Once upon a time movies were silent and a pianist or organist would play popular songs of the day or improvise as an accompaniment to the film. In major metropolitan areas an entire orchestra would sometimes play.
Then in 1927 The Jazz Singer became the first feature length, commercially viable film to break the sound barrier by using a synchronized recorded musical score that also contained segments of speech and singing to which the actors lip-synced. Hence the “soundtrack” was born. Some ten years later, Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs became the first soundtrack to be marketed and sold.
There have been many groundbreaking soundtracks since with original scores that are engraved into our popular culture. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, The Godfather, Star Wars, Jaws, Psycho and Blade Runner are just a few such examples off the top of my head. These are the caviar of soundtracks. (Don’t worry, this is my one and only culinary metaphor per this post.)
The following examples are hardly that fru fru. (Not that fru fru is a bad thing. That’s what I named my Pomeranian/Blue Heeler mix.) In fact, the following are not scores at all (original music composed for a specific movie) but what are called “needle drops”–pop tunes used in the soundtrack to enhance a dramatic sequence.
And yes, Easy Rider should definitely be here–it is the father of the modern area pop/rock infused soundtrack–but I have a personal bias against the film, i.e., I just don’t like it. Goodfellas, Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction should represent as well, for these films contain needle drops that are truly the best of the best and, consequently, are on everybody’s list. That’s precisely the reason I’ve omitted them (but mad props, just the same.) So now, with much ado and hubris, my top five needle drops from thriller complimentary genres:
5. Jackie Brown – 1997
My favorite Tarantino film. Intimate, engaging, at times even lush, it is chock full of killer needle drops like when Melanie (Bridget Fonda should have won an Oscar for this) is riding Louis (Robert De Niro) hard about being a little on the slow side. They pull into a parking lot and Louis turns off the key and with it the great golden oldie from The Grass Roots, Midnight Confessions. They go about their business and return to the parking lot. Melanie’s still goin’ at it. The way she hisses his name–Lou-issss–mocking his manhood and his criminal bonafides, ratcheting up the tension until he can’t stand it anymore; until he pulls out a handgun and drops her like a hot brick. Then he gets back in the VW bus and fires it up. Midnight Confessions kicks back in picking up where he and Melanie left off mid jam, only without Melanie of course.
4.Blackboard Jungle – 1955
An earthshaking feature film with aftershocks that reverberated around the world, Blackboard Jungle was the first film to use a rock song in it’s soundtrack. The song–Bill Haley and the Comets Rock around the Clock with exclusive sound score drum solo, played during the opening credits, graphics flashing upon a blackboard–drew in hordes of teenagers who’d never heard anything like it. And what a song. The count off–one o’clock, two o’clock, three o’clock rock—the jaw dropping guitar hammer-on solo and the raucous, rockabilly beat soaked in rhythm and blues, inspired dancing in the isles and rioting in theaters where Blackboard Jungle played across the U.S. and Europe. The birth of rock and roll rebellion. The actual movie’s pretty good too.
3. Apocalypse Now – 1979
There are several iconic needle drops in Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam War epic, most notably the helicopter fleet assault on a Vietcong village to Ride of the Valkyries by Wagner. But for me the seminal sequence is the USO stage show. Once again there is a helicopter. It hovers over a grandiose floating stage while hundreds of inebriated soldiers cheer uproariously. The helicopter lands and a slick promoter hops out onto the stage. He grabs a mic and starts working the crowd. A band lays down a woozy, heavy on the reverb cover version of Dale Hawkins’ Susie Q as scantily clad playmates disembark from the helicopter. The playmates bump and grind wantonly, clumsily to the thudding bass. They straddle and hump M16 rifles in an uninspired display of sensuality. They leer and dangle their wares as far downstage as they can get without falling off. The starving, indiscriminate troops teeter on the brink mobocracy while desensitized villagers stare at the spectacle through a chain linked fence. And then a soldier jumps on stage.
2. Mean Streets – 1973
In terms of landmark significance and the elevation of the needle drop to an art form, Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets should rank number one; here (yes I’m going there and I’m not asking for permission) or on any such list. The opening scene is unquestionably brilliant. In roughly two and half minutes, the length of The Ronettes Be My Baby which thunders as the buoyant theme to a grainy, self aggrandizing home movie, the story of Charlie–a young, aspiring wiseguy–is told as the opening credits roll. In this scene we see him (Harvey Kitel) nattily dressed with perfectly coiffed hair, making his neighborhood rounds, glad-handing men of questionable means and character, kissing babies and elderly women and posing on the church steps with his priest. All is as happy and perfect as the Ronettes lyrical song. And as fleeting.
1. Boogie Nights – 1997
With music from artist such as ELO, The Emotions, Sniff ‘n’ the Tears and War, the Boogie Nights soundtrack represents a curious window of time, late 70s through early 80s, when everybody was doing it in every conceivable way; when cocaine was thought to be relatively harmless despite enormous evidence to the contrary and, yet, there was still a pervasive, wide-eyed innocence that could be exploited to the max. These are the times of Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg), a well endowed porn star straight out of high school who, through a series of mishaps, winds up on the couch of a coke crazed millionaire in bikini briefs and a wide open silk robe. Now this guy loves (and I do mean loves) mix tapes. While he hits the freebase pipe, his mix tape blares–dun dun dun–Night Ranger’s Sister Christian. As the crescendo builds he air drums manically, passionately. Normally this would just be lame, but here it is unsettling because Dirk and a couple of his buddies have conspired to sell the dude a large plastic bag of baking powder despite his–Rahad’s his name (Alfred Molina)–bandying about a huge revolver, albeit playfully. Even more disturbing, a weird teenage boy unceremoniously lights firecrackers and then throws them onto the carpeted floor, over and over again. Those of us who partied hearty in the 80s pretty much agree–no good can come of this.