TV killed the radio star, but it created the radio star first. “Rock Around the Clock” was a megahit, the song that helped launch the rock and roll genre, but upon its initial release in 1954 it was a commercial failure. Only after it found its way into the credits of the Blackboard Jungle did it climb the charts. A lesson was learned: if you want a hit, get it in a movie.
Music benefits from a visual component, then, now, and always. Start pulling the threads that start with the ceremonial dancing of the Bhimbetka (documented thirty thousand years ago on a cave wall) and you can follow it through to the Greek tragedies, Japanese kabuki theater, the first “talkies”, Michael Jackson’s music videos, the tacky 8-bit LSD visualisations of mp3 players, and so forth. A photogenic element lets music work from another, more literal dimension – for example, taking the implied “scariness” of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor and making it explicit with horror visuals.
The visuals of a movie likewise benefit from sound, in a way that isn’t immediately obvious. We walk around with our experiences clouded by some emotional content, good or bad, and you never experience anything its own. When you eat a pastry you’re also eating the argument you had five minutes ago: you will enjoy the pastry less because you’re angry. When you spend money you’re only as happy or unhappy as the thought of how much is left in the balance. But most of this is gone in a movie – you’re watching a recorded slice of fake reality that you have no intrinsic attachment to. A soundtrack helps recolour all of the moments that have been bleached of their emotions by celluloid. The music acts as a little cue. “Feel sad here. Feel happy here.” That’s why scoring and foley is such an important part of film, even if it’s unmemorable on its own. Films are fake reality, and sound of all kinds is another graft of flesh over the mechanism.
But it must be depressing for a songwriter, knowing that your work will receive much of its impact from a visual component (which you had nothing to do with). It’s as bad works of literature getting culturally steamrolled by their film adaptations. Speaking of which I want to knock on Fitzgerald’s coffin and inform him that people will forevermore visualise Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay when they read The Great Gatsby. I am a bad man.
But that can’t be helped. Like Barthes said, authors are corpses who haven’t got the memo. Millions think “Born in the USA” is a patriotic anthem. That’s a valid reading, and there’s nothing the Boss or anyone else can do.
But I’ve never liked obvious soundtrack biscuits. If movies are cyborgs and music is artificial flesh, soundtrack songs are like plastic doll skin. You’re watching a movie, and then the narrative is interrupted by a cringingly obvious wannabe music video sequence. You can almost see the MTV logo appear.
In the 90s, there was a trend of songs from Disney movies becoming crossover mainstream hits. “Under the Sea” from The Little Mermaid won a Grammy. “A Whole New World” from Aladdin was a number one hit. From then on, every animated film needed that song. The worst was that shitty song Phil Collins put in Tarzan. You know the one. Where he doesn’t even reference the movie at all but just blandly rhapsodizes about finding yourself, et cetera.
Music and film have a troubled relationship, but they’re never far apart. Although it might seem like songs get swallowed whole by movies, subsumed until they’re just another part of the great machinery, they sometimes outlast the films they’re in. “Rock Around the Clock” achieved fame through the Blackboard Jungle, but who remembers that movie now? Bill Haley had the last laugh.
Sometimes the most insignificant things are the most enduring. Dwarves might stand on the shoulders of giants when walking through a field, but history isn’t a field, it’s quicksand. When the dwarf and the giant hit a but when the ensemble hits some soft quicksand, the giant sinks into obscurity first.