also the first film to feature multiple storylines cutting in and out of each other.
It’s a goldmine of the very best of 1950s and ’60s doo-wop, which Lucas used as a string of juke-box hits to create the nostalgic, bitter-sweet atmosphere of high school; of best friends sharing one last night of California cruising—a hot rods-bobby socks-badboys-nerds-cheerleaders-drag racing-sock hops-rite-of-passage—before heading off to college.
Presided over by the mythic growl of the hilarious shock-jock Wolfman Jack howling out on the airwaves, broadcasting out of Mexico (actually he’s closer than you think), infiltrating the cars and minds of cruising teens with relatively clean fun.
2. ‘Dazed & Confused’
“Dazed & Confused” (1993) is basically an update of “American Graffiti,” and therefore also a juke-box movie, replacing early ’60s doo-wop with rock hits of the mid-’70s. “Dazed” catapulted stars Matthew McConaughey, Ben Affleck, Parker Posey, Mila Jovovitch, Renee Zellwegger, and director Richard Linklater to stardom.
Another last-night-of-high-school movie, it’s a must-see for anyone who graduated in the ’70s. Actually, American culture more or less plateaued in the ’70s, as many people who graduated even 5 years ago can relate to “Dazed” and feel they own it. However, the kids are a sight less innocent. The soundtrack was an instant classic.
3. ‘Purple Rain’
“Purple Rain” (1984) has an unfair musical advantage, of course. While the plot is your standard “Guy finds girl, guy loses girl, guy gets girl”—the guy here happens to be Prince. That is, Prince when he was at the top of his mid-’80s, meteoric, blisteringly hot, creative arc.
This musically stacked-deck soundtrack not only has “When Doves Cry” and that other awesome song, what was it called? … oh, right—”Purple Rain”—it features the also musically super-hot band of Morris Day and The Time. “Jerome?! Bring me my mirror. I miss myself!”
Prince’s acting was so bad it’s campy, which puts “Purple Rain” in “Rocky Horror” territory, but for rock & roll—that’s a good thing. But I’m not here to talk “Purple Rain.” Everybody talks about it. I’m here to talk about …
4. ‘Sign’O’ The Times’
Prince’s “Sign ‘O’ The Times” (1987) may be the greatest concert movie of all time—Led Zeppelin’s “The Song Remains the Same” notwithstanding—so you can’t really call it a soundtrack. It’s hard to get a copy of it anymore.
Check out this video where everybody in Prince’s band, The Revolution, plays fusion jazz-funk-rock solos—and especially wait for the beautiful Sheila E’s drum solo. Male drummers up until that point thought they ruled drumming … until Sheila E. came along.
5. ‘Easy Rider’
This is the quintessential soundtrack for late-1960s America. Director Dennis Hopper selected songs based on ’68 radio rock. “Easy Rider” (1969) put that most beloved-of-bikers band, Steppenwolf, on the map. Interesting fact: most Americans still don’t realize that Steppenwolf is an all-German band, because their thick-German-accented lead singer, John Kay sounds like a black American bluesman when he sings.
“Easy Rider’s” got sweet country-rock from the Byrds, and Jimi Hendrix’s acid-rock. It started off as a hippie, dude, road trip—related in many ways to “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” for the same reasons—of laid-back dudes hanging out in the picturesque American West. Like “Butch,” the low-budget “Easy Rider” also became a blockbuster.
The ’60s soundtrack, Peter Fonda’s hair, Peter Fonda’s chopper, Peter Fonda’s American-flag helmet (and gas-tank), and the motorcycles—forged “Easy Rider” into a cult classic. Watch the following video (featuring the role that made the young Jack Nicholson famous) and see if you don’t want to ditch your job, buy a vintage Harley, and hit the road.
“Braveheart” (1995) ends with this fantastic line:
“In the year of Our Lord, 1314, patriots of Scotland, starving and outnumbered, charged the fields of Bannockburn. They fought like warrior poets. They fought like Scotsman. And won their freedom.”
Before he fell into ignominy, Mel Gibson directed and starred in this movie, which features one of the most sublime, epic, and evocative soundtracks of all time. The Scottish pipes, flutes, and drums are beyond haunting.
Watch this scene of the very young William Wallace (Braveheart) being given a purple thistle-bloom by his future wife (when she was only 3) to comfort him, in his harrowing time of grief, at the burial of his slaughtered family. No one can keep a dry eye.
7. ‘Lord of the Rings’
More than a little of the “Lord of the Rings” (2001) soundtrack was swiped from “Braveheart” if you listen closely. But so what? All great artists steal, and LOTR soundtrack composer Howard Shore is a great artist. And much of the Scottish milieu is fitting for “Lord of the Rings,” as it is essentially a British Isles tale.
It’s popularity is due, unbeknownst to most, to the fact that LOTR is the quintessential tale of spiritual enlightenment. The evil ring signifies all human addictions and attachments, which must be suffered away, on the path to Mount Doom, in Mordor, where it must be cast into the fire and destroyed.
Frodo’s journey represents the burning off of human karma. Thus, lightened of the heavy karmic load (Frodo can barely walk towards the end, due to the weight of the ring) all the former ring bearers cross over the ocean to the Grey Havens, which, in the language of enlightenment, would be a Buddha paradise, never being required to return to Samsara, the earthly reincarnation cycle of human woe.
One of the most influential book series of modern times, as well as one of the most successful movie series ever, including the “Lord of the Rings” prequel, “The Hobbit,” the soundtrack is, like “Braveheart,” absolutely haunting. The following video is lots of fun, as it reveals the different musical themes within the movie.
8. ‘Schindler’s List’
We started off light, and end with a solemn soundtrack. “Schindler’s List” (1993) blew everyone away. The blockbusting, money-making darling of Hollywood, Steven Spielberg, revealed with “List” that he was a serious artist of great merit.
Of special note is the the solitary violin, as we see the snowflakes falling outside the raging smokestacks of Auschwitz, and realize to our horror that those aren’t snowflakes. Composer John Williams and star violinist Itzhak Perlman collaborated to produce a violin that is itself grief-stricken and can no longer fully play a melody, but moans. It’ll give you goosebumps.
All of the seven great arts, namely, architecture, sculpture, painting, music, poetry, theater, and dance—are combined in cinema, creating the most potent story-telling vehicle in history.