Music and films go together likes popcorn and carbonated beverages. Not many films don’t have any music in them, whether it’s an orchestral score or a selection of songs. Composers like John Williams, Hans Zimmer, Henry Mancini, Ennio Morricone and John Barry all became household names through their work crafting the music for films, but what of those whose job it is to be cinematic pop-pickers with other people’s music?
There’s not much fame and glory in it, but it’s a hugely important job nonetheless. It might seem like all you need to do is pick some cool songs and stick them in there and be done with it, but there’s more to it than that. Watching The Hangover might not seem like an easy way to spot cinematic mastery, but the music picked for it is just right and it’s no surprise to find a name as familiar as George Drakoulias behind it.
Drakoulias has had a long and prestigious career as a music producer, with the likes of the Black Crowes amongst the bands to have their classic albums shaped by his hands. And you can sense his presence early on in The Hangover when slow-motion shots of Las Vegas Boulevard and the Bellagio fountains are soundtracked by an ominous-sounding Danzig song. Throughout the eclectic mix of songs, artists and genres, there’s never really a missed-step and it makes for a great backing to the film and good listening on its own.
Of course, the king of this particular skill is Quentin Tarantino, who encyclopedic knowledge of popular culture has helped him usually find exactly the right bit of music for his films, and he’s repaid those artists handsomely by giving them the amazing publicity that comes from having your song soundtrack iconic scenes. I certainly discovered a lot of great bands from listening to his films in my teenage years, particularly Jackie Brown. Kathy Nelson’s name crops up a lot when it comes to this job, and her fingerprints were on PulP Fiction’s soundtrack as well as many other great soundtracks.
Sometimes, it helps to get Proper Musicians to help out in choosing songs for films, and that’s what the makers of Grosse Pointe Blank did when they recruited Joe Strummer from The Clash. He filled up the film (and two soundtrack discs) with classic 80s punk, new wave and rock music and it worked amazingly well. Cusack himself was instrumental (sorry) in picking the music for High Fidelity, a tough ask when music was so integral to the film as a whole. Again, a great success though, and a great listen. Again, Kathy Nelson was involved with both of those soundtracks.
It sounds like it might be easy to do this job, but there’s plenty of examples of films that don’t get it right. The Twilight Saga films are jammed full of music, but the songs rarely seem to do much to the scenes they are in, other than adding decoration and shifting copies of the soundtrack. Simply choosing a bunch of songs by artists who fit the target audience of the film isn’t enough, you’re not just making a compilation album. It’s a skill that requires more knowledge of music than films, and that’s why it’s usually best left to people who’ve got that.