x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Sound and vision: how movie soundtracks can boost musicians' careers

Working on and being included in movie soundtracks has helped launch and reinvigorate some musicians' careers, but it is a perilous world.

The Brazilian singer Seu Jorge's latest album, Seu Jorge and Almaz, emerged while spending time on set for a movie project. He is one of a growing number of artists inspired by the soundtrack experience.
The Brazilian singer Seu Jorge's latest album, Seu Jorge and Almaz, emerged while spending time on set for a movie project. He is one of a growing number of artists inspired by the soundtrack experience.

When movie directors plan the music for a new project, they probably don't worry too much about any potential long-term implications. And yet soundtrack work can have a major impact on unsuspecting musicians. The positive power of the film soundtrack is currently being espoused by the band Almaz, who only exist because of the Brazilian movie business. The singer Seu Jorge, composer Antonio Pinto and two members of the experimental rock band Nacao Zumbi came together for the 2008 film Linha de Passe, and enjoyed the experience so much that they kept on going.

"We only called Jorge in to sing on the final credits for the film," explains Pinto, who is best known for scoring the movie City of God, but plays bass with Almaz. "It was such a good experience that Jorge decided to come every day to the studio, just to talk and listen to records. In a week and a half we'd recorded 18 songs." Twelve of those songs, including covers of Kraftwerk and Michael Jackson singles, were recently released as a hugely enjoyable album. It goes by the title Seu Jorge and Almaz, and Pinto is happy to admit that international interest in the record is chiefly due to Jorge's work in a previous film.

The music of Seu Jorge first blipped on to the general public's radar - or perhaps its sonar - in the film The Life Aquatic from 2004, where he played a ship's safety expert whose main task was to sing classic David Bowie songs, in Portuguese. "The soundtrack sold 500,000 copies", says Pinto, "and I think that made him popular in America. He played the Coachella Festival and people were dressed like [his character] in the film."

Some iconic figures can trace their early breakthroughs back to the big screen. The undistinguished 1993 movie Young Americans is chiefly remembered for Bjork's dramatic theme tune, Play Dead, recorded with the composer David Arnold. It was her first top 20 UK hit, and helped turn critical acclaim into crossover commercial success when added to her relaunched debut album. Ms Gudmundsdottir's profile in the US was then greatly enhanced in 2001 when she celebrated an Oscar nomination for the song I've Seen It All - a collaboration with Radiohead's Thom Yorke, from the film Dancer in the Dark - by "laying" a large egg on the red carpet.

Not all artists are quite so comfortable with the celebrity Hollywood brings. Elliott Smith was still a cultish folk-rock act when he was nominated for the same Oscar, in 1998, for the song Miss Misery. Smith's compositions, new and old, had graced the film Good Will Hunting, but the singer only agreed to perform at the ceremony when informed that, if he didn't, someone else would sing the song instead. Smith rarely played Miss Misery again, because of it being "associated with a weird parade of celebrity", a concept he never really learnt to cope with.

Huge crossover success can also occur without the artist writing any new material at all. The teenage comedy Juno from 2007 featured several previously released tracks by the American singer Kimya Dawson, after a suggestion by the lead actress Ellen Page, and they proved revelatory. So much so that several more were included on a follow-up album, Juno B-Sides, although Dawson later admitted to being "totally scared" about her sudden popularity.

Certain directors clearly revel in actively kickstarting the careers of obscure or forgotten talents. Quentin Tarantino's big-selling soundtracks have helped popularise long-forgotten songs by artists as varied as the Japanese garage-rock band the 5,6,7,8s, the Scottish folk act Stealer's Wheels and the surf guitarist Dick Dale. Those tracks did enhance his films, but a more curious case of directorial patronage was the soundtrack album to the recent blockbuster Iron Man 2. It doubled as a best-of for ancient Australian rockers AC/DC, despite only three AC/DC songs actually being featured in the film. The director Jon Favreau is a big AC/DC fan, and the Iron Man 2 promotional onslaught provided them with a huge hit album. Did they send him a thank-you card?

The year-zero for such heavily marketed tie-ins, though, was 1977, as two behemoths pointed the way forward. John Williams's Star Wars score became an integral part of that franchise's ongoing merchandise machine, while the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack put disco in 40 million homes and reinvented the previously uncool Bee Gees as medallion-wearing superstars. For musicians on the slide, movie commissions can be a lucrative lifeline, and some never return to their previous paths. One of the most successful modern soundtrack composers, Clint Mansell, fronted the anarchic 1980s band Pop Will Eat Itself before meeting the budding auteur Darren Aronofsky. Their first collaboration was the dark mathematics fantasy Pi, which "was a bit of a lifesaver", according to Mansell, who was then practically unemployed.

"I had the usual bloated egotistical ideas of some guy leaving a band, thinking he'll do a solo album," he recalls. "Piwas really instrumental in making me work. Getting into film scoring really makes you work hard - you're doing a lot of stuff. Now I'm at the point where I'm writing three, maybe four albums' worth of music a year." The problem with making such evocative themes is that lesser bodies will invariably hijack them. Mansell's best-known track, Lux Aeterna, was originally written for Aronofsky's intense drama Requiem for a Dream, but has since popped up on trailers for other films, at major sporting events, and, slightly painfully, on low-brow television. In the UK, Lux Aeterna is now synonymous with Simon Cowell, as it adds faux-gravitas to the judges' entrance on the Saturday night freak-show Britain's Got Talent.

It pays not to be too precious in the soundtrack industry, then. Pinto insists that film scoring isn't suitable for most musicians because "it would drive them mad", and he quotes from bitter experience. Ironically, while Jorge and Almaz recorded a whole extra album while working on Linha de Passe, their actual score wasn't a hit with director Walter Salles. "I don't know why, but Walter took off the whole soundtrack for the film and re-recorded everything. He only used the final-credits song," sighs Pinto. "This happens a lot with films." Enter this world at your own risk.

Saturday Night Fever (1977) The Bee Gees' Barry Gibb admitted that the band were "dead in the water" before this mighty soundtrack turned them into disco icons. It sold 40 million copies but did also kill disco, according to the native New Yorkers who founded the scene. Star Wars (1977) Still regularly performed live, John Williams's soundtrack made several million kids buy classical music, without them even realising it. The ominous Darth Vader theme and euphoric medal-ceremony anthem are now popular novelty wedding tunes.

Pulp Fiction (1994) It isn't only actors who benefit from a Tarantino connection. This album introduced a new generation to country outfit the Statler Brothers, soul queen Dusty Springfield and surf guitarist Dick Dale. The snippets of dialogue were then sampled by various rappers and DJs. 8 Mile (2002) Eminem's mighty soundtrack spawned the first hip-hop winner of the Best Song Oscar - Lose Yourself - and a follow-up album, the prosaically-titled More Music from 8 Mile.

Inception (2010) The bewildering blockbuster was already much discussed, then composer Hans Zimmer admitted that every track from the soundtrack was sampled from the classic Edith Piaf song Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien. Cue another welcome burst of publicity - and more experimental soundtracks in future?