When you’re a cinephile it’s easy to find something worthy of appreciation in every cinematic offering. Be it a single, powerful shot or a memorable line delivery, even movies considered total train wrecks (like Tommy Wiseau‘s comically terrible The Room) have garnered cult appreciation over time. Although some visual offerings can be lackluster, there’s always one thing that can save them: a killer soundtrack.
Every so often, a skillful blend of sound creates a listening experience so powerful that audiences anoint them a ‘masterpiece.’ For decades, beloved, tattered vinyl sleeves have held well-worn musical stories that accompany our own. From the child listening to The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert under the covers, to the athlete climbing out of bed at 4 am with Rocky theme as their alarm, fans all say thank you for the music.
The Beach (2000)
Danny Boyle‘s Thai island fever dream is seriously slept on. The Beachbased on Alex Garland‘s best-selling novel, stars a young Leonardo DiCaprio as thrill-seeking backpacker and lost soul Richard. After a traumatic encounter he is gifted a map to a secret island paradise, where all is not as it seems.
Dreamy tracks by Sugar Ray and Asian Dub Foundation dissipate as Richard descends into madness and an increasing tempo. Each tense moment is accompanied by an equally thrilling audio experience, with the ‘video game scene’ a doozy. While “Pure Shores” and “Porcelain” were the stand-out tracks of the day, it’s the inclusion of New Order and The Chemical Brothers that capture the deeper meaning of this alt classic. Available to stream on Freevee.
Baby Driver (2017)
With one of the most masterful soundtracks this decade, it’s no surprise that Edgar Wright was nominated for a Grammy. Having practiced his vision for the single-shot opening scene with Noel Fielding years prior, Baby Driver was a long time coming and did not disappoint.
Bill Pope, the director of photography, referred to the film as “a postmodern musical.” Each action, shot and sound is planned to the beat of the almost-continuous score. As he explains it, “the world acts to music.” The eclectic and soulful collection flows directly from Baby’s iPod and draws the audience further into his world, track by track. It turns out you do need a score for a score. Available to stream on Fubo.
Purple Rain (1984)
The late, great Prince was many things; an unrivaled virtuoso, accomplished performer, a great actor? Perhaps not, but the third best-selling album of 1984 makes up for any lackluster line delivery. Loosely based on his life, Prince plays the part of the Kid, a misunderstood up-and-coming talent with a difficult home life and big dreams.
Dotted through the film like timely reminders of his stage presence mastery, Prince and the Revolution live perform songs that express the Kid’s innermost thoughts. A scene in which he brands Apollonia as ‘Darling Nikki’ and writhes on the floor mockingly, shrieking in the way only Prince could, is hauntingly effective. Pretty much everyone has shed a tear to “Purple Rain” at some point, too. Or at the very least, belted it out at karaoke. Available to stream on Roku.
The Great Gatsby (2013)
Australian filmmaker Baz Lurhmann‘s penchant for big costumes, big sets and big songs was on full, magnificent display in this onscreen adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald‘s great American novel, The Great Gatsby. Leonardo DiCaprio is Jay Gatsby, a mysterious millionaire who befriends his humble neighbor, throws lavish parties, and longs for what could have been.
Collaborating with executive producer Jay-Z was a stroke of genius. The hip-hop infused, jazz-remixed soundtrack became so popular after the film’s release that there was an explosion of ‘Gatsby’ themed parties all over the world. A key theme of the book is its criticism of such excess lavishness, but hey, a little party never killed nobody. On the other hand, Gotye, The XX and Lana Del Rey served somber big band ballads that expose the underlying sadness of Fitzgerald’s work. Available to stream on HBO Max.
Pirate Radio aka The Boat That Rocked (2009)
You know there’s something magical about a movie when it can make you miss a time long before you were born; that’s the beauty of Pirate Radio (also released under the name The Boat That Rocked). Set during the 1960s, a rebellious crew of DJs run an illegal radio station in the middle of the North Sea. Defying the conservative government of the time, they broadcast the very best rock and roll to the young British masses.
Undoubtedly one of Richard Curtis‘greatest films, the all-star cast that includes Bill Nighy is no surprise to fans of his other works Love Actually and Four Weddings and a Funeral. Memorable scenes include teens grooving to “Sunny Afternoon” by The Kinksa furious rebellion rages soundtracked by “My Generation” by The Whoand who could forget when Simon (Chris O’Dowd) mourns his heartbreak by miming “Stay With Me Baby” by Lorraine Ellison. Hysterical, but moving. Available to rent on AppleTV.
Forrest Gump (1994)
Spanning from the 1950s to the early 1980s, Forrest Gump‘s soundtrack plays like a’ best of ‘compilation of each decade. The way the story is told through Forrest’s eyes, each song is used to guide viewers into the next poignant stage of his life.
The film contrasts Forrest’s experience in the Vietnam War with popular protest songs by Credence Clearwater Revival and Jimi Hendrix, which adds insight to the overoptimistic man’s true feelings. Also, “Go Your Own Way” by Fleetwood Mac is a great song for when you just feel like running. Available to stream on Paramount +.
Romeo + Juliet (1996)
One cannot discuss film soundtracks without mentioning the one that inspired a movement. Anachronistic soundtracks were rarely used before Baz Luhrmann took up the mantle, and it’s a good thing he did. Setting Shakespeare’s classic play Romeo and Juliet in modern day ‘Verona Beach’ was one thing, but the grunge-heavy soundtrack added a whole new layer of teen angst to the tale of star-crossed lovers.
Romeo + Juliet not only introduced Shakespeare to a new generation, but it now also serves as a perfect time capsule of 90s style, rage and rebellion. Grunge defined the decade. Before the internet, when teens were bored and broke, music was their religion. From blaring One inch Punch as they cruise around to a moody sunset with Radiohead, suddenly these characters are us. That fish tank scene still has the power to haunt. Available to stream on HBO Max.
Shrek 2 (2004)
The beloved, green ogre returned after the unconquerable success of Shrek and, somehow, made a sequel that is better than the original. Taking place in Far, Far Away, Shrek meets his royal in-laws for the first time. Meanwhile, a prince with serious mummy issues tries to win Fiona and the throne. Audiences were also gifted a glimpse at Human Shrek.
It was a hard choice between Shrek and Shrek 2 here, to be honest. While Shrek brought us the unparalleled Smash hit (get it?) “All Star,” Shrek 2 gave us “I Need a Hero” crooned to perfection by Jennifer Saunders. It’s perfectly possible “Accidentally in Love” by Counting Crows is just as iconic as Smash Mouth‘s offering, and can anyone hear “Funky Town” without thinking of this magical film? Available to stream on Peacock.
Stephanie Meyer‘s phenomenally successful Twilight The franchise is enjoying a resurgence in popularity as those too young to enjoy the brooding vampire love story upon its release are now discovering its campy draw. While the cringey script and wooden performances may leave much to be desired, there’s one part of the first Twilight movie that still blows collective minds: the soundtrack.
Hayley Williams did not need to go that hard, but she did, and fans are forever grateful for that. Paramore, a long time staple on any alternative teen’s playlist, wrote two songs for the film, both of which are certified bangers. Then there are none other than Muse and Linkin Parksuperstars of the time, alongside smaller, indie performers like Iron & Wine and The Black Ghosts. There’s also a rather intimate track performed by Edward himself, Robert Pattinson, that is sure to have lulled a few hopeless romantics to sleep over the years. Available to stream on PrimeVideo.
Next: 5 Musical Biopics That Nailed It (and 5 That Went Astray)