Daaaaa dum. Daa dum. Daa dum. Daa dum.
Yes, that's right! Jaws.
That sound, those notes captured the impact of an entire film in a matter of seconds and, that summer season, made people look a bit harder at the water before they dove into a wave. That's what a good soundtrack does. It sticks with you. It encompasses in a phrase, passage or song the feelings, images and moments of great (and not so great) films.
Sound has been a unique part of movies since a pianist, organist or small orchestra provided live accompaniment. Then, before talkies, the live music filled in the blanks, offered context, enhanced conflict, moved the story. The advent of sound on film in the late 1920s gave filmmakers a new bag of toys they could use to add depth and dimension to their films, and gave movie moguls more opportunities to make money. Within a few years after its introduction, virtually every studio in Hollywood used sound in movies. The soundtrack became as important as the pictures.
As with most things, the desire to do something new and different (which any self-respecting filmmaker claims as their birthright) pushed the development of audio technology. The more you could do, the more you want to do. Postproduction audio became an industry. Yet another lexicon was created. One of the terms still in use is MOS. The story goes that a German director (I know somebody out there probably knows this guy's name), when asked about the setup for the next shot, said, "Vee shoot this mit out sound." (Add the politically correct German accent of your choice.) It stuck.
Soundtracks evolved with the medium. In fact, computer-based production techniques were more readily available in postproduction audio equipment. George Lucas' THX system came well before the Industrial Light & Magic dynasty. But enough background.
The soundtrack still does what it did in the beginning: enhance the power of the words and pictures, and move the pace of the storytelling. While there's now a distinction between the soundtrack and the score, and the score and the song, and sound design and composing, the end result, when done well, should be invisible to the viewer, organic to the film, but with still enough of an impact that it lasts well beyond the theater.
Those Disney films of the 50s and 60s always had a tune you'd be humming as you walked out of the theater. The Pink Panther theme has had legs for years. The opening riff of the Stones' "Gimme Shelter" still brings back those images of intensity and anarchy from that film. The shrieking violins from Psycho made that movie even scarier. The soundtrack in most of Hitchcock's films only made the moment creepier, scarier and more uncomfortable.
But aside from the impact the soundtrack has on the film itself, Hollywood loves a good soundtrack. Soundtracks bring in millions of dollars in ancillary sales. Just look at O Brother, Where Art Thou? -- album of the year. Or The Big Chill, with those early 30-something baby boomers shaking their booties to the Motown sound. Or Star Wars, which eventually spawned that wonderfully over-the-top lounge-lizard version Bill Murray did on Saturday Night Live. Or Forrest Gump. Or The Commitments.
Not every film soundtrack deserves an album of the same name. Often a mundane script gets made because it's packaged with songs that will get airplay on Top 40 radio -- like if they made a film like My Dinner with Andre, Redux with a soundtrack featuring 'NSYNC or Brittany Spears. More often than those moguls would like to admit, the soundtrack can make the difference in a film's profitability.
The ability to have a soundtrack made movie stars out of performers who were known first because of their voices. Al Jolson -- who, if memory serves, starred in the first talking picture, singing "Mammy," no less -- started the trend. And singers from Bing Crosby to Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin to Ice Cube followed in his wake. Is it possible that Elvis was the originator of the concept album with the soundtracks of his movies? And certainly A Hard Day's Night and Help worked to solidify the Beatles' worldwide success.
Speaking of the Beatles, we haven't even gone near concert-film soundtracks. That ever-expanding top 10 list has to include Stop Making Sense, The Last Waltz, Woodstock, Monterey Pop, Don't Look Back and Rattle and Hum. And is it possible to talk about soundtracks without mentioning Jerry Goldsmith or Bernard Hermann or Hans Zimmer or John Williams or Mark Isham? (I know I'm overlooking your favorite. My bad.)
A quick look at the pop charts (or Amazon) these days shows that sound- tracks for Lord of the Rings, Moulin Rouge, Vanilla Sky, O Brother and I Am Sam, to name but a few, are doing business. And so it goes.
The soundtrack is the final step in film production. It's generally (it is hoped) the last thing you do before you cut the negative. A time to pay attention to minutiae. A time to be meticulous. Later, in the theater watching a movie, the soundtrack can be what one remembers most. Like the song that defined a summer, or that year in college, or the person you married. You remember it forever. *