October 17, 2010

The Titanic Formula: Saving A Sinking Ship

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When you think of the top selling albums of all time, a few names come to mind. Michael Jackson’s Thriller leads the pack, with a whopping 110 million copies sold worldwide. Other nam­­es are no surprise either, like AC/DC’s Back In Black and Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. It may be surprising, however, to find that some of the most consistent chart toppers are in fact movie soundtracks: the most recent and perhaps most successful of which remains Titanic, at spot 23 and amassing 30 million copies sold.

No movie soundtrack has reached any similar amount of success since (Chicago is the closest contender, at over two million). Movie scores and original music once thrilled audiences, reflected by the soundtrack sales. A component of a film that was once part of its magic is becoming merely an afterthought. Its appeal is dying, sadly barely surviving by the likes of the Twilight movies. The question is, why is this happening, and how can we prevent it from becoming worse?

One problem is the general lack of original songs. There used to be a plentiful amount of records to choose from, but now the Academy usually nominates most of those that are out there — so much so that some films get more than one nomination. In 2006, three songs from Dreamgirls were nominated. Only three songs were nominated at all in 2005 and 2008, an unprecedented low from the usual four. Not only that, all these films are musically oriented and therefore expected to have original songs. Crazy Heart, Once and Hustle & Flow all have plots revolving around music. Yet the most successful original song still seems to have come unexpectedly: “My Heart Will Go On”from Titanic.This song is rightfully credited for making the film a hit. Movies these days seem to neglect this, with rare exceptions such as Slumdog Millionaire.

Instead of using originals, many movie soundtracks also incorporate a large and random variety of songs — often including modern songs that everyone not living under a rock has heard already. Then they incorporate them into the film by making it seem like a music video. I’m talking to you, Step Up. No one wants to buy an album that’s just a shoddy compilation of already popular songs. I acknowledge that the series contains some original ones, but they are by no means exceptional and few and far between.

Twilight is another culprit of this syndrome. It’s depressing that the survival of the movie soundtrack depends on such a terrible series … I mean saga. While the Step Up soundtracks have failed (the first only reached number six on the billboard album chart), the Twilight soundtracks thrive. While granted, the films have music that at the very least fit the atmosphere, there’s still no getting around that the tracks are second rate. Muse and Paramore have provided the only real exceptions.

Despite the success of the soundtracks, they’re not enough to save an entire industry. Sure, the Twilight soundtracks are recent and have time to grow, but the movie appeal will soon die. Instead, films like Dirty Dancing and Grease will continue to live on as legends. Don’t get me wrong, the future of music in movies is not that bleak. Truth is, there are great scores out there. Lord of the Rings, and recently Inception feature amazing soundtracks with swooping and melodious scores that grab the viewer and flow seamlessly within the movie. That’s not enough to revive soundtracks though. Strict scores attract certain types of listeners, but the general public is looking for lyrical songs. It’s not simply that we aren’t sophisticated enough to appreciate instrumental music, but lyrics grab attention. What the industry really needs is an amazing theme song, but nothing has come close to topping “My Heart Will Go On,” and maybe never will. You can say it’s corny and overrated, which is a valid point, but you cannot deny the phenomenon. Really, why was it successful?  Because it was the only lyrical song in the movie, built around the Titanic’s instrumental theme — the song became a motif, a symbol. There was no doubt in the audience’s minds that “My Heart Will Go On” was the essence of Titanic, its musical representation. The “Titanic formula” seems like the safest method to recapture the success of the movie soundtrack

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Original Author: Matt Samet