We’ve almost arrived at the present in our ongoing adventure through the greatest movie soundtracks ever, but first we need to negotiate the decade when the idea of soundtrack albums featuring a bunch of contemporary bands truly became big business: the 1990s. It was in the ’90s that the concept of “soundtrack” and “score” really diverged, with producers often using the “songs from and inspired by” caveat to create what were pretty much de facto compilation albums of songs that may or may not have actually been used in the movie in question but were still sold under its brand. Even ignoring such malarkey, there are plenty of great soundtracks to be found from the ’90s – here’s our selection for ten of the best.
There were plenty of attempts to define and capture the spirit of Generation X in the early ’90s, generally accompanied by soundtracks featuring the music of the time – see also Reality Bites, Clerks, etc. In terms of being in exactly the right place at the right time, however, nothing got close to Cameron Crowe’s Singles – the soundtrack dropped just as grunge went overground, selling bucketloads of copies and becoming a de facto grunge best-of that nestled happily next to Nevermind, Vs., and Badmotorfinger in the record collections of disaffected teens the world over. Fun fact: apparently “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was also going to feature on this soundtrack, but had to be dropped because by the time the film came out, it was too expensive to buy the rights to the song – a sure sign that grunge’s underground status was well and truly consigned to the past.
Judgment Night (1993)
The idea of combining rock and hip hop into some sort of unholy genre-transcending hybrid was one of the big musical ideas of the ’90s. For some reason, it’s the soundtrack for Spawn (1997) that usually gets the “credit” for taking this idea to its logical conclusion by getting rock bands and hip hoppers to collaborate on tracks, despite the fact that the soundtrack to Judgment Night used the same idea four years earlier. The soundtrack was big news at the time, hitting #17 on the Billboard chart, but now is largely forgotten. This is a shame, because it was definitely influential, and some of the collaborations were kind of intriguing – whoever thought Sonic Youth and Cypress Hill would work?
Dazed and Confused (1993)
In terms of capturing a moment, they don’t come much better than Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused, perhaps cinema’s most relatable portrayal of coming of age in a town that suddenly feels too small for you. The film’s soundtrack fitted its subject matter down to a tee, even if Robert Plant wouldn’t let the filmmakers use the actual song “Dazed and Confused.” Even now, watching this film makes us want to go to a park somewhere and get very, very drunk.
Pulp Fiction (1994)
Pretty much anyone who endured adolescence in the ’90s still has a copy of this soundtrack in their iTunes. Tarantino pioneered the cheesy-old-songs-interspersed-with-dialog idea with Reservoir Dogs, but Pulp Fiction was his crowning musical achievement. Pretty much all of the film’s key moments have an instant association with the song that accompanies them – Dick Dale’s “Miserlou” with the “Everybody be cool, this is a robbery” scene that precedes the credits, Urge Overkill’s take on “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon” with Mrs. Mia Wallace’s overdose, Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell” with the twist contest. So integral was the music to the film that Tarantino didn’t bother with any sort of conventional score – the songs on the soundtrack were sufficient for his purposes, and they invariably worked a treat.
Above the Rim (1994)
“Regulators! We regulate any stealing of his property – and we damn good, too. But you can’t be any geek off the street. Gotta be handy with the steel, if you know what I mean. Earn your keep. Regulators! Mount up!” And, um, a fine selection of other G-funk classics, too.
The Crow (1994)
The Crow is now probably best remembered for the tragic death of Brandon Lee on set – rightly so, given that a freak accident robbed Lee of his life and the rest of us of what was shaping up to be a promising career. But the film’s worth remembering in its own right too – it was an early example of the idea of adopting a dark graphic novel for cinema (cf. Sin City, V for Vendetta, etc.), and its soundtrack matched its futuristic noir atmosphere perfectly.
Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995)
This film remains so ubiquitous in India that it’s generally just referred to as DDLJ, and is still playing in at least one cinema in Mumbai, 16 years after its release. Appropriately for one of the biggest Bollywood hits ever, it also comes with one of the biggest soundtracks ever – grande dame of Bollywood playback singers Lata Mangeshkar lends her vocals to four of the soundtrack’s seven songs, including the iconic duet “Tujhe Dekha To” with Kumar Sanu. Certainly the biggest soundtrack of the ’90s from outside the realms of Hollywood, and an all-time subcontinental classic.
Emir Kusturica’s epic portrayal of Yugoslavia’s post-WWII history remains one of the more controversial films of the 1990s – depending on your point of view, it’s either a complex portrayal of the region’s contemporary history that’s been ignored in the West because it doesn’t entirely fit a simplistic Serbs-as-baddies-and-everyone-else-as-goodies narrative, or a risible bunch of pro-Serbian propaganda. We’re absolutely not getting involved in any such debate here, but whatever you think of the film, Goran Bregović’s soundtrack is fantastic — particularly the iconic “Kalashnikov,” which we’ve embedded above. (We will say, however, that the uploader describing “Kalashnikov” as a “Serbian patriotic song” does rather seem to miss the point of the song, which we always saw as a kind of dark satire on pro-war fervor. But that’s just us.)
Like Dazed and Confused, this soundtrack – and, indeed, this film – captured a moment perfectly. For Trainspotting‘s, however, it was a case of capturing its own time rather than looking back to the past. The film came along at exactly the right time and used exactly the right music, dropping just as Britain was about to emerge from 18 years of Tory rule into what looked at the time like a fresh and bright era of optimism. The British music scene, meanwhile, was booming, with Britpop at the apogee of its commercial popularity (even if the creative rot had already set in) and jungle/drum ‘n’ bass also at its peak – in 1997, Roni Size/Reprazent’s New Forms would even win the Mercury Prize. Of course, the fact that Cool Britannia was best exemplified by a fundamentally grim Scottish drama about heroin addiction was an irony that’d only truly became clear as the years passed – but even so, Trainspotting is a killer film, and its soundtrack is a contemporary classic.
The Virgin Suicides (1999)
Whether Sofia Coppola’s debut feature is actually any good is a question for another day, but one thing’s for sure – it certainly would have been a whole lot worse off without Air’s lush, evocative soundtrack. The music is a huge part of turning the film from a literal and rather unfeasible tale of five sisters all committing suicide into a more abstract, dreamlike fable.
Next time: the 2000s!