3 scores and 1 track: the best of music at the movies 2016

3 scores and 1 track: the best of music at the movies 2016

There’s a fundamental difference between a movie score and a movie soundtrack. A score is a composition of several independent and original musical movements meant to add emotional depth to a movie’s specific scene or character. A soundtrack is the collection of songs written by different musicians or bands that performs the same function as that of an original score. The best films (and filmmakers) utilize both. There really was only one major mainstream soundtrack that stood out this year both commercially and critically, and that was the soundtrack for DC Comics’ Suicide Squad. As far as original scores go though, there were several moving and inspiring scores this year. Three of the best being Mark Korvan’s The VVitch score, Michael Giacchino’s Marvel’s Doctor Strange score, and (even though it’s technically not a movie score) Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein’s Stranger Things score.

Korvan’s The VVitch score, along with its parent film, is pretty much the most bone-chilling entry into the horror movie soundtrack since probably The Exorcist soundtrack. Sadly, Korvan’s soundtrack will not garner the long term notoriety that The Exorcist’s has over the years. Similarly, The VVitch itself will not garner the attention and legacy it deserves as well. There’s a serious divide between movie watchers as to what is truly scary. It’s either torture porn/blood and gore driven spectacle or slow burning, heavily atmospheric and dread inducing (as well as thought provoking) horror. The VVitch firmly falls in the latter camp and the soundtrack musically illustrates the near flawless acting job of Anya Taylor-Joy and company, and the psychological, as well as very real, horror that plagues their family. Haunting female wails and moans, sharply dark strings, and guttural bass strings startled into silence by slaps and crashes pervade nearly every note and movement of the score. Too scary for listening to alone, but perfect for setting the proper mood at your next adult themed Halloween party (or seance), The VVitch score is more than just mood music. It’s frighteningly good art.

Continuing with the supernatural theme, albeit unintentionally, and in a totally different genre, long time JJ Abrams’ collaborator Michael Giacchino’s Doctor Strange score is the most unique and fitting for its title superhero character since John Williams’ score for the 1978 Superman. The score’s mixture of electric guitar, strings, orchestra, harpsichord and electronic processing perfectly conveys the psychedelic, thrilling, and, for lack of a better word, loopy extra-dimensional aspect of the hero and his stories while grounding it all in a real world, almost earthy feel at its heart. It’s rock n’ roll and mystically far Eastern at the same time. In its best moments it’s all that as well as out of this world. The incomparable “Master of The Mystic End Credits” owes its opening guitar to Pink Floyd yes, but the rest of the track is pure Stephen Strange personified. You can’t hear it without imagining Doctor Strange utilizing the Eye of Agamotto or casting the Crimson Bands of Cyttorak with all the haughty air of Benedict Cumberbatch’s best acting skills. This is how a superhero soundtrack should sound.

Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein’s (both members of Austin based music outfit Survive) Stranger Things score is technically not a film score, but that doesn’t keep it from being one of the best filmed story scores of the year. Stranger Things, the Netflix sensation that captured rave critical and commercial appeal, was the most binge-worthy show in a year full of binge-worthy shows (most of which were Netflix productions themselves), basking in the glow of the show’s retro-1980s nostalgia for the best films and music of the era. Sounding purposefully dated yet powerfully fresh, Dixon and Stein managed to do something that this guitar rock-loving fan pretty much has never done: get him to listen to a full album length of synth music in one setting. Yeah, Stranger Things’ score is that good and that nostalgically inspiring.

Stranger Things made excellent use of more than just Dixon and Stein’s score. Songs from Joy Division, Echo and The Bunnymen, as well as Tangerine Dream pop up throughout the series as well. As of yet, sadly, they haven’t been compiled in an official “soundtrack” (maybe they will). Soundtrack albums that collect music used throughout the film or series can be hit or miss affairs. Not every film’s soundtrack can resurrect or find new relevance in old Elton John tunes like Almost Famous did with “Tiny Dancer,” but every once in awhile a film brings a song back into the public consciousness in a way that rivals or supersedes its original fame.

I remember being a kid in the late 70s, lying on the floor of my parents front room with a stack of comic books listening to a stack of vinyl 45s on their old floor model stereo. Hey, there wasn’t much else to do on a winter Saturday afternoon after playing in the snow, especially in the days before Atari. I hadn’t started my own record collection yet, so mom and dad’s had to do and Lesley Gore’s 1963 hit “You Don’t Own Me” was one of the songs in the stack. I can’t tell you how many times I heard that song over and over in those years on those Saturday afternoons. It eventually melded in my mind with the comic book stories I read, and often re-read.

When the remake by Grace (featuring G-Eazy) landed on the Suicide Squad soundtrack and became fixed to the comic book character Harley Quinn, well, lets just say it was poetry in motion in the making. There must be plenty of other now-grown-up kids out there who are responding to the nostalgia stirred up by Gore’s old 45 hit because “You Don’t Own Me” is popping up in commercials and playlists everywhere. It’s like “Tiny Dancer” all over again, this time with a popular comic book character’s backing. Any soundtrack, and by extension film, able to do that for a 50 year old plus song deserves to be on an end of year “best of” list.

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