Sound Check

If you've ever read a review of movie soundtrack music, you already know the drill. The reviewer, taking his or her cue from press release material that hasn't been updated at least since The Crow hit theaters, will try to convince you that the music contained on the disc is special, somehow more than mere soundtrack (since everyone knows soundtracks usually suck), something more coherent than just a hodgepodge collection compiled by marketing departments with one eye on the corporate parent and the other eye on the bottom line. The lead usually reads something like this: Most movie soundtracks are random hodgepodge collections, compiled by marketing departments with one eye on the corporate parent and the other eye on the bottom line, but the (insert film here) soundtrack boldly breaks that mold, matching music to film in a manner that adds meaning and resonance to both entities. As daddy used to say: bullcorn.

Full-length soundtracks released to the general record-buying public are -- with rare exceptions -- marketing tools, rarely more and often less. When a director creates a mutually complementary marriage between song and scene, you'll notice that more often than not you'll hear only a snippet of tune, an especially relevant chorus or a few chords in the background -- a mood enhancement. But when the song is presented in its entirety on a soundtrack CD, sans visuals, you're being sold an entirely different bill of goods: an album.

And so, the following soundtracks -- some collections of pop songs by various artists, others largely instrumental scores commissioned specifically for the films they accompany -- are reviewed not so much as filmic accompaniment (which criterion belongs in a film review), but as record store purchase. If the music went just dandy with its film (which, chances are, I didn't see), then great. Go see the film again and hum along. If, however, the same music in its unabridged presentation can't support a reasonable listener's musical interest without the accompaniment of flickering images, you'll hear about it here.

Our big name soundtrack is from Batman Forever, which is just the sort of cartoony movie, like The Crow, that lends itself to the concept of soundtrack-as-launching-pad-for-hip-new-video-friendly-bands-that-just-coincidentally-have-corporate-ties-to-the-moviemakers. (How much "courtesy," for instance, does anyone think was involved in the appearance of perennial Warner Bros. Records underachievers The Flaming Lips on the soundtrack to this Warner Bros. film?) Then again, in this case anyhow, who cares, since the Lips' "Bad Days" is the earthy highlight of the disc (not to mention the movie)? Elsewise, you've got your Top 40 radio shoo-ins (U2's indecisive "Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me," Seal's sappy but beautiful "Kiss from a Rose," and, well, I guess that's it for hits, since I don't much feel like counting The Offspring's paint-by-numbers embalming of The Damned's "Smash it Up"). P.J Harvey isn't at her best with "One Time Too Many," but even coasting she's a more compulsive listen than the synthesized wallpaper turned in by Brandy ("Where Are You Now?") and Eddie Reader ("Nobody Lives Without Love"). Mazzy Star's "Tell Me Now" is the sort of sexy music people would make love to if they weren't so busy fucking, and Nick Cave has a moment with "There Is a Light," but even the multiple high points aren't quite enough to justify buying the whole album. Especially since The Devlins contribute a track. Call it one thumb up and looking for a ride, and let's hope they don't make any more of these damned Batman movies until Val Kilmer figures out just how much he's got to learn from Michael Keaton. (***)

Perhaps second runner-up in the blockbuster flick soundtrack category (I haven't checked the receipts), is Congo, which is so aggressively, offensively bad that if you didn't check the liner notes, you might assume that Michael Crichton couldn't stop when he finished the book the film was based on and just kept writing until he'd ruined the score, too. In sad fact, one Jerry Goldsmith composed Congo's 11 instrumental tracks, which, standing alone, give the distinct impression that the film's plot involves the penetration of deepest, darkest Africa by a third-rate city symphony that lost a half-dozen key players back at customs. The movie itself may or may not include an elephant chase scene, but it sounds like there ought to be one built around "Amy's Nightmare," at least to offset the faux exoticism of this lushly ill-conceived romanticism, bookended with a tepid "Spirit of Africa" drum-and-chant exercise performed by one Lebo M, all of which is about as stirring as a rubber spoon. I listened to this so you don't have to, and the rating, since the format requires one, will have to be two thumbs up -- one up my butt, one up yours. (*)

The soundtrack to Party Girl isn't nearly so disappointing, if only because it never aspires to any real feeling, the way Congo so ineptly strives for grandeur, but rather aspires only to the simple banality of its film's subject matter -- the life and times of your garden variety party chick. The film requires a soundtrack, because the Party Girl's life is lived to a soundtrack in the first place. The 12 tunes collected to convey the mood start off prettily soulless, with The Wolfgang Press' sanitized remake of Randy Newman's "Mama Told Me Not to Come," and stay that way through pre-programmed contributions from Tom Tom Club, Chanel, Dee-Lite and a host of never-mind-where-are-they-now-who-the-hell-were-they-in-the-first-place slot fillers. Just to mix it up, Run DMC makes an offbeat appearance with "Peter Piper" and Khaled spices the disc with neo-Middle Eastern riffs on "Les Ailes." But again, the high points gain relief only against a sea-level backdrop, and none of this is the sort of thing you're likely to remember the next morning. Still, neither was the party. So I'd give this two thumbs up, just for being innocuous and faithful. But I'm pretty sure anyone who actually saw the movie and then went out and bought and played this disc would be more likely to glazedly flash some sort of peace sign, and I don't want to upset anyone's equilibrium. (**)

The soundtrack to The Bridges of Madison County isn't nearly so easy to dismiss (though God knows I had a field day with the book), and in fact, it's the only CD of this cursed bunch that warrants a positive rating on the purchasability meter, independent of the film it's compiled to accompany. Bridges director and soundtrack producer Clint Eastwood is well-known for his discerning taste in jazz, and with the Bridges disc, he's taken the opportunity to dust off some lesser-known gems from the jazz and pop catalogs (back in the day when jazz and pop weren't necessarily mutually exclusive terms). The CD is framed with brief lulls called "Doe Eyes (Love Theme from The Bridges of Madison County)" composed by Eastwood himself, but it's the gooey center of the album where the taste is. A more literal, or less assured, producer than Eastwood might have packed this soundtrack with Whitney Houston-esque booty ballads and stayed perfectly true to Bridges author Robert James Waller's saccharine vision. But Eastwood steers into sophistication with ten unhackneyed selections from Dinah Washington ("I'll Close My Eyes," "Blue Gardenia," "Soft Winds"), Johnny Hartman ("Easy Living," "I See Your Face Before Me," "It Was Almost Like a Song," "For All We Know"), Barbara Lewis ("Baby, I'm Yours") and Irene Kral ("It's a Wonderful World," "This Is Always"). There's true, scratchy vinyl romance in these old tunes, and it shines through regardless of the book or movie to which they lend their new-love aura. Call it two thumbs up, since it beats bearable -- and the rest of these maddeningly unnecessary soundtracks -- by a country mile. (****)

-- Brad Tyer

***** Any film with Geena Davis
**** Any film with Meg Ryan
*** Any film with Sandra Bullock
** Any film with Julia Ormond
* Any film with Madonna

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Brad Tyer