Think about the last soundtrack to a movie or television show you bought and listened to. Soundtracks to musicals don’t count. Neither do the soundtracks to programs about singers or musicians, fictitious or otherwise. And I mean really listened to. Like, the CD is still in your car or it’s one of your most played albums on your iPod. It’s probably been a while right?
It shouldn’t be that way. Though we say we “watch” films and TV, we don’t just watch it. We hear the dialogue, sound effects and musical accompaniment. So why do we limit our enjoyment to one sense?
It’s partly because most scores are trying not to be noticed. There can’t be an absence because silence is a powerful tool and must be used sparingly. Yet the music can’t be distractingly boisterous. We’re then left with a little more than white noise.
Not much thought is given to licensed music, which are songs played by real bands, either. Most is just a sampling of what the music supervisor listens to in their spare time.
To be clear, I’m not disregarding all award-winning soundtracks and composers. In this case I don’t think the idiom “too much of a good thing” applies.
In recent memory I can only think of a few films with a standout score. The thriller “Drive” has a pulsating 80s-themed soundtrack that channels the ambiance of the neon pink opening credits and flashing city lights. With “Tron: Legacy,” the French electronic duo Daft Punk gave life to ones and zeros. They could have taken the easy way out and rehashed the score to the original film but instead they created a work that transcends it. Ramin Djawadi, best known for his work on “Iron Man” and “Game of Thrones,” crafted the perfect music for robots epically battling monsters in Guillermo Del Toro’s “Pacific Rim.”
One can usually count on the latest Wes Anderson and Quentin Tarantino flicks to be aurally pleasing, too. But because of the popularity of Hans Zimmer’s work in “The Dark Knight” and “Inception,” we’ve been inundated with bland copycats. I can only listen to the same gloomy cords in a different film so many times.
Arguably one of the greatest licensed soundtracks is James Gunn’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” mixtape. From the first trailer everyone instantly fell in love with Blue Swede’s “Hooked on a Feeling.” What made it work was that it was diegetic—it existed in the film’s reality. Each classic song was on a cassette tape that Peter Quill received from his mother. The soundtrack became its own character while adding to Quill’s personality.
Yet while those are fantastic, it’s even rarer to like a soundtrack to a TV show. They exist, but it’s only a handful. Michael Giacchino’s score to “Lost” made each trek up a mountain majestic and grand. The licensed songs in “Mad Men” and “Fargo” accurately set the time periods. The Scottish post-rock band Mogwai composed haunting melodies for “Les Revenants,” a show about people coming back from the dead.
However, there is now the wonderful “Luke Cage” on Netflix. So far, each of Marvel’s shows on Netflix is easily categorized into an iconic genre. “Jessica Jones” is noir and “Daredevil” is a martial arts movie. Though the licensed tracks are predominately hip-hop, “Luke Cage” is undoubtedly a western.
Adrian Younge and A Tribe Called Quest’s Ali Shaheed Muhammad co-produced a score that’s rife with references to Ennio Morricone’s work in “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” and similar titles. When a character enters a scene it feels like they walked into the saloon and is ready to rumble.
However, the show takes place in modern day Harlem. In the brownstone barbershop Cage reads works by Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison and other Harlem Renaissance notables. Details are thoughtfully placed in the set to flesh out Cage and his compatriots.
Like “Guardians of the Galaxy,” also made by Marvel, there’s quite a bit of diegetic sound. About once per episode a variety of soul, hip-hop and funk bands play in the nightclub owned by the antagonist Cottonmouth.
The third episode has a five-minute fight scene choreographed to the entirety of Wu-Tang Clan’s “Bring da Ruckus.” The song wasn’t chosen just because the show’s producers are fans, but because Cage is a fan. He picked it before putting on his headphones.
During times of silence music still plays a role. Right in the middle of Cottonmouth’s lounge is a giant painting of rapper Biggie Smalls wearing his signature crown. You know exactly why he hung that painting there and why he always stands by it.
“Daredevil” and “Jessica Jones” focus on Hell’s Kitchen, but “Luke Cage” is Harlem through and through.
I applaud Younge and Muhammad for constructing such a thoroughly realized universe where music has a voice. I hope others take note.
This column was originally published in the October 12, 2016 edition of the Valley Courier.