The impact of music within a film is like something that few faces at the beginning of cinema could have predicted. Far beyond providing background noise to the stories unfolding in front of our eyes, music is now used the emphasise elation, compound misery and provide a spark of life where death feels ever-present. It has become a vital piece of any director’s weaponry and is now rightly given the respect it deserves. While the fable “original soundtrack” has been around for decades, there is a good argument to say it reached its peak in the 1990s.
As Quentin Tarantino once explained: “One of the things I do when I am starting a movie, when I’m writing a movie or when I have an idea for a film is, I go through my record collection and just start playing songs, trying to find the personality of the movie, find the spirit of the movie. Then, ‘boom,’ eventually I’ll hit one, two or three songs, or one song in particular, ‘Oh, this will be a great opening credit song.’”
One reason for the impression music left on the decade was the explosion of Indiewood, a name given to the sudden rise of previously unknown directors who were not only making clever shorts and arthouse flicks but were now filling cinemas across the globe, with Tarantino acting as their poster boy. With a new and vibrant set of backsides in the director’s chairs, the chance to create a soundtrack that both aided the narrative and provided some extra cool points was too tempting to turn down.
Across the decade, there were countless films that came jam-packed with a banging soundtrack. Below, we’ve collected ten of our favourites from the decade, but, in truth, the list could be three times as long and not really have any duds. For example, we’ve left out the mind-boggling good Street Fighter (1994), largely because it was such a poor film. We’ve also avoided music-centric films such as Wim Wenders‘ Until The End of the World (1991) and Cameron Crowe’s Singles (1992), though all have a cracking OST.
Instead, we’ve got a heady blend of fantastic films and wonderful soundtracks, which both point to the 1990s as being one of the movie world’s finest decades in history. With CD now cheaper than ever and the chance to cash in on Hollywood hysteria becoming easier by the second, most director’s wanted a great soundtrack for their film. Here, we have ten of the best.
The best movie soundtracks from the 1990s:
10. Wayne’s World – Penelope Spheeris (1992)
One of the most hilarious titles on our list, Mike Myers and Dana Carver’s SNL comedy sketch Wayne’s World was always likely to have a high-quality soundtrack. Flecked with the hair metal of the previous decade, by the time the feature film hit the cinemas, the cultural shift to grunge and hip hop as we know it had already begun.
That doesn’t stop the soundtrack from being full of incredible songs that are intrinsically connected to the film at hand, whether it is their marvellous performance of Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ in the back of the car or Cassandra’s hair-raising rendition of Sweet song ‘Ballroom Blitz’, every track on the album is a hilarious or headbanging moment.
9. The Nightmare Before Christmas – Tim Burton (1993)
When Tim Burton approached studios to have his animated feature film The Nightmare Before Christmas he was met with scoffs of disdain and a general look of puzzlement. The strange story of a skeleton who learns the value of Christmas is perfect Burton fodder but was massively improved by the score of Oingo Boingo’s Danny Elfman.
Elfman decided to disband Oingo Boingo in 1995 – two years after the film’s release – to concentrate on making scores, perhaps because of the huge success of his role as Burton’s Jack Skeleton. The soundtrack was full of original songs and wonderful moments from the film that was even redone in 2008, with Fiona Apple and Fall Out Boy providing covers.
8. Rushmore – Wes Anderson (1999)
Rushmore acts as not only Anderson’s most determined story but also his darkest. Its protagonist is ambitious to the point of annoying man-boy is expertly played by Jason Schwartzman, and he acts as one of Anderson’s greatest characters. Certainly his most complete.
While there may be suggestions of an autobiographical tone, what Anderson does with Rushmore is attack the dangerous and darker themes of modern life head-on. Much of Anderson’s output is a pleasing and engaging trip through a beautiful post-modern gallery of sumptuous visuals, and the soundtrack only adds further credence to his vision. Anderson keeps close to his British invasion infatuation and delivers songs from The Who, Kinks, and Faces providing some beautiful moments.
7. Boyz N The Hood – John Singleton (1991)
Quite possibly one of the best films of the ’90s, John Singleton’s classic tale of three friends trying to make it out of the hood was always likely to have a great soundtrack, largely because one of the starring roles was given to Ice Cube, the former N.W.A. rapper now making his solo career multi-faceted.
Ironically, Ice Cube penned the lyrics for Eazy-E’s debut single ‘Boyz-n-the-Hood’, yet it didn’t feature in the film when it was released five years later. Cube did bring a classic of his own, though, providing a new tune with ‘How to Survive in South Central’, but his main role was opening up the whole West Coast rap scene to a brand new audience with the bustling soundtrack.
6. Belly – Hype Williams (1998)
One of the finest hip hop music video directors of all time, Hype Williams had an all-star array of talent to call on for the soundtrack to his first feature film, Belly. A crime drama starring rap stars like Method Man, Nas, DMX and T-Boz was naturally going to have a hefty OST.
The Def Jam soundtrack was bristling with talent topped off by the numerous ensemble songs from the film’s all-star cast, with ‘Grand Finale’ being the brightest moment of the LP. But there are also moments from Jay-Z, Gang Starr, Rakim and D’Angelo that complete the set.
5. Natural Born Killers – Oliver Stone (1994)
One of the most visceral titles on our list, Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers is one film that deserves a bit of time and space when watching it, largely because, when you’re done, you’ll need a moment to recalibrate your soul. The soundtrack takes its cue from the script and keeps things a little bit obscure.
The man charged with encapsulating the film was Nine Inch Nails’ maestro Trent Reznor. A long time before he would become one of Hollywood’s finest musicians alongside Atticus Ross, Reznor took on the Stone film and provided one of the best soundtracks of the decades. It included songs from Leonard Cohen and a particularly brilliant Velvet Underground cover from The Cowboy Junkies.
4. Jackie Brown – Quentin Tarantino (1997)
Tarantino’s 1997 masterpiece Jackie Brown is most certainly one of the director’s most overlooked films. Starring Pam Grier and Samuel L Jackson, the film is a joy from start to finish. What makes it all the more special is the unique and perfectly appointed soundtrack. Beginning with Bobby Womack’s ‘Across 110th Street’, it somehow only gets better from there.
The classics don’t stop either. The film features key scenes featuring Johnny Cash’s song ‘Tennesee Stud’ as well as perfect songs from Bill Withers and Minnie Riperton, which adds a soulful touch to proceedings.
Perhaps the best song on the album is ‘Strawberry Letter 23’ from Brothers Johnson, which is used to devastating effect throughout the film. Without thinking too hard, it isn’t difficult to assume this will be the smoothest soundtrack of the lot; you need only look at the cast.
3. Romeo + Juliet – Baz Lurhman (1996)
Baz Lurthman did something that few thought possible: he made Shakespeare one of the most adored teen fiction writers of all time with his unique adaptation of Romeo + Juliet from 1996, featuring a young Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes as the titular star-crossed lovers.
“Our philosophy has always been that we think up what we need in our life, choose something creative that will make that life fulfilling, and then follow that road,” said Lurhman of the production. “With Romeo and Juliet, what I wanted to do was to look at the way in which Shakespeare might make a movie of one of his plays if he was a director. How would he make it? We don’t know a lot about Shakespeare, but we do know he would make a ‘movie’ movie. He was a player. We know about the Elizabethan stage and that he was playing for 3000 drunken punters, from the street sweeper to the Queen of England – and his competition was bear-baiting and prostitution. So he was a relentless entertainer and a user of incredible devices and theatrical tricks to ultimately create something of meaning and convey a story. That was what we wanted to do.”
Something that helped his artistic vision get over the line was the original soundtrack. The LP not only featured the wonderful ‘Young Hearts Run Free’ but also saw contributions from Radiohead (‘Exit Music’), Garbage (‘#1 Crush’) and the endlessly brilliant pop hit ‘Lovefool’ from the Cardigans. All of which made it one of the most potent soundtracks of the decade.
2. Trainspotting – Danny Boyle (1996)
Danny Boyle’s, Trainspotting, the debauched tale of sex, drugs and life on the dole, was perfectly captivating all by itself, but with the added nuances of a pumping soundtrack, one which also littered the Irvine Welsh novel that the screenplay was adapted from, the film became one of the definitive moments of the 1990s.
The soundtrack was positively bristling with the great and good of Britpop. Featuring Elastica, Sleeper and Blur as well as an outtake from Pulp, the album became a hot commodity and suggested that Boyle knew exactly what he was trying to tap into; the growing fires of “cool Britannia”.
As well as songs of the moment, Boyle also made sure that the icons of the past were represented, too, including moments for New Order, Lou Reed and Brian Eno also reserved for the film. However, arguably the finest moment comes with Iggy Pop’s charging classic, ‘Lust For Life’, which shines brighter than most and revives Iggy’s career for a new generation.
1. Pulp Fiction – Quentin Tarantino (1994)
Many have suggested that Pulp Fiction is Tarantino’s most perfect film, and it’s easy to see how the soundtrack mirrors this position. Originally conceived by Tarantino as a rock ‘n’ roll version of a spaghetti western, something Tarantino was a big fan of, so he needed the rock ‘n’ roll version of Ennio Morricone. For Tarantino, that meant surf-rock.
It would go on to be a vital part of the film’s iconography, perfectly distilled and delivered as Honey Bunny’s shots ring out and Dick Dale’s version of ‘Misirlou’ kicks into gear. The opening title run through and is then replaced by ‘Jungle Fever’ from Kool and the Gang, as the songs once again infiltrate the storyline.
Moving throughout the film, the soundtrack becomes a starting member of the ensemble. Whether it is Chuck berry’s influence on Vince Vega and Mia Wallace’s dance contest with his song ‘You Never Can Tell’ or Wallace’s own “I fucking love this song” moment as she plays Urge Overkill’s ‘Girl You’ll Be A Woman Soon’, the soundtrack is a star.
Perhaps the director’s definitive film deserved a worthy soundtrack and this one certainly stands up, there are no missteps or average moments and would be a fine compilation in his own right. The fact that we can put these iconic images to the songs makes them all the more weighty and wonderful.