When I was younger and vainer, I would walk the mile and a half home from school alone, pretending I was the heroine in a movie about me. To complete the fantasy, I would score this scene with heartrending tunes I recalled from various movies (all of them tremendously dramatic and desperate for orchestral accompaniment). Pan the trees, my shuffling feet, the clouds, I would think—and set it to music.
Having been keenly aware of movie soundtracks since these after-school reveries, I set out to compile a list of the most noteworthy—those that have a life of their own outside the actual film they're linked with. In fact, they might just come in handy for scoring your own particular situations.
'THE BIG CHILL' ORIGINAL MOTION PICTURE SOUNDTRACK (Motown, $12.99): Was there ever a greater must-have soundtrack? For many, this collection became the ber-soundtrack, the one that brought on soundtrack madness. And hey, it worked! From the opening strains of "Heard It Through the Grapevine" to Three Dog Night's "Joy to the World" and two Smokey Robinson classics ("The Tracks of My Tears" and "I Second That Emotion"), this was a flick with soul. Does anyone actually remember what happened? I personally was too busy grooving to the music. Celebrate the 15th anniversary of this weekend reunion turned key party, and relive the songs that inspired this easily tempted cast (featuring a baby-faced Meg Tilly, a mustached Tom Berenger, and Glenn Close—not to mention Jeff Goldblum and Kevin Kline) and got me through high school. Damn, hearing Aretha deliver "You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman" is like hearing it for the first time. Forget that terrible date and run yourself a defiant bubble bath!
EYES WIDE SHUT (Warner Sunset/Reprise, $17.99): Though the movie's really nothing but one long come-on that doesn't deliver, parts of it do demonstrate Stanley Kubrick's genius for creating atmosphere. In the pretty but ineffectual sequences of a married couple being pulled apart by temptation, the whole thing plays like a silent movie—or a bad dream. Forget the immature dialogue; it doesn't tell you nearly as much as either the lustrous sets or the music. This soundtrack features everything from big-band cocktail-party fare (changing over from a lilting Shostakovich waltz to "When I Fall in Love") to a twinkling Lizst piano solo. Of particular note is the recurring piano theme of Gy� Ligeti's "Musica Ricerata II," in which two chromatic tones alternate in an ominous, steady tempo that will make your hair stand on end. This is perhaps the best suspense music since the squeals of Psycho or the Jaws theme; too bad the story didn't warrant such a feverish buildup. Then there's "Baby Did a Bad, Bad Thing" by Chris Isaak. Coming down from his "Wicked Game" falsetto, Isaak delivers a bad-boy growl that is downright sexy. Now this is music to crank up and undress to! Jocelyn Pook composed the music to the famously anticipated orgy scene ("The Masked Ball"), and, well, that wasn't terribly exciting to watch, but this music makes up for it. Taking up where Caligula leaves off, it's full of strange, Gregorian chant-like incantations against a wash of strings. It's enough to make imaginations run wild (at least wilder than Mr. Kubrick's). Pook also composes a world-music hodgepodge ("Migrations") that carries the two-tone piano piece to another level, complete with Indian singers, strings, and drumming.
MORE MUSIC FROM 'AUSTIN POWERS: THE SPY WHO SHAGGED ME' (Maverick, $17.97): Is there any more reason to buy this soundtrack sequel than the remix of Madonna's damn catchy "Beautiful Stranger"? It's hard to imagine better fare for the pop star, who gets to be sultry and go-go at the same time. So she hasn't exactly evolved since "Lucky Star," but who cares? The fact is, this movie was all about selling out. See, this isn't even the real soundtrack; it's "more" than the original offerings. Which is why the fake James Bond stuff (They Might Be Giants' "Dr. Evil" and George Clinton's "Austin Powers Shagadelic Medley") doesn't take up much space here. Instead, this disc is littered with leftovers from every '60s time capsule, like the Monkees' "I'm a Believer," the Guess Who's "American Woman," as well as Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On," Steppenwolf's "Magic Carpet Ride," and the Zombies' "Time of the Season." Booo-ring! But you can shake your tush to "Am I Sexy?" by Lords of Acid, and slide down a pole to "Bachelor Pad" by Fantastic Plastic Machine. Otherwise, can you say "marketing gimmick"?
THE STRAIGHT STORY (Windham Hill, $17.99): Ah, those amber waves of grain. In the opening scene of this gem, those amber waves are approached from above by a soaring camera that hones in on rows of wheat being sucked into a combine (in other words, a glorified lawnmower). Which brings us to the story of Alvin Straight and his John Deere odyssey through the heartland. The accompanying score, composed by Angelo Badalamenti, is chock-full of quiet guitars, some softly screeching fiddles ("Lauren's Walking"), and a lot of uncomplicated, echoey strumming and bowing ("Alvin's Theme"). The net effect creates a sense of open space, and is about as straightforward as Richard Farnsworth's Alvin stabbing a weenie with a stick to roast it over an open fire. Windham Hill, home of New Age mood music, has a charmer here. The tunes are sweet and memorable, much like the movie, and don't readily let us forget that there is something bigger out there than all of us. In Alvin's case, it happens to be forgiveness. Kick your feet up and stare out the window—this one calls for solo contemplation.
ELIZABETH (London Classics, $17.99): Shafted by Oscar, this film had so much going for it that it's no wonder the music went into the dustbin at last year's Academy Awards. Here's a real classical swooner for cinema freaks who like their movies richly textured and their soundtracks equally so, though you needn't have seen the 1998 film to appreciate the aural setting that composer David Hirschfelder constructs. There's the intense, moan-filled, and quite somber "Overture"; the haunting "Night of the Long Knives" ("Domine secundum actum meum" by William Byrd), where a woman's voice unfurls against Elizabethan harmonies; and the memorable "Coronation Banquet," at which the sterling Cate Blanchett calls for a rather scandalous dance in front of the court and hoofs to it unabashedly with her lover, played by Joseph Fiennes (who was also in that other period movie). The varied offerings connote strength and vulnerability, passion and fear. Early-music freaks will love "Rondes," a courtly dance set to harpsichord and strings, with a persistent drum beat (originally Tielman Susato's "Dansereye"). And what more regal setting for the film's finale than a selection from Mozart's Requiem? Not cheery, mind you, but austere and triumphant and all that good stuff that keeps me coming back. Also recommended after a particularly tough day at the office.
THE RED VIOLIN (Sony Classical, $17.97): In this film about a single violin that survives 300 years you will find a ravishing score composed by John Corigliano, who took a lullaby and turned it into distinctive period variations—Vienna in the 1800s, Gypsy tunes, Romantic-era England, and China during the Cultural Revolution. Violinist Joshua Bell plays the lullaby ("Anna's Theme") tenderly, then turns and applies the appropriate barbarism to a late-Romantic cadenza and the technical wizardry required of a Paganini-esque etude. There's also a rousing Gypsy melody and connective orchestral swells that carry the violin through time and over oceans. In a flash of marketing genius, Corigliano also includes his Chaconne for Violin and Orchestra, titled "The Red Violin," a composite of many of the movie's themes but intended for a concert stage. No doubt this will become a crowd favorite, and it's nothing for Carnegie Hall snobs to scoff at: This music not only transcends the film, it holds its own as a contribution to the violin repertoire.
ETERNITY AND A DAY (ECM New Series, $17.97): The film never received the wave of good tidings here that it did at Cannes, and as a result I saw a perfectly in- tense trailer but never the actual film. Set as a modern-day Odyssey, Greek director Theo Angelopoulos inspired composer Eleni Karaindrou to return to her country's musical roots—and the result is a wash of mandolins, winds, accordion, piano, and strings that revisit a simple, beautiful folk tune in many variations. So, while the movie is still fairly elusive, this provocative three-four melody is enough to heighten my curiosity. It moves forward like the journey of the Everyman protagonist in the film: tentatively at first, then with confidence and possibility. A lovely CD to slip on while you're tidying up around the apartment. Or, better still, when you're learning how to waltz.
QUADROPHENIA (Uni/Polygram, $11.97): I'd be remiss if I didn't at least mention this Who classic. From the gut-wrenching "Love, Reign O'er Me" to the sounds of waves crashing against the pebbles at Brighton, this soundtrack is not only still entertaining, it also delivers a surprising emotional wallop. Scenes in working-class England complement Pete Townsend's energized guitar riffs, and late in the film a synthesizer opens up the visual scale of the cliffs of Dover when our hero heads straight for them on his scooter. Mod, smart, poetic, and moody, these tunes are right on in their attempt to get at the heart of teen apathy and the desire to escape surroundings offering little in the way of dreams. An all-time great.
FELICITY (Hollywood Records, $17.99): Okay, it's not a movie, but catharsis awaits with this compilation of songs featured at one time or another on the popular WB drama. Turn it on and you'll be whisked back to the dorm: Think finals, hunkering down for all-nighters, jammed lecture halls, cafeteria anxiety. All in all, a spunky collection that will make you feel like you're a lowly college student again, or a virgin who can do anything you set your mind to! Highlights: "She Will Have Her Way" (Neil Finn's anthemic tune features lots of strumming, but with the message that the "she" he sings about will overcome any obstacles) and Air's "All I Need" (hip, understated, and, okay, it's a makeout song—the show's fans will be reminded of the time Felicity and Noel smooched while playing Boggle in her room last season). The rest of the fare falls into the "have dorm room, will listen" genre: Sarah McLachlan, Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel, and Aretha provide fodder for any earnest, college-age identity crisis. Then, finally, there's the "as seen only on Felicity" song: Pert, jilted Julie, played by Amy Jo Johnson (formerly the pink Power Ranger), croons her own song, "Puddle of Grace." Should Jewel be worried?
CINEMA CENTURY 2000 (Silva Screen Records, $31.99): For those hard-to-decide music moments, here's the mother lode—the soundtrack anthology! These four CDs traverse the formidable chronology of film music from the 1930s to the present day. Beginning with such greats as Max Steiner's theme music to 1933's King Kong (do you remember the music as Fay Wray was scooped up by those big, hairy hands?), Prokofiev's overture to 1938's Alexander Nevsky, and with a few nuggets from composer Erich Korngold (the Errol Flynn vehicles The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Sea Hawk), they just keep coming. Then, of course, there's the swoony Henry Mancini hit "Moon River" from Breakfast At Tiffany's, as well as the suave James Bond theme and Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Flash forward, and suddenly you leave Ghost and Basic Instinct behind in favor of flicks from the last decade: Danny Elfman's Batman suite, Braveheart, Apollo 13, Titanic, Saving Private Ryan, and The Mask of Zorro. Who knows, if you're not careful you may find yourself walking along whistling the theme from The Guns of Navarone.
Emily Baillargeon Russin is the assistant managing editor at Seattle Weekly.