There are a couple of different ways to think about what makes a great movie soundtrack. One, of course, is to assess the quality of original music — though this tends to fall more under the scores category (save for original musicals like La La Land). Another is to lean into films that are praised for their inclusion of popular or critically acclaimed music. But perhaps the best way to assess a great soundtrack — even if it’s thoroughly subjective — is to determine whether it enhances the film and proves memorable in the long run.
There’s not really a great way to articulate the phenomenon, but some film soundtracks just work, even if they’re comprised of seemingly random collections of music that isn’t particularly noteworthy in the eyes of the broader music community. These are the ones that have always stood out to me, which is why I’m taking a look back at some of the best film soundtracks to have thrived without hits.
Dumb & Dumber (1994)
Again, judging soundtracks in this particular manner is highly subjective. But for me, Dumb & Dumber will always be the Holy Grail of soundtracks that inexplicably just work. It’s been nearly 30 years since this iconic goofball comedy was released, and I still feel as if a single note from any one song on the soundtrack will take me right back into the Shaggin’ Wagon alongside our dear, dumb friends Harry and Lloyd.
It’s a soundtrack full of bands that are at best somewhat recognizable to certain audiences. There are the Crash Test Dummies, whose appropriately titled “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mm” is perhaps the film’s most memorable tune. There are The Primitives, whose version of “Crash” is somewhat ironically the perfect road trip song in the movie. There’s even a track from the lovably named Butthole Surfers. But for the most part it’s a mishmash of little-known misfit artists, with the sole exception of Roy Orbison (whose “Oh Pretty Woman” is used). And somehow it’s the most pleasant, perfectly fitting, and memorable soundtrack of my lifetime. Granted, it helps that I watched Dumb & Dumber about a thousand times growing up.
Good Will Hunting (1997)
Good Will Hunting offers a very different soundtrack, and one that I almost disqualified from this list. There are some original compositions (by the great Danny Elfman) includedd, and Al Green’s “How Can You Mend A Broken Heart” features as well. Whether or not that qualifies as a “hit” probably depends on your generation, but it’s certainly not obscure. The reason I kept Good Will Hunting in this conversation though is that what makes the soundtrack memorable and special is the work of Elliott Smith.
Smith is a single artist most didn’t know when this film came out, and whose music completely and permanently elevated the film. As a Boston Magazine write-up on Smith and the film put it, the artist stole the show despite the Elfman’s excellent scoring work. His “spare, heartfelt songs” comprise the bulk of he soundtrack, and the one original song he wrote for Good Will Hunting — “Miss Misery” — was nominated for an Oscar. It’s stellar work, and it makes this soundtrack one of my favorite (mostly) hit-free examples to turn to.
Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989)
Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure is a bit of a cult classic at this point, though I have to say I adore the bizarre, twisted journey it’s been on over the years. The film made $40 million on a $6.5 million budget back in 1989! It helped to launch Keanu Reeves to stardom, and spawned both TV spinoffs and sequel films (one of which came out just last year). Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure also led to video games on the likes of Game Boy and NES, and many years later was highlighted in a Gala Spins article on films behind popular games as one of a number of movies to have inspired their own online slot machines. And if all of that weren’t enough, Bill and Ted were also adapted into comics — at both DC and Marvel!
You won’t find too many films with journeys quite so rollicking as that one. Through all of the endurance and adaptation though — from TV to comics, from Game Boy to online slots, and right up to the 2020 sequel — it’s the original soundtrack that really sticks with me. Tracks from the likes of Extreme (“Play With Me”), Tora Tora (“Dancing With A Gypsy”), Big Pig (“I Can’t Break Away”) and Power Tool (“Two Heads Are Better Than One”) comprise an absolutely perfect blend of pop, funk, and classic rock for a late-‘80s sci-fi spoof. There just aren’t many soundtracks that embody their films more effectively.
Baby Driver (2017)
I’m going to wrap this up with Baby Driver, which is a film I had in my head as a soundtrack that was jam-packed with hits. Director Edgar Wright gets a lot of attention for his use of music in film, and this was one project that was basically about that use of music. It was an action film in which the protagonist wore headphones and the events taking place on screen were set to the beats, almost like one long music video. There was so much chatter about all of this when Baby Driver came out that I initially got the wrong impression.
The reality? There aren’t many big hits or conventionally popular songs in this film, with just a few exceptions. Rather, as Variety’s review of the soundtrack described it, this is simply a “music nerd’s dream.” Yes, there are tracks by Queen, The Beach Boys, and Simon & Garfunkel on the track list. But the memorable bursts of audio that pace the film and give it depth are songs like Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s “Bellbottoms” (which basically sets off the action) and Focus’s “Hocus Pocus” (applied to a chase and shootout in maybe the most memorable use of a song in film in 10 years). Baby Driver is a bizarre film that works better than it should, almost solely because of how these “music nerd” tracks help it along.
There are plenty more soundtracks than these that I cherish and revisit often. But these are the ones that stand out for having matched their films flawlessly and gotten the job done without relying on hits.
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