Exploring the needle drop: the underrated art of soundtrack curation

While an original score can capture the tone of a film, the proper placement of licensed songs can birth iconic moments that live beyond the film’s runtime

Though music and film are separate forms of art, they serve each other in extremely complementary ways. A song on its own can be great but pairing it with a sensational music video can be the difference between a great song and an iconic one. In the same way, a great film can stand on its own, but a quality soundtrack can bring that film to life in a very special way.

These aren’t musical scores I’m talking about. While those set the tone and capture the mood and emotions on the screen, they are made to do just that, as they’re created in conjunction with the film. What I’m talking about here are licensed soundtracks, a list of songs that existed on their own separately but were placed in a film and took on a new life as part of a character’s story.

There is a certain level of nuance and finesse to the art of soundtrack curation that goes almost completely under the radar when we discuss music in film. We give composers like Hans Zimmer and John Williams their credit for scoring films regularly, but rarely do the music supervisors and their departments get their respect for curating phenomenal soundtracks.

To be able to bring a character, their journey or even just a snapshot of that journey to life using pre-existing songs shows an understanding of their story beyond the surface level. It gives their character a certain tangibility — a feeling of realness and relatability that is missing when using a grand, orchestral score. It could be that the lyrical content fits the character or scene, or it could be an existing attachment to the songs. Either way, it brings a very human element to these characters and their stories.

When you look at some of the most memorable music moments in film, I’ve found that there are three different types of song placements: the setting-establisher, the character-developer, or the scene-carrier. While they can crossover, those are the three that I’ve found to be most common.

The setting-establisher is pretty self-explanatory, as it serves to establish the setting in which the movie takes place. This can be seen in the opening credits sequence of Richard Linklater’s 1993 coming-of-age film Dazed and Confused, with Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion.” The song begins as an orange Pontiac GTO slowly pulls into the parking lot of Lee High School on the last day of school in 1976 and continues over a montage of activities happening at the school.

This technique is useful, especially in this instance, as it not only establishes the setting both in time and geographically but also does a good job setting the tone for this movie. The opening, breezy guitar strings and Steven Tyler’s soft, smooth vocals are the perfect audio companion to the first day of summer the protagonists are about to experience.

The second type of placement, the character-developer, is a song used in a moment that is integral to a character, mainly the protagonist’s, journey. The use of the Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind” in David Fincher’s Fight Club is a prime example of this.

Though it’s the conclusion of the film, it is also the biggest moment in the narrator’s development, as he has overcome his dissociative personality and mental anguish. The song starts as the narrator and his love interest stare off into the exploding skyline, and as they watch he tells her, “You’ve met me at a very strange time in my life,” leading into the song’s first verse. It captures the chaotic mental state of the narrator extremely well, while also serving as an explosive closer to the film.

Finally, the scene-carriers are moments in which the song is the focal point of the scene, as the song is actually being listened to or played within the movie’s world. These are moments like “Bohemian Rhapsody” in Wayne’s World or “Tiny Dancer” in Almost Famous, where the characters are interacting with the song.

These moments are the ones in which a character becomes extremely relatable, where they are partaking in the enjoyment of something the viewer themselves enjoys in reality. Having a group of characters sing along to popular songs humanizes them in a very unique way. The viewer can’t help but join in by singing along, or at the very least by smiling as they grow more connected to the characters.

Not all moments of matching a song to a scene are successful though. Of course, when soundtrack curation is done right, we get iconic moments like those mentioned above, but when it’s done wrong, we get abominations like the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” scene in 2015’s Pan.

The film does a massive injustice to the classic song, working it into a cringeworthy pirate shanty, sung by a choir of children led by Hugh Jackman’s Hook. It’s a completely uncharacteristic use of the song that has no understanding of the characters in the movie or the song’s content.

One film that fully embraces and understands the importance of song placement within a film’s world and narrative is Marvel’s beloved space opera, Guardians of the Galaxy. When the film released in 2014, both the movie and its excellent soundtrack received heaps of praise.

The tracklist is comprised of a group of undeniably classic but never overplayed songs, from Blue Swede’s “Hooked on a Feeling” to Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love.” Every single song was worked into a scene and every placement was magic. The best part is that the songs that viewers heard as they watched their lovable protagonist’s journey, were the songs he was listening to with them.

The movie’s official soundtrack titled Awesome Mix Vol. 1, the name of the mixtape Chris Pratt’s character uses in the film, was a massive success. It went on to be one of the ten highest-selling albums of its release year and a top three best-selling vinyl album of the 2010s. While the Marvel brand is strong, and the songs on their own are fantastic, it was the perfect marriage between the film and the songs used that created such an enormous impact on pop culture.

That perfect marriage between scene and song is what makes licenced soundtracks so special. While a traditional movie score can be a beautiful orchestral piece in its own right, there is something about a well-curated soundtrack that makes a movie more relatable. To be able to take two completely separate things and combine them to create something special is no easy feat, and it should be recognized as the art that it is.


The power of Waves’ soundtrack

How Waves soundtrack elevates the film’s themes of teenage angst and depression

*Spoilers ahead*

The trailer for Trey Edward Shults’ film Waves scared me, initially. It was vague and cluttered with songs that most teens would compile into a generic Spotify playlist entitled “Vibes.” When I finally watched the movie last week, I was shocked. The movie wasn’t as corny as the trailer made it out to be and the soundtrack, to my surprise, elevated the film’s themes of teenage angst and depression.

The opening scene shows the protagonist Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) driving with his legs out on the freeway as his girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie) sings along to “FloriDada” by Animal Collective. The track encapsulates the ever-freeing sentiment of being a teenager in love.

In the first truly pivotal scene of the movie, Tyler receives news from Alexis that she’s planning on keeping a baby that they accidentally conceived not long before. After a failed attempt to convince her to get an abortion, “IFHY” from rapper Tyler, the Creator starts playing as the protagonist gets up off his chair and begins to trash his room.

There could not be a better song to go with the scene as Tyler’s newly-formed resentment to his now ex-girlfriend fits perfectly with the “IFHY” about hating then loving a woman he dreams to be with forever. The track bounces back and forth from soft melodies to an aggressive hook where he yells, “I fucking hate you, but I love you.”

The movie quickly switches courses when Tyler, who can’t cope with the idea that his girlfriend is seeing someone (she isn’t), goes out to a party that leads to his eventual arrest.

Unsurprisingly, Frank Ocean leaves his mark all over the A24-produced film. Many tracks off of his beautiful Blonde and Endless projects make their way onto the film, especially in the first half, with songs like “Mitsubishi Sony” and “Rushes” eerily pointing out what comes next in the heartbreaking film.

The second half of the movie deals with the aftermath of Tyler’s actions. Particularly, it focuses on Tyler’s sister Emily (Taylor Russell) and how her brother’s arrest has forever changed her life. She meets Tyler’s old teammate, Luke (Lucas Hedges) and falls in love with him. The second half also puts Frank Ocean’s Endless on the forefront as three tracks from the project play in succession.

The ending of the movie pairs Radiohead’s beautiful “True Love Waits” with Emily trying to make amends with her estranged mother. The two had a falling out after Tyler’s indictment and hadn’t spoken to each other until Emily sent a tear-jerking text that paved the way for a hopeful, yet still depressing ending.

Waves’ reliance on a 2010s-heavy soundtrack is a sign that the movie is for our generation. Frank Ocean, Kanye West, Tame Impala, and H.E.R., among many others, make their mark on the heavyweight film that will resonate with the youth more than it might with adults. The story is universal; everyone will understand it. The soundtrack, however, is a direct glimpse into how music affects our thoughts and actions.

Waves is for everyone, but really, Waves is for the kids.

Graphic by @sundaeghost.


Linking horror and synth

Analyzing Annihilation’s soundtrack and the unmitigated fear it produces while viewing

*Spoilers for the movie Annihilation

Annihilation is the first movie in a long time to actually scare me. The movie doesn’t use cheap jump scares; instead, it taps into our fear of the unknown, our anxieties around ideas beyond our reality and imagination. The soundtrack, by composer Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow of the band Portishead, extends these themes through its eerie sounds.

The movie centres around Lena, a biologist and former soldier in the United States army, masterfully played by Natalie Portman, who is trying to find answers about the mystery surrounding the disappearance of her husband (played by Oscar Isaac) and his sudden reappearance. Lena sets off, alongside a crew of experts, to explore an area called “The Shimmer” where her husband was sent as part of a covert military operation.

Many unexpected and reality-bending things happen inside The Shimmer: a person’s consciousness is folded into a bear’s body, trees shaped like people decorate the land, and the crew’s DNA mutates in inexplicable ways. Since the movie is cleverly written, none of it seems ridiculous. Everything feels grounded within the movie’s world.

Every scene inside The Shimmer feels deliberately tense. It had me questioning every plot point, and that’s an uncomfortable feeling. The music is mind-bending. It includes so many strange noises, and amplifies the emotions of every scene inside The Shimmer with shocking sounds.

My favourite scene is near the end of the movie, when Lena reaches the lighthouse from which The Shimmer originates. Dr. Ventress, a psychologist and leader of the crew, loses her senses and starts changing, transforming into a strange creature made of light and colours. Lena’s blood gets sucked into the multi-coloured void-creature, creating a featureless human-like figure that mimics Lena’s every move.

The evocative track “The Alien” plays during this part. The bass-heavy synth sounds are contorting and pulsating—I originally thought it was the sound of the creature talking. As the creature ominously mirrors Lena, the music becomes continually more layered—strings, a choir and ambient noises start getting mixed in. I was enthralled by this moment; the theatre’s sound system was blaring with all the enveloping sounds, and I could feel the seats shaking.

When Lena finally escaped from the lighthouse, I cherished the silence that came after. It made me feel safe. Great music utilizes loud sounds and silence effectively, using pockets of calm to bolster moments of raucous sounds. The silence creates a space for meditation and reflection.

Synthesizers used for the scenes inside The Shimmer sound simultaneously aggressive and passive. This dichotomy helps convey fear, because unlike string or other such instruments, synths don’t make sounds physically, but rather electronically. Playing a note on a synth produces electronic sounds, usually conducted through a electronic oscillator, unlike a physical object hitting a string.

Sci-fi and electronic music have almost become synonymous. Movies like Annihilation, Ex Machina and both Blade Runner movies revolve around a fear of technology and the exotic, so it’s no mistake they all feature synth-heavy soundtracks. Electronic sounds are unnaturally consistent, at least compared to acoustic instruments, creating a synthetic vibe and texture.

Blade Runner 2049 similarly uses synths to communicate fear. In 2049, people fear the Replicant population, sentient androids manufactured to have human-like abilities, because of an uprising a few years back. Replicants are socially marginalized and used for slave labour. The soundtrack, composed by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch, also uses loud synths to intensify the dystopian atmosphere, augmenting the movie’s themes. By the end, the music sounds melancholic and sweet.

Annihilation and its soundtrack resonated with me on a deep level. The film’s existential horror and ambiguity still have me thinking about the narrowness of human reality. The movie’s sci-fi trappings are elevated by great writing and an amazing soundtrack; it’s visually memorable, the characters are complicated, smart and subvert many genre clichés. The movie’s soundtrack transcends the sci-fi movie template, while retaining the memorable aspects that fans of the genre love.

The films asks many questions unexplored by other surface-level alien fiction: What if we can’t handle the reality of other species? What if alien species have no concept of good and evil? Should we question our sense of rationality? What makes us individuals? The movie never answers these questions, giving us room for interpretation and analysis. For now, I’ll listen to the memorable soundtrack and reflect about the meaning of Annihilation.

Graphic by Zeze Le Lin

Exit mobile version