Unsung Heroes: The Soundtracks of Your World

Think of your favorite movie or television program. Now think about watching it with the sound turned off. It’s just not the same, is it?

amiv9s537f2i3cn7y4noEvery film, starting with the advent of the movie theater, has some sort of background music that adds to the drama of the moment. You know many of these tunes without even thinking, like Chopin’s Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor. Say what? You might know it better as the iconic Funeral March, parodied in umpteen cartoons and shows. Even if you’ve never seen the films, you can probably recognize the theme from Rocky, or Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, or Purple Rain. Remember the hits Ghost Busters, Saturday Night Fever, or 9 to 5? Those all began as movie songs. Think of na-na’ing with Batman or to Jaws, Hawaii Five-O, or Bad Boys, the theme from the white-T-shirt-promoting TV show Cops. Soundtrack songs stick in your head, sometimes without you wanting them there.

Sometimes a soundtrack can introduce you to music you wouldn’t normally listen to11avneu. My chances of cranking Mozart in my car are close to zero, but I’ll watch the film Amadeus over and over, reveling in “Salieri’s” moving descriptions of Mozart’s music, and I’ll feel every note of its beauty. I’m not too much into old-timey twangy folk, but the soundtrack to the 30’s-era epic Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? adds an earthy realism to the film. Stand By Me is chock full of pop hits from the early ’60’s. Ditto for Forrest Gump, whose soundtrack is pretty much a history of modern American music. Sometimes the music seems to have nothing to do with the movie but we love it anyway, such as Simon and Garfunkel’s top hits from The Graduate. The folky acapella track of Katniss singing “Hanging Tree” in Mockingjay hit number one on the charts in England. Philadelphia has a nice variety of music, from Oscar-winning pop hits to opera. The old British comedy series Young Ones used to spotlight different songs, and got me hooked on the group Madness.

10-jack-sparrow-pirates-of-the-carribean.w529.h529There are times, however, that the orchestral music in the background of a film or TV series is so beautiful it can distract you from the film itself. The soundtrack to Thor did that to me; the movie was engaging, but the music drew your ear away. Pirates of the Caribbean is another – what is Jack Sparrow without his sneaky tiptoe music? Like Star Wars, the music themes give away what’s coming next. The soundtrack to The Lord of the Rings is majestic, speckled with sung tracks by Bjork, Annie Lennox, and the vastly underrated voice of Billy Boyd – Pippin himself. If you want to find a good one fast, John Williams is probably the undisputed King of Soundtrack music, but also look for Hans Zimmer, Danny Elfman, Howard Shore, and the late James Horner. Every one of them makes soundtrack music look effortless. You may not like “classical” music, but these orchestral arrangements – “modern classical” – can put a different voice to the genre.

Soundtrack music can make or break a film or TV show. I’ve never seen 1981’s ChariotsScooby-gang-1969 of Fire, but that darned theme is still stuck in my head. Whether or not you liked the shows, the title themes from The Brady Bunch, Gilligan’s Island, The Addams Family, and The Mickey Mouse Club remain cultural icons, still widely recognized decades later. It was a song in the middle of the movie version of M*A*S*H* that later became the opening theme for the television series. Forty years later we still know the theme song to Scooby Doo, a show that originally ended in 1976, or The Flintstones (ended in 1966), but no one remembers the theme from Holmes and Yoyo, Dharma and Greg, Eureka, or even Monk. Half of Malcolm in the Middle’s charm was the catchy theme by There Might Be Giants.

Having a “soundtrack” album isn’t just for Hollywood musicals – those are a class by themselves – but for every film or TV series, and most of them, good or bad, have released one, though some may be hard to find (took me years to find the soundtrack to Ladyhawke, a poorly filmed but underrated movie). Check out the film, then check out the soundtrack. You may be delightfully surprised.

What movie or TV music rocks your world?

In Memorium, Ann C. Crispin 1950-2013

Just barely a month ago, I was sitting on a panel next to writer Ann Crispin hashing out issues with the film, Star Trek: Into Darkness. I’d known she’d been battling cancer for some time, but I was surprised how well she seemed.  I guess she was very good at hiding it, for she passed away on September 6, 2013, just 3 days after posting to her fans that she was not doing well after all. She was 63 years old.

Ann was a gifted science fiction and fantasy writer.  She wrote Star Wars novels, V novels, the StarBridge series, and created novels and backstory for Pirates of the Caribbean, but her Star Trek novels, Yesterday’s Son, and later, Sarek, are often regarded as among the best Star Trek novels ever written; they are certainly in my top ten, and I’ve read hundreds. Ann knew and truly loved her material, and it showed in her clever and conscientious works.  Earlier this year, she was named the 2013 Grandmaster by the International Association of Media Tie-In Writers.

A native of Connecticut, Ann served as Regional Director and later Vice-President of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. She cofounded Writer Beware, a subgroup of the SFWA, to help writers avoid the myriad con artists and scams aimed at them, and prosecute the people running them. At her workshops she would drill into her students, “Money flows to the writer, never away. If someone is asking you for money up front to publish your work, run. It is a scam.”

Ann was a frequent guest at science-fiction conventions, often running workshops for writers, one of which I attended perhaps 15 years ago. Ann was a tough teacher and a tough editor, which was not unreasonable. Like Hollywood, the writing industry is a tough business, and it’s best to get the stars out of your eyes at the start. While I felt gifted for not getting her “You need to go back and take a class in basic grammar and sentence structure” speech, my hands shook for the next year with every word I put to paper. She helped greatly, but at the time it felt like getting pushed off a cliff.

Ann’s books will survive, but they are a shadow to such a brilliant and talented writer.   

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