The 90s were the last great decade for movie soundtracks

Who can forget hearing Roxette’s “It Must Have Been Love” as Julia Roberts gazed wistfully out of a car window after saying goodbye to her lover in “Pretty Woman?” Or Toni Braxton’s “Love Shoulda Bring You Home” after Halle Berry broke up epically with cheater Eddie Murphy in “Boomerang?” Or “Kids in America” ​​by the Muffs introducing the teenage spirit of “clueless?”

These are just a few of the songs that helped define a golden age for movie soundtracks in the ’90s, when the cinematic experience wasn’t just about film. Chances are, if you went to see a great movie, you would have already worn its soundtrack so badly that it sounded like a dog had chewed through the cassette. Or if you didn’t already have the album, you ran to Sam Goody shortly after watching the movie to rectify that.

Because it was not enough to see a film that we liked. At the time, we devoured all the expansions. We had to buy the poster, the t-shirt, and the almighty soundtrack of A-to-B bangers. big movie studios like Paramount and New Line Cinema to take even more of our money. So we could blast Nate Dogg and Warren G’s “Regulate” from the “Above the Rim” soundtrack while driving down the street or at home.

It was a great time for albums in all genres, especially as grunge and hip-hop were catapulted into the mainstream and Hollywood was determined to be a big part of it. The studios also capitalized on our love affair with nostalgia with hits like Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion” on “Dazed and Confused” and The Mamas & the Papas’ “California Dreamin'” on the “Forrest Gump”. Or recruited some of the biggest pop stars of all time, like Celine Dion, to launch a movie like “Titanic” straight into the stratosphere.

These soundtracks captured the rage, grief, chaos, and rise of a generation that might never have quite realized what they had back then. Or how fleeting it was.

“It’s completely changed,” Chris Hite, a film professor at Allan Hancock College, told HuffPost. “Almost 1999, just like a switch flipped and it was over.”

Larenz Tate and Nia Long on the set of New Line Cinema’s ‘Love Jones’, circa 1997.

Archive by Michael Ochs/Getty Images

It’s true. In the late 90s, largely original and consistent soundtracks like those of “Love Jones” and “Cruel Intentions” deteriorated as we entered the difficult years. In order to discuss why this happened, we need to talk about how 90s soundtracks became what they did in the first place.

Much of their success can be attributed to the meteoric rise of hip-hop and R&B as black America reacted to new social and political upheavals, marked by events like the Los Angeles Uprising, and in passing of that culture to the mainstream.

If director Spike Lee helped bring hip-hop to white Hollywood and America when he used the Public Enemy anthem “Fight the Power” in 1989’s “Do the Right Thing,” filmmakers like Ernest R Dickerson, John Singleton and Mario Van Peebles took that to a whole new level in the 90s.

For example, Singleton immersed his audience in a story that seamlessly blends the musical genre with the lives of young black men in the resonant drama “Boyz n the Hood.” Its soundtrack featured songs like Ice Cube’s “How to Survive in South Central”.

And with its success came a series of black movies and hip-hop soundtracks for and by black people that tackled things like ambition, systemic racism, masculinity, and family and love relationships more directly than never.

“A lot of what you saw was white studios realizing this burgeoning movement was happening,” said Todd “Stereo” Williams, columnist for The Daily Beast and Billboard. “John Singleton does ‘Boyz n the Hood’, then the next four years you see ‘Juice’ and ‘Menace II Society’. It’s like a wave.

Cuba Gooding Jr. hangs out with his buddies in a scene from the movie
Cuba Gooding Jr. hangs out with his buddies in a scene from the movie ‘Boyz n the Hood,’ circa 1991.

Columbia Pictures/Getty Images)

Like “Boyz n the Hood” and many other films of its ilk, Hollywood also capitalized on established hip-hop names like Ice-T, Tupac Shakur, Will Smith and Ice Cube as then-nascent actors who inevitably also lent their talent to the unforgettable soundtracks.

As far as Hollywood — and to be fair, the buying public that gobbled up these albums like Tic Tacs — was concerned, it was a win-win situation.

“A big part of why you started seeing so many rappers in movies [was] because a lot of studios realize that there was money in it, that you have a built-in audience,” Williams said. “So it’s studio savvy and also just a reflection of a cultural shift.”

The same could be said of singer-turned-actress Whitney Houston, who made “The Bodyguard” the best-selling soundtrack of all time to date with indelible songs like “I Will Always Love You” and “I Have Nothing”.

“Whitney’s approach was almost like a Black Barbra Streisand kind of thing,” Williams suggested. “[It] was really a package for her to become that. And it worked. ‘The Bodyguard’ era is his greatest era.

It doesn’t matter if fewer people actually watched the movie, or even liked it, than bought the soundtrack — or watched the movie primarily to hear the songs in it. A similar example is the “Above the Rim” soundtrack which includes SWV’s hit “Anything” in addition to “Regulate”.

It’s a far cry from the synergy of the “Love Jones” soundtrack, featuring Maxwell’s “Sumthin’ Sumthin'” and Dionne Farris’ sultry single “Hopeless.” Or the “Boomerang” soundtrack, featuring Babyface’s “Give U My Heart” and the aforementioned Braxton jam – or Brandy’s “Sittin’ Up in My Room” and Mary J. Blige’s “Not Gon’ Cry” “Waiting to Exhale” soundtrack. These are all classic albums paired with classic movies.

“It was kind of a cross-pollination of black labels that really came to the fore, black filmmakers in the foreground and hip-hop in the foreground,” Williams added, “in a way that all of those things are connected the same time .”

A scene from
A scene from “Waiting to Exhale”, directed by Forest Whitaker.

Frank Trapper/Corbis via Getty Images

Films and soundtracks by white artists, on the other hand, obviously did not have a long history of social and artistic oppression as the driving force behind their success. Rather, they faced the same feelings that white America, especially young white America, had at the time: displacement, uncertainty, and unrest.

Early ’90s soundtracks went from fun like Natalie Cole’s “Wild Women Do” on the “Pretty Woman” soundtrack to something more rebellious and nostalgic for when young people stood for something, like The Runaways’ “Cherry Bomb” on “Dazed and Confused”. “album.

“It was about, ‘Where are the young people now?'” Hite said. “Where are their heads? Where is the future? What future does it hold for them?

When soundtracks started to honestly address these issues, like The Verve’s “Bitter Sweet Symphony” on the “Cruel Intentions” soundtrack and Muffs’ track in “Clueless,” they really exploded.

With the help of then-emerging grunge music, the “Singles” soundtrack reflected the mood of traditional American youth navigating ideas of romance and adulthood while still discovering themselves. Hits like “Would?” by Alice in Chains and “Breath” by Pearl Jam sums it up.

The same kind of existential crisis is apparent on the “Clerks” soundtrack, which also includes a track from Alice in Chains, “Got Me Wrong”, and Soul Asylum’s “Can’t Even Tell”. There was a sense of desperation and anguish, especially among young people, simmering over these films that spilled over their soundtracks. Naturally, the public latched onto every track.

“There was this rediscovery of youth culture,” Hite explained. “So you had new wave, punk, heavy metal – and all of those elements were marketable. Films like “Singles” were directly dedicated to this phenomenon by capturing this moment in time. »

Somewhere in the middle of it all, Lisa Loeb’s “Stay (I Missed You)” and Lenny Kravitz’s “Spinning Around Over You” from the “Reality Bites” soundtrack delivered sweet yet soulful melodies that worked wonders. for the film and provided a heartbeat for this moment.

But as we neared the end of the decade, hip-hop had begun to take over white America. Some of the same kids who were on the “Clerks” soundtrack also picked up a copy of the “Men in Black” CD featuring Smith’s title track and “Same Ol’ Thing” from A Tribe Called Quest.

It gave something closer to “Clueless,” which used Coolio’s “Rollin’ With My Homies” and gave it a whole new context when sparks (sort of) fly between two teenage characters.

Stacey Dash and Alicia Silverstone in a scene from
Stacey Dash and Alicia Silverstone in a scene from “Clueless”, released in 1995.

CBS Photo Archive via CBS via Getty Images

The soundtrack to “Can’t Hardly Wait,” borrowing from the film’s high school graduation vibes, practically merged white and black America with songs like Blink-182’s “Dammit” and “Hit ‘Em Wit Da Hee (remix)” by Missy Elliott.

Yet despite a plethora of black music on its soundtrack, there are hardly any black faces in “Can’t Hardly Wait.” While more subtle than, say, “Dangerous Minds” and its soundtrack a few years earlier, the admittedly good album “Can’t Hardly Wait” reflects a false closeness to hip-hop that remains indicative of the young White America.

Williams sees some nuance in this trend. “If you get into hip hop after 1995, you get into something very mainstream, which was very centered around pop culture in general,” he said. “At that time, rappers had TV shows and movies and you saw references in ‘Clueless’.”

True. Great soundtracks of all genres were as ubiquitous as they were accessible throughout the 90s. So why did it come to a screeching halt after that? Consumers who were instrumental in their success turned to digital music platforms like Napster, which allowed them to painstakingly select tracks and create their own playlists that eventually replaced movie soundtracks and other albums. .

And this drop in demand naturally led to lower interest and money to even produce a high-caliber soundtrack. “Now what you see is a big closing credit song will be by Beyoncé or something and they’re going to get hype,” Williams said. “But you don’t really see the whole soundtrack becoming a phenomenon like it was then.”

Makes you kinda want to pull out your old “Love Jones” or “Titanic” CD and blast it at high volume, doesn’t it? What an era.

About John Villalpando

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