Top 10 Rock Soundtracks
The films featured in this list of the Top 10 Rock Soundtracks aren’t just movies with great music. They are great movies because of how well that great music is employed within them. The movies below were made by filmmakers who might not have been musicians, but had an understanding of how a rock song can heighten a scene – transform it into something utterly terrifying or enhance the most sublime moment. As such, these flicks are not really “rock movies.” There’s no ‘The Last Waltz’ or ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ or ‘Woodstock’ or anything like that. They are feature films that display expert use of some of the best songs ever recorded. Both the scenes and the songs are better for being associated with each other.
When it comes to using rock in film, there’s no one better than Martin Scorsese. The director was among the first to use a rock and roll soundtrack to its full advantage, influencing most of the other filmmakers on this list of the Top 10 Rock Soundtracks, along with the folks who helmed TV shows such as ‘The Sopranos’ and ‘Breaking Bad.’ When it came to 2006’s Oscar-winning ‘The Departed,’ Marty proved he was still at the top of his game – working with frequent collaborator (and former Band member) Robbie Robertson to craft a soundtrack that included John Lennon, the Allman Brothers Band and, of course, the Rolling Stones. Scorsese has used ‘Gimme Shelter’ on more than one occasion, but never better than during this film’s prologue, which sets up Jack Nicholson’s Francis Costello as the nastiest of villains. Elsewhere, the Human Beinz’s rampaging ‘Nobody But Me’ underscores a Billy Costigan beatdown at a lunch counter and ‘Comfortably Numb’ (the live version featuring Roger Waters, Van Morrison and Robbie’s former Band mates) adds a mournful, epic sadness to the film.
‘Grosse Pointe Blank’
No less than the Clash’s Joe Strummer composed the score for this wry action-comedy, although that’s not why it’s on the list. ‘Grosse Pointe Blank’ features an emphatic mix of rock, ska, punk and New Wave – the kind of stuff you’d expect to hear at a “Class of ’86” reunion, if the DJ was as cool as John Cusack. In addition to two songs from the Clash, there’s ‘Absolute Beginners’ by the Jam, ‘Under Pressure’ by David Bowie and Queen and the slow-jam remix of Pete Townshend’s ‘Let My Love Open the Door.’ A classic scene finds Martin Blank (Cusack) in shock as he discovers his childhood home has been replaced by a convenience mart, to the yowling tune of Guns N’ Roses’ cover of ‘Live and Let Die.’ Even better – as Martin enters the store, the rocket-propelled recording turns into the Muzak version.
‘The Big Lebowski’
Before 1998’s ‘Lebowski,’ Joel and Ethan Coen had rarely used popular music in their films (and when you have the brilliant Carter Burwell as your composer, who can argue?). But for this tale of a ’60s-’70s burnout who stumbles into noir-ish circumstances, the brothers called upon T Bone Burnett to help them pair the right songs with their movie. And thus, the Dude (or El Duderino, if you’re not into the whole brevity thing) became a supremely musical being. His waking moments were soundtracked by Creedence Clearwater Revival tapes. His dreams became surreal fantasies scored by Bob Dylan (the soaring ‘The Man in Me’) and the grinding psychedelia of Kenny Rogers and the First Edition’s ‘Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In).’ Meanwhile, Jesus Quintana became a 10-minute film legend with the help of the Gipsy Kings’ flamenco take on ‘Hotel California.’ No wonder the Dude couldn’t stand the Jesus; he hates the f—ing Eagles, man.
If you didn’t expect this disco-drenched classic to appear on the Top 10 Rock Soundtracks, you might have forgotten that Paul Thomas Anderson’s first big hit was coated in classic rock, too. Eric Burdon and War’s ‘Spill the Wine’ is the perfect pool party song (both above and underwater), ‘Fooled Around and Fell in Love’ suits the hot tub after-party and ELO’s ‘Livin’ Thing’ closes the film – after Dirk Diggler reveals his own ‘Livin’ Thing.’ But two songs (Night Ranger’s ‘Sister Christian’ and Rick Springfield’s ‘Jessie’s Girl’) enhance one of the best scenes in cinema history. A coked-up Rahad Jackson (Alfred Molina) sings along to his mixtape and plays Russian roulette. Firecrackers pop intermittently and Dirk realizes the disaster his life has become – and barely escapes with it intact.
Cusack has a knack for being in movies with great music (see No. 9 on our list of the Top 10 Rock Soundtracks), and for the film adaptation of Nick Hornby’s novel about a record store owner, he was directly responsible. Cusack and his partners hand-selected 70 eclectic song cues, ranging from the ’60s to the late ’90s for 2000’s ‘High Fidelity.’ Rock is Rob Gordon’s first love and the movie soundtrack centers on both well-worn classics (Elton John‘s ‘Crocodile Rock,’ Queen‘s ‘We Are the Champions’) and hipper selections that would suit record store denizens (‘Mendocino’ by the Sir Douglas Quintet, ‘Suspect Device’ by Stiff Little Fingers). But the best moments often match Rob’s despair. His opening misery with the 13th Floor Elevators’ ‘You’re Gonna Miss Me,’ his mud-soaked embarrassment with Dylan’s ‘Most of the Time’ and his lovelorn depression with Bruce Springsteen’s ‘The River.’ Springsteen even makes a cameo in Rob’s head to give him a little advice.
The potent cocktail of Scorsese, rock and film means that you can never listen to the songs he chooses the same way. After seeing 1990’s ‘Goodfellas’ can you hear the opening bass riff to Cream’s ‘Sunshine of Your Love’ or the shimmying jangle of the Crystals’ ‘Then He Kissed Me’ or the Stones’ mysterious ‘Monkey Man’ and not think of this movie? Impossible! Not only is every song in ‘Goodfellas’ period-appropriate (something the director was careful to do), each offers the perfect complement to the action on screen. That ranges from the frenzied, intoxicated driving and the Who’s ‘Magic Bus’ (the ‘Live at Leeds’ version, naturally) to the elegiac coda to Derek and the Dominos’ ‘Layla’ as the corpses are revealed one by one.
Like Scorsese, director Wes Anderson has often used Stones tracks in his films and 1998’s ‘Rushmore’ was no exception, as it played Max Fischer’s (Jason Schwartzman) isolation against ‘I Am Waiting.’ Anderson originally planned to use solely Kinks songs for the film, then reconsidered and ended up calling upon a variety of tunes from the Kinks’ classic era to match the youthful exuberance of his protagonist. And so we get a look at Max’s multitude of hobbies to the Creation’s scorching ‘Making Time,’ Herman Blume (Bill Murray) and Max striking up a friendship to Lennon’s ‘Oh Yoko!’ then Herman and Max out-pranking each other to the Who’s titanic ‘A Quick One, While He’s Away.’ Anderson was so dead-set on using the epic track in the film, he even timed some of the actors’ performances in the montage to make sure the film and the music would work together seamlessly.
When film fans discuss the pictures that led to the freedom and excitement of ’70s moviemaking, they often discuss movies in which rock music played a prominent role: ‘A Hard Day’s Night,’ ‘The Graduate’ and ‘Easy Rider.’ This wild and wooly independent film features rock’s first great patchwork soundtrack, bringing together songs from various artists (some recently recorded, others new for the film) into a contiguous whole. Of course, everyone thinks of Billy and Captain America thundering along to the tune of Steppenwolf’s ‘Born to Be Wild’; it’s an iconic moment in pop culture. But the music of ‘Easy Rider’ (much of it assembled by editor Donn Cambern from his own LP collection) goes deeper to include the Band’s ‘The Weight’ as the boys zoom into Monument Valley and the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s ‘If 6 Was 9’ as they ride into small-town America. ‘The Ballad of Easy Rider,’ was even written for the film by the Byrds’ Roger McGuinn with help from Bob Dylan. The film, largely because of its soundtrack, remains a signpost for ’60s Americana.
‘Dazed and Confused’
If ‘Easy Rider’ is a postcard from 1968, ‘Dazed and Confused’ is a love letter to 1976 – and the key to Richard Linklater’s tribute is the era’s music. While anyone with a decent memory and enough music for licensing could have slapped together a scattershot soundtrack of old tunes, Linklater breathes new life into old (and sometimes overplayed) songs. The slow burn intro of Aerosmith’s ‘Sweet Emotion’ sets up the last day of school. Alice Cooper’s ‘School’s Out’ isn’t just appropriately placed, but given a new lease on menace as the incoming freshman attempt to dodge their initiation. Meanwhile, War’s ‘Why Can’t We Be Friends?’ is a cruel counterpart to the freshman girls’ food-infused humiliation. Every single music cue in ‘Dazed and Confused’ is “alright, alright, alright.”
The No. 1 entry in the Top 10 Rock Soundtracks plants a big, sloppy wet one on the music of the late ’60s and early ’70s. In ‘Almost Famous,’ writer-director Cameron Crowe is telling his story and, as a former journalist for Rolling Stone magazine, much of that story is about music. There are more than 50 songs Crowe selected for the film (though Led Zeppelin prevented him from using ‘Stairway to Heaven’) and he uses all of them to great effect. ‘Almost Famous’ should be shown in film schools to illustrate how to use music in a movie – from the spine-tingling anticipation of the fictional Stillwater’s ‘Fever Dog’ to Penny Lane’s (Kate Hudson) solitary dance to Cat Stevens’ ‘The Wind’ among the post-concert trash. The Who’s ‘Sparks’ is a suburban musical awakening, Rod Stewart’s ‘Every Picture Tells a Story’ is L.A. late night excitement, Zeppelin’s ‘Misty Mountain Hop’ is the daunting promise of New York City. And we haven’t even discussed the healing properties contained within a sing-along to Elton John’s ‘Tiny Dancer.’