Awesome Mixes: Soundtracks That Revived Music Genres

by Amanda Flinner

What goes around comes around may be true of karma, but it's also true of music, where nothing ever really dies - not even disco. Sometimes it gets a little help from another popular art form: film.

Over the past 50 years, we've seen booms in bluegrass, Latin jazz, reggae, ragtime and rock 'n roll thanks to retro movie soundtracks that put the spotlight back on bygone music. In 2014, Guardians Of The Galaxy even brought '70s pop back to #1 thanks to Peter Quill's "awesome mix" of hits from that decade. Here, we look at more iconic soundtracks that revived music genres.

The Harder They Come (1973)
Genre: Reggae
In April 1973 Bob Marley and the Wailers brought reggae off the island with their international breakthrough album, Catch A Fire - but they weren't the first to do it. Two months earlier, the Jamaican movie The Harder They Come debuted in the US with an innovative soundtrack of reggae music led by the film's star, Jimmy Cliff.

Directed by Perry Henzell, the movie follows a young musician's descent into a life of crime after being manipulated by a crooked record producer. It was the first Jamaican-produced feature film and was a big hit on the island for its authentic portrayal of the experience of black Jamaicans. For those same reasons, it took a while to gain traction in America, where it was shown with subtitles even though the dialogue is in English.

Roger Ebert described is as "a Jamaican version of the standard black exploitation movie," but with a soundtrack that makes the experience worthwhile. The film found its audience in the midnight movie circuit, where it opened up a whole new world of music to American moviegoers. The soundtrack - including the title song by Jimmy Cliff - is full of reggae luminaries, including The Melodians ("Rivers Of Babylon"), Desmond Dekker ("007 Shanty Town"), The Maytals ("Pressure Drop") and DJ Scotty ("Draw Your Brakes").

While its soundtrack only managed to reach the bottom rung of the albums chart at #140, The Harder They Come is credited with bringing reggae music to the masses.

American Graffiti (1973)
Genre: '50s Rock 'N Roll
In the 1970s, a young director named George Lucas brought us an iconic film about a restless young man who was itching to escape his hometown for a more adventurous life. Nope, we're not talking about Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, but Steve Bolander in American Graffiti.

Set in 1962, when rock 'n roll and Wolfman Jack ruled the radio, American Graffiti follows Steve (a pre-Happy Days Ron Howard) and his college-bound friends on their last night together, cruising the streets of Modesto, California, in their classic coupes.

Describing the film as an unconventional musical, Lucas insisted on building a soundtrack of '50s and early '60s rock tunes - punctuated by the Wolfman's signature rasp - instead of using a traditional score. Securing the rights to 45 songs was a near-impossible feat. "Chantilly Lace" posed a particular challenge - Lucas had to send a lawyer to Tennessee to track down the Big Bopper's mother for permission to use the 1958 song.

$90,000 later, everyone from Buddy Holly to The Beach Boys was featured on the track list, except one notable person was missing: Elvis Presley. No self-respecting teen of the era would turn the dial away from The King, but Lucas had no choice. Universal offered all the participating labels the same flat rate, but RCA refused to sign off on Elvis. But no one seemed to mind.

American Graffiti earned $140 million at the box office on a $777,000 budget, making it one of the most profitable films of all time. Its soundtrack sold three million copies and peaked at #10 on the albums chart.

The Sting (1973)
Genre: Ragtime
1973 was a banner year for genre revivals. Just a few months after American Graffiti revitalized classic rock 'n roll and The Harder They Come introduced reggae to the masses, The Sting dusted off another bygone genre: ragtime. On the surface, ragtime made no sense for a crime caper set in 1930s Chicago, a decade after the style fell out of fashion. But it made perfect sense for early '70s America, where a ragtime revival was slowly brewing, culminating with The Sting's #1 hit soundtrack and its main theme: Scott Joplin's "The Entertainer."

A precursor to jazz, the rollicking music with its syncopated melodies and steady bass lines took America by storm near the turn of the 20th century. Joplin was its undisputed king, with his "Maple Leaf Rag" leading the way for other popular ragtime tunes. But his reign was cut short when he died in 1917 and pretty much took the genre with him.

Fast forward to 1970. A musicologist named Joshua Rifkin quietly released a compilation of Joplin rags and surprised everyone when it sold 100,000 copies within its first year, on its way to a whopping one million. In 1973, the New England Conservatory of Music formed a ragtime ensemble and recorded the Grammy Award-winning Scott Joplin: The Red Back Book. Hollywood director George Roy Hill took notice and enlisted Marvin Hamlisch to adapt a handful of Joplin rags to accentuate Robert Redford and Paul Newman's antics in The Sting.

Despite the historical inaccuracy, the bouncy ragtime rhythms perfectly captured the lighthearted tone of the film. The music even influenced Redford's performance.

"George played that music for me before we did the film," he explained. "So it went into my head. So as I was playing the character, I heard that music which gave me a physical impulse."

The Sting soundtrack held the #1 spot for five weeks in 1974, and Hamlisch's rendition of "The Entertainer" reached #3 on the Hot 100.

The Big Chill (1983)
Genre: Motown
1983 was a big year for classic Motown nostalgia. In May, NBC celebrated the Detroit label's silver anniversary with the special Motown 25: Yesterday, Today Forever, which featured performances by The Temptations and The Four Tops, but is mostly remembered for Michael Jackson's first televised moonwalk. Another milestone came a few months later when the label produced the throwback soundtrack to The Big Chill.

A sort of coming-of-middle-age story for the baby-boomer generation, The Big Chill is about a group of long-graduated college buddies who reunite for the funeral of an old classmate who committed suicide. The tragedy throws each of them into an existential crisis as they reminisce over a time when their lives were full of purpose - and classic Motown hits.

The Motown-produced soundtrack resurrected mid-'60s hits from its stable of former stars, including Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, The Miracles, The Four Tops, and Martha and the Vandellas - as well as outside tunes from Aretha Franklin, Three Dog Night, Procol Harum, and The Exciters.

Raking in $56 million, the film was a smash with its boomer audience. They also latched onto the soundtrack - and never let go. Within six months, it sold one million copies. By 1998, six million.

More importantly, the union between Motown and The Big Chill proved nostalgia was a ready-made goldmine. Advertisers began using vintage tunes to hawk products, and oldies radio formats started surging in popularity. By the end of the decade, several more movies debuted with old-school soundtracks.

Dirty Dancing (1987)
Genre: '60s Pop
By the time Dirty Dancing was released in 1987, another movie had already brought oldies back to the forefront. A year earlier, Rob Reiner's coming-of-age film Stand By Me brought the title song back to the charts 25 years after Ben E. King first released it. It also yielded a soundtrack packed with pop songs from the '50s and '60s. So why isn't Stand By Me our focus? Well, the album peaked at #32 while the Dirty Dancing soundtrack dominated at #1 for 18 weeks and sold 32 million copies worldwide. Also: Patrick Swayze.

For the uninitiated, Dirty Dancing still might seem like the wrong choice. After all, isn't it known for that iconic final scene, where Patrick Swayze pulls Jennifer Grey out of the corner and on to the dance floor to the tune of "(I've Had) The Time of My Life" - an '80s anthem? Wasn't its other popular hit, "Hungry Eyes," another '80s tune by Eric Carmen? And what about "She's Like The Wind" by Swayze himself? Well, yeah. But most of the songs are '60s throwbacks to suit the film's setting in 1963 - the year teenaged Baby Houseman had a forbidden affair with rebellious dance instructor Johnny Castle at a Catskills resort.

Even critics of the frothy plot can't deny the appeal of its music. The story unfolds to The Ronettes' "Be My Baby," Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons' "Big Girls Don't Cry," Otis Redding's "Love Man," the Drifters' "Some Kind Of Wonderful," the Shirelles' "Will You Love Me Tomorrow," and The Contours' "Do You Love Me," which re-entered the charts at #11. Baby and Johnny also play around in the dance studio with Mickey & Sylvia's 1957 R&B duet "Love Is Strange."

As of 2020, the Dirty Dancing soundtrack remains one of the best-selling albums of all time, sandwiched in between The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and Adele's 21. It also comes in at #3 on the best-selling soundtracks list, behind Saturday Night Fever.

The Mambo Kings (1992)
Genre: Latin Jazz
Before the Buena Vista Social Club brought pre-revolutionary Cuban music to America in the late '90s, The Mambo Kings started laying the groundwork for a Latin jazz revival. Based on the Oscar Hijuelos' Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Mambo Kings Play Songs Of Love, the 1992 film follows the rise and fall of the Castillo brothers (Armand Assante and Antonio Banderas), a pair of Cuban musicians who chase fame in New York City during the mambo craze of the 1950s. They form the band The Mambo Kings and impress Cuban bandleader Desi Arnaz with "Beautiful Maria Of My Soul," a love song Nestor Castillo (Banderas) wrote for the girl he left behind.

Written by Arne Glimcher (the film's director) and composer Robert Kraft, the ballad is the centerpiece of a soundtrack that's packed with Latin music veterans like Tito Puente, Celia Cruz, and Arturo Sandoval, along with modern acts like Linda Ronstadt and Los Lobos.

For a movie that wasn't a big commercial or critical success, it was surprisingly influential because of its music. Aside from being nominated for a handful of major awards - including an Oscar nod for Best Original Song for "Beautiful Maria Of My Soul" - the soundtrack brought classic Cuban rhythms to '90s media. Billboard magazine credited The Mambo Kings for the influx of Hispanic Afro-Caribbean music on American TV - from '50s mambo creeping into pizza ads and car commercials to conga drums infiltrating the Jeopardy theme.

The Mambo Kings soundtrack earned a Gold certification in 1996, the same year Buena Vista Social Club recorded their eponymous album that would kick the Latin music revival into high gear by the end of the decade.

Sleepless In Seattle (1993)
Genre: Standards
In the summer of 1993, The Bodyguard soundtrack finally released its grip on the albums chart as Janet Jackson, Barbra Streisand, U2, and the hip-hop group Cypress Hill took turns for the top spot. Then came Jimmy Durante. The long-dead singer known for his gruff voice and impressive schnoz landed his first #1 album via the smash soundtrack to Sleepless In Seattle.

But let's rewind a bit.

Four years before Sleepless In Seattle and its soundtrack hit big in America, its writer/director Nora Ephron wrote the screenplay for another popular romantic comedy starring Meg Ryan that also had a soundtrack straight out of the Great American Songbook: When Harry Met Sally. That's also when we met Harry... Harry Connick Jr., that is. The crooner gained mainstream prominence when the movie, featuring his renditions of "It Had To Be You," "Let's Call The Whole Thing Off," and "I Could Write A Book," became an instant classic. It also kickstarted Connick's career and earned him his first Grammy Award for Best Jazz Male Vocal Performance. The soundtrack petered out at #50 but went on to sell 2 million copies in America.

But the When Harry Met Sally soundtrack walked so the Sleepless In Seattle soundtrack could run. For the 1993 movie, starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan as lonely hearts brought together over a call-in radio program, Ephron reunited with many of the players from the previous film. Aside from Meg, When Harry Met Sally director Rob Reiner joined the cast as Hanks' advice-giving buddy and Connick stepped back in with the tune "A Wink and a Smile."

More importantly Marc Shaiman, a fellow lover of traditional pop, was back on board as music supervisor (James Bond composer John Barry refused the gig when he learned he'd have to squeeze his score around 20 songs). Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, Gene Autry, and the gravel-throated Jimmy Durante rounded out the romantic compilation. But there was a problem: Studio execs wanted contemporary artists for the soundtrack so they'd have a shot at radio play. Ephron held her ground, but she had to agree on one stipulation: A modern duet of "When I Fall In Love" by Celine Dion and Clive Griffin had to be used during the pivotal final scene when Hanks and Ryan finally meet atop the Empire State Building.

She used Jimmy Durante's "Make Someone Happy."

When word got back to the studio, it was too late. Ephron and company already sneaked the cut with Durante's song in a test screening and audiences loved it. The Dion/Griffin duet was relegated to the end credits, but it did help the soundtrack become a smash. Aside from hitting #1 in the US, the album sold over 4 million copies.

O Brother Where Art Thou (2000)
Genre: Bluegrass
It's hard to believe George Clooney was the face of the bluegrass craze in America at the turn of the new millennium. Well, he may have been the face, but he wasn't the voice.

Set in Depression-era Mississippi, the Coen Brothers film O Brother Where Art Thou? casts Clooney as an escaped convict who leads two fellow prisoners on a bogus quest to find hidden loot. To fund their expedition they record the tune "Man Of Constant Sorrow" at a radio station and call themselves The Soggy Bottom Boys, with Clooney on lead vocal. In reality, that's the voice of Dan Tyminski of the bluegrass band Union Station, along with country singers Harley Allen and Pat Enright rounding out the trio. The folk song, popularized by The Stanley Brothers in 1951, was a highlight of the movie and its soundtrack, with the single going to #35 on the Country chart.

The Coen Brothers enlisted music producer T-Bone Burnett, who worked with them on The Big Lebowski, to create a soundtrack of traditional music - a combination of folk, bluegrass, gospel, and blues - sung mostly by modern musicians. Alison Krauss, Gillian Welch, Emmylou Harris and The Peasall Sisters were just a few of the contemporary contributors, alongside veterans Norman Blake and Ralph Stanley.

The vintage soundtrack defied expectations by going to #1 in the US and taking home the Grammy Awards for Album of the Year, Best Country Collaboration with Vocals for "Man Of Constant Sorrow," and Best Male Country Vocal Performance for "O Death" by Ralph Stanley. The bluegrass pioneer, who sang on the 1951 version of "Man Of Constant Sorrow," said everyone was surprised by the runaway success of the album.

"That's one of the things good about the music business," he wrote in his autobiography, Man Of Constant Sorrow. "Like politics. It can be nasty and it can be mean, but you never know what's going to happen."

Guardians Of The Galaxy (2014)
Genre: '70s Pop
'70s rock enjoyed a film-related renaissance in 1993 when Dazed and Confused - Richard Linklater's answer to American Graffiti - featured a soundtrack of classic rock hits to reflect its 1976 setting. But a different "Awesome Mix" made music history in 2014 with the release of Guardians Of The Galaxy.

In the superhero movie, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) is an intergalactic outlaw who indulges in the sounds of the '70s via his late mother's cassette tapes. Featuring Blue Swede's "Hooked On A Feeling," David Bowie's "Moonage Daydream," and Rupert Holmes' "Escape (The Piña Colada Song)," her "Awesome Mixes" are Peter's only connection to his former life on Earth.

James Gunn, the film's writer/director, used the cultural touchstones to make the audience feel at home in outer space. "I knew that when we were making a movie that's in outer space, you want to have it be this big grand adventure, but you also want to ground people in something that's real, that seems familiar," he explained when doing press for the film. "It's striking the balance throughout the whole movie, through something that is very unique, but also something that is easily accessible to people at the same time. The music and the Earth stuff is one of those touchstones that we have to remind us that, yeah, this is a real person from planet Earth who's just like you and me. Except that he's in this big outer space adventure."

In August 2014, the same month the movie hit theaters, Guardians of the Galaxy: Awesome Mix Vol. 1 reached #1 on the albums chart. It was the first time in history a soundtrack made up entirely of previously released songs topped the tally.

But it did leave out Earth's finest composition. As Kurt Russell tells us in the sequel, that song is "Brandy" by Looking Glass.

June 17, 2020
Further Reading:
Fact or Fiction: Did they really sing in that movie?
Songs used in movies

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