Photograph by Eddy Chen/HBO
From 'Encanto' To "Euphoria" And "Grand Theft Auto V": Behind The Making Of A Great Soundtrack
With the popularity of music-heavy shows like "Euphoria" and musical movies like 'Encanto,' conversation around the songs used in visual media have never been more prevalent. But what exactly makes a great soundtrack?
Even if you've never heard Labrinth’s scoring work outside of “Euphoria” or seen Disney's Encanto, chances are you know two things: How Labrinth’s vocals can pierce through a track to freeze an audience and not to talk about Bruno. That's the power of a great soundtrack — it has the potential to transcend the artist and its host format while simultaneously propping up both.
Not all soundtracks have scores written by GRAMMY-nominated artists or go on to spend eight weeks atop Billboard's 200 chart (as the Encanto soundtrack has), but the great ones do follow a similar path of storytelling, collaboration and transcendent impact.
A Great Soundtrack Tells A Story
Many people consider the music in Encanto, with its irresistible catchiness and universal charm, to be the epitome of a great soundtrack. But there's also a large subset of people who would prefer a more eccentric set of songs, like those in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. Yet a great soundtrack isn't determined by its replay value or its musical distinction — it's determined by the joint effort of the music and the visual media’s story.
"Music can just take a scene to a specific place," Karsten Runquist, a writer/director and reviewer of over 1,500 films on Letterboxd, said. "'Euphoria' is a really good example right now. It's just littered with music, and it really drives the mood of the show. Different characters have different songs. Each character in the show kind of has their own playlist — it's another way of adding depth."
In season 2, episode 3 of "Euphoria," INXS's 1987 song "Never Tear Us Apart" is played while Cal Jacobs — an abusive, adulterous main character in the show — dances with his high school lover in a flashback scene. The song's romantic but foreboding lyrics of "they could never tear us apart" add dramatic irony, and helps viewers form a complex understanding of what might otherwise seem to be a strictly deplorable character.
According to "Euphoria's" Music Supervisor Jen Malone, the new wave track was so integral to Jacobs' backstory that the show's creator wrote it into the script himself. "We have no parameters about the genres or the time period … We wanted to stay in our world and use the music as an interesting storytelling device [and a] very prominent character in the show," Malone told the Ringer.
In many cases, the role of music can even surpass that of a central character. Films like Pulp Fiction, SuperFly, Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse, Shaft and countless others use music to weave together plots and define characters. Sometimes, the music in these films becomes just as memorable, if not more so, than the action or dialogue. For example, Miles Morales losing track of time while humming along to “Sunflower” in Into the SpiderVerse emphasizes how young the character is just as well as any visual could.
A Great Soundtrack Is Collaborative
Crafting a soundtrack generally comes down to three major elements: the storytelling foundation of the medium, the music taste of those involved, and the relationship between director, music supervisor and artist.
“Grand Theft Auto V” (GTA V) features Frank Ocean as the host of an always-on, in-game radio station and includes Dr. Dre as a key character in the game's downloadable content, "The Contract." Such superstar additions would likely be impossible if Rockstar games had not spent decades pushing for quality music in its “GTA” series.
"We've built one of the biggest platforms in the world for music," Ivan Pavlovich, Director of Music for Rockstar Games, told the Los Angeles Times in 2018. "We fight for this in every game, and artists can see that. We could have gone in any direction, but we're making choices based on the music we love."
The importance of/the tendency to create soundtrack choices based on personally beloved music is a sentiment Malone echoed.
“['Euphoria'] is almost like a mixtape that we give to our audience. Like in the same way that everybody shares music, you know a friend will be like, 'Oh my god, this song is so dope, you have to listen to it,' and then it enters your personal playlist, right? So in a way, it's like we're sharing Sam's mixtape to the audience," she explained to Buzzfeed.
Malone estimates that the average "Euphoria" episode may feature up to 37 tracks in an hour-long runtime, while "GTA V" has over 400 songs and 16 radio stations. For stories like those told on "Euphoria" and "GTA V," attempting to create a soundtrack that matches the graphic nature of their plots can lead to a series of dead-end phone calls, difficult conversations and denials, leaving more room for original scores to fill.
"[Creating an original score] is a blend of me and the director speaking… and just shooting the breeze about 'Oh, I love this music, or I love this soundtrack,'" explains Labrinth, who composed the score for Malcom & Marie and co-produced The Lion King: The Gift soundtrack. "Quite a lot of the process for me is that I zone out, I'll watch some footage, or I'll hear what somebody says to me. And then I kind of throw all of that stuff away. And I go, 'What does my instinct say needs to go in this area or into this scene?'"
A Great Soundtrack Is Magical
A great soundtrack has the power to break new acts and breathe life into past hits. According to Spotify, streams of Colbie and G.L.A.M.'s "Uhuh Yeah" increased 2,700 percent and Sinéad O'Connor's 1987 track "Drink Before the War" increased by 26,900 percent after appearing in season 2 of "Euphoria."
As insane as some of these streaming boosts can be, soundtrack placements have even more power than just skyrocketing listener counts — they can go as far as freeing an artist from the creative expectations they place on their personal projects.
"When I was making music for myself, I would overthink it, or I would second guess stuff, and it was a bit more precious .... It felt more dangerous to me and [that there was] much more to lose," Labrinth details. There's less pressure when creating an original score, however, "because I'm trying...to elevate something they're creating, so it feels like it's a collaborative effort. And so it kind of takes the weight off of yourself needing to make something perfect."
Whether the soundtrack goes on to become a record-breaker like Encanto or serves as a timeless collection of music like Kendrick Lamar's Black Panther album, a great soundtrack maintains the impact of the visual media while transcending its original, supplementary role.
"When you match great songs with a great show, then when you listen to those songs, part of the show is still in your psyche. You remember the show and you can relate. It speaks to your life," says Uziel Colon, Sr. Project Manager of the Latin & Music For Visual Media category at the Recording Academy. "Once you marry great songs, great lyrics, great shows and scenes…That's magic."
Photo: Rommel Demano / Getty Images
Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross Wrote Original Score For New Doc
The GRAMMY-winning duo have written 17 original tracks for Ken Burns' latest documentary on the Vietnam War
Burns' latest documentary, The Vietnam War, will be broadcast on PBS as a 10-part television event beginning on Sept. 17, and Reznor and Ross' 17-track soundtrack will be released as a two-disc CD and three-LP vinyl package on Sept. 15.
The pair have had much success in film music over the past years, winning an Oscar and a Golden Globe for the soundtrack for The Social Network, nabbing a GRAMMY nomination for their work on the Gone Girl soundtrack, and winning for Best Score Soundtrack For Visual Media for The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo at the 55th GRAMMY Awards. Their previous documentary soundtrack projects include the Leonardo DiCaprio-narrated Before The Flood, as well as director Peter Berg's acclaimed retelling of the Boston Marathon bombing, Patriot's Day.
Reznor's and Ross' 17 original tracks will stand a long side a curated compilation of contemporary music from the Vietnam War era, selected by Burns and his co-director Lynn Novick. This companion package will be released as a two-disc package entitled The Vietnam War: The Soundtrack, and will include selections by Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding, and Marvin Gaye.
Beyonce and Blue Ivy
Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images
Beyonce Releases Stunning 'Lion King' "Spirit" Music Video Featuring A Blue Ivy Cameo
The brand-new visuals premiered during an ABC primetime special on Tuesday, July 16
Beyoncé brings dramatic choreography to the desert and waterfall backgrounds in her video for "Spirit," the first single from her curated Lion King: The Gift album featuring Jay Z, Kendrick Lamar, Childish Gambino, Tierra Whack and more from Disney's The Lion King remake.
The "Formation" singer, who voices "Nala" in The Lion King remake, wears colorful dresses as she dances emotively on cue with groups of dancers in the video, which premiered in an ABC primetime special on Tuesday, July16. Her daughter Blue Ivy Carter also makes a special cameo in the clip, wearing a matching outfit and sporting red hair.
"This is sonic cinema... This is a new experience of storytelling. I wanted to do more than find a collection of songs that were inspired by the film. It is a mixture of genres and collaboration that isn’t one sound. It is influenced by everything from R&B, pop, hip hop and Afro Beat," she said. "Each song was written to reflect the film’s storytelling that gives the listener a chance to imagine their own imagery, while listening to a new contemporary interpretation. It was important that the music was not only performed by the most interesting and talented artists but also produced by the best African producers. Authenticity and heart were important to me."
'Baby Driver' and beyond: 7 soundtracks that spook, spark and shine
Explore how these soundtracks steered their films and left their mark on pop culture
It's no secret that the 2017 crime film Baby Driver, directed by Edgar Wright, has steered its way into the zeitgeist, largely thanks to its killer soundtrack. And like a legacy of film music before it, Baby Driver's music is changing the soundtrack game.
Whether it's the '80s hip-hop of Do The Right Thing or the disco-driving tunes of Saturday Night Fever, music can often provide the boost to push the film into a class of its own. Covering more than 60 years of film music, check out this list of seven soundtracks that influenced generations of pop culture.
Baby Driver, 2017
A heist-gone-wrong film, Wright's Baby Driver taps heavy hitters from the '70s with tracks from Queen, Beck, Barry White, and the Beach Boys, among many others — a total of 35 songs made it into the film. "You could describe Baby Driver as a car-chase movie set to rock and roll," writes Variety. "Or, conversely, you could think of it as a playlist that happens to have a crime film attached." And the film's title? It's Simon & Garfunkel's "Baby Driver" from their Album Of The Year GRAMMY-winning Bridge Over Troubled Water — not to be confused with the KISS song of the same name.
O Brother, Where Art Thou?, 2000
This Coen Brothers classic follows three convicts who escape from a chain gang and chase buried treasure through 1930s Mississippi. Hilarity ensues, but what makes this film unique was its soundtrack based on music from the deep south, including folk, country and bluegrass. Produced by GRAMMY winner T Bone Burnett, O Brother, Where Art Thou earned an Album Of The Year GRAMMY for its participating musicians, including Alison Krauss, Emmylou Harris and the Fairfield Four.
Pulp Fiction, 1994
Kool & The Gang's "Jungle Boogie," Al Green's "Let's Stay Together" and Chuck Berry's "You Never Can Tell" read like a who's who of rock royalty on Pulp Fiction's soundtrack. "The mixture of surf, soul and s***-talking that Quentin Tarantino assembled for Pulp Fiction's soundtrack played out like one of the world's coolest mixtapes, which made it an instant classic," writes Rolling Stone. While the soundtrack made commercial waves when it peaked at No. 21 on the Billboard 200, its lasting legacy comes from the retro surf-rock vibes of the film's opener, Dick Dale's 1962 breakout single "Mirislou," which still sounds fresh decades later.
Do The Right Thing, 1989
Hip-hop was still primarily an underground genre in the late '80s, but Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing changed all that when Public Enemy's "Fight The Power" blasted first during the film's opening credit roll, and then later straight from Radio Raheem's boombox during the film's climax. "Peppered with 'new jack' era slabs of wax from the likes of Public Enemy (the iconic "Fight The Power"), summer party staples from E.U. ("Party Hearty") and Teddy Riley ("My Fantasy"), and deep slow jams from Perri and Al Jarreau, it's the perfect background for a hot night in the city," writes AllMusic.com.
Saturday Night Fever, 1977
From subcultures to the main stage, there was no better catalyst for disco than Saturday Night Fever. The primarily Bee Gees-penned album caught fire, earned four No. 1 singles and five GRAMMYs, including Album Of The Year for 1978. But what Robert Stigwood, film producer and head of the Bee Gees' label RSO Records, effectively did was bring the genre to a white-hot peak. "Disco made an unexpected leap in the culture, from popular musical style to genuine phenomenon," writes The Dissolve.
Shaft, in a word? Blaxploitation. Composer Isaac Hayes' classic soul double album may contain primarily instrumentals, but that doesn't lessen the soundtrack's impact. The memorable "Theme From Shaft" — one of only three tracks with vocals on the LP — not only won composer Isaac Hayes a GRAMMY, it also earned him an Oscar and became the best-selling record for Stax in its history. Shaft paved the way for other greats in the Blaxploitation genre, such as Curtis Mayfield's Super Fly, and, as A.V. Club says, "fomented a soundtrack revolution."
If you aren't creeped out by Psycho's iconic murderous shower screen, complete with high-pitched scratching violins courtesy of composer Bernard Herrmann, you're stronger than we are. No stranger to Alfred Hitchcock films, including Vertigo and North By Northwest, Herrmann turned up the dial to 100 for Psycho with just spooky stringed instruments. The film's music has become synonymous with terror, and even Hitchcock had to admit, "33 percent of the effect of Psycho was due to the music."
Which film soundtrack do you think made the biggest impact? Vote below!