The Greatest Movie Soundtracks Ever, Part 3: 1970-1979


Over the last few weeks, we’ve been working our way through the history of music in cinema, looking at some of the most influential film soundtracks and scores ever committed to tape. We started way back in the 1930s, and so far we’ve worked our way to the end of the 1960s; this time round, we look at the ‘70s, the decade of blaxploitation, Star Wars and plenty, plenty more. Read through our selections, and suggest your own, after the jump.

Shaft (1971)

As a genre, blaxploitation may well have been as stereotyped and exploitative as its name suggests, but boy, did it ever give rise to some awesome music. Shaft was one of the earliest blaxploitation films and defined many of the genre’s conceits – a crime-ridden ghetto of pimps and players, a larger-than-life black protagonist, and a killer soundtrack. Honestly, if you don’t get a little shiver when the porn-film flute melody drifts in over that scratchy wah-wah guitar and hi-hat pattern, you’ve got a stony, stony heart. (Best YouTube comment: “I had three kids to this song.”)

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Stanley Kubrick seemed to delight in using music in unexpected or counterintuitive contexts. The tradition perhaps started with “The Blue Danube” to accompany the docking sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but the most notorious examples came with A Clockwork Orange, where the music was integral to the plot –- ultraviolent protagonist Alex loves Beethoven, and is subsequently conditioned against the composer’s music to the extent that hearing it becomes physically painful. And, of course, A Clockwork Orange also provided one of cinema’s most harrowing moments, a scene of violence and gang rape made all the worse by the fact that it’s accompanied by Alex singing Gene Kelly’s jaunty “Singin’ in the Rain.”

The Harder They Come (1972)

Fun fact: we loved this soundtrack so much as a child that we played a vinyl copy of it to death. This record probably introduced more people outside Jamaica to reggae than anything apart from Bob Marley’s work, and its tracklist stockpiles a selection of Kingston’s finest talent of the early ‘70s -– Toots and the Maytals, Desmond Dekker and, of course, Jimmy Cliff, who played the lead role in the film. The Harder They Come itself may have dated somewhat, but nearly 40 years later, the soundtrack sounds as fresh as a morning breeze off the Caribbean.

The Godfather (1972)

As with the films, there’s an argument to be made that the soundtrack for The Godfather Part II is better the The Godfather, but nevertheless, we’re going with the original, which introduced the world to the series’ iconic theme music, composed by Nino Rota. (The theme was withdrawn from Oscar contention after someone pointed out that it shared a melody with the theme he had created for Eduardo De Filippo’s 1958 film Fortunella, thus making it not an “original score” for the purposes of the award. Oops. It’s still a classic, though.)

Super Fly (1972)

We could almost do an entire blaxploitation top 10 (in fact, we just might). But for now, we’ll confine ourselves to the best of the best, and they don’t get more epochal than Curtis Mayfield’s magnificent Super Fly -– it’s not just one of the greatest soundtracks of the ‘70s, it’s one of the greatest records, period. Everyone knows the classic “Pusher Man” and the title track, but there’s not really a bad song here, and throughout the grim lyrical depictions of drug-ridden ghettos and black-on-black crime are somehow leavened by Mayfield’s silken vocals. It’s also been sampled to death in the years since, another measure of just how influential it was.

Jaws (1975)

This film -– and that music -– is basically why everyone is irrationally terrified of sharks. “Is it true that most people get attacked by sharks in three feet of water about ten feet from the beach?” NO! IT ISN’T!

Star Wars (1977)

And, of course, we need to mention John Williams’ other classic score from the 1970s: Star Wars. Those iconic receding credits, the theme music that everyone at primary school could hum until it went weird and the violins came in… This is the sound of our childhood right here, and also one of the finest marriages of music and visuals that cinema has ever produced.

Don (1978)

If you know anything at all about Indian cinema, you’ll know that Amitabh Bachchan is its biggest star and has been for nearly four decades, enjoying near-demigod status on the subcontinent. Don was his defining role and a defining moment in ’70s Bollywood, a gangster flick for the ages that was accompanied by an awesome soundtrack. Indian composers have never been averse to looking to Hollywood for “inspiration,” and there’s a definite blaxploitation/’60s spy movie influence on the music in Don, but it has a charm all its own. Sadly, we couldn’t find an embeddable version of the music in the film itself, but search YouTube for plenty of Don action -– in particular, the film’s opening scene is possibly the best thing ever, especially because of the endearingly silly special effects.

Days of Heaven (1978)

Before the 1970s, the astonishingly prolific Ennio Morricone was largely known to audiences outside of his native Italy for his scores to countless spaghetti westerns –- and most notably, of course, for his work with Sergio Leone. As the decade went on, however, the range of his talents became clear –- he collaborated with Joan Baez for Sacco e Venzetti, scored films as diverse as the original La Cage aux Folles, Exorcist II, and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s notorious Salo, worked in television and produced upwards of ten soundtracks a year. And finally, the US establishment recognized him as the decade drew to an end, nominating his score for Terence Malick’s Days of Heaven for an Academy Award. (We could also have mentioned the score to Malick’s other 1970s film Badlands here, by the way –- he doesn’t make many films, but when he does, the music is always great.)

Apocalypse Now! (1979)

Another film whose atmosphere is inextricably linked with its music. Apocalypse Now! fairly bursts with memorable musical moments -– The Doors’ “The End” in the film’s opening sequence, The Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” as a soldier waterskis down the river, and most famously, the use of Richard Wagner’s “The Ride of the Valkyries” to soundtrack the wholesale destruction of a Vietnamese village. As with A Clockwork Orange, the music forms part of the plot in the later scene, being used to intimidate the villagers as the attack commences (shades of Guantánamo Bay, anyone?). Classic film, classic music, classic everything.

Next time: the 1980s!