August 20, 2015
On Soundtracks and Generations
I vividly remember watching two young boys playing tennis in the late hours of a blisteringly hot summer morning. It was 1986, and they couldn’t have been more than ten years old. I cannot describe them, and I have no idea which of them earned bragging rights that day. What I do remember is that they brought with them a small portable tape deck, and before they started their playful completion, one of them made a simple demand: “Stand By Me.” “Play” was pressed, and in no time at all came the familiar opening chords of Ben E. King’s 1961 classic. It didn’t matter to these youngsters that the song had been released twenty-five years previously or that it was likely a favorite of their parents. What mattered was that the song, with its stirring lyrics and passionate chorus, had resonated with them.
Now, it is possible that these youngsters had sat down with their parents and discussed the music of their generation. However, it is much more likely that they had heard the song on the radio, something that would probably not have occurred were it not for the song’s inclusion in Rob Reiner’s hit film of the same title, a film about a group of young men’s dramatic passage into adulthood. The song even re-entered Billboard’s Hot 100 that year, peaking at #9.
Stand By Me would not be alone in bringing “old” music to new generations. Barry Levinson’s Good Morning Vietnam made young kids all over the United States sway to Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World,” Reservoir Dogs caused young people to rejoice to Blue Suede’s 1974 hit “Hooked on a Feeling,” and Dirty Dancing had young people talking about Bill Medley and his impressive vocals on “(I Had) The Time of My Life.” In fact, the soundtrack to Dirty Dancing proved to be so popular that a second volume was released, partly to pacify the growing mob who had been incensed that The Contour’s 1962 classic “Do You Love Me?” had been unforgivably left off the initial release.
There are more examples of the influence of the movie soundtrack. Adventures in Babysitting re-introduced The Crystal’s “And Then He Kissed Me,” Risky Business brought attention to Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock & Roll,” La Bamba returned Ritchie Valens to the public’s collective conscious, Prince’s Purple Rain had everyone going crazy, and Tom Cruise’s rendition of “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” made every member of my eight grade class run to pick up The Righteous Brothers’ Greatest Hits. And it wasn’t just old songs that soundtracks impacted. Coctail, another of Tom Cruise’s films, made The Beach Boys a hit with young people whose parents had grown up dancing to “California Girls,” and Kenny Loggins found new fans with his soundtrack hits “Meet Me Halfway” from Over the Top; “Dangerzone” and “Playing with the Boys” from Top Gun; and “Nobody’s Fool” from Caddyshack 2. Over the years, youngsters also flocked to record stores to pick up soundtracks for The Lost Boys, Sliver, Sleepless in Seattle, Pleasantville, Top Gun, The Lion King, Reality Bits, The Bodyguard, The Crow – the list goes on and on. Even instrumentals got in on the act. Who can forget “Axel F” from Beverly Hills Cop, the stirring score from The Piano, and David Foster’s “Love Theme” from St. Elmo’s Fire? It was a special time, one that is not likely to come again. Nowadays, it seems only Disney soundtracks can be counted on to sell.
Two films in particular stand out in my memory as enormous influences on my appreciation of music: Peter Weir’s Witness (1985) and Joe Dante’s 1987 film Innerspace. The first one featured Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis flirtatiously dancing to Wonderful World; the second Dennis Quaid’s playing of Cupid while floating in a capsule that had been inserted into a man instead of an animal. I can still recall my childhood friend Yuri playing Cupid incessantly after seeing Innerspace. Both of these films helped introduce the great Sam Cooke to a new generation, and many of them proceeded to buy his greatest hits collection, effectively embracing an artist that had died twenty-one years prior to the release of Weir’s film.
Years have passed, and the soundtrack has waned in influence. Gone are the days when soundtracks could be counted on launch number one singles like Ray Parker Jr.’s Ghostbusters or Irene Cara’s What a Feeling. These songs were assisted by MTV, which long ago moved away from music videos as their primary focus, as well as by music stores, which often played popular soundtracks in an effort to drum up sales. What I remember most of the period in which the soundtrack was king is just how much it exposed us all to, and I can’t help feeling that it enriched our lives, preventing us from sealing ourselves off from the artists of yesteryear and acting as if only our generation was capable of producing great music. After all, it was one thing for our parents to say it; it was quite another to see Tom Cruise waxing poetically about Otis Redding’s “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay.”
What caused to reflect on this was the birth of my daughter almost nine months ago. When I am home alone with her or when I am trying to calm her cries and assuage her tears, I find myself turning to Sam Cooke for assistance. Fortunately for me, more times than not, he doesn’t disappoint. My daughter seems to find in him a reassurance that tears are temporary and the future is bright. He says in a few notes what it would take me much longer to convey in words.
Movies are of course not the sole reason that I am aware of Sam Cooke. My parents were music enthusiasts in my childhood, and one of their favorite albums was his “You Send Me.” However, like many people, I went through a phase of rejecting what had been popular in the past. I dismissed black-and-white movies as unwatchable, John Wayne as an overactor, and The Beatles as boring. However, such negative sentiments never extended to artists like Sam Cooke, The Righteous Brothers, Otis Redding, and The Ronettes, perhaps because I didn’t associate them with the past. To me, they were the present, the soundtrack of the actors I admired and the movies I cherished. There were now. In a way, they still are. The proof is in my daughter’s smile and the playful giggles she give voice to while slowly spinning to Cooke’s “Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day.”