Published on August 14th, 2012 | by Brogan Morris2
‘Searching For Sugar Man’ and The Great Movie Soundtrack
The documentary Searching For Sugar Man, about ‘70s singer/songwriter Sixto Rodriguez, has been making a few waves around the world since its release last month. Critical appraisal has been high for Malik Bendjelloul’s film, telling of a man who turned out some great music back in the early ‘70s but was quickly dropped by his record label, leaving him in obscurity for decades. Most importantly, the film’s soundtrack has been roundly, rightly praised (Rodriguez, it’s believed by some, could’ve been the next Bob Dylan). Even more important than that, the movie soundtrack’s sent viewers (listeners) in the direction of Rodriguez’s back catalogue. The film Searching For Sugar Man has effectively resurrected the Detroit-man’s career and he’s now, finally, receiving a taste of some deserved, 40 years-late fame.
This got me thinking what a great movie soundtrack is. By this I mean use of existing music for the score, not a new musical arrangement – think The Boat That Rocked, or anything by Quentin Tarantino. When is a movie soundtrack so effective that it sends cinemagoers out to buy the music? I suppose you know when a director is using a soundtrack right; it’s when the songs seem to be in all the right places, when the film is boosted significantly by its tunes (The Boat That Rocked, though unfairly maligned, would be reduced to almost nothingness without its stellar soundtrack).
Sofia Coppola is a smart proponent of pop songs in her work, as is Wes Anderson. But perhaps the reigning king of the movie soundtrack, and something of a pioneer in using popular music to accompany films, is Martin Scorsese. Mean Streets, Casino, The Departed and Raging Bull realise real people don’t have their lives backed by soaring orchestral numbers, but by pop music. It heightens the reality (a key element in most of Scorsese’s work) while elevating the material on screen, and it’s none more apparent than in Goodfellas.
Scorsese’s Goodfellas is a gangster classic to eclipse the competition. But perhaps its biggest strength lies not in the acting or the virtuoso camerawork, but in the music. Wall-to-wall pop and rock don’t just make the film look and sound cool (they do do that) but they influence the emotions. They represent time and place, place of character and emotional state. The lyrics comment on the action. ‘Then He Kissed Me’ by The Crystals to back that long tracking shot through the Copa, Cream’s ‘Sunshine of Your Love’ blaring out when Jimmy Conway thinks about killing a friend – these scenes aren’t just about the music, but it’s hard to imagine them without.
It’s when the hairs on your neck jolt, and you know the director has made a perfect partnership between sound and image. Think ‘Stuck In The Middle With You’ in Reservoir Dogs. Think ‘Lust For Life’ in Trainspotting, ‘Singin’ In The Rain’ in A Clockwork Orange, ‘The End’ in Apocalypse Now. Collisions of music and film, when a song then seems out of place heard anywhere else, THAT’S the soundtrack that’s been done right.
Case in point: it’s difficult to play Queen’s ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ without thinking back to the zombie attack in Shaun of The Dead, it’s such a joyous maelstrom of carnage and operatic rock. And you can never quite hear ‘Tiny Dancer’ the same way after you’ve seen Almost Famous, featuring as it does the most perfectly judged use of music inside of…well, any film anywhere.
Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous may feature the best use of soundtrack of them all. It’s not only a great film featuring great music, it’s a film that makes you want to learn about music, makes you want to seek it out, makes you want to discover all the great bands you’ve never heard of. My being biased doesn’t matter – I consider Almost Famous one of the greatest films ever, which may be excessive but who cares – as it will turn even the lowest cultural buffoon onto ‘60s/’70s pop/rock. This isn’t intended to be patronising – I myself am such a buffoon, trying to convert myself by listening day and night to The Allman Brothers and Van Morrison and The Who and Simon & Garfunkel ever since I first saw the film. Almost Famous made me want to love music, now THAT’S a great soundtrack.