Hollywood Rocks

Hollywood wants the airwaves. Ol' Tinseltown's betting that an army of hitmakers -- from old-line Van Halen and Eric Clapton to new kids like , Raekwon, Gavin Friday, PJ Harvey, and Tori Amos -- can tattoo their tunes on your temple in technicolor, luring you and your eight bucks to the ticket window in the process. And if that can keep MTV's buzz bin in business until the big fall releases kick in, so much the better.There's nothing new here; rock and roll has played a lead roll in the movies ever since Bill Haley's "Rock Around the Clock" sparked riots when it appeared in The Blackboard Jungle. And on MTV, the video clips from soundtrack songs have long doubled as mini-trailers for the films they're from. But this summer's deluge of top-selling soundtracks -- from already-hits Phenomenon and Mission: Impossible to sure-to-bes Harriet the Spy and Basquiat -- marks a departure of sorts. The emphasis seems less on constructing a suitable score for any given film than on creating a marketable tie-in -- an album with enough musical star power to catch the waning attention spans of radio listeners and video viewers. Thumb through Billboard and you'll see just how well they're doing -- 17 soundtrack albums are among the nation's Top 200 sellers; 16 of the top 100 singles in the country appear on soundtracks. With this kind of commercial viability, soundtracks have become a means to their own end -- an endless series of mix tapes that may or may not have much to do with the film, or even the music, you'll see and hear at the cinema. No wonder even the most inane scripts are vying for marquee-value pop-music stars.That's probably bad news for traditional film scorers (though they'll be heartened by the success of RCA's Independence Day album, on which composer David Arnold is being marketed as the next John Williams, and where there isn't a lick of pop music in sight). But is it good news for pop music fans? That's a little murkier. On the one hand, soundtracks have become a refuge for experimentation, a forum for artists to step out of character -- like Tricky producing Bush doing a Joy Division cover on the upcoming soundtrack to The Crow: City of Angels. The bad news is that just as often these collaborations produce emotionally bankrupt commercial monstrosities, like Babyface-vs.-Eric-Clapton's saccharine-coated, flaccidly melodramatic R&B wheezer "Change the World," from the song's cinematic equal, Phenomenon. Or else we're treated to the residual phlegm left hanging from the studio walls after the artist's last album (see The Cable Guy soundtrack, below).Still, occasionally the odd bit of reason and genuine conviction prevails over commercial cynicism, and the movies produce winning collections of music that stand on their own as damn good albums. Or else a project comes along so bloated with clout that it bullies a decent line-up through sheer hype. Or the free-form expressionism of movie music produces something so warped, so brilliantly wrong, that you're left with an immaculate sense of awe -- like the collection of music from Jess Franco's porno-slasher flicks, the anarchic psycho fuzztone weirdness of Vampyros Lesbos Sexadelic Dance Party (Motel). Which is why, despite all efforts to turn movie soundtracks into cinematic race cars emblazoned with music-industry b(r)and names, there will probably always be something worth rooting around for.Although it's not on the charts, the score for John Sayles's Lone Star is the rare soundtrack (Daring/Rounder) that works powerfully on screen and holds its own as an album. It also proves you can assemble a score from previously recorded material without turning the project into a lowest-common-denominator dorm-room oldies compilation (a la EMI's Striptease, a K-Tel-inspired mess of stuff like Billy Idol's version of "Mony Mony" and Billy Ocean's cheezoid deluxe "Get Outta My Dreams, Get into My Car" that's milking the tail end of the post-Boomer retro craze for modest chart success). Lone Star casts its net across the br oad Southwestern landscape: passionate Mexican folk music from the Arhoolie catalogue, a consummate amplified-harmonica roadhouse blast in Little Walter's scorching "Boogie," heart-wrenching R&B and country (Little Willie John's "You Hurt Me" and Lucinda Williams's "The Night's Too Long"), all tied together with new material performed by a line-up that includes session guitarist Duke Levine and country hero Freddie Fender.Another find is Jim Mangold's Heavy (TVT) -- an excellent soundtrack and a good rainy-day-depression companion album. The five-piece score by Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore channels the gently clanging, fragmentedly melodic sound of half-uttered thoughts and desires ricocheting back and forth. And for Thurston-philes, it's the missing link between the torrid, unforgiving tones of his solo-avant-garde work and the fleeting autumnal snatches of melody haunting recent Sonic Youth. An aching dignity perseveres through the entire disc, from Moore's score through Rosie Flores's reductionist country tune, "Boxcars," and even Evan Dando's spare, solo acoustic renditions (two of his three songs are credited to him in character as Liv Tyler's boyfriend).Obviously, music that works well in a film doesn't necessarily make a great album. Pop music is used masterfully in Trainspotting (EMI Premier/Capitol) -- like Lou Reed's "Perfect Day" during an overdose scene, an ironic catapult inspired by some of the most piercing musical moments employed by Tarantino and Scorsese. But chances are you've already got Iggy Pop's "Lust for Life" and "Nightclubbing" somewhere (save your dough and get the new Crow, which has an unbelievably potent live version of "I Wanna Be Your Dog"). And the bland new Brit-pop stuff from Elastica, Blur, and Pulp isn't enough to hold the album together.The forthcoming bio-pic Basquiat(Island) uses the same formula: something borrowed, something new. Like Trainspotting, it looks like the mix tape you might find in the car of some guy who missed most of the first wave of punk, dug '80s new wave, and now occasionally reads Rolling Stone. He's probably got a car phone, goes to antiques shows, does the restaurant circuit, and will think Basquiat contains meaningful dialogues on suffering and art. And he will be as full of shit as John Cale covering Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah."Not that this one is all bad -- there's Joy Division's "These Days," Grandmaster Flash and Melle Mel's "White Lines," some Bowie (he played Basquiat in a previous film and cameos here as Warhol), some Tom Waits -- an intellectually refined eclecticism masquerading as taste. The giveaway is in the new material, all of it covers: Tripping Daisy taking on one of PiL's dumbest, "Rise"; the Toadies taking time off from alterna-metal to cover Talking Heads' "I'm Not in Love." There's just one catch: an absolutely stunning version of "Is That All There Is?", the Leiber & Stoller tune popularized by Peggy Lee, here rendered with virtuosic emotional subtlety by PJ Harvey, who says more about nihilism in the flatting of a note than does the CD's entire catalogue of lesser artists.If it's projects like Heavy that inspire filmmakers to bring on alterna-rock hired hands to help out, it's movies like The Cable Guy that illustrate how contrived the soundtrack-booking process has become. As with a host of dime-a-dozen alterna-rock-a-rama soundtracks, there's no rhyme or reason to the entries, no cohesiveness -- a symptom of the way soundtracks have less and less to do with the images on the screen and more to do with the machinations of publicity machines. It's as if by throwing enough names onto the bill -- Silverchair, Porno for Pyros, Cracker, Ruby, Cypress Hill, Pearl Jam's Mike McCready -- the label could achieve some critical mass that will compel the desired audience to come screaming with glee. But with a couple of exceptions (including a passable baroquely Seattle hard-rock solo audition by Alice in Chains guitarist Jerry Cantrell) the songs on The Cable Guy have the stale taste of mothballs.Of course, The Cable Guy also catapulted Chris O'Connor's three-year-old Primitive Radio Gods track (dragging B.B. King kicking and howling behind him) into the limelight, resurrecting a lost cause in a grand Horatio Algerish scenario. Which just goes to show that record companies wouldn't be so enthusiastic about soundtracks if there weren't some reciprocal gratification. For one thing, having a song in a movie exposes a band to a captive audience outside the fragmented piece of subculture that would normally choose to listen to their music, and it does so in a visual context unavailable outside MTV. Up-and-coming bands get a piggyback ride on a disc with marquee-quality music acts and a subliminal half-second flash at the end of the movie's TV ad -- even if the band's song appears on the soundtrack album but doesn't make the movie (which is happening more and more).For established artists, soundtracks have become a new tool to help launch successful singles from pre-existing albums -- like Bush's "Machinehead" in Fear, or Tori Amos's "Talula" (from Twister) and her current single, "Professional Widow" (from the Escape from LA soundtrack, put out by her label, Atlantic). With the decline of between-albums singles releases, soundtracks now fill the void, as with Liz Phair's new "Rocket Boy," from the yuppie soundtrack of the year, Stealing Beauty (Capitol). At times, it's hard to tell who's doing whom the bigger promotional favor; witness Jill Sobule's "The Secretive Life," from Harriet the Spy. Sobule's bongo-and-reverb driven spy-folk number, a follow-up to her quirky sleeper hit "I Kissed a Girl," seems unlikely at best to deliver the film's target audience (apparently, pre-pubescent girls), but she did take the opportunity to "debut" the song on Conan O'Brien and hawk a video to MTV.Either way, at least the song had relevance to the film -- and actually appeared in it. The trend since Madonna's Dick Tracy-inspired I'm Breathless has been to tack onto the soundtrack songs that, viewers find, are nowhere to be found on screen. This used to be done quietly, but sometime after the release of The Crow, people began to take notice of this insidious inflation. Now some soundtracks are marking their liner notes to indicate the songs that "didn't make the final cut." Which is probably a good thing, since otherwise they might be getting run out of town for fraud. The worst offender is the Mission: Impossible album -- only a third of the 15 cuts are actually part of the film (three score pieces by the ever-hep Danny Elfman, a Cranberries tune, and the smash hit, the half-of-U2-screws-up-the-theme-song number). The other notable soundtrack that makes the distinction visible, Escape from LA, shows six of its 14 tracks aren't in the movie. Of those six, half are by bands on the Atlantic roster.Of course, both soundtracks look good next to Supercop, the film Jackie Chan made before Rumble in the Bronx, now being hastily re-released without mention of the fact that it's four years old. Here's another hint: at the time of its original release, Supercop didn't have a soundtrack featuring No Doubt, Tha Dogg Pound, and 2Pac. It does now.But it's hard to fault the merchandisers for taking advantage of what looks like a sure thing, especially where rap is concerned. To be fair, rap, hip-hop, and neo-R&B have done much better by soundtracks than alternative rock. Maybe that's because the music is more attuned to singles, or because the movies themselves are more attuned to music -- in the way that old rock-and-roll films like The Girl Can't Help It and High School Confidential incorporated music into their context and in turn helped define the look and feel of the music's culture. Phat Beach may go down as a truly awful piece of cinema, but it'll at least be an excuse for some new music -- sort of like hip-hop's answer to the Annette Funicello-Frankie Avalon beach pics of the '60s that introduced us to Dick Dale.The Nutty Professor (Def Jam), buoyed by the ultra-smooth and sultry Top 30 singles "Touch Me Tease Me" by Case featuring Foxxy Brown and Montell Jordan's "I Like" (with a little old-school flavor courtesy of Slick Rick), is the current beneficiary, lodged at #10 on the Billboard Top 200. It's classic summer blaring-from-the-car-speakers fare -- sweet and eminently listenable, radio-friendly and light on the frontal lobes. And though that may sound like the same old commercial formula, the performances are fresh and engaging in ways most alternative-rock scores don't even pretend to be.The other urban summer soundtrack, Sunset Park (Flavor Unit/EastWest), is a little more abrasive, excepting Tha Dogg Pound's slippery West Coast electro-funk jam "Just Doggin'." Wu-Tang producer the RZA coaches comrades Ghostface Killer and Raekwon through a turgid "Motherless Children" based on the Clan's trademark stark piano chords and moaning snippets from the traditional Delta blues of the title. And MC Lyte kicks up a raunchy storm on "Keep On Keepin' On" that would have Camille Paglia and Susie Bright in a sweat -- with Xscape adding the melody line from Michael Jackson's "Liberian Girl," which made the track a Top 10 single earlier this summer.To be sure, there are movies that incorporate rock's postpunk worldview -- most notably The Crow: City of Angels, whose characters were formulated by comic illustrator J.L. O'Barr using the likes of Joy Division, the Cure, and Iggy Pop (who plays a villain in the movie and contributes a live track to the album) as inspiration. But though movies like The Crow, Escape from LA, and Sunset Park make better arguments for using current pop music as a backdrop, they still don't disprove the contention that the music is increasingly taking precedence.That soundtracks are producing some of the most eagerly awaited music of the summer is a testament to the seriousness with which the industry is treating their impact. In addition to the artists already mentioned, there's Hole's cover of Fleetwood Mac's "Gold Dust Woman," the band's first new material since their groundbreaking Live Through This, one of the highlights that makes The Crow: City of Angels soundtrack a sure-fire smash. (Note also that Stevie Nicks fronts a Rumours-era Fleetwood Mac reunion of sorts on the soundtrack to Twister.) City of Angels also boasts new tunes from Filter, Bush, and White Zombie (with a cover of KC & the Sunshine Band's "I'm Your Boogieman," which proves conclusively that disco really did go to hell), plus a Tricky/Gravediggaz collaboration. Escape from LA will likely be a big-ticket item for the metal/hardcore audience, with yet another White Zombie track, new material from Ministry and the Butthole Surfers, strong techno-industrial grind from Stabbing Westward and Gravity Kills, and New York-school punk rock from Civ and Orange 9mm.Should we be worried about this? After all, if soundtracks are just another opportunity for music to be made, that's not such a bad thing. Certainly, it seems much more foreboding for film than for music -- though for completists, those diehard fans who absolutely must have every obscurity their favorite outfit has released, it might get a little expensive. God help fans of the Toadies, who'll find themselves shelling out for four separate soundtracks this summer alone. But on a more ominous note, as psyched as we are as fans when Hollywood acknowledges the power of pop music, we should beware of rock and roll's being co-opted as a marketing tool. Using Iggy Pop's "Lust for Life" to sell tickets to Trainspotting is just as cynical and offensive as using his "Search and Destroy" to sell Nike sneakers. Both practices belittle the intrinsic ferocity and meaning that gave the songs resonance in the first place. And that's why we shouldn't hand the airwaves over to Hollywood without a fight.SIDEBAR: The good, the bad, and the ToadiesHere's the at-a-glance lowdown on some of the latest soundtracks:Phenomenon (Reprise). Hammy collection assembled by the Band's Robbie Robertson, who ought to know better. Good stuff: Marvin Gaye's "Piece of Clay" -- and anyone sappy enough to buy the album after seeing the movie will be pleased with nuevo-folk chick Jewel's version of John Hiatt's "Have a Little Faith in Me." Bad stuff: Eric Clapton and Babyface's "Change the World"; Peter Gabriel's recycled "I Have the Touch" (note to Peter: no you don't); Aaron Neville and Robbie Robertson's version of Van Morrison's "Crazy Love."The Cable Guy (Work/Sony). Alternative round-up proves that even an idiot like Jim Carrey could program MTV if he had to. Good stuff: Solo debut by Alice in Chains guitarist Jerry Cantrell, "Leave Me Alone"; Primitive Radio Gods' phone-booth song; Jim Carrey's version of Jefferson Airplane's "Somebody To Love," wherein he sounds just a little bit like Jello Biafra. Bad stuff: Porno for Pyros' "Satellite of Love" (with space cadet Perry Farrell at the helm, it's entirely possible this dud is an in-character tribute to that refuge of bad sci-fi cinema, Mystery Science Theater 3000). Toadies watch: "Unattractive." These guys are a testament to the marketing principle that if you can't be good, be visible.Harriet the Spy (Castle). What, no Rosie O'Donnell track? Good stuff: Jill Sobule's "The Secretive Life." Bad stuff: James Brown's "Get Up offa That Thing." That's bad as in good.Heavy (TVT Soundtracks). Good stuff: Thurston Moore's score; Evan Dando's solo version of Gram Parsons's "How Much I've Lied"; Rosie Flores's "Boxcars." Bad stuff: Freedy Johnston's "California Thing."The Nutty Professor (Def Jam). Good stuff: Montell Jordan and Slick Rick on "I Like"; Trigger the Gambler featuring Smoothe Da Hustler and D.V. Alias Khrist for "My Crew Can't Go for That," which gets bonus points for sampling Hall & Oates; 12 O'Clock featuring Raekwon's "Nasty Immigrants." Bad stuff: "Doin' It Again" by L.L. Cool J (believe me, he ain't).Mission: Impossible (Island). Fifteen songs on the disc, only five in the movie. Which is a shame, because between Bjšrk and Massive Attack, someone coulda taught Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen a thing or two about dance music. Good stuff: Massive Attack's "Spying Glass"; Bjšrk's "Headphones"; Skunk Anansie's "Weak." Bad stuff: Larry Mullen and Adam Clayton's "Theme from Mission: Impossible." Destined for a Rhino "Kitsch Pop of the '90s" collection, this one's gonna need to ferment for a while before anyone realizes what a truly bad song it is.Sunset Park (Flavor Unit/EastWest). Good stuff: Ghostface Killer featuring Raekwon on "Motherless Children"; MC Lyte featuring Xscape's "Keep On Keepin' On"; Tha Dog Pound's "Just Doggin'." Bad stuff: Onyx's "Thangz Changed."The Crow: City of Angels (Miramax/Hollywood). Sequel to the double-platinum-selling The Crow, this is the kind of big-name marquee attraction labels would love to see their new bands -- like Pet, the first signee to Tori Amos's new Igloo Records imprint -- on. Good stuff: Hole's version of Fleetwood Mac's "Gold Dust Woman"; White Zombie, in techno-funk mode, covering KC & the Sunshine Band's "I'm Your Boogieman"; PJ Harvey's "Naked Cousin"; Bush's Joy Division cover, "In a Lonely Place"; and Iggy Pop covering his own "I Wanna Be Your Dog." Bad stuff: Linda Perry and Grace Slick's "Knock Me Out" (it's a sad state of affairs when Jim Carrey does Grace Slick better than Grace can); Seven Mary Three's "Shelf Life." Toadies watch: "Paper Dress."Stealing Beauty (Capitol). The yuppie soundtrack of the summer -- Portishead segues into Axiom Funk, Billie Holiday segues into Mazzy Star, that sort of thing. Good stuff: Hoover (not the defunct Dischord band but a trip-hop act with great scuzzy guitar licks) doing "2 Wicky"; Liz Phair's new "Rocket Boy"; "I'll Be Seeing You" by Billie Holiday. Bad stuff: Cocteau Twins' "Alice"; Sam Phillips (T-Bone Burnett's wife, not the Sun Records producer) doing "I Need Love."Basquiat (Island). An excuse to drag out all the suffering-artist clichŽs, now that drugs and suicide seem almost classical in their elegance. Predictable entries by Joy Division, Public Image Ltd., Tom Waits, David Bowie, the Pogues. Good stuff: PJ Harvey's version of the Peggy Lee standard "Is That All There Is?"; Grandmaster Flash & Melle Mel with "White Lines"; Them featuring Van Morrison doing "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue." Bad stuff: Tripping Daisy's PiL cover, "Rise"; John Cale's Leonard Cohen cover, "Hallelujah." Toadies watch: their David Byrne cover, "I'm Not in Love."Escape from LA (Lava/Atlantic). Damn good industrial/metal/hardcore sampler, including surprisingly strong efforts from people you'd usually write off as lousy and derivative. Plus an early Tool song that totally rocks. Good stuff: Stabbing Westward (no, really, it's good), with "Dawn"; the Deftones' "Can't Even Breathe"; Sexpod (think Tool meet Hole) with "Foot on the Gas"; White Zombie, in ultra-techno mode, doing "The One" (not the Tracy Bonham song); the Butthole Surfers' "Pottery." Bad stuff: Clutch's "Escape from the Prison Planet," which is not so much bad as just plain funny; Ministry's "Paisley," a blatant Slayer ripoff and their most boring straight heavy-metal track to date. Toadies watch: "Get Me Out."Lone Star (Daring/Rounder). All previously recorded, and all damn fine. Good stuff: Little Walter's "Boogie"; Little Willie John's "You Hurt Me"; Lucinda Williams's "The Night's Too Long"; Lydia Mendoza's "Jurame." Bad stuff: none.Striptease (EMI). An oldies package looking to capitalize on '80s kitsch. It could have been worse -- in a rare fit of mercy, Annie Lennox prevailed upon the producers not to include in the soundtrack all the half-dozen songs by her that appear in the movie. Strangely alluring, but that might just be all the nipple showing in the liner notes. Good stuff: Smokey Robinson & the Miracles' "You've Really Got a Hold of Me." But like the rest of this junk, if you dig it, you already got it. Bad stuff: Blondie's "The Tide Is High"; Billy Ocean's "Get Outta My Dreams, Get into My Car"; Billy Idol's "Mony Mony"; others too numerous to mention.Twister (Warner Brothers). Will probably be remembered as the last recorded output of Van Halen with Sammy Hagar, and perhaps -- if the rumors are true -- the last recorded output of Belly. Good stuff: Soul Asylum with an eerily HŸsker-DŸ-ish "Miss This"; Belly's sublimely melodic "Broken"; a remixed version of Goo Goo Dolls' "Long Way Down." (What, no "Take Me Out to the Funnel Cloud"?) Bad stuff: Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Melancholy Mechanics" (sample lyric: "It's raining in my cranium/My head feels like a stadium"); Rusted Root's "Virtual Reality"; k.d. lang's version of "Love Affair" (that's music by Ennio Morricone, mind you), here voted most likely to end up in a future Incredible Strange Music volume.Foxfire (Nettwerk). Soundtrack to the movie, which is based on a book by Joyce Carol Oates about '50s girl gangs. Mostly recycled stuff that might've looked current about a year or two ago. Good stuff: L7's "Shirley," from their last album; the Cramps' "Let's Get Fucked Up," from their last album; Luscious Jackson's "Energy Sucker"; Kristin Hersh with a strings version of "Me and My Charms." Bad stuff: Candlebox's "You"; Shampoo's "Trouble"; Papa Brittle's "Stress Killer on the Loose."Trainspotting (Capitol). Good stuff: Primal Scream's "Trainspotting"; Underworld's "Born Slippy"; plus old stuff from Iggy Pop and Lou Reed. Bad Stuff: Elastica's "2:1"; Blur's "Sing"; Pulp's "Mile End." Yawn.

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