In the pre-Napster universe of 20 years ago, motion picture soundtracks had big time appeal with the masses. Often featuring singles not yet available on their artist’s LPs and frequently containing tracks hand-carved for their big screen counterparts, these albums were chart-topping monsters in the mid-to-late 90’s. The appeal made sense. Not only did they offer exclusive content, but in an era when hearing an act predominantly meant purchasing their full album , they also provided a variety of artists to test drive. Let’s survey the field at the time…
The Precursors: Late ’96
One cannot fully understand the success of movie soundtracks in 1997 without first examining how 1996 would end. Three soundtracks released in the final quarter of the year would combine to sell nearly 20 million records in the US: Romeo + Juliet (5M), The Preacher’s Wife (a Whitney Houston solo effort; 8M), and Space Jam (6M). Each of these represented fairly distinct genres– alternative rock, gospel/adult contemporary, and hip-hop respectively. A bevy of hits resulted, including The Cardigans’ “Love Fool“, Whitney’s “I Believe in You and Me” and “Step by Step”, R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly“, Seal’s “Fly Like an Eagle“, and Monica’s “For You I Will“, among others…
The emotional ballads from Houston and Kelly followed a recent trend of tear-jerker tracks from tent pole films that would terrorize airplay, in the vein of “(Everything I Do) I Do It for You” (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, 1991), “I Will Always Love You” (The Bodyguard, 1992), “Will You Be There” (Free Willy, 1993), “All for Love” (The Three Musketeers, 1994), and “Kiss from A Rose” (Batman Forever, 1995). If you were not a fan of these types of songs, your ultimate scourge would arrive in November 1997.
The Setting-Enhancement Compilations
While 1997 would not be short on blockbuster ballads, a variety of soundtrack sub-genres would see success during the year. Particularly enjoyable were albums that utilized older records to establish the film’s setting.
Boogie Nights masterfully performed this task, with director Paul Thomas Anderson handpicking disco aces like “Best of My Love” and “Got to Give It Up”, 80’s power jam “Sister Christian“, and pool party staple “Spill the Wine” to transport us to the San Fernando valley of yesteryear. The soundtrack was so successful that a second part was release a few months later.
Jackie Brown found its muse in the blaxploitation films of the 1970’s and set it’s tone from the opening credits with Bobby Womack’s “Across 110th Street”. Tracks from the Delfonics and The Brothers Johnson continue the California cool vibe for Quentin Tarantino’s crime caper on an album easily enjoyed regardless of one’s familiarity with the film.
Two very different movies spawned two very different albums that can be grouped under this category.
Selena, a biopic of the Tejano performer killed only two years earlier, starred Jennifer Lopez but used vocals from the titular character for both the film and soundtrack. It is essentially a compilation of the late singer and went platinum.
Six of the fifteen tracks on the Good Will Hunting soundtrack were written and recorded by Elliott Smith, with “Miss Misery” nominated for an Oscar. Not surprisingly, it is equal parts good and depressing.
Hip-Hop and R&B Mixtapes
1997 would be a landmark year for hip-hop music crossing over from a niche genre to a mainstream mainstay. Concurrently, a swell of soundtracks targeted these same audiences with line-ups of the artists frequently atop the charts.
Gridlock’d, starring Tupac Shakur, premiered four months after his murder. The late actor/rapper’s record label, Death Row Records, released the soundtrack which featured heavy contributions from their roster, including Pac himself, Snoop Doggy Dogg, and The Lady of Rage.
Booty Call would be released the next month with an emerging Jamie Foxx in the lead role. The soundtrack gave way to singles from SWV & Missy Elliot (“Can We“) and Joe (“Don’t Wanna Be a Player“), the latter of which would be sampled later in the year by Big Pun on his debut single “Still Not a Player“.
Nothing to Lose carries a rating of only 29% on Rotton Tomatoes, but its soundtrack went gold. Two singles “Not Tonight“, featuring a who’s who of leading lady rappers (including Lil’ Kim and Left Eye), and Coolio’s “C U When U Get There” charted in the top 15 on the Billboard Hot 100 and saw significant rotation on MTV and BET.
Big Budget Albums About Big Budget Movies
Warner Brothers dumped $125 million into Batman & Robin and while the film was panned by most critics, batfans, and its director, it would more than recoup its cost at the box office. Clearly the studio hoped to reach all swatches of fans (and succeeded, as the album went platinum), releasing singles by The Smashing Pumpkins, Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, Jewel, Goo Goo Dolls, and R. Kelly from the album. Kelly’s contribution, “Gotham City”, smells like an attempt at recreating both his success with “I Believe I Can Fly” and the previous Batman ballad success of “Kiss from a Rose”. It straddles the line of “over the top” and “palatable” better than the film, complete with a children’s chorus. Kels would go back to the soundtrack well twice more with “Bad Man” from Shaft and “The World’s Greatest” from Ali. Both will be featured in some way on this blog 🙂
“Here come the Men in Black…” clap, clap.
This was the big summer blockbuster that Batman hoped to be, grossing nearly $600M (more than twice the Caped Crusader), receiving favorable reviews, and spawning two sequels. The album performed similarly well, going 3x platinum, and marking Will Smith’s comeback to the music world. It’s hard to believe a pre-jiggy era ever existed. The titular single, cleverly sampling “Forget Me Nots” by Patrice Rushen in a way that may have rendered the original mute, blew up with airplay over every medium imaginable. Smith followed up with “Just Cruisin’, perhaps to prove he could make songs about more than the movie in which he starred, although he would do plenty of that again. Nas, Snoop, and Jermaine Dupri also stop through on a generally fun, summer album.
So that earlier chronicle of sappy ballads leads us here. Much like the iceberg, we should have seen it coming. Celine Dion had a smash single in 1996 with “Because You Loved Me”, setting records for its reign atop the charts. The song was the theme from the movie “Up Close and Personal”, but curiously was left off the soundtrack (likely negotiated by Dion’s management). James Cameron would make no such deals, and “My Heart Will Go On” would tow the Titanic soundtrack to more than 30 million (!) copies sold, despite being the only song on the album with words. A few months later, Sony would release another album (Back to Titanic) with more sounds from the movie that would go platinum, this one containing a version of “My Heart Will Go On” with clips of dialogue from the film (another trend started in 1996 with Bruce Springsteen’s “Secret Garden” from Jerry Maguire). At the time, an album of white noise with the the word “Titanic” anywhere near it would have gone gold– I would be surprised if someone didn’t try. This was everywhere, forever. It’s still too soon to hear again, but enjoy this classic Billy Zaine line.