Black Movie Soundtracks Are A Lost Art


When was the last time a movie soundtrack made you feel something? When was the last time you sought out all of the music from a film driven by a desire to re-experience the narrative musically? If you, too, were born before Whitley and Kinu dropped Patti’s prune cobbler, it has probably been at least ten years. Maybe even fifteen.

The thrill is gone. Copping that movie-based compilation—and maybe even the poster—was once its own necessary event. Having the music that played alongside your favorite movie scene was vital, and the soundtrack was often just as good and as successful as any other album out at the time. The Soul Food soundtrack, with Boyz II Men, Total, and Outkast, spawned four singles and went double platinum in just a few months. It still stands as one of the best R&B compilations of the 90s.

In a broader musical sense, it is rare for contemporary artists to put forth songs that make you feel the way the Love Jones soundtrack made you feel in 1997. That project, a LaFace situation, was much more than a few big names and a handful of indiscriminately chosen table scraps, as is often the case today. That album was a cornucopia of greatness. Those were the days of real music making, not vapid trend chasing. As such, achieving that same near-perfection with a dozen artists so many years after the 99 and the 2000 is, sadly, a fantasy.

When executed well, the movie soundtrack was a magical thing. It was the perfect gumbo of the legendary, the slept-on, and the mismatched. Only on a movie soundtrack in 1999 (The Best Man) could you get Sporty Thievz, Beyoncé, and free agent LaTocha Scott all at once for under $20. You just can’t get that kind of magic for the low anymore.

My favorite movie soundtracks were those woven into the fabric of a great film. Saturday Night Fever. Boomerang. Waiting to Exhale. The ideal film soundtrack is one with classic songs that are tied tightly to the film’s key emotional moments. When the executive producer is able to thread enjoyable music through the arcs and twists of a great film, the result is sublime. Were these songs removed, the spirit of the film would be weakened. Superfly would not be the same without Curtis Mayfield’s magical falsetto making the dope game sound so sweet. You cannot separate Grease from its music. The movie and the music are one. That’s the sweet spot.


I can’t hear notes from Brandy, Chaka Khan, Gladys Knight, and Tamia’s Blackness Voltron, “Missing You,” without thinking of Stony (Jada Pinkett-Smith) weeping over dem dollaz in Set It Off. Yet the feature from that soundtrack that eradicates my thug is “Up Against The Wind,” the gorgeous yet haunting ballad from Lori Perry that builds as Cleo, surrounded by cops with drawn guns, lights that cigarette and rides into the afterlife. Gets me every time. Plus Goodie Mob and Bone Thugs? So much win. The last time a soundtrack moved me that way, CDs offering 500 free AOL hours were a normal thing in society.

Where the soundtrack’s conceptualization is concerned, the film score album holds a special place in my heart, though the standard compilation is more common. The songs assembled in the name of Space Jam, which was the only thing that mattered to me in the summer of 1996, comprised a compilation. Monica was there. Shaq was there. Some songs were featured in the movie. Others were inspired by it (or not) and had some words or themes from the film sprinkled throughout. Or not. It worked. Sometimes.

The film score album, specifically the single artist score-as-album, is a cherished creation: One performer or group with a visionary producer at the helm, seamlessly melding the visual, musical, and emotional. That too familiar disjointedness is nowhere to be found. For instance, the collection of soulful masterpieces that narrated Diahann Carroll’s highs and lows in Claudine doubled as a Gladys Knight and the Pips album. The music created a lush soundscape for the onscreen chemistry and conflict between Claudine, Roop (James Earl Jones), and Mr. Welfare. As with Purple Rain, one can play the album and relive the movie’s drama. See also: Lady Sings The Blues (a Diana Ross album) and The Preacher’s Wife (a Whitney Houston album). Absolute magic.

But in this age of stage play-to-big screen pipelines, the divinely arranged and balanced movie soundtrack is a fluke. They have become afterthoughts, due largely to diminishing sales. As interest fades, that perfect audio, visual, and thematic synergy is far too uncommon, as the soundtrack appears to have become a lost art form.

Today, the stellar soundtrack is the exception. Its demise as something about which to give a damn has many causes. The soundtrack is an innocent bystander to the album’s decline as an entity to be digested as a whole. For decades, albums (and soundtracks) were presented as a whole body of work. If you were lucky, and the studio gave a damn, your favorite song became a single and you could buy the track that broke you down during the film’s climax.


As music became available digitally, there was eventually no need to have your mama take you to Sam Goody for that nostalgic goodness. I can stream the songs on Spotify or buy them on iTunes long before opening night, so why spend $20 for the 3 songs that I really want to hear?

Perhaps the dearth of care shown in curating memorable soundtracks is merely mirroring the decline of the album as an art form. Commercial acclaim has strangled creative boldness with the help of changing buying habits and bills that keep on billin’. So experiencing an album in 2014 is vastly different than in BAPs-era America. And by album, I mean an assemblage of thought-out and cohesively arranged songs that perhaps flow together, Brandily. This, as opposed to a mixed bag of great, good, and ghastly songs by the beatmakers du jour that were all conceived and selected with no consideration for one another.

Discussing soundtracks with complimentary superlatives is all but dead. The movie-inspired hit parade is a thing of the past as these collections lose their relevance, and in turn, their profitability. Blame pirating. Blame finicky music tastes and increased attention toward a generation enamored with the glitzy, the popular, and the immediate, rather than the meaningful and the artistically substantial. That assembling a dozen enjoyable, thematically relevant songs is a challenge today is disappointing, but at least we have the memories.

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