10 Films Made Memorable By Their Soundtracks

Music is integral to the art of storytelling.

It demystifies themes in ways that no visual angle nor dialogue can. For moviemakers to decide which songs to use and which scenes they fit into must be a Herculean task. There are too many songs and not much space for them in any film. And to have a feel for songs that will work, filmmakers would have to have listened to music for most of their lives.

Luckily for my generation (I was born in the 80s), there were a handful of music nerds masquerading as film directors. You could hear it in their work, that when you miss a scene by closing your eyes for a while and try to follow just by listening, you realize you are not missing much. Art begins to live in the subconscious because of the songs.

The fans were all the better for it. We dramatized poignant scenes by singing the background music. We started downloading songs previously unknown. We learned about new musicians, many of them progenitors of modern remakes (I learned belatedly that it was Peter Frampton, not Big Mountain, who wrote “Baby I Love Your Way”).

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Dazed and Confused

Directed by Richard Linklater

Release date: 1993

This cult classic was about high school misadventures in America in the 70s, and I was in an all-girls high school in Manila. I remember being fascinated by the mystery of co-education, all the dope and the rites of passage that were non-existent in my world while living vicariously through the music of the time.

The first soundtrack (there were two albums) was given to me as a gift in my sophomore year and it was the first CD I ever owned. I remember finally putting a name to Deep Purple’s Highway Star, which passively entered my consciousness through a TV commercial. War’s Why Can’t We Be Friends was also familiar, but not Low Rider, which was my favorite discovery. It has since been a staple in my long drives. Other featured songs that I would hear for the first time were School’s Out by Alice Cooper, Ted Nugent’s Stranglehold and Paranoid by Black Sabbath.

When Napster was launched 6 years later, I went nuts and unearthed their discographies.

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Almost Famous

Directed by Cameron Crowe

Release date: 2000

Cameron Crowe’s coming-of-age masterpiece in the context of rock journalism and rock and roll is one of my favorite films. The outstanding script made me want to take writing about music more seriously (I did become a freelance rock journalist for a short-lived record store magazine.)

The music juxtaposed well with the storyline that in some scenes, like the bus ride with everyone singing along to Elton John’s Tiny Dancer, you wanted to be a part of the story. The pivotal introduction to The Who’s Tommy “with the candle burning” may have changed many a teenager’s life. I know mine did. I now have all these records. “That’s The Way” by Led Zeppelin was added later after it was authorized by the band impressed by the initial cut. It was also the first time I had heard of The Allman Brothers, whose songs currently dominate the repertoire of my band.

One could tell that Crowe took as much care in curating the soundtrack as he did in writing the screenplay. Nineteen years later, I still get emotional and forever grateful that he made this film.

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Singles

Directed by Cameron Crowe

Release date: 1992

Here is an earlier Crowe creation, which was more relatable to me than his 80s humdinger “Say Anything.” Singles was set in Seattle, at the height of the grunge scene. It depicts the nuances of relationships and common struggles confronting young people who embraced that era’s version of sex, drugs and rock and roll.

The soundtrack stands the test of time. Drown by Smashing Pumpkins made me fall in love with the band, and it still makes my heart sing. I was already in love with and was, in fact, a bonafide member of The Ten Club of Pearl Jam when I saw the movie, and the songs they contributed to this film (Breath and State of Love and Trust) were both outstanding. Seasons is a treasured Chris Cornell song, a somber memorial of a deeply admired grunge and rock and roll icon gone too soon.

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The Saint

Directed by Philip Noyce

Release date: 1997

This movie starring Val Kilmer was an espionage thriller, and boy do I love a good spy story. The soundtrack jacks up the suspense with hard-thumping beats featuring Orbital, The Chemical Brothers and Moby, the early forerunners of modern techno music. It coincided with my evolving musical tastes from pure rock to electronica which made the movie and the soundtrack a personal milestone.

Standout tracks include 6 Underground by Sneaker Pimps, Da Funk by Daft Punk and Before Today by Everything But The Girl, but David Bowie and Duran Duran also contributed to the OST. Definitely worth a listen.

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Reality Bites

Directed by Ben Stiller

Release date: 1994

The elevated worries of youth take center stage in this romantic comedy starring Winona Ryder and Ethan Hawke. Four friends represent the struggle of post-graduate stress, of finding their place in the “real world” without compromising what they value, in a video documentary. A TV industry big shot interrupts their chaos by showing them what the real world really is.

Sweet, somber and confusing would sum up my memory of this film, set against an adorable backdrop that features Lisa Loeb and her breakout Stay, “Tempted” by Squeeze which made singing in cars with friends fashionable and the always beautiful “All I Want Is You” by U2.

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High Fidelity

Directed by Stephen Frears

Release date: 2000

The movie starts with Rob Gordon (played by John Cusack) going off about his breakups in the heels of a fresh breakup. That he is a music aficionado, and could easily substitute his rants and self-loathing with the right song at the right time, expanded my musical horizons ten-fold. This movie was made with the music lover in mind.

The Monday Morning Tape scene is hilarious, and Jack Black could not have been more perfect for his role as musical-elitist-slash-record-shop-keeper Barry, who has managed to keep his vocal chops a secret from his boss.

The soundtrack features The Beta Band’s Dry The Rain, Love’s Always See Your Face and Stevie Wonder’s I Believe (When I Fall In Love) but there are other hidden wonders throughout the movie, like Barry’s cover of Marvin Gaye’s Try A Little Tenderness.

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School of Rock

Directed by Richard Linklater

Release date: 2003

School of Rock is about a deadbeat musician Dewey Finn (played by Jack Black) who pretends to be a temp at a prestigious prep school so he could pay rent. It is a showcase of young, prodigious talent steeped in classical training suddenly playing rock and roll under Dewey’s tutelage.

Collaboration among serious music nuts such as Richard Linklater and Jack Black reached its zenith when they got permission from Led Zeppelin, known for rarely sanctioning the use of their songs in movies, to use Immigrant Song in this film.

The soundtrack is outstanding. AC/DC was dominant, with classics such as Back In Black and Highway To Hell enjoying airplay. Featured classics include Touch Me by The Doors, Moonage Daydream by David Bowie, Sunshine of Your Love by Cream and Edge of Seventeen by Stevie Nicks.

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The Matrix

Directed by Lana and Lilly Wachowski

Release date: 1999

The Matrix is a science fiction action film about a dystopian future that stars Keanu Reeves. It pierced through movie-making conventions when the first installment of the trilogy came out. This movie remains one of my all-time favorites.

The fight scenes are some of the most memorable in cinematic history. It only makes sense to have hard rock music to complement them.

Music from the metalheads takes center stage here: Rock Is Dead by Marilyn Manson, Du Hast by Rammstein, My Own Summer (Shove It) by Deftones and Wake Up by Rage Against The Machine. Listen at your own risk.

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Pulp Fiction

Directed by Quentin Tarantino

Release date: 1994

The shock value of Pulp Fiction, Tarantino’s classic retelling of criminal Los Angeles, is the most outstanding memory that I have of this film. The star-studded cast comes in second. Seeing Tim Roth and Harvey Keitel in the lineup after Reservoir Dogs was exciting.

There was no film score, but Tarantino used an assortment of surf music, rock and roll, soul and pop songs to highlight the intensity. The clear standout was Urge Overkill’s cover of Neil Diamond’s Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon, immortalized by a dancing and strumming Mia Wallace (played by Uma Thurman). Other memorable tracks include Son Of A Preacher Man by Dusty Springfield, Jungle Boogie by Kool & The Gang and C’est La Vie by Jerry Lewis, the music Mia and Vincent Vega (played by John Travolta) were dancing to.

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The Royal Tenenbaums

Directed by Wes Anderson

Release date: 2001

The Royal Tenenbaums is a dramedy that follows the lives of three gifted siblings who experience early success in their youth, but encounter disappointments and failure when they reach adulthood. Their story made me feel better about my own dysfunctional family, as the genius of Wes Anderson is wont to do.

Anderson had initially wanted the soundtrack to feature just The Kinks but ended up instead with one song by them, and the melancholy melodies of Nico, Elliott Smith, and Nick Drake.

Ruby Tuesday by The Rolling Stones was the perfect song for the tent scene.

This list hews closely to my tastes, so if you have movie soundtracks you repeatedly listen to, please share by commenting below. I would love to hear about them, and maybe start listening to them.

Written by

Former presidential speechwriter, still a musician; writes about urban gridlocks. Will work full time for the planet. Harvard Kennedy School ‘14 🇵🇭

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