The 1980s waved goodbye to the popularity of disco, and said hello to a rise of electronic synths which spawned new genres such as techno, house, and new wave, as well as R&B, rap, and hip hop becoming commonplace genres, especially in African American communities.
Despite a host of unbearably cheesy hits such as ‘Eye of the Tiger’ by Survivor and ‘Livin’ on a Prayer’ by Bon Jovi coming to mind when the topic of 1980s music comes into conversation, the 1980s was actually a revolutionary time for music, spawning countless new kinds of sounds which has had a definitive impact on current music.
Many films of this period encapsulated this musical progression through their soundtracks. More than ever before, pop songs were utilised within films as more than just a piece of background noise – no longer were film soundtracks mainly just instrumental scores.
Directors such as John Hughes filled his films with new wave and pop songs, encapsulating a modern feeling that suited the young and naïve characters that so many people still love today.
A good soundtrack can make or break a film, and many films in the 1980s seemed to truly realise the potentialities of utilising music. From producing feelings of excitement, melancholy, and fear, to signalling to the audience the time and place a film is set – music’s impact on cinema is irrevocable.
10 best film soundtracks of the 1980s:
10. Smithereens (Susan Seidelman, 1982)
Before Desperately Seeking Susan, director Susan Seidelman released her debut film Smitheerens – a gritty portrayal one woman’s desire to join a deteriorating punk scene. Smithereens became the first American independent film to compete for the Palme D’Or at Cannes Film Festival, whilst also being the debut of Oscar-nominated screenwriter Ron Nyswaner, who went on to write Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia.
The film is scored by New Jersey band The Feelies, who encapsulate the feelings evoked by the film – desire and loneliness, tinged with melancholy. Other artists that feature include Richard Hell, who plays one of the main characters in the film – a punk musician from a once-popular band called Smithereens, who is now unemployed. ESG’s ‘Moody’ also makes an appearance, as does Singers and Player’s ‘Devious Woman.’ The film is a hidden gem that acts as a time capsule for the early 1980s punk scene, however, its soundtrack is arguably a stronger piece of work than the film itself.
9. When Harry Met Sally… (Rob Reiner, 1989)
Starring Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan, the New York romantic comedy When Harry Met Sally… follows the title characters as they continuously encounter each other over a period of twelve years. The film’s score was performed by pianist Harry Connick Jr., who won a Grammy Award for Best Jazz Male Vocal Performance. Reiner was struck by how much Connick sounded like a young Frank Sinatra, subsequently picking him for the film’s soundtrack.
The dreamy jazz score perfectly accompanies the romantic New York feel that the film encapsulates. Alongside this score, the film features many other tracks, mainly jazz. Featured artists include Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra, and Bing Crosby. No better songs could be suited for the film, with the warmth of old jazz igniting a nostalgic feeling as we follow the characters through their growing relationship.
8. Pretty in Pink (Howard Deutch, 1986)
Written by the 1980s coming-of-age king John Hughes, Pretty in Pink features a large collection of post-punk and new wave tracks that quite frankly, are way more enjoyable than the film itself. The film derived its title from The Psychedelic Furs track of the same name, which the band re-recorded a more polished version for the film’s opening sequence. Musical geniuses New Order also contributed their track ‘Shellshock’ to the soundtrack, alongside an instrumental version of ‘Thieves Like Us.’
Other artists that feature include Suzanne Vega, INXS, The Smiths, Echo and the Bunnymen, and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. The compilation presents audiences with the perfect 1980s time capsule that will transport many straight back to their youths. Rolling Stone has dubbed the soundtrack one of the greatest of all time, and the Huffington Post noted that the compilation is ‘life-changing.’
7. Paris, Texas (Wim Wenders, 1984)
Wim Wender’s phenomenal exploration of isolation, desire, and loneliness, Paris, Texas features a beautiful score by Ry Cooder, complete with slide guitar that perfectly accompanies the lonesome Travis, played by Harry Dean Stanton.
As the film begins, we see vast dry desert land, where Travis wanders alone, his own kind of cowboy in search of Paris, Texas. Cooder’s classically Southern American sounding score that accompanies Travis’ aimless wanderings encapsulate the dissociative and disconnected character, who has become completely detached from society.
Cooder said in 2018 that “[Wenders] did a very good job at capturing the ambience out there in the desert, just letting the microphones and the nagra machine roll and get tones and sound from the desert itself, which I discovered was E♭, […] that’s the wind, you know, was nice. So we tuned everything to E♭.”
6. Do the Right Thing (Spike Lee, 1989)
Released near the end of the decade, Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing is a powerful depiction of race relations between a Brooklyn neighbourhood’s African-American and Italian-American residents during a heatwave. The film uses both a score composed by the director’s father, jazz musician Bill Lee, as well as a mixture of hip hop and R&B tracks.
The soundtrack was hugely successful upon release, charting at number eleven in the R&B/Hip Hop Albums chart, however, it is best known for producing the Public Enemy track ‘Fight the Power’, which was purposely conceived at the request of Spike Lee. The track is powerful and unapologetic; the Quietus has described the song by saying it “shimmies and seethes with all the controlled, incendiary rage and intent of Public Enemy at their height.”
5. The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)
Stanley Kubrick’s incredible psychological horror The Shining, starring Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall features one of the most ominous opening tracks of all time. A relatively sparse textual palette is created with synths, and you may recognise the distinctive melody – the track used the famous ‘dies irae,’ which comes from a thirteenth-century Latin hymn that depicts Judgement Day, symbolising forces of evil and mortality.
The film’s original score was composed by Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind, however, the film also employs much non-original music such as ‘Midnight, the Stars and You’ performed by Ray Noble and His Orchestra, as well as many pieces by Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki. Music editor Gordan Stainforth matched the music perfectly to on-screen events precisely, paying attention to the most minute of details.
4. Repo Man (Alex Cox, 1984)
Alex Cox’s black comedy sci-fi Repo Man, also featuring Paris, Texas star Harry Dean Stanton has gained a cult following for its association with the punk genre. Cox was determined to curate a soundtrack that truly encapsulated the lives of the repo men, which he certainly succeeded in doing – since, the soundtrack has been considered one of the definitive snapshots of the early 80s hardcore punk scene.
Repo Man‘s title track was sang by Iggy Pop, who volunteered to write the track after his manager viewed the film. The resultant track is filled with glorious drum fills and driving guitars, accompanied by one of the greatest voices of punk. The rest of the score was completed by The Plugz, with tracks from other legendary punk bands making an appearance on it, such as Black Flag, Suicidal Tendencies, and Circle Jerks.
3. Purple Rain (Albert Magnoli, 1984)
American musician Prince made his acting debut in 1984 with a starring role in Purple Rain, directed by Albert Magnoli, who later became his manager. Featuring multiple concert sequences of Prince and his band The Revolution, the film was released alongside an album of the same name, which contained some of the star’s biggest tracks – ‘When Doves Cry’ and ‘Purple Rain.’ The soundtrack sold over fifteen million copies in just America, and twenty-five million worldwide.
Furthermore, Purple Rain won an Academy Award for Best Original Song Score, and has reached 13x platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America. The soundtrack is full of grandeur, featuring the unmistakably ’80s sound of electronic synths, drum machines, and keyboards. The album is distinctively more experimental and innovative than prior music released by Prince. Purple Rain is generally regarded as one of the greatest musical films ever made.
2. Blue Velvet (David Lynch, 1986)
Frequent David Lynch collaborator Angelo Badalamenti was the force behind Blue Velvet’s breath-taking soundtrack, which employs dark and dramatic strings to accompany the seedy underbelly of the film’s world, which exposes the terrifying depths that lurk beneath the surface of everyday American life. The soundtrack also mixes the mysterious noir sounds of Badalamenti with vintage pop songs, such as Bobby Vinton’s ‘Blue Velvet’, of course.
Other songs that feature include Roy Orbison’s ‘In Dreams,’ which is lip-synced by the terrifying and uncanny character of Ben, played by Dean Stockwell. Kyle MacLachlan’s character Jeffrey watches on, whilst Dennis Hopper’s Frank is moved to tears by the performance. The scene is unsurprisingly strange – after all, it’s Lynch, and the utilisation of Orbison’s ballad couldn’t be more perfect for the film.
1. Stop Making Sense (Jonathan Demme, 1984)
Before Jonathan Demme won an Oscar for The Silence of the Lambs (1991), he directed the incredible concert film Stop Making Sense featuring none other than American art-rockers Talking Heads. Filmed whilst the band toured their album Speaking in Tongues, the film has been labelled one of the greatest concert films ever made.
Beginning with a stripped-back version of the band’s most well-known track ‘Psycho Killer’, the band go on to play songs that span Talking Heads ’77, to Fear of Music, to Remain in Light. As each song plays, more band members and equipment appear on stage, meanwhile, each song is played to perfection. Standout tracks include ‘Burning Down the House,’ ‘Girlfriend is Better,’ and ‘Once in a Lifetime,’ and the film will undeniably have you dancing around your living room.