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Movie Soundtracks to Change How You See the World

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The power of a film when met with a concordant soundtrack goes unparalleled--it can stir up feelings we’ve suppressed, impassion us with dreams and aspirations, and even cause us to perceive the world around us in a different light. Whether it’s the paradoxically upbeat grunge of a 90’s film or the stunning ballad of a cinematic drama, the ability of music to impact us is timeless. A good movie soundtrack is packed with the visuals of the film in music form, and even adds another element that can stand alone as its own work of art.  

La La Land

Riddled with elements of jazz and the symphonious rhythms of seemingly mundane objects, the soundtrack of La La Land reveals just how engraved music is within what may seem like the prosaic everyday. The opening song, “Another Day of Sun,” showcases that melodies can be found even within the freeways of Los Angeles, as the whimsical honking of people’s horns comes together to create a buoyant symphony that will cause even the most discontented driver to dance to its rhythms. The compelling message is written throughout the film’s soundtrack; its film’s music directors use melodies to urge that one simply has to tune their soul to the right frequency and cities will begin to illuminate with their own unique ballads. Each piece within the soundtrack ties into the warm, yet potent sentiment that in a city full of stars, one feels connected by the song sung by their own life, with each part a single star, a note in the world’s orchestra. 

The film’s esteemed music director, Marius de Vries, explains the complexities within bringing the music in conjunction with the intricate choreography, and the intense efforts it took to convey each character’s personality through the lyricism of each piece. Such efforts can be seen in the star-gazing feeling encapsulated in Mia’s “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” and “Mia and Sebastian’s Theme.” The sheer rawness within each pulls the audience in close as its melodies and lyrics whisper: Here’s my dream, what’s yours?

In Hurwitz’s La La Land (Original Motion Picture Score), even more intricate melodies can be found, most of which are just minutes of pieces--fragments from the soundtrack that give even more insight into just how complex the film’s scoring and composition is. La La Land’s soundtrack epitomizes what it means to hold tightly to one’s dreams in a beautiful, consonant blend of melodies that can always be stripped down to their rawest form. 

While the soundtrack climaxes with the upbeat and impassioned mood of jazz in “Herman’s Habit” and “Start a Fire,” it’s the stripped down, cherished pieces like the audition and theme that are the true heart and soul of the film. In fact, for “Mia and Sebastian’s Theme,” Ryan Gosling (Sebastian) had to learn the song entirely from “scratch.” Gosling worked with his piano teacher, Liz Kinnon, in order to perfect Justin Hurwtiz’s piece to its very last note. The actor’s effort to learn the song with little prior experience, and eventually perform it in the film, is a nod to the film’s overarching rawness and authenticity; the feeling emanates not only from the piano, but from its player. 

Despite their divergent dreams, Mia and Sebastian both convey their hopeful, curious attitudes through not only their harmonies, but their unique vocal inflections, which clearly aren’t overly enhanced as to lose intimacy. Gosling and Emma Stone’s humming in “City of Stars” serves to parallel what happens as we each look within ourselves and find even the smallest sliver of a song, a common thread that will string itself through our life no matter how far we may stray from home.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Composed for a sci-fi movie filled with subliminal messages, the murky feeling of lost memories, and intertwined with the ups and downs of a nostalgic love story, one listen at the soundtrack of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind brings up feelings that take you through a journey of its own. One of its most intriguing features is its unique blend of grunge band-style hits like The Willowz and original compositions by its composer Jon Brion.  

Its theme, titled “Theme,” structures around a simple melody line that feels slightly melancholic and hopeful as it trails from a gloomy aura to calm melodies, while its other songs take on a more dissonant feeling filled with eerie sounds. “Drive In” spirals in and out of apprehensive melodies and clear rhythms that depict the strangeness, anxiety, and instability within the film’s protagonist, Joel, all while maintaining a sense of curiosity for what’s to come next.  

Each of Jon Brion’s scores brings something different to the table, all while still holding on to the bittersweet mood throughout the film. While “Main Title” runs through a labyrinth of wind instruments blended with strings and violin, “Phone Call” mixes an overlayed lo-fi scratchy quality of a phone call with a repeating instrumental melody, each with their own mood. The apprehensive feeling like you’re waiting for someone to call in one song is completely different from the chilling feeling of losing memories in the next.

“Down the Drain,” towards the end of the soundtrack, perfectly personifies what it would feel like to watch your life flash before you as it circles the drain and leaves your mind. It is Brion’s creative use of sounds like the gushing of water and Clementine’s voice that gives the soundtrack the eerie and intriguing mood that pairs so well with the film. The juxtapositioning of more grunge-style songs by the band, The Willowz, and simply melodic pieces that speak for themselves creates a series of songs that stand alone and evoke visuals with each listen. While the soundtrack plays perfectly to the piercing visuals and subliminal messages placed throughout Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, it speaks volumes without any visuals at all--guiding us through a journey of our own. 

The title of each song seems to perfectly encapsulate its unique sound, and the intriguing rhythms and melodies make each score almost feel as if it’s in color, painted across one’s mind. Each song is a step further into Joel’s mind, revealing to us what can’t directly be seen in the film itself. Brion captures what it feels like to fall in love and lose it, although it may never be truly lost. His music teaches us--in an ethereal way--that memories are our compass, steadying us through the uncertain.

The Theory of Everything 

Yet another original score, Jóhann Jóhannsson’s compositions in the soundtrack for The Theory of Everything are a personification of the elements of the universe in musical form. Meant to emulate the story of Stephen Hawking’s discoveries about the universe, the soundtrack combines the curiosity of new endeavors with a poignant sense of decay and things lost. In an interview with, Johansson discussed his intent to use music to emphasize the concept of time—a theme which runs strongly in both the portrayal of Hawking’s theories of it and its eventual role as his greatest foe. 

Perhaps what makes the soundtrack so powerful is its ability to tell two different stories at the same time, all the while intertwining them into something truly captivating and beautiful. One glance through the titles of each piece, and one can easily see Jóhannsson’s clever take on making each piece a double-meaning. For example, “Forces of Attraction” plays on the clever law of physics but also the beginnings of a love story between Hawking and Jane, his eventual wife. Similarly, “Collapsing Inwards” is a bittersweet harmony. The song plays on the scientific concept of black holes being formed as stars collapse under their own gravity, a feeling that becomes all too familiar in Hawking’s own biography. 

This same bittersweet aura is carried throughout each piece, with even the lighter ones trailing off into heavier ballads that take a listener through Hawking’s life. There is a brilliance in each song’s ability to bring us into a character’s mind and allow us to walk around in it; each song brings us closer into what they were feeling. One of the most stringing examples is in “Domestic Pressures,” in which the melancholic piano takes us through the burdens of Hawking’s condition on his wife and friends. It’s almost as if through it, we can feel the weight of the universe caving in as it’s pressures increasingly push against Hawking as his state worsens. 

One of the most beautiful parts of the score is Johansson's ability to make the notes and melodies feel almost scientific, with each one intricately placed like the components of a complex formula. Even in the bits and pieces of Hawking’s love and life story that shine through, the music still remains somewhat analytical, paralleling Hawking’s deep passion for science even until the end of his life. Through the soundtrack we see that despite circumstances, Hawking’s passion for science can never be extinguished. Though he falls in and out of love with his wife, his love for space and time never abandons him and it is perhaps the ultimate love story throughout the film. No other score would have been able to perfectly tell the story of Hawking’s life and discoveries in such a way. 

It is a powerful thing to be transported through music into someone else’s life for a little while. As demonstrated through the soundtracks of La La Land, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and The Theory of Everything, music tells the stories we don’t see directly in the film. It brings us into the thoughts and emotions of the character and allows us to hear the words left unsaid, in a way that visuals simply aren’t able to. In its own, unique language, it reels us in and tells us a message, sometimes in the whisper of a melody and other times in the loud, booming voice of an orchestra. In this case, the soundtracks of all three carry a common thread that urges us to hold tightly to things we love and never let them go; perhaps it was the hope of each composer that after each listen, we begin to see the world differently. 


Written By Kyrie Varieur


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