The Greatest Movie Soundtracks Ever, Part 4: 1980-1989


Ah, the 1980s. They’ve got a pretty rotten musical reputation, and as far as film music goes, at least, it’s largely well deserved. This was the decade that soundtrack albums became big business – the decade when ultra-commercial songs from the likes of Footloose, St Elmo’s Fire, Top Gun, and Dirty Dancing were a constant fixture on Casey Kasem’s American Top 40, and Kenny Loggins made a tidy living. But still, there was room for some genuinely innovative and interesting scores and soundtracks to be made – as we discover in the latest installment of Flavorpill’s soundtrack series.

Blade Runner (1982)

One of the all-time classic film soundtracks, Vangelis’ suitably futuristic score for Blade Runner made heavy use of the short-lived and ultra-rare Yamaha CS-80 to create one of the most instantly recognizable and atmospheric synth sounds ever. (If you can find a CS-80 these days, it’ll cost you upwards of $10k, or more if it’s in good condition.) Despite the music’s iconic status, for some reason it took over a decade for a proper soundtrack album to be released – the studio inexplicably opted to release an album of “orchestral interpretations” instead, finally rectifying the mistake in 1994.

Koyaanisqatsi (1982)

The wordless and image-heavy Koyaanisqatsi was a startlingly innovative and singular piece of work when it was released in 1982 – and, indeed, so it remains. The film’s “visual tone poem” was accompanied by a similarly evocative and widescreen score by Philip Glass, which he released as a stand-alone record in 1983, and which remains one of his best-known works.

Beat Street (1984)

One of the first and greatest hip hop films, Beat Street featured cameos from luminaries like Grandmaster Melle Mel and Afrika Bambaata, and also featured a killer two-volume soundtrack album that was instrumental in bringing the sound of the street to a wider audience, both in America and overseas. Both of the aforementioned acts are present on the soundtrack, along with a wide variety of other early hip hoppers. Like the film itself, it’s a fascinating throwback to a time before hip hop culture was the globe-conquering commercial behemoth it is today.

Purple Rain (1984)

Released at the apogee of Prince’s stardom, the soundtrack to Purple Rain remains one of his greatest moments, home to “Let’s Go Crazy” and “When Doves Cry,” along with the PMRC-baiting “Darling Nikki” and, of course, the absurdly epic title track. It’s sold about a gazillion copies since its release in mid-1984, and is right up there with Thriller as one of the pop highlights of the 1980s – all of which makes it one of the best records of the decade, never mind one of the best soundtracks.

Paris, Texas (1985)

“He ran until the sun came up, and he couldn’t run any further. And when the sun went down, he ran again. For five days, he ran like this, until every sign of man had disappeared.” Ry Cooder’s marvellously evocative Tex-Mex soundtrack provides a brooding backdrop to the silent expanses that dominate the physical and emotional landscape of Wim Wenders’ classic film. Cooder’s work apparently drew inspiration from 1920s bluesman Blind Willie Johnson’s song “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” and also features a fantastic version of melancholy Mexican classic folk song “Canción Mixteca,” which accompanies this trailer.

Pretty in Pink (1985)

John Hughes’ teen flicks defined ’80s cinema for a generation of adolescents, and they came with appropriately rocking soundtracks. There was The Breakfast Club – now forever identified with Simple Minds’ “Don’t You Forget About Me” – and then, of course, there was Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, with the “Twist and Shout” street float scene that made a million girls swoon and a million boys sigh in admiration of Ferris’ style. But as far as a complete zeitgeist-capturing soundtrack album goes, Pretty in Pink was probably Hughes’ best moment – there was the Psychedelic Furs song of the same name, which inspired the film, along with tracks from INXS, New Order, Echo & The Bunnymen, and The Smiths.

Blue Velvet (1986)

No one’s perfect, and we realized recently that we totally forgot to include the strange and frightening ambient score to David Lynch’s Eraserhead in the last episode of this series. We’re not going to make the same mistake twice, though. Blue Velvet was a watershed in Lynch’s career in many ways. It marked the first time he’d had complete creative control of a project with a decent budget, it resurrected his career after the disaster that was Dune – and in a musical sense, it marked the first time he worked with Angelo Badalamenti, who’d go on to be a key contributor to the atmosphere of many of Lynch’s later projects. Badalamenti was first hired as Isabella Rosellini’s singing coach, but ended up writing the darkly beautiful score.

The Mission (1986)

While The Mission itself was grim and somewhat turgid viewing, no one can question the quality of its score. Ennio Morricone’s best-known and most enduring work, The Mission reflects perfectly the contrast between the startling natural beauty of the film’s setting and the bleakness of its subject matter. The composer combined ecclesiastical elements with native American sounds that evoke the world of the unfortunate indigenous people who are left betrayed and ruined by their contact with Europeans. The result is a lushly morose suite of compositions that really should have won the Academy Award for which they were nominated. (Also worthy of a mention: Morricone’s score to Cinema Paradiso in 1989.)

The Big Blue (1988)

No, not The Big Chill. This French film explored the world of deep sea diving, and Eric Serra’s soundtrack captured the oppressive, otherworldly atmosphere of the footage with music that was dramatic and full of cold beauty. Incidentally, Indiana psych band Odawas made an album a couple of years back devoted to recreating the sounds of The Big Blue – it’s called The Blue Depths , and is well worth a listen.

Say Anything (1989)

Released as the 1980s drew to an end, the oft-underrated Say Anything soundtrack made for an interesting combination of 1980s favorites (Peter Gabriel, The Replacements) and bands who’d go on to enjoy the peaks of their stardom in the coming decade (Red Hot Chili Peppers, Depeche Mode, Living Color). The combination of teen-friendly subject matter and of-its-time soundtrack made Cameron Crowe’s film the natural successor to John Hughes’ work, just as the latter was sadly starting on the road to Home Alone, Curly Sue and a decade of mediocrity.

For everyone else, though, the ’90s was a breath of fresh air. And it’s next on our list!