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Three Easy Pieces

Game-changing soundtracks

The Graduate was influential in both good and bad ways, and its soundtrack played a big part. Photo credit: United Artists

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Is it time, once again, for Three Easy Pieces? You bet it is. And what is Three Easy Pieces? Well, it's the column where I dissect a segment of pop culture, from its inception, to how it looks today. In the month of May, I'm thinking about movie soundtracks that not only surfed on the wave of the zeitgeist, but that actually changed how we think of soundtracks themselves. It used to be that a movie and its score were two sides of the same coin, produced in tandem and working together to create a thematically cohesive work of united vision. When the notion of incorporating popular songs by various artists (and in a non-diegetic way, for those film school graduates out there), critical reaction was mixed and kind of fascinatingly apprehensive. Still, the practice of slamming the immediacy of popular music into the storytelling punch of film has made for some soundtracks that broke the mold.

BIRTH: The Graduate (1967)
Honorable mention: American Graffiti, The Harder They Come, Midnight Cowboy, Super Fly

In Roger Ebert's effusive review of The Graduate, his only complaint was about the film's use of the music of Simon and Garfunkel. He called them "limp and wordy" window dressing for needlessly arty scenes -- a perfectly prescient vision of the future of films that would be influenced by The Graduate. Scores of filmmakers were influenced not only by The Graduate's themes and aesthetics, but by its use of music: the use of the then white-hot Simon and Garfunkel's folk-pop tunes to score the story of a young man adrift has become something of a loathsome trope in modern movies. While Wes Anderson has used this technique (with a healthy blend of Scorsese worship) to wonderful effect, an audience is far more likely to encounter a sub-Garden State level of twee naval-gazing, thanks to the groundbreaking work of The Graduate.

DEVELOPMENT: Repo Man (1984)
Honorable mention: Dazed and Confused, Pulp Fiction, Pretty in Pink, Above the Rim, Clueless, Goodfellas

The ‘80s and ‘90s were a huge boom for film soundtracks. Because soundtracks have a tendency to trap in amber the time in which they were created, it might be hyperbole to say that ‘80s and ‘90s soundtracks seem to especially do so. Still, there may be something to that, as Generation X directors were settling in and making movies that were simultaneously about capturing the present, and about preserving the recent past. Thrillingly, though, there are movies like Repo Man, which somehow manages to codify an entire scene in one album. The cult classic by Alex Cox (also of odd masterpieces like Sid and Nancy and Straight to Hell) features a soundtrack that's packed with a who's who of punk icons, including Iggy Pop (who wrote and performed the theme song), Black Flag, the Circle Jerks, and Fear. Not only is the film a deeply strange, idiosyncratic middle finger to the ways of creating art -- the soundtrack is its even weirder bandmate.

TODAY: Black Panther (2018)
Honorable mention: Kill Bill; O Brother, Where Art Thou?; Guardians of the Galaxy

A lot can change in the span of a decade or two. Nearly 20 movies deep into the intensely curated Marvel Cinematic Universe -- a world nearly completely sealed away from outside pop cultural influences -- Black Panther comes around and changes everything. Yes, the two Guardians of the Galaxy movies had come along to share their goofy mix tapes with the world, but never before had a big budget superhero movie come along to stake its claim with not only a deeply personal and trenchant blockbuster, but a soundtrack to match. Ryan Coogler's tale of a kingdom separated from the troubles of the greater world, and a deeply sympathetic, Oakland-born villain, was met with a soundtrack by Kendrick Lamar and Ludwig Göransson that could match its passion. Lamar has been steadily marking his place as one of the greatest rappers of this generation, and the songs he contributed for Black Panther only further his rise. Isn't it wild to think back on Margot Kidder singing "Can You Read My Mind?" in Superman, over 40 years ago, and see where we are now?

Three Easy Pieces will return, next month, with: Cinematic Swan Songs.

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