Because of streaming services and a steady diet of podcasts I rarely purchase new music. Until recently, I also have never bought a Kendrick Lamar album. I’m glad I did both.
When I walked out of the theater after seeing “Black Panther” during its opening weekend in February I knew I needed the music. But I didn’t buy the amazing score that swept me away to the world of Wakanda. Instead, I got the soundtrack that was barely in the movie.
I wasn’t the only one, as Kendrick Lamar’s collaboration with SZA, The Weeknd, and others spent three weeks at number one on the Billboard 200 chart. It was the first soundtrack since 2014’s “Frozen” to maintain that record. Before that the title belonged to “High School Musical 2” and “Bad Boys II” and something tells me those weren’t as critically-acclaimed as the other two.
The album is the latest example showing that movies now premiere the best music. Everyone who is anyone is making an original song for a movie nowadays. Just look at the recent nominees for the Academy Awards’ category of the same name.
There are the perennial musicals and kid-friendly movies whose appearance are a given. Pixar and Dreamworks have “Coco,” “Trolls” and “Moana.” Studios also adapt musicals like “Les Miserable” and creating new ones like “The Greatest Showman.”
What’s shocking, however, is how the even more ‘standard movies’ are frequently entering the ring. Sufjan Stevens performed for “Call Me by Your Name,” Mary J. Blige contributed to “Mudbound” in more ways than one and “Selma” showed off the powerful voices of Common and John Legend. Best of all, they don’t save the tracks to play solely over the credits as people walk out the door. Non-musical movies are essentially musicals now.
These songs truly are original and are a different phenomenon than popular artists releasing original instrumental scores. For example, Daft Punk’s “Tron: Legacy” and Tom Morello’s work on “Pacific Rim” don’t count.
While the soundtracks are good, I’m likewise not referring to those that use licensed music. Indie darlings are famous, or infamous, for essentially creating college radio stations within their charming and quirky titles. “Garden State,” “500 Days Of Summer,” and "Juno,” feature The Shins, Feist, Kimya Dawson and more. Then there are ever-popular classics like “Easy Rider,” “Forest Gump,” and “The Graduate” that fill one's ears with oldies.
Blurring the lines are the traditional gospel and bluegrass songs of “Oh Brother Where Art Thou” and Bob Dylan’s catalog in “I’m Not There.” Both use cover the vintage songs with modern recordings. Similarly, Wes Anderson’s “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou” has a fair number of songs by David Bowie but there’s also Seu Jorge covering them in Portuguese while acting as a member of the ship.
It takes skill to compile a stellar playlist, don’t get me wrong, but composing work whole cloth that embodies the movie is something else entirely.
The trend can trace its fresh history back to the success of “The Hunger Games” franchise. Each installment in the trilogy released with a new album that had songs inspired by films. First it had lesser-known artists like Carolina Chocolate Drops and Glen Hansard but then Coldplay and Lorde joined in on the fun. “Scott Pilgrim” is a bit of a hodgepodge as it uses licensed tracks, but for the movie’s bands duking it out on stage Beck and Metric lent their talents. Another one of my favorite film soundtracks is “Into The Wild,” where Eddie Vedder shed his grunge roots for moving ukulele melodies.
Going back further in time gives us Sum 41 and Alien Ant Farm in “Spider-Man” while the 90s graced us with Will Smith rapping for “Men In Black” and R. Kelly in “Space Jam.”
Songs have been in cinema practically since the founding of Hollywood. They’re important to set the tone as much as the script or cinematography. Now, though, the movies are a little more Broadway. It’s show time.