Although the audio tape is pretty much dead, people still love making mix tapes, even if they now come in CD form. It's funny how this ritual of appreciation has transcended age and time. We used to scour radio stations for the perfect mix of songs, and now we whip up aural delights from thousands of mp3s. Mixes were useful to tell that certain boy or girl that you liked them in school, and today we often send mixes to say hello, or to gently shake a person and show them all the good music that they are missing.
There's also no short supply of movies that have absolutely fantastic soundtracks that work like a visual mix tape, sending the viewer through an optical pathway of music, sometimes even bringing new meaning and depth to the tunes that are played. While I would love to gush about Beethoven's music set to drama in Immortal Beloved, or even the brilliance that is Simon and Garfunkle in The Graduate, this space is reserved for the films with varied soundtracks full of a myriad of sounds and artists, which somehow all morph together into a cohesive and enjoyable whole. Sometimes they are just great collections of music, and sometimes they completely make you rethink something you might have heard many times before. If only I could list 14, or even 21! But I can't, so here are 7 films to inspire you into a mix-making frenzy:
This almost seems like cheating, being such an obvious and no-brainer sort of choice, but you really can't talk about the power of mix tapes and movies without talking about the film that is all about creating musical mixes that portray slices of life. John Cusack stars as Rob Gordon, the music store owner who is at a crossroads in his life -- his serious girlfriend is leaving him, and through music, he delves into his less-than-desirable relationships with women. The beauty of this movie's soundtrack is how many different slices of music it tastes -- from the melodic Dry the Rain from The Beta Band to Aretha Franklin's Rock Steady. The old is mixed with the new, introducing us to what we might not have heard, while reminding us of songs we might have forgotten.
Zach Braff's first feature seems to be one of those films that you either love or hate, but either way, Andrew Largeman's first drug-free experiences in years are set to great tunes. Garden State revealed The Shins to a much larger audience when Natalie Portman handed Braff the ear phones and said: "You gotta hear this one song, it'll change your life. I swear." But that's only the beginning. There's also the funky, beating twang of Thievery Corporation's Lebanese Blonde, Nick Drake's musings about what he could've been in One of These Things First, and the other songs that flowed into a dreamy, feel-good sort of musical mix.
I knew that there had to be a Quentin Tarantino movie on the list, but I wasn't quite sure which it should be. But really, there's probably no better cohesive, musical unit created by QT than the soundtrack for Reservoir Dogs. Each song flows to the next, not only embodying the quirky feel of the suited, color-named criminals, but starting a pretty popular rush for old-school music. Not only that, but it really opened the door to mix music with talking -- whether a moment of spoken word, or an audio clip of a favorite scene. Of course, discussions about this movie and its music have to touch on the scene where Michael Madsen's Mr. Blonde dances around before cutting off the ear of the captured cop to Stealers Wheel's Stuck in the Middle With You. Simply, it's music that not only embodies the Super Sounds of the Seventies, but also a chunk of the Tarantino-infused 90's.
Pump up the Volume
Allan Moyle's Christian Slater-starring pirate radio drama is one of those movies I can't help but love looking back, while also mourning the idea that it probably would never get off the ground now. It was the movie against the mainstream pop music. It celebrated difference, and made for a collection of music that was left of the dial and wonderfully special. Henry Rollins and Bad Brains shouting to Kick Out the Jams was nestled alongside the Concrete Blonde* cover of Leonard Cohen's Everybody Knows. It also houses one of my favorite love songs that tragically never made it big, Ivan Neville's love song: Why Can't I Fall in Love. The only sad thing about the mix tape that is Pump up the Volume -- the CD had none of the great Hard Harry clips intermingled amongst the music -- no musing, no ranting and no Eat Me, Beat Me Lady.
It's hard to go wrong with a classic rock soundtrack hand-picked by writer/director Cameron Crowe, who used to write for Rolling Stone, and his wife, Heart guitarist Nancy Wilson. As William Miller travels with the fictional band Stillwater (which has its own selection of original songs), Almost Famous gathers one of the best collections of rock 'n' roll that you can get in a film. It reminds you of the time when Elton John was cool as the cast sings Tiny Dancer on the tour bus. It also houses the best selection of Led Zeppelin tunes outside of their own concert footage -- and you can even use Crowe's cue on the Bootleg DVD to see where Stairway to Heaven would have gone -- the one song he didn't get.
It's hard to forget the sensation that became of Underworld's Born Slippy, which exploded from Trainspotting and rocketed into almost every dance club around. It brought a whole new audience to the realm of techno, but it is only one of many great songs housed in the film. This is one of those rare movies with so much great music that they had to release two CD's to contain it all (along with some extras for good measure). A melange of mainly old and new Brit Pop, Trainspotting remembers the days from the more gravelly and deep Lou Reed and Iggy Pop (heck, it threw him back in the spotlight) to the then-current and popular Damon Albarn and Elastica. It was more than just Nightclubbing -- it was the music of dancing, road trips and energy-infused activities.
The Rules of Attraction
Roger Avary's adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis' The Rules of Attraction might be loved or hated, depending on your taste for over-privileged angst teamed with emotional and sexual dysfunction. Yet is is a great example of how music can fuel a narrative without overpowering it. Housed in mainly eighties music, there's the undie-clad boy dance fest to George Michael's Faith, Lust to Love by The Go-Go's and even The Cure's Six Different Ways. However, the crowning achievement of this soundtrack is the inclusion of Harry Nilsson's cover of Without You -- not that super-80's Air Supply cover -- as Sean Bateman's secret admirer takes her own life when she can't be with him. It's melodramatic, sure, but it really hits on that urgency of youth, and how even sappy love songs can mean the world.
*Thank you, Melissa, for catching that! MB