Just when it seemed like the soundtrack market was slipping below its surface novelty, plugging artists like cola endorsements into club scenes and car chases of the world's most bankable movie hits, "Titanic" came along and changed everything. Worldwide, the relatively uneventful, largely instrumental soundtrack did more than serve as an extended CD single of Celine Dion's ubiquitous hit, "My Heart Will Go On" -- it changed the movie-music world altogether.
Why did "Titanic" strike such a fiscal nerve? Few could have desired the Celtic meanderings of the bulk of the soundtrack's incidental wash -- little whistles and beacons strewn about monotonous string arrangements to a jarringly cinematic effect. And if they really wanted Celine Dion's heart going on, they could have bought her own histrionic showcase of midrock balladry. No, what people really wanted, and continue to want in record numbers, is a souvenir.
Between "Titanic" and the current chart topper, "City of Angels," 1998 has so far been a year of reinventing the purpose of the soundtrack. Not only do these recordings act as timely incidentals in the film's often melancholy realizations of life (when they're in the film at all), they are signs of the times in which the film was made, or at least solid demographic aims at the audience the film is seeking to entertain. This year has seen a near perfection of the soundtrack's purpose -- an unprecedented balance of commercial promotion potential and genuine, often unexpected pop songcraft.
"City of Angels" brings all of the qualities of its accompanying film -- metaphor, slick production, sadness -- to an A-list of respected modern artists and pulls off a seamless and haunting paean to being alive. "Uninvited" matures Alanis Morissette to an unlikely orchestral shimmer and "Iris" sees the Goo Goo Dolls through to the plaintive, head-back climax of I just want you to know who I am . . . A near-sexy romp with Paula Cole, "Feelin' Love," and the textural inclusion of John Lee Hooker, Jimi Hendrix and a new song from Peter Gabriel, help to make this the middle-class mix tape of the year. One that has already outlasted the movie.
Less direct, and probably even more effective, is the soundtrack to the Sandra Bullock film, "Hope Floats." A little bit country, and, yes, a little bit rock & roll, "Hope Floats" is a subtle charmer of a record, well suited to the films rural love-connection. Garth Brooks renders a down-key take on Dylan's "To Make You Feel My Love," The Rolling Stones, Sheryl Crow and Whiskeytown provide complementary drunk/porch reverie. And Lyle Lovett nearly drowns in Charlie Chaplin's bittersweet "Smile." Oddly, the set closes with Trisha Yearwood delivering another rendition of "To Make You Feel My Love," as if to equalize the sexes in the song's love-worn commitment.
The largest of the summer blockbusters, "Godzilla," boasts an odd soundtrack collection culled largely from modern-rock adrenaline. The Wallflowers deflate Bowie's "Heroes," but to a strangely ironic effect. Foo Fighters, Rage Against The Machine and Jamiroquai deliver their expected goods with the desired brow-sweat included. And even Green Day get monster treatment, amending "Brain Stew" with throaty roars. But it's the Puff Daddy meets the Monster of Rock (Jimmy Page) rehash of "Kashmir" (plus rap) that's sent the kids screaming . . . and spending. This blatant attempt to modernize an old monster through the inclusion of new tricks (the film and the song) succeeds if only for its utter lack of humility.
For the retro set, "The Last Days of Disco" buoys Whit Stillmans wordy, claustrophobic affair of the same name with some of the seedier anthems of the era. "Got to Be Real," "More, More, More," "I Love the Nightlife" and "Knock on Wood" are included along with (gasp) Brenton Wood's "The Oogum Woogum" song, if only to enhance the absurdity of wearing suits to Studio 54.
"Bulworth" oddly taps the tougher ends of the rap market to pull off the leer of Warren Beatty's genius slumming. "Ghetto Supastar" by the Fugees' Pras (with ODB and Mya) does to Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton what no other rap star ever has: acknowledges them. The choice of Ice Cube, Mack 10, Public Enemy and other such heavyweights of direct attack seems difficult in the light of white satire, but that's the charm of Warren Beatty. He's not poking fun at rap, but rather at you.
None of these films is the banner carrier that "Titanic" proved to be. Consequently, each of these soundtracks has sold on the merit of its own roster, and the promotion that radio, television and even their respective movies supply. They are, however, fruits of the newly revived marketplace, where soundtracks used to simply fade with the film's theater engagements. These records are presenting a viable means of promoting entire genres and packaging the state of the art.