Iconic soundtracks can become as cherished and sentimental as any favourite album in your record collection. Great soundtracks are curations of memorable songs that sound just as great decades later. Just throw on the Pulp Fiction, Garden State, Now and Then, Romeo + Juliet, Empire Records, or The Big Chill soundtrack and they still sound as great as the day they were released.
A soundtrack can connect with a film on a deeper level when its music has been written specifically for the movie. There have been many iconic songs written for films in the past (Simon and Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson” for The Graduate, Bruce Springsteen’s “Streets of Philadelphia” for Philadelphia, Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power” for Do The Right Thing, etc.) but in recent years, more and more indie artists have been approached to contribute to film soundtracks. For an indie artist, taking on a soundtrack can mean greater exposure to a wider audience; it can also be a welcomed new experience that can spark inspiration for a new album, or the opportunity to collaborate with another artist.
Here are ten must-hear songs written specifically for movie soundtracks by some of our favourite artists.
Radiohead – “Exit Music (For A Film)”
Romeo + Juliet
Thom Yorke wrote “Exit Music (For A Film)” for Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 remake of William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet. Yorke was inspired by the scene in which Juliet (played by Claire Danes) puts a gun to her head. Yorke had seen the 1968 film when he was 13 and cried his eyes out because he couldn’t understand why they didn’t immediately run away together. He has called “Exit Music (For A Film)” a “personal song.” Luhrmann has called the song “one of the greatest film exit songs ever written.” At Yorke’s request, the song did not appear on either of the film’s two soundtrack albums, and instead was included on Radiohead’s 1997 album OK Computer.
St. Vincent – “The Antidote”
The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Pt 2
“The Antidote” is St. Vincent’s second original song that she has contributed to The Twilight Saga soundtracks. First, in 2009, she collaborated with Bon Iver for the beautiful harmony-driven acoustic “Roslyn,” and then in 2012, “The Antidote” appeared on the Breaking Dawn – Part 2 soundtrack. “The Antidote,” with its dominant electric guitar, bright pop synths, prominent drums, and layering of her evocative lead and backing vocals, is classic St. Vincent and a must-hear track that can’t be found on any of her albums. Released in the year between her albums Strange Mercy (2011) and St. Vincent (2013), “The Antidote” foreshadows the electro pop/rock fusion that would bring St. Vincent such critical and commercial success.
Lorde – “Yellow Flicker Beat”
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1
While acting as the curator for the soundtrack to the Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1, Lorde wrote an original track to act as the movie’s single. “Yellow Flicker Beat” received commercial and critical acclaim with a Golden Globe nomination for Best Original Song. Throughout the lyrics, Lorde references the film with lines like “the fire’s found a home in me” and “I dream all year, but they’re not the sweet kinds” making it truly an anthem for the film. “Yellow Flicker Beat” was also remixed by Lorde and her self-proclaimed idol, Kanye West. Their collaboration appeared on the soundtrack as “Flicker (Kanye West Rework)” and was also one of the album’s promotional singles.
Bon Iver – “Heavenly Father”
Wish I Was Here
Bon Iver’s “Heavenly Father” is one of the four original songs written for the Wish I Was Here soundtrack. After agreeing to write a song for the film, Justin Vernon (aka Bon Iver) viewed a screening with the movie’s music supervisor Mary Ramos and his brother in his Wisconsin home. Ramos reflected to NPR that while at first the Vernon brothers were laughing along to the movie,
“At a certain point, they just got quiet. When it was over, Justin started humming. We talked afterwards about the relationship between Zach’s character and his brother [Josh Gad], and Justin and Nate talked a little about their father — all the while Justin kept distractedly humming. Eventually, he sang out the words ‘heavenly father.’ Before I even left their house, Justin was recording the first version of the song in his downstairs studio. His inspiration was that immediate.”
“Heavenly Father” features Vernon’s powerful lower vocal register that he rarely utilizes. The vulnerability of the lyrics is emphasized with a subtle call and response technique in which the responses lightly float into the mix in Vernon’s higher vocal register. Flashes of rapid cymbals, smacks of a snare drum, and kicks of a bass drum highlight the darkness in this track, interrupting the never-ending synth loop that is the focus in both the beginning and end of the song but grows into the sonic base upon which the other instruments thrive upon. “Heavenly Father” is a must-hear song that allows you to sink further into it every time you hear it. Get your repeat buttons ready.
The National – “Think You Can Wait”
Inspired by the material of the film Win Win, The National wrote their first original song for a film soundtrack. “Think You Can Wait” is a low-tempo, piano-driven song that allows Berninger’s vocals to float over orchestral waves. Raspy guest vocals from indie artist Sharon Van Etten add a velvety texture to the first chorus and anchor the soaring crystalline strings that appear in the last half of the song. The combination of the song’s smooth vocals within the dreamy orchestration of “Think You Can Wait” makes this song a warm adult lullaby that will mellow you right out.
Lana Del Rey – “Young and Beautiful”
The Great Gatsby
Director Baz Luhrmann has more than one fantastic soundtrack under his belt, including Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge!, and most recently, The Great Gatsby. For the Gatsby soundtrack, Luhrmann recruited Jay Z to act as the executive producer of the soundtrack who curated a collection of covers and original songs for the film. Del Rey co-wrote the lead single “Young and Beautiful” from the viewpoint of the story’s lead female character, Daisy Buchanan, while lush strings and sedated vocals set a fitting tone of dreamy nostalgia, romance, and impending melancholy. “Young and Beautiful” won a nomination for Best Song Written for Visual Media at the 56th Annual Grammy Awards as well as a Best Song nomination at the 19th Critics’ Choice Awards.
Cat Power and Coldplay – “Wish I Was Here”
Wish I Was Here
For Zach Braff’s indie film, Wish I Was Here, Coldplay’s Chris Martin and Cat Power collaborated on an original theme song. “Wish I Was Here” is a beautifully sad portrait of a lost soul among piano, harmonies, and atmospheric echo. Braff called the song “one of the most amazing songs ever.” Martin began conceiving the song after viewing the film and suggested a female vocal. Both Martin and Braff wanted Chan Marshall (aka Cat Power) and after she viewed the film she immediately agreed. Marshall recorded her vocals while Coldplay produced the track at the Electric Lady studios in New York.
Eddie Vedder – “No Ceiling”
Into The Wild
Into The Wild‘s director Sean Penn chose Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder to create not only an original song for the film, but the entire soundtrack. Vedder had previously provided songs for two different movie soundtracks that Penn had starred in (Dead Man Walking and I Am Sam). After viewing the film, Vedder began work on the soundtrack the very next day. Matching the independent spirit of the film, Vedder played every instrument himself on all of the nine original and two cover songs on the soundtrack with the exception of some backing vocals and extra acoustic guitar. While many of the songs are sparse and folky, some tracks are amped up with the rebellious spirit of rock and roll. “No Ceiling” finds a nice balance between Vedder’s sonic parameters on the soundtrack. Songs from the soundtrack won Vedder several accolades including a Grammy nomination for both “Rise” and “Guaranteed” and a Golden Globe win for “Guaranteed.”
Sia feat. The Weeknd and Diplo – “Elastic Heart”
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
While many listeners will recognize Sia’s solo version of “Elastic Heart” from its controversial music video starring Shia LaBeouf and dancer Maddie Ziegler, the original version was a collaboration between Sia, The Weeknd, and Diplo for the Hunger Games: Catching Fire soundtrack. The only difference between the two versions is the presence of The Weeknd’s second verse and his backing vocals that were replaced by Sia in the version that appears on her album 1000 Forms of Fear. The original collaborative version was released as the second single off the soundtrack.
Beck and Bat For Lashes – “Let’s Get Lost”
The Twilight Saga: Eclipse
Beck and Bat For Lashes experienced their first collaboration on the creation of “Let’s Get Lost” for the 2010 soundtrack of The Twilight Saga: Eclipse (later in 2014 they again collaborated on “Under The Indigo Moon”). The song creates a vast space thanks to underlying synth hums and several layers of backing vocals and synths. Natasha Khan’s delicate vocals strain and echo across the sonic space. Beck’s vocals in the second verse are heavier but just as buried beneath the drum machines as Khan’s, keeping the distant, dreamy atmosphere the focal point of the track.
Stephanie Horak is a contributing writer to Indie88.com and is also the founder and editor of Stories Behind The Songs.