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Blockbuster pop from Godzilla to X-Files

By Matt Ashare

JUNE 29, 1998:  For the first half of 1998 -- or at least a 16-week chunk of it -- the charts were dominated by the record-breaking soundtrack from the biggest-budget film in the history of Hollywood, Titanic. And, yeah, it was surprising that any CD could have such a large retail impact in the day and age of demographic fragmentation, when a release is lucky to get a week or two at number one, never mind three or four months. But what was really unusual about the Titanic soundtrack is that it was essentially an instrumental score featuring music composed for and used in the film. Even the one admittedly big exception, Celine Dion's ubiquitous "My Heart Will Go On," was part of the movie (it ran over the closing credits) -- and besides, if her song was all that CD buyers wanted, they could find the same track on her equally well publicized Sony album Let's Talk About Love.

This made Titanic something of an anachronism in the '90s, a decade that has seen the soundtrack develop a commercial life of its own independent of the film it may happen to share a name with. It's now fairly common for a big film to produce two separate CDs: a score (i.e., the usual orchestral music), and a soundtrack, featuring pop songs with only a tangential relation to the film in question. Indeed, two '90s films -- Trainspotting and Romeo and Juliet -- even gave birth to soundtrack sequels, CDs related to those movies in name only. Meanwhile the term "inspired by," as in "songs inspired by the motion picture," has come into vogue as a subtle means of distinguishing actual soundtracks or scores from their virtual cousins. (Later this year, DreamWorks will up the ante by releasing a score and two CDs of songs "inspired by" The Prince of Egypt, one featuring country artists like Vince Gill and Wynonnna and the other bringing together pop and gospel artists like Jars of Clay and Boyz II Men.) All of which makes it clear that record labels -- which are often sister companies to the film studios -- have finally gotten wise to the tremendous potential for symbiotic marketing that exists between music and film.

Summer, being one of the biggest times of the year for blockbuster films, has also become open season for blockbuster soundtracks. So just as Titanic begins its inevitable trip down the Billboard "200" album chart (it was last spotted hovering around #20), three newer soundtracks have settled in the Top 5: City of Angels (Warner Sunset/Reprise), Godzilla: The Album (Epic/Sony Music Soundtrax), and Hope Floats (Capitol), with Elektra's The X-Files: The Album (as opposed to The X-Files: The Score) debuting at a respectable #31. Each of these CDs is loaded with heavy hitters, from Puff Daddy and the Wallflowers (Godzilla) to Sting and the Cure (The X-Files) to U2 and Alanis Morissette (City of Angels) to Garth Brooks and the Rolling Stones (Hope Floats). Sarah McLachlan's got tracks on The X-Files album as well as City of Angels, and the Foo Fighters appear on Godzilla and The X-Files, so those two will have to split the award for Soundtrack Sluts of the Summer.

How much or little of the music on these CDs actually turns up in their respective films is incidental. When I spoke to David Was, who served as co-executive soundtrack producer (with Chris Carter) on the X-Files project, a couple months ago, he had more important things to worry about than how many of the songs on the final soundtrack might find their way into the movie. Composer Mark Snow, whose work can be heard on The X-Files: The Score (Elektra), was handling that end of the bargain. David Was had the far more challenging task of trying to put together an album with its own discreet appeal by securing the exclusive rights to previously unreleased tracks by well-known artists like the Foo Fighters, Björk, and Oasis's Noel Gallagher -- artists with marquee value.

"Chris Carter's very wary of dating the film like a tin of cottage cheese by placing pop songs in it, so there's going to be a very judicious use of rock music in the film," Was candidly explained. "Don't expect any gratuitous flourishes of pop songs dropping in and out of the film -- there's a separate score album for background music. For the soundtrack, I just look at it as a 'Come as you aren't party.' I invite the artists to ditch their reputations and do something darker and weirder than they're used to. The recipe in general is, 'Give us something that you think is darker, slower, and moodier than what you usually do.' " In other words, give us something in the spirit of, or "inspired" by, The X-Files.

David's brother Don faced a somewhat different situation as co-producer (with the film's director, Forest Whitaker) of Hope Floats: though there is a separate score (also available on CD), a number of the tunes on the soundtrack he assembled were destined to be used in the film from the very beginning. But in an interview sent out to the press with review copies of Hope Floats, he admits that these soundtracks are "intended to have a life outside the theater," and that using a pop song in a film can be dangerous. "If you're too heavy handed and slam the audience on the head with the hit single, you actually distract them from the film."

In the same interview, Don Was goes on to reveal one of the things that makes soundtracks such potential cash cows for major label: their ability to appeal to two or more large but usually quite separate segments of the music-consuming public in a way that single-artist albums or genre-specific compilations can't. "The one thing that did strike me as the music started to become complete," he explains, "was that we were running a pretty wide gamut of artists, ranging from Garth on the country side to the Stones on the rock-and-roll side. . . . In the music business, you have this formatting that exists to help radio stations and maybe help organize record stores but that really doesn't necessarily address the tastes of Americans in general. . . . If this movie appeals to Americans whether they're in Kentucky or Minnesota or California or New York, why is music in general so fragmented?"

Hope Floats is just one of this summer's examples of that theory put into practice -- which, by the way, won't help get the Mavericks played on rock stations or the Rolling Stones on country radio even if it does succeed in attracting consumers from both sides of that demographic divide. A more common formula than the rock/country crossover is the soundtrack designed to service separate singles to urban, alternative, and AAA or adult-contemporary stations. For example, Godzilla, which has the Wallflowers (alternative/AAA crossover), Ben Folds Five (AAA), and Puff Daddy (urban). Or the urban (i.e., hip-hop)/alternative (i.e., rock) of a disc like the Can't Hardly Wait soundtrack (Elektra), which features new mixes of Third Eye Blind's "Graduate" and Busta Rhymes's "Turn It Up."

All this has some people fretting about the harm the '90s approach to soundtracking is doing to the integrity of cinema, as the music tied to films becomes just another part of a giant, cross-demographic marketing machine, not to mention a nifty little way for major labels to place tracks by one or two of their new artists in the company of some of the industry's biggest-selling performers. (Remember, it was the Reality Bites soundtrack that gave Lisa Loeb her start.) Accepting, if only for the sake of argument, that Hollywood films possess some sort of inherent artistic integrity, what does the Wallflowers covering a David Bowie song or Filter doing an old Three Dog Night chestnut (the Harry Nilsson-penned "One") have to do with Godzilla or The X-Files? Well, nothing. But, what would you rather listen to on your way home from work, a dozen and a half variations on The X-Files theme by Mark Snow or Bob Dylan's son singing "Heroes"? Be honest. And I know I'd much rather hear Filter doing "One" than most of the tunes that band have written on their own.

So, sure, soundtracks have joined Happy Meals as one of the latest victims of crass Hollywood commercialism. But it's crass commercialism at its very best. For starters, the '90s approach to soundtracking doesn't require that directors include any of these pop tunes in their films. And with rare exceptions like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Scorsese's GoodFellas -- films that artfully employ familiar pop songs as a sonic backdrop -- that's really for the best. At the same time, it allows producers like Don and David Was to encourage popular artists to try things -- good things -- they might not otherwise do on their own albums. Like, say, covering a Bowie tune, or, in Garth Brooks's case, finally doing justice to a Bob Dylan number ("To Make You Feel My Love") that Billy Joel butchered. Marilyn Manson tackle Bowie's "Golden Years" on the forthcoming soundtrack to Dead Man on Campus (DreamWorks), and it's their best tune since they covered "Sweet Dreams" by Eurythmics. The mellow version of the Foo Fighters' "Walking After You" that appears on The X-Files: The Album is arguably better than the harder-rocking album track of that tune -- and, in a way, it's totally out of character for the band.

The state of the art in soundtracking, however, is the cross-genre all-star fusion, like the hip-hop-meets-metal of Judgment Night (i.e., Ice-T teaming up with Slayer) from a couple years ago, or the techno-rock pairings of The Jackal from earlier this year, which brought Bush together with Goldie. Godzilla sets a new high-water mark for such conceptual coups by bringing rap dude Sean "Puffy" Combs together with '70s icon Jimmy Page and alternative-rocker Tom Morello (Rage Against the Machine) for a hip-hop remake of "Kashmir" titled "Come with Me." The results aren't all that great, but you have to admire the vision: long-haired hard rockers, rap kids, and tattoo'd alternatypes all grooving together in perfect disharmony.

As the summer rolls on, we can all look forward to Bone Thugs-n-Harmony joining Henry Rollins, Tom Morello, and Flea on a remake of the song "War" for Small Soldiers (DreamWorks), '60s starlet Twiggy joining Marilyn Manson's Twiggy Ramirez to perform the Dusty Springfield classic "I Only Want To Be with You" (Dead Man on Campus), and Iggy Pop fronting the techno outfit Utah Saints for an update of his "Search and Destroy" titled "Technowledgy" on the soundtrack to The Avengers -- everything from the sublime to the ridiculous to the completely over the top. As Puffy might say, it's all about the marketing. And if that's not completely in keeping with the spirit of Hollywood filmmaking, then what is?

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