Back in the 90s, blockbuster movies got blockbuster songs. It was part and parcel and before the big summer movies were even released, you’d be singing their songs in the great build up. In a world that still used dial-up internet, movie soundtracks were the gateway to new music. If you landed a spot on a soundtrack, success would come your way. The divide between pop, R&B and alternative music was much clearer in the 90s with each tribe standing firmly in their corner so soundtracks were a perfect time capsule for a particular moment in music. For fairness and ease, we are using 90s soundtracks that are very much of their time. We’re talking rock, ballads and hip-hop. It’s Doc Martens, divas and DiCaprios.
The most monstrous soundtracks of the 90s and of all time are The Bodyguard (1992) and Titanic (1997). For the majority of 1992 and 1997, you could not move for a soundtrack ballad from a diva. The Bodyguard has one of the best selling soundtracks of all time. ’I Have Nothing’, ‘Run to You’ and ‘I’m Every Woman’ are some of Whitney Houston’s biggest songs but ‘I Will Always Love You’ will forever be inseparable from her career and legacy. Less sentimentally, the flute-heavy ‘My Heart Will Go On’ was unavoidable as it hit the number one spot in 27 different countries and spent six weeks at the top of the Irish charts. It’s over the top, tasteless and overproduced, so it was the perfect song to launch James Cameron’s vanity ship.
In this golden era, the success of the song did not always correlate to the quality of the movie. Batman Forever (1995) may have dominated the box office at the time but its soundtrack has truly stood the test of time. It boasts PJ Harvey, Massive Attack, Nick Cave and Brandy but Seal’s ‘Kiss from a Rose’ and U2’s ‘Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me’ knock it out of the park. ‘Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me’ was released just for the movie, in between U2’s more extroverted albums Zooropa and Pop, and its villainous darkness was perfect for the cartoonishly bad movie. Seal’s ‘Kiss from a Rose’ was re-released for the movie and its second coming was a gift; an unstoppable force that unites us all in a blissful moment of harmony.
Godzilla (1998) was panned by critics and fans across the globe but its soundtrack was like a soundboard for the 90s alt-rock scene with contributions from Ben Folds, Foo Fighters, Silverchair and Rage Against The Machine. However, it’s the ludicrous addition of Puff Daddy and Jimmy Paige’s ‘Kashmir’ sampling ‘Come with Me’ that proves just how outlandish the 90s soundtrack could be. If they went full hog with the song, they went HAM with the video that practically had the same budget as the movie. At six minutes and 17 seconds long, the video sees Puff portrayed like the Messiah who is sent to save us from a giant, parthenogenetic, Japanese lizard. Also on the Godzilla soundtrack is Jamiroquai’s only UK number one song. ‘Deeper Underground’ managed to beat the mind-bending ‘Virtual Insanity’ in the charts. Sacrilegious, no?
Over the course of time, some movies were sadly overshadowed by their lead song. They crumbled to the dust while the music soared. Coolio’s ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’ is a cherished and celebrated throwback song. Knowing the lyrics is a clear marker of your vintage so if you meet someone who doesn’t know the words, they are too young – back away. If ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’ is forever woven into the cloth of music history, the atrocious Dangerous Minds (1995) is better forgotten. The abysmal City of Angels (1998) was totally eclipsed by Goo Goo Dolls’ ‘Iris’, the pinnacle of sensitive, alt-rock guy music. This was a big time for rock ballads and Aerosmith brazenly launched themselves on the bandwagon with ‘I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing’ for Armageddon (1998). It’s an irresistible song that flexes every muscle in your body as Steve Tyler’s squawks propel you to greatness. Unfortunately, the big movie ballads reached schmaltz overload when Ronan Keating kickstarted his briefly successful solo career with a cover of Keith Whitley’s ‘When You Say Nothing At All’ for Notting Hill (1999).
Nowadays, kids’ movies play it very safe and clean with their soundtracks but the PG flicks of yesteryear had edge. Dr. Doolittle’s (1998) soundtrack is an urban delight with Timbaland associated acts, like Ray J and Ginuwine, featuring heavily but Aaliyah’s ‘Are You That Somebody?’ was a coup for the soundtrack as it’s still considered a seminal moment for R&B music. Even more curious than the casting and plot of Space Jam (1996), a Looney Tunes basketball comedy featuring Michael Jordan and Bill Murray, is its hip-hop laden soundtrack. Busta Rhymes, Coolio, LL Cool J, Method Man and B-Real joined forces for ‘Hit ‘Em High (The Monstars’ Anthem)’ and Jay Z even took the time to write ‘Buggin’, a rap for Bugs Bunny. The Space Jam soundtrack is most notable for providing a platform for R. Kelly to distract from scandals and multiple legal cases he was involved in for marrying and engaging in sexual activity with minors. He took a break from writing filthy bedroom songs and released the big ballad ‘I Believe I Can Fly’, winning him three Grammy awards and becoming his most successful single ever. What a strange time to be alive.
If there is one man that nailed the soundtrack and movie success paradigm in the mid 90s, it was Will Smith. Want a song about a secret agency that catches aliens and protects planet earth? WHY NOT? Fancy a song about steampunk cowboys that features Stevie Wonder and Sisqo? WHY NOT? The 90s were the greatest time in the world to be Will Smith because not only was he king of the silver screen with Men In Black (1997) and Wild Wild West (1999), he topped the charts with songs of the same name. Some might say it’s lazy to release songs that outline the very plot but his songs are immediately associated with the movies that launched Smith as one of the world’s most bankable movie stars.
If the 90s were great for the Fresh Prince, they were even greater to be a teen movie star. Music was a key element in teen movies because of the almighty montage, as seen in Clueless (1995) and She’s All That (1999), but for every second teen movie released in the 90s, punk-pop bands Blink 182, Third Eye Blind and Smash Mouth received hefty royalty cheques. It was an extra special – and sticky – time because the teenagers of the 90s were the first teenagers ever to have internet access. The sex mad, porn-centric movies American Pie (1999) and Can’t Hardly Wait (1998) would be nothing without their sexual frustrated, nasally soundtracks. So as our heroes jizzed into every pie going and tried to win the girl, a new wave of Bro Culture was born and it came with a simple three-chord structure.
One of the ultimate music moments in any teen movie is, undoubtedly, when the dreamy Patrick (Heath Ledger) sings ‘I Love You Baby’ to a headstrong Kat (Julia Stiles) in 10 Things I Hate About You (1999). As our two leads played social outcasts, the music veered away from straight up pop and instead bands like Bikini Kill and The Raincoats peppered the soundtrack. One of Kat’s favourites bands is Letters To Cleo – a more 90s zeitgeist band I dare you to find – and they appeared in this perfect teen movie to perform ’I Want You To Want Me’ and ‘Cruel to Be Kind’. While 10 Things… is all about heart, Cruel Intentions (1999) is all about libido. So risqué was this movie that we had to blackmail our older sibling to rent it from Xtra-Vision for us. No heart was safe from the romance between Sebastian (Ryan Phillippe) and Annette (Reese Witherspoon) and no school piano was safe from a rendition of Counting Crows’ ‘Colourblind’. The Anglophilic soundtrack for Cruel Intentions was effortlessly cool, introducing Fatboy Slim, Blur and Placebo to American high schools. The Verve’s ‘Bittersweet Symphony’ dramatically drew this classic to an end, gloriously revealing Kathryn (Sarah Michelle Gellar) to be the cocaine-addled bitch she truly is.
In a post-Nirvana world, popular kids were often pushed aside so that the slackers and underdogs could have the limelight. Empire Records (1995), starring big names like Liv Tyler and Renee Zellweger and pillars of 90s culture Robin Tunney and Ethan Embry, is a diamond example of the freaks and geeks getting their dues. The movie follows the trials and tribulations of teenagers working in a record store so there’s a lot of plaid shirt tugging, combat boot scuffing and searching for meaning in a commercial world. The soundtrack is dabbled with mid-tempo grunge with The Cranberrries, The Gin Blossoms and Edwyn Collins’ ‘A Girl Like You’ leading the way. Even though Empire Records was a movie about music lovers, it didn’t bust its balls with definitively 90s acts, unlike Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (1996).
No expenses were spared in the making of Luhrmann’s characteristically stylish blockbuster and with a soundtrack that boasts Radiohead and Garbage, it was the complete package. Hell, they even got permission from Prince to use ‘When Doves Cry’. It spat out chart hits with The Wannadies’ ‘You and Me Song’ and The Cardigans’ ‘Lovefool’ while giving ‘Young Hearts, Run Free’ a new, even more colourful lease of life. Each song played a role in this adaptation of the world’s most famous tragedy; ’Whatever (I Had a Dream)’ by the aptly-named Butthole Surfers captured the listlessness of Romeo (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his crew, ‘Kissing You’ by Des’ree the magnetic force between him and Juliet (Claire Danes) and ‘#1 Crush’ by Garbage captured the heady and blurry atmosphere of fair Verona Beach. Even the inclusion of ‘To You I Bestow’, a rare, decent Mundy song, worked surprisingly well for our star-cross’d lovers.
The power of the movie soundtrack continued to rise into the early noughties with Moulin Rouge, Training Day, Save The Last Dance (2001), Spider-Man (2002) and Garden State (2004) sourcing original songs but more recent movies tend to go for big cinematic scores or, if you’re Martin Scorsese, rehash and reuse old classics to push a story on. Even though they’re not to everyone’s taste, franchises like The Hunger Games and Twilight have given movie soundtracks the kick up the arse it needs by curating incredibly slick soundtracks. The great movie soundtrack was at its peak in the 90s but it has not died out completely.
After all, where there’s a Will Smith, there’s still a way.