A good soundtrack does more than accompany the scene. It creates context, sets a mood, and builds the emotional universe wherein the characters and their problems exist. A proper soundtrack brings depth to the visuals, adds a new dimension, and even helps the audience relate to the fictional world. It brings the movie to life. Best of all, it brings us back to the cinematic experience every time we give it a listen.
Crafting a compelling soundtrack is a feat for any film, but the stakes are even higher when the project in question involves the life story of a musical giant, as is the case with the Elton John biopic Rocketman. Many approaches have been used for soundtracking biopics about musicians over the years.
The soundtrack for Oliver Stone’s 1991 Doors flick was a straight compilation of original recordings, featuring none of Val Kilmer’s performances from the film. The 2007 impressionistic take on Bob Dylan’s many personae, I’m Not There, features a soundtrack that functions as its own tribute to Dylan while being tangentially related to the movie: a four-LP collection of covers, fractions of which appear in I’m Not There.
The Rocketman soundtrack takes a different tack. It follows a path similar to 1978’s The Buddy Holly Story, with Gary Busey singing as Buddy Holly, and 2005’s Walk The Line, with Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon singing as Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash.
With a voice and personality as large at Elton John’s, this could’ve gone wrong in so many ways. Instead, Rocketman star Taron Egerton holds his own, capturing John’s essence while not trying to imitate him. Having a unique take on the classic tracks was by design, as it turns out.
“I definitely wanted for everyone to know it’s not me singing,” John told Apple Music. “I didn’t want lip-synching. Now, my songs aren’t easy to sing—I know ’cause loads of musicians have told me. He sounds like me, but he also sounds like Taron. Things like Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me, Take Me To The Pilot, Tiny Dancer are not easy, and it blew my mind when I heard them.”
The result is an engaging album that continually points back to the film while simultaneously standing on its own, and something that makes longtime fans listen closely for the nuances in Egerton’s performances and producer Giles Martin’s arrangements.
Since Rocketman might just be the last monster soundtrack of 2019 — and thus, the decade — we decided to look back at other movie soundtracks in the ’10s from various genres that will be remembered as all-time greats.
You can’t talk about Drive without talking about the soundtrack. Released in 2011, the neo-noir thriller featured minimal dialogue. It’s more of an audio-visual experience, driven (pardon the pun) by actors’ expressions and a brilliant use of synthetic sounds. The soundtrack, spearheaded by Cliff Martinez, became as much a foundation of the aesthetically-pleasing experience as Ryan Gosling‘s iconic performance, that car, that jacket or anything else. Opening credit theme “Nightcall,” from French producer Kavinsky featuring CSS singer Lovefoxxx is the standout anthem, but Martinez’ moody compositions give the soundtrack the weight of its sonic personality.
The soundtrack to 2017 favorite Baby Driver opens like a punch of funk to the face. It also immediately marries the soundtrack to the plot of the film, as the titular character is introduced by pressing play on an old iPod to play said opening track. The film even takes its name from a Simon and Garfunkel song, which appears at the tail-end of disc two of the massive 30-track double LP. The Baby Driver soundtrack featured tunes from numerous eras with an additional cover of The Commodore’s “Easy” by Sky Ferreira, and two original songs from Danger Mouse feat. Run The Jewels and Big Boi, and Kid Koala.
Reviving a cult classic is always a tricky endeavor. Disney’s ’80s sleeper-hit Tron was a generational favorite for geeks, gamers, and futurists of all kinds. Bringing a modern sequel to life was worrisome until it was announced French electro duo and anthropomorphic robots Daft Punk would score the film. No better match could have been written in the stars. It wasn’t even problematic to feature the duo in an on-screen cameo. The duo’s digital, neon sound perfectly mirrored the grid’s evolved landscape. It also showcased a more cinematic and classically-influenced side of the French touch icons, though it does feature beefier beats on “End of Line,” “Derezzed” the titular end credits theme.
Junkie XL made his name as an electronic dance producer and remixer in the early 2000s, but when he moved out to California, he started his career all over again, learning the ins and outs of film scoring from one of the best in the business; Hans Zimmer. His apocalyptic, industrial masterpiece for Mad Max: Fury Road made him a soundtrack icon in his own right. He performed most of the score single-handedly, outsourcing only the string and brass sections to an orchestra in Sydney, Australia, and subtle guitar features by Yeah Yeah Yeahs guitarist Nick Zinner.
This Oscar-winning soundtrack almost never happened. When The Social Network director David Fincher originally approached Nine Inch Nails mastermind Trent Reznor to come aboard, Reznor initially declined. He’d wanted to take some time off after completing a NIN tour, but soon changed his mind and asked to be considered again. Fincher said he’d waited for him all along. It’s a dark, ambient work that often balances an undercurrent of anxiety with top layers of hopeful melodies.
When music is part of the storyline, you can almost guarantee a killer soundtrack. Guardians of the Galaxy hero Star-Lord lives his life around the mix-tapes his deceased mother made for him, and Momma Star-Lord had great taste. Composed of ’70s classics from David Bowie, The Jackson 5, Marvin Gaye and more, it tapped into nostalgia for a Golden Age of rock, funk, and soul everyone can agree on. It topped the Billboard Soundtracks chart for 11 consecutive weeks.
Not all soundtracks amplify works of fiction. This 10-song instrumental from Scottish post-rockers Mogwai helps tell the true story of life in a post-nuclear age. The documentary film, full title Atomic, Living in Dread and Promise, is constructed from archival footage, exploring the pros and cons of life and death in the 70 years since the first atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan. The band performed the soundtrack in full during a showing at the Edinburgh International Festival in 2016, a year after its 2015 release.
Director Quentin Tarantino has always been known for his wild characters, ground-breaking storylines and killer soundtracks. Django Unchained is his stab at a spaghetti western, and the soundtracks dutifully reflects the untamed frontier sound. It takes serious sonic cues from ’60s genre staples like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly with definite nods to ’70s soul and modern hip-hop. It features original songs from Rick Ross and Jamie Foxx, John Legend, Anthony Hamilton and Elayna Boynton, and Ennio Morricone and Elisa.
This adaptation of the cult favorite graphic novel of the same name may be the most perfect indie kid teenage love story of all time. It’s only fitting that Scott Pilgrim vs. The World gets the perfect indie rock soundtrack. Metric, The Rolling Stones, The Black Lips, T.Rex and more all make appearances, as well as a handful of songs written by Beck Hansen for the film’s fictional band Sex Bob-Omb (who also made our list of the best fictional movie bands).
This article was produced in partnership with UMG.