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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 September 2018

Soundtrack to our lives: the powerful role of music in films 

With music-led movies Baby Driver and Atomic Blonde currently lighting up the box office, we examine the soundtrack renaissance

John Travolta and Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction. Photo by Moviestore / REX / Shutterstock
John Travolta and Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction. Photo by Moviestore / REX / Shutterstock

There are two films showing in cinemas across the region that are providing as many thrills aurally as they do visually.

High-octane crime caper Baby Driver has been much talked about, and the box-office numbers are reflective of its resonance with filmgoers the world over, while Charlize Theron’s Atomic Blonde has been turning heads thanks to the star’s vicious portrayal of British ­super-spy Lorraine Broughton.

As well the fine performances and kinetic action, the unsung heroes of both films are their respective soundtracks.

The backing tracks for Baby Driver were so much a part of the film that action scenes were edited to the beats and grooves of a cavalcade of vintage acts ranging from The Damned and T Rex to The Commodores and The Detroit Emeralds.

The production team behind Atomic Blonde took more of a Gothic/new-wave approach to match its brooding on-screen tone with songs by A Flock of Seagulls, Kaleida, David Bowie and Marilyn Manson.

Both of these summer blockbusters join a growing list of films with acclaimed playlists that are an independent body of work in their own right. Others from this year to do the same are Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2, with its classic-rock mix of tunes from Fleetwood Mac, Sam Cooke and Cheap Trick, and Deadpool, which was hip-hop heavy.

It is all confirmation of a trend that’s been on the rise in the past decade. It is safe to say the film soundtrack is back.

More than the great talent on screen, it is the soundtrack that is proving, in some case, equally responsible for catapulting a film to cultural icon status.

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From 1973’s coming-of-age teen flick American Graffiti and 1987’s romance drama Dirty Dancing to 1992’s grunge drama Singles and 1996’s Romeo and Juliet, soundtracks of days gone by not only provided a hard-to-beat playlist, but also acted as tastemakers for what was considered cool and trendy.

A film’s soundtrack album also benefited the musicians it featured, often resulting in some of their most-focused work.

Despite releasing more than a dozen albums, perhaps the best release from the Bee Gees was their contributions to the soundtrack ­accompanying 1977 disco classic Saturday Night Fever.

Serving on a bigger project freed the band from the expectation that comes with the release of an album.

In return, they moved away from their light R&B sound to launch a full disco groove with the release of a string of classic singles, including Stayin’ Alive and Night Fever.

British pop-star Ellie ­Goulding is another to have creatively benefited from her film work.

The singer-songwriter has developed a reputation as a big gun for hire for soundtracks. Her credits include vocal ­appearances on movies including The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2 (Bittersweet) in 2012, The Hunger Games: ­Catching Fire (Mirror) a year later, Divergent (a dance remix of her cover of American singer-songwriter Active Child’s Hanging On) in 2014, and last year’s Still Falling For You, from Bridget Jones’s Baby.

Nominated for a Grammy and a Golden Globe, perhaps her most successful film inclusion was Love Me Like You Do, a pop number produced by Max Martin that was part of the soundtrack to Fifty Shades of Grey in 2015. It has clocked more than 1.5 billion views on YouTube to date. Ker-ching.

Talking to The National in May, she said the collaborative nature of soundtrack work is a less-stressful affair.

“You are a part of a bigger thing and you are working with the film director, you also watch the film to get a better idea for the song. I find it all really refreshing.”

In the early 1990s, a film soundtrack also gave Whitney Houston more creative freedom than she perhaps may have been accustomed to until then.

As the star of The Bodyguard and executive producer of the soundtrack, Houston chose to transform Dolly Parton’s plaintive country ballad I Will Always Love You into her signature blend of gospel-tinged pop.

With more than 45 ­million albums sold, The Bodyguard remains the biggest-­selling soundtrack album of all time.

Where financial rewards powered the production of soundtracks previously, their cost-cutting appeal is now ironically is responsible for its resurgence.

“The days of a big orchestral score are now few and far between. Nowadays, not many studios can afford a big score by someone like (composers) Hans Zimmer or a Ennio ­Morricone,” says Dawn Elder, a Los Angeles-based music producer and former vice president of label Mondo Melodia.

“If you are a music supervisor of a film, sometimes you are given a budget of a US$500 [Dh1,837] for each song, so it makes you go out and speak to the artist about getting their music on the soundtrack.”

As for the artist themselves, Elder says such opportunities act as much-needed source of income and a cost-effective way of spreading their music internationally.

“There are really only five and six major record labels left,” she says. “Most of them are not effective anymore. They are not bringing out new artists, so really no money is being made. Now, if you are an indie artist, you also need to spend a lot of money. To get your single played on the radio, it costs about a $100,000 to get three air spins on FM radio here in the States. And with social media not viewed as cost-effective, one of the only places for an artist to get paid for their music is by being on the soundtrack.”

While most soundtracks remain dominated by major artists, there are still examples of releases introducing new voices to the mainstream.

Elder cites the effect of the Twilight series and particularly praises the work of its music supervisor, Alexandra Patsavas.

“Those films broke 28 bands into the mainstream,” she says. “That is unbelievable, and it just goes to show to what happens when you get a creative music supervisor who knows what they want. I also think it shows that soundtracks will always remain important and can be a good way to hear interesting and innovative music.”

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