‘Saturday Night Fever’ and 7 Other Film Soundtracks That Are as Iconic as the Movies They’re From

The film soundtrack album has developed into an art form of its own, spawning an entirely separate industry within the movie business to promote new music or revive forgotten classics with a new context. Across the history of film, there are a number of pictures with soundtracks that positively pop, going on to sell millions of copies and becoming as culturally significant as the films they feature in.

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Saturday Night Fever is perhaps the most famous instance of this trend, but there are certainly an array of films, such as Garden State and High Fidelity, which are talked about for their curated playlist of songs as often as the content of the films themselves.

The following article contains minor spoilers for the films discussed.


‘Saturday Night Fever’ (1977)

‘Saturday Night Fever’ and 7 Other Film Soundtracks That Are as Iconic as the Movies They’re From

Saturday Night Fever is a 1977 dance film by director John Badham and starring John Travolta in his breakout role as Tony Manero, a paint-store worker who feels his life has no momentum. By night, Tony is out in a stark-white suit tearing up the dance floor amidst pulsating lights and bodies, his dreams and worries melting away as one disco hit after another punctuates the soundtrack.

The Bee Gees-dominated soundtrack is one of the highest-selling of all time, second only to The Bodyguard and selling over 40 million copies, placing it among not only the highest-selling film soundtracks but the highest-selling albums of all time, period. Featuring iconic tracks such as “How Deep is Your Love,” “More Than a Woman,” and, of course, “Stayin’ Alive,” the “Saturday Night Fever” soundtrack no doubt had a heavy hand in boosting the film legendary cultural status, and, at this point, is probably revisited far more than the film.

‘High Fidelity’ (2000)

high-fidelity (1)

High Fidelity is an adaptation of the book of the same name by Nick Hornby, following Rob Gordon (John Cusak), a record store owner, who is dumped by his girlfriend Laura (Iben Hjejle), who accuses him of not having changed since they first met. Rob is cagey and defensive over his self-image and his encyclopedic knowledge of music, which he debates with his worker Barry Judd (Jack Black) and the patrons of his store.

Before 500 Days of Summer came along to give “indie sad-boys” everywhere an identity, there was High Fidelity, accompanied by a soundtrack featuring hits and rarities primarily from the 60s and 70s. With bands like The Velvet Underground, 13th Floor Elevators, Love, and Elvis Costello and the Attractions, the soundtrack embodies the crate-digging vinyl culture.

‘Easy Rider’ (1969)

Men riding motorbikes down a South US highway from Easy Rider

Easy Rider was a pioneering film in the realm of the soundtrack album, a drug-fueled odyssey across America directed by Dennis Hopper, who stars alongside Peter Fonda as a pair of biker-hippies dealing with the prejudices still deeply ingrained in modern America. The film is a defining moment in its era of counterculture. It paints a nihilistic view of the counterculture movement against American traditionalism, failing to understand the struggles faced by those looking for a change.

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Coming from an era where soundtrack albums were not yet summon-place, Easy Rider’s selection of psychedelic, acid rock, hard rock, and folk rock is meticulously crafted to enhance the film’s evolving commentary, the lyrical solemnity of The Band and Bob Dylan mixes with the walls of sound of Jimi Hendrix and Steppenwolf.

‘Garden State’ (2004)

Mark, Sam, and Andrew standing in the rain from Garden State

Zach Braff’s directorial debut tells the story of Andrew, played by Braff himself, who attends his mother’s funeral in his hometown. His return catalyzes a series of reconnections with old friends and the kindling of new ones. The film shares many comparisons to the work of Wes Anderson, with an unmistakable visual style and quirky cast of characters. However, it never did grant Braff the same level of acclaim as some of the other American indie filmmakers of the era.

Braff himself compiled the soundtrack album while writing the screenplay for the film, featuring classic artists such as Nick Drake and Simon and Garfunkel, as well as a modern indie group, The Shins, whose song New Slang is perhaps the film’s most iconic. Braff would win a 2005 Grammy for the compilation of the soundtrack album, which subsequently went on to become platinum-certified, selling over a million copies.

‘Sing Street’ (2016)

Sing Street band filming a music video in Sing Street

2016’s Sing Street, by director John Carney is the classic story of a boy starting a band to impress a girl who is far cooler than he ever will be. Set in 1980s Dublin, Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) is under the musical tutelage of his much cooler older brother (Jack Reynor) and TV music videos featuring bands like The Jam, The Cure, Duran Duran, and Hall & Oates.

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The Sing Street soundtrack celebrates the ’80s era of MTV and, particularly, the Irish music scene. The original tracks, composed by a small team including Gary Clark (of Irish pop band Danny Wilson), as well as director Carney himself, feature standouts such as “Riddle of the Model,” “A Beautiful Sea,” and “Brown Shoes,” which work to reflect the band’s rapidly evolving roster of influences, and fit seamlessly with the tracks of the era they are imitating.

‘Dazed and Confused’ (1993)

Matthew McConaughey in 'Dazed and Confused'

Richard Linklater‘s film operates like any other film in the “slacker” genre, but it does not feel nearly as contained: it presents a lifetime captured in an evening and the weight of the world hinging on a seemingly insignificant decision.

Taking place across a Texas evening in 1976, the film’s soundtrack embodies the period that directly followed that of Easy Rider, as rock & roll fanned out to fill the void left by the dissolution of The Beatles. The soundtrack is populated by iconic acts such as Alex Cooper, ZZ Top, Kiss, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, and southern rockers Lynyrd Skynyrd and Black Oak Arkansas. The soundtrack blares through car radios and party speakers, threading the continuity of the teens’ evening of aimless wandering.

‘American Graffiti’ (1973)

American Graffiti - 1973

Written and Directed by George Lucas, this spiritual predecessor to Dazed and Confused sets its sights on a group of teenagers of the early 60s, at the genesis of the teen ‘rock & roll’ Americana craze. The film focuses on the final day of summer vacation, taking the form of a series of vignettes, following teens whose stories overlap with one another, all set in or around cars cruising around town, accompanied by the voice and tunes of the faceless disk jockey “Wolfman Jack.”

The film’s music is diegetic, bleeding through radios and car speakers, thus setting a very different mood as our characters often interact with the soundtrack. Featuring the likes of Buddy Holly, The Beach Boys, Chuck Berry, and Fats Domino, amidst a host of other rock & roll pioneers, one-hit-wonders, and deep cuts for the avid crate digger, the film’s soundtrack is as much a soundtrack of the era than the film itself, a time capsule of a pre-Beatles rock & roll lineup and working much more than the film in accurately preserving the culture of the times.

‘The Royal Tenenbaums’ (2001)

Main cast of The Royal Tenenbaums

The Royal Tenenbaums is a film Written and Directed by Wes Anderson, released in 2001; it tells the story of an eccentric and brilliant family torn apart by jealousy, betrayal, and failure, only to be reunited through unexpected circumstances.

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The film’s opening features the Mutato Muzika Orchestra’s rendition of “Hey Jude,” a grand track to accompany the family’s extensive backstory. Later, Elliot Smith’s “Needle in the Hay” accompanies Richie’s (Luke Wilson) attempt to take his own life, a haunting and devastating moment. At the same time, the soft organs or the Rolling Stones’ “She Smiled Sweetly” diegetically scores the scene in which Richie and Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) express their fondness for one another. Finally, Nico‘s “Fairest of the Seasons” accompanies Royal’s (Gene Hackman) funeral. This star-studded listing does not even scratch the surface of the film’s iconic soundtrack, which boasts the talents of Paul Simon, The Velvet Underground, Nick Drake, and The Ramones.

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