Film and music lovers alike understand that a great soundtrack can transform a cinematic experience.
Creating atmosphere and enhancing character actions are the duties of a soundtrack. When a film really gets it right, the results can be incredible. Not only can the visuals be lifted to new heights, but a collection of music emerges that will be recognized, imitated, and recycled for years to come.
Here are a few of the soundtracks from this century so far that have either already shown or have the potential for a lasting impact on entertainment culture.
It would almost feel rude to start a list of the 21st century’s best or most impactful film soundtracks without starting with that developed for Once. That’s because more than any other film in recent years, Once was defined by its music, its story developed around the songs, instead of the other way around. The film came out in 2006 as a low-budget effort out of Ireland, and it has since gained a kind of iconic status among indie film fans. Co-stars and real-life musicians Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova won an Oscar for Best Original Song for “Falling Slowly,” and other tracks like “If You Want Me” and “Say It To Me Now” have become very popular over the years.
The best mark of this soundtrack’s quality, however, isn’t that it’s cemented in Oscar history or that it introduced a few popular hits. Rather, it’s that the music was so beloved by a shockingly wide fan base (given the film’s budget) that a Broadway musical was commissioned as a follow-up. Once The Musical started in 2011, won a Tony Award for Best Musical in 2012, and is still on tour today.
There’s a strong argument to be made that Gladiator was the first great film of the 21st century, so perhaps it’s fitting that its soundtrack still stands as one of the best and most recognizable in decades. Composed and arranged by Hans Zimmer and Lisa Gerrard, it’s filled with tracks like “Earth” and “Honor Him” that, when heard, can take you powerfully back to the film even if you haven’t seen it in years.
The Gladiator soundtrack has also endured partially through imitation and adaptation. Some of its sounds are actually featured in one of the games at Betfair, which makes use of licenses for film characters, clips, and music to improve its atmosphere. Amidst the traditional blinking and clicking sounds of a whirring digital slot machine are familiar sequences of beloved Gladiator music, still reaching fans after all these years. Meanwhile, some of the music has been almost directly reused (by Zimmer himself). As many have pointed out online, themes from Gladiator helped to make the soundtrack to Pirates Of The Caribbean terrific. Some of the tracks are almost identical.
Kill Bill Vol. 1
Quentin Tarantino is known for taking full control over his films, to the point that he’ll infuse them with bizarre sounds, unexpected action sequences, and almost out-of-place music that probably no other director would dare to use. As a result, most people either love or hate his work. However, there’s no arguing with the fact that he and the folks he works with have put together some really awesome collections of music to feature in his films.
Kill Bill Vol. 1 fits the bill. It’s a strange, ridiculous modern kung fu movie with a soundtrack that’s permanently etched into the memories of a generation. The crowning achievement is “Battle Without Honor Or Humanity,” which was actually originally written by Tomoyasu Hotei for a Japanese film and used a few years later by Tarantino as the theme for Kill Bill. It’s since been used in numerous films and television shows, and not unlike the Gladiator themes even has a place in popular gaming, most notably Gran Turismo HD’s trailer. Last.fm wrote up a wonderfully deep history of the track’s usage since Kill Bill.
Not to harp on Hans Zimmer, but he’s probably the biggest name in cinematic composition today, and he’s put together his share of classic soundtracks. Arguably his best since Gladiator is Inception, a dramatic and at times over-the-top soundtrack that is nonetheless filled with remarkable themes and perhaps a closer tie to the narrative content than we’re used to seeing.
According to an article in the New York Times, the soundtrack for Inception doesn’t only consist of Zimmer’s enhancement of the film via sound, but his actual interpretation of the story therein. It is discussed that Zimmer based some of the main themes on an Edith Piaf song and slowed them down and sped them up at times. It was meant to demonstrate movement between different times and levels of the dream-within-a-dream sequences that dominate the film. It’s just an incredibly deep effort, and that Zimmer produced lasting favorites like “Time” in the process is an added bonus.
I’ve certainly left out a lot of great music. Sweeping epics like the Lord Of The Rings and Harry Potter series have certainly produced some of the most memorable cinematic compositions of the century, and plenty of smaller films like Juno and Almost Famous also have renowned soundtracks. There’s also a constant stream of musician biopics that reproduce some of the best music in history for their own track listings. But for a combination of lasting impact and pure quality, the films listed above remain the most noteworthy in my book.