Soundtracks With Super Powers

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Iron ManIt’s the summer of the superhero. Batman returns in “The Dark Knight,” and we have eponymous films from Hancock, The Incredible Hulk, and Iron Man (wow – just had to type that three times because I kept writing “Iran Man” – what superhero was I thinking of?). It’s the Hans Zimmer/James Newton Howard score that intrigues me the most – first of all, because both Zimmer and Howard are among the most successful composers in Hollywood over the last decade or so and the idea of the two of them sharing a soundtrack is really quite unprecedented. Second, they have taken a page from the music of Steve Reich and Philip Glass in terms of building huge orchestral structures around limited musical material. And third… no pop songs.

Think about it – it seems like every movie made these days licenses songs that often threaten to overwhelm the action of screen. I’m not just talking about “Juno,” where the music is virtually a character in the movie; I’m talking about the use of hip-hop, heavy metal, arena rock, or indie rock songs that reach out of the screen and grab your attention in a way that a conventional film score usually doesn’t. This is not a bad thing: when Jonathan Demme made “Silence of the Lambs” he made terrific use of some underground rock bands like Savage Republic, where the sound fit the mood of the film while still clamoring for a bit of your attention for itself. And Urge Overkill almost became an overnight sensation after their version of “Girl You’ll Be A Woman Soon” was plopped into the middle of a pivotal scene in “Pulp Fiction.” But now it seems you can’t make a movie without licensing songs – a venture now so expensive that once you’ve spent the money, you damn well better make sure people know those songs are there. It’s become a way of hedging your bets; “the film may tank but our soundtrack is killing.”

Tell us: What do you think about the use of pre-existing songs in movies? Any examples of songs that really worked? Or songs that didn’t?