Movies without music would be like a lightbulb without electricity- pretty to look at, but wholly uninspiring. Music has the ability to translate the multitude of emotions every cinematic scene offers into sound and feeling. Good music almost becomes tangible. It captivates audiences, oftentimes without them even noticing. Romance scenes feel more romantic with the croon of an acoustic guitar. Triumph tastes sweeter with the steady, heroic beat of a drum. When sound and rhythm are timed and catered to striking visuals, the result is awe-inspiring brilliance— or in other words, a good film.
In celebrating the magic of music in film, we’re taking a look at 5 films with the best soundtracks of all time. Films whose message and vision were brought to life through a string of musical notes, and films that would be entirely incomplete without their accompanying soundtracks.
Do the Right Thing (1989)
Written, directed and starred in by Spike Lee, Do the Right Thing is a seminal piece of cinema, with just as seminal of a soundtrack. Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power”, which was written for the film, plays during its opening credits roll and is very much the theme song of this film. It plays about 15 times, blaring from Radio Raheem’s (Bill Nunn) boombox throughout important moments in the rest of the film. This song is so incredibly enmeshed in the films main point- the anger, the desperation and the injustice that bleeds in every scene of Lee’s film is perfectly encompassed by this one song.
In addition to “Fight the Power”, there is a beautiful slew of punchy tunes that capture the essence of city summer’s, like Teddy Riley and Guy’s “My Fantasy”, and “Party Hearty” by E.U that pair with the rising racial tensions and eventual climax of the film. The music is paired so purposefully with scenes from the film. “Don’t Shoot Me” by Take 6 plays in direct reference to the iconic moment between a gentrifier and one of the film’s most important characters, Buggin’ Out, the lyrics “don’t shoot me, I didn’t mean to step on your sneaker” sound like they were written for this scene. Paired with all the golden era hip-hop is a jazz score conducted and composed by Bill Lee, Spike Lee’s father. The lovely juxtaposition between the score and the soundtrack makes audiences swelter with emotion, we are somehow made to feel excited, angry and so deeply sad all at once.
Dazed & Confused (1993)
Written and directed by Richard Linklater, this film is a classic coming-of age story, and is regarded as the teenage rock’n’roll film. Linklater uses music in this film to create a sense of atmosphere- every song sounds like it belongs, every song sounds like it should be playing as the group of characters experience their adventures, and every song makes them all look so damn cool.
As a film about rebellious teenage adventure, it’s only fitting the soundtrack be riddled with solid rock’n’roll oldies. Much like rap today, rock’n’roll was the anthem of rebellion in the 70’s. Some of the oldies featured in this film took tens of thousands of dollars to license. Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane”, which plays as Wooderson (Matthew McConaughey), Pink (Jason London), and Mitch (Wiley Wiggins) saunter through the local teen hang spot, The Emporium, in slow-mo cost $80,000 to license. If the hefty price tag isn’t a clear indicator of Linklater’s passion for the soundtrack of this project, let it be known the director made mixtapes of songs for each cast member composed of tunes he felt their character would like, to help get them in the right headspace—an ode to the thoughtfulness put into this film’s soundtrack. It’s truly timeless.
Kill Bill Volumes 1 & 2 (2003, 2004)
Written and directed by Hollywood heavyweight Quentin Tarantino, Kill Bill Volumes 1 & 2 do not disappoint on any front. Tarantino manages to splash together musical genres from across the board in these two films, with pieces from Luis Bacalov’s somber, haunting combination of strings and harmonica to the uncontrollable, groovy thrust of Isaac Hayes’ “Run Fay Run”. The music swings wildly and abruptly, much like Beatrix Kiddo’s sword brandishing, it looks to be uncontrolled and accidental, but each stroke, each note is purposefully and masterfully timed and executed.
Tarantino’s ability to juxtapose music to visuals is particularly striking in the fight scene between Black Mamba (Uma Thurman) and Cotton Mouth (Lucy Liu), Santa Esmeralda’s “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” plays underneath. With its trilling guitar, and sharp horns this dance song sets the pace for the sword fight. The song is playful and the fight is somber- the contrast of the heavy emotions paired with light music, accompanied by a fight set under a starry, snowy sky, creates one of the most masterful fight scenes in recent cinematic history- both visually and auditory striking. The entire film is bits of music Tarantino has floating around in his mind, all cut together, it shouldn’t make sense, but it does, and that’s an ode to Tarantino’s ability to find and curate cherished bits of music to pair with beautifully shot scenes.
Straight Outta Compton (2015)
An origin story of N.W.A, you’d expect this film to have a killer soundtrack, and it most definitely does not disappoint. Directed by F. Gary Gray, the film tracks the history of the infamous hip-hop group N.W.A, who revolutionized hip-hop culture with their music. Starring O’Shea Jackson Jr (Ice Cube), Corey Hawkins (Dr. Dre), Jason Mitchell (Eazy-E), Neil Brown Jr (DJ Yella), Aldis Hodge (MC Ren), the film is a collection of some of the most influential hip-hop songs of the 80’s and 90’s, contextualizing them and giving viewers insight into their origin.
The film captures heartbreaking moments that are translated into powerful music for each of the members. The performance of the the groups infamous “Fuck Tha Police” during the last day of their concert in Detroit, despite their contract forbidding them from performing it, is executed and played beautifully. The scene, which ends with the group being rushed by police and arrested, captures all the emotions that song carried for the members and those who it resonates with. It speaks to the message of the film, and the music N.W.A made- the demand for the voices of the marginalized to be heard, even if people in power are not receptive. A message that carries the same significance with marginalized groups today as it did when the song was made and performed.
Baby Driver (2017)
Baby Driver, written and directed by Edgar Wright follows the life of a young music lover, Baby (Ansel Elgort), who is indebted to a crime lord that has enlisted him as a getaway driver to pay off the debt. Baby’s getaway driving is timed to the second with songs that play throughout the film. Of the 30-plus songs on the film’s soundtrack, Wright lets majority play out in close to, or full, length. The entire film is infused with its soundtrack. In fact, Wright says that the inspiration for the film came to him when he was young, listening to The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s track “Bellbottoms”, where he visualized a car chase scene set to the music. He imagined a story to go along with a song, rather than a song to go along with a story. The film includes rock classics from Queen and Golden Earring, and also includes some vintage throwback songs that offer a different style from artists like Beck, Barry White and the Beach Boys.
Wright uses music to let audiences think and feel like Baby must as he makes his risky getaways, as he meets the love of his life, as he nearly dies. Audiences sometimes hear music move from omnipresent noise to Baby’s headphones, or Baby’s car radio. The soundtrack goes above and beyond in this film. Wright had storyboards cut to the songs to time it all out and make sure that it worked. It was reverse-engineering in many ways, and the care and thought put into the music is not all lost on audiences.
In film, music leaves an impression, and these 5 films exemplify just that. Music is a way to tell a story, and stir emotion, powerfully and subliminally. Simply put, movies just wouldn’t be movies without music.