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Monday, December 28, 2020

Best Soundtrack of 2020

In 2014, I wrote a blog post arguing that The Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack was so good that the Academy Awards should create a new awards category. Since then, I have been writing about the best soundtracks of the year, which you can find examples of here and here and here. Here are my nominees for the Best Soundtrack of 2020.

Dir. Cathy Yan, Music Supervisor: Season Kent
NOTABLE SONGS: "It's a Man's Man's Man's World" by James Brown, "Experiment on Me" by Halsey

Captain Marvel had one of the worst soundtracks I've heard in recent memory. Since the film was female-forward and set in the 1990's, the soundtrack was full of 90's female artists like Garbage, Hole, TLC, and Salt-N-Pepa. The climax of the film was even awkwardly set to No Doubt's "Just A Girl".  The problem was that these songs were pigeon-holed into the film and didn't work with the flow of the movie. Cathy Yan smartly took a different approach. While the soundtrack is prominently female-centric thanks to tracks from Halsey, Saweetie, and Whipped Cream, the songs pair perfectly with the mood of the scene. The film also isn't afraid to use male artists when appropriate, something the Marvel film seemed allergic to. Birds of Prey is also a lot more fun than Captain Marvel and the songs selected for the soundtrack reflect that. One of the reasons Birds of Prey worked creatively was because of the tone of the film that Yan established, and that tone was accented by the soundtrack. 

Dir. Patty Jenkins, Music Supervisor: Carmen Murlaner

Wonder Woman 1984 is on this list not because it has memorable needle drops. On the contrary. I just wanted to take a brief moment to discuss the score and soundtrack to WW84 because I find it to be an interesting talking point between Captain Marvel and Birds of Prey. One of the benefits to setting your movie in 1984 is that you get to use the aesthetic of the 80's to affect the slick style of your Tent Pole franchise film. Wonder Woman 1984 does that to some extent with the hair and clothes, but the obvious lack of 80's needle drops in the film, especially when they have the budget for them, is frustrating. The flick doesn't need to go full Woman Power a la Captain Marvel, but there's also no reason for the lack of any 80's female artists like Tina Turner, Blondie, or Eurythmics either. You're telling me you couldn't fit "Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)" into your fantasy superhero movie about wish fulfillment? Whereas Birds of Prey took modern music and used many notable female artists to enhance the tone and entertainment of its movie, WW84 just ignored needle drops altogether to its detriment. To make matters worse, the soundtrack of WW84 was replaced with a Hans Zimmer score that felt incongruous with the action of the film. The music of the movie should have played up the 80's-ness and camp of the action (see what Pedro Pascal was doing) and New Wave and synth heavy pop songs 
would have done the trick. As such, Wonder Woman 1984 gets a dishonorable mention on this list. 

Dir. Thomas Vinterberg, Music Supervisor: Mikkel Maltha
NOTABLE SONGS: "Cissy Strut" by The Meters, "What A Life" by Scarlet Pleasure

Another Round is about four middle-aged men going through a midlife crisis- so they start day-drinking. And what goes better with drinking than some good tunes? As the men start pushing the limits to what they can imbibe, they spend an afternoon pregaming with some absinthe and bourbon. That leads to a raucous time listened to "Cissy Strut" while the men strut around the room busting a move. The song is so catchy and the characters seem like they're having such a good time that you can't help but dance as well. All of this leads to the film's great finale as Mads Mikkelson's Martin shows off his ballet training and brings down the house thanks to Scarlet Pleasure's "What A Life".  

Dir. Spike Lee, Music Supervisor: Rochelle Claerbaut
NOTABLE SONGS: "What's Going On" "Got to Give It Up" & "Inner City Blues" by Marvin Gaye

Da 5 Bloods is about four Black Vietnam veterans who go back to Vietnam to dig up treasure they buried while they were in the war. As it's a Spike Lee joint, the film is all about the Black experience of being an American and fighting for your country and how shitty it all is. Lee was able to communicate all of that through heavy-handed dialogue, but also through a predominantly Black and 70's soundtrack heavily featuring Marvin Gaye. Though the particular songs are smartly picked and smartly placed in the film, and Lee does use other artists when scene appropriate. I'll always remember our four main characters dancing in the the Apocalypse Now club grooving to Gaye's "Got To Give It Up (Part 1)"

Dir. Scott Frank, Music Supervisor: Randall Poster
NOTABLE SONGS: "Venus" by Shocking Blue, "You're The One" by The Vogues

I know this is a movie post, but there's a reason I didn't put "movie" in the headline of this blog post like normally do, because the Best Soundtrack of 2020 belongs to Netflix's The Queen's Gambit. Technically, it's a seven episode limited series, but let's be honest, if Netflix cut everything together and put it in a movie theater like ESPN did with OJ: Made in America, it would be up for so many Academy Awards this year. I'm rationalizing, but, whatever. This is my blog, and I can do what I want.

One of the fifteen million articles Vulture wrote about the show this year was a comparison to Forrest Gump. It was meant to be a critique of how we whitewash history, but I think the comparison, especially in this context, is apt. The soundtrack to Forrest Gump is an all-time classic. It cherry-picked some of the best songs from the era in which the movie is taking place (the film epically spans decades) to help throw the viewer further into the story. The movie has now become so successful that we assume songs like CCR's "Fortune Son" and Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth" were major #1 hits of the Vietnam Era in America (spoiler alert: they were not), but the film's smart needle drops only enhances the viewers experience of the film. The Queen's Gambit is the same way.

Scott Frank's limited series is a master construction of literally everything: direction, writing, acting, production design, costume design, etc. The needle drops are no exception. The Queen's Gambit uses pop songs of the time, but weaves them in so beautifully into the narrative. The Vogues perform "You're The One" while the show's protagonist, Beth Harmon, is hanging out with some of her female classmates, and it causes them all but her her to break out into song and dance. But as Beth walks out of the room, she swipes a liquor bottle and ends up in bed with an imaginary chess board floating above her from the ceiling while the lyrics "You're the one that I'm dreamin' of/baby you're the one that I love" blast through the screen. In another episode, Beth is playing at a US Open in an eventual battle with the current champ, and someone who already defeated her, Benny Watts. After play early on in the tournament has ended, Benny invites Beth to hang out. On her way over, The Monkees "(I'm Not Your) Steppin' Stone" plays before Beth loses multiple speed chess rounds (and dollars) to Benny. This motivates Beth to eventually defeat Benny in the Championship Round by episode's end. Even with song choices that aren't so on the nose (or maybe it is, the song is in French) like Gillian Hills' "Tut Tut Tut Tut", the needle drops feel so perfectly in place and right at home in The Queen's Gambit

Like Forrest Gump, whether these songs were actually huge hits or not in the 60's (when the show is set), they certainly feel like would be songs in Beth Harmon's life. This soundtrack uses era appropriate bangers and seamlessly integrates them into the show to both enhance the mood of the scene, adds authenticity to the time period, and have lyrics which reflect the theme and plot of the story. The Queen's Gambit was already firing on all cylinders as it were, and its incredible soundtrack takes it over the top.