Soundtrack Love Affair

Praising some gems from (mostly) little-heard film and television soundtrack

Soundtrack Love Affair
Pictured: Zero actual soundtracks

Once upon a time, most movies came with soundtracks — and when I say "soundtracks," I'm talking about good old-fashioned multi-artist compilations that often if not usually included a handful of previously unreleased songs from well-known artists. You probably remember the really big soundtracks, multi-platinum smash hits released alongside major hit movies like Ghostbusters and Footloose and Beverly Hills Cop and even some titles that weren't released in 1984. But even the lesser-known ones sometimes contained songs making the soundtrack well worth a purchase, and those are the ones I'll be focusing on today.

Most of these are from soundtracks that didn't really sell, and many of them are out of print, hence the preponderance of YouTube links that's about to follow. I'm making a couple of limited exceptions that I'll comment on along the way, but for the most part, this is going to be a series of deep cuts. Enjoy!

"Cradle of the Interstate," Nanci Griffith
It's been largely memory holed at this point, but in 1992, still just a few notches below his critical and commercial peak, John Mellencamp cashed in a chunk of his industry goodwill in exchange for the right to direct, star in, and steer the soundtrack for Falling from Grace, a generally well-received but little-seen movie about a rock star who heads back to his hometown for a family function that inevitably ends up stirring a series of ghosts back to life. (Not literally, mind you. This isn't that kind of movie.)

The soundtrack contains a number of great tracks, including John Prine's "All the Best" and Mellencamp's own "It Don't Scare Me None." My favorite, however, is this lovely Nanci Griffith number that has never, as far as I know, appeared anywhere else.

"Gone for Good," Morphine
My first brush with Morphine came courtesy of this mournful number, which surfaced in the soundtrack to 2 Days in the Valley, one of the roughly 500 post-Pulp Fiction movies with big casts and jumbled timelines that all come together in the end. Like most of those movies, 2 Days isn't going to make anyone forget about Tarantino, but it's better than most, and the cast is pretty fantastic — James Spader, Charlize Theron, Danny Aiello, Jeff Daniels, Teri Hatcher, Eric Stoltz, and the great Paul Mazursky all make appearances.

I'm still not much of a Morphine fan, but this song's always gotten me good. I often covered it during my live sets. I'm glad there are no recordings of those performances.

"Be for Real," Afghan Whigs
There's a certain type of movie about a certain type of small town — one that's always seen better days, and is usually located in the Midwest or Northeast — that we used to get a lot, but has fallen out of favor over the last 25 years or so. Beautiful Girls is probably one of the last best examples of what I'm talking about, an ensemble dramedy about people whose lives haven't come anywhere near the dreams they had, and whose relationships are likely to include alcohol-fueled arguments and/or fistfights that are inevitably forgotten the following day.

This Afghan Whigs song, which is played by a bar band during one scene (played by the Whigs themselves, if I'm not mistaken), sums up that vibe perfectly. I've never gotten tired of listening to it, and at this rate, I probably never will.

"Nobody Knows Me," Lyle Lovett
This is a bit of a cheat, since I already included another song from the 2 Days in the Valley soundtrack, but fuck it; this is my post, and "Nobody Knows Me" is the song that taught me there were hidden treasures waiting in the corners of the Lovett catalog I hadn't yet explored. (Virtually all of them at that point; I'm pretty sure I'd only listened to the promo copy of Joshua Judges Ruth that MCA sent me in 1992.) A model of economy. Just a perfect, perfect song, and possibly the most beautiful one ever written about brutally casual infidelity.

"This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak for You)," The Isley Brothers
I was all set to say that MCA included this song on the Moonlighting soundtrack because they owned Motown and it made good business sense to leverage those vaults, but after doing a quick double-check, I see that MCA's purchase of the label didn't happen until the following year. Well, whatever — this has been one of my favorite Isleys songs since 1987, and I'm giving it bonus points today on account of the quick baritone sax solo.

"Anybody Seen Her," Billy Vera and the Beaters
Also beaming in from the year 1987 is this Billy Vera obscurity, plucked from the soundtrack to the Bruce Willis and Kim Basinger-led flop Blind Date. Like a lot of late-period Blake Edwards comedies, it hinges on some things that have not, shall we say, aged well; in this particular case, the plot revolves around a mousy guy (Willis) who needs to bring a date to a corporate function and settles on being set up by his brother (Phil Hartman), who connects him with a woman (Basinger) but warns him that if she drinks, she loses control.

You can guess what happens next, and you can probably also guess that during the scene this song is heard in, Willis is frantically searching for a very drunk Basinger around a nightclub while Vera and his Beaters play on. One imagines that this was intended to be the next springboard to chart success for the band after their surprise hit with "At This Moment"; alas, things did not turn out that way. Fun song, though.

"Free At Last," David & David
After scoring a critical and commercial hit with their debut Boomtown LP in 1986, David & David vanished into thin air; by 1990, the singing David (Baerwald) had embarked on a solo career while his partner (Ricketts) turned to producing Toni Childs LPs. So imagine my surprise when I received a copy of the Posse soundtrack in the mail and saw this song on the track listing — not only was I definitely not expecting to hear more from David & David, I certainly would not have expected them to pop up on the soundtrack to a Black Western directed by Mario Van Peebles. Still, I wasn't complaining then, and I'm not now.

"Jolie Louise," Daniel Lanois
If you have any level of awareness with regards to Lanois' solo discography, then "Jolie Louise" is certainly not unknown to you. But prior to MCA sending me the Northern Exposure soundtrack in 1992, I'm not sure I even knew he was a recording artist in addition to being a sought-after producer — and if I did know that much, I had no idea he was making songs that sounded like this. A jaunty good time.

"Mambo Italiano," Rosemary Clooney
Everyone loves Stanley Tucci today, but most of you were sleeping on his prodigious gifts in the '90s, when true fans like my brothers and me laughed our asses off at his antics in the (often quite bad) Dennis Quaid/Kathleen Turner comedy Undercover Blues, and then rushed to the local arthouse theater when we heard the Tooch had co-directed a new movie called Big Night.

Set in '50s New Jersey, the movie stars Tucci and Tony Shalhoub as Italian brothers desperately trying to make a go of their local restaurant, which is perpetually outshined by a bigger and more popular establishment owned by Ian Holm. At the end of their rope and facing foreclosure, they decide to risk everything on a huge bash designed to bring in Louis Prima, who's going to be in town for a show.

Everything about this movie is perfect, including the cast (which is rounded out by Isabella Rossellini and Minnie Driver) and the soundtrack. I can't hear any of these songs anymore without thinking about a small army of people making a timpano.

"Shape of Things to Come," Bee Gees
In the '80s, even the Olympics got soundtrack albums. The 1988 edition included this song from the Bee Gees, whose U.S. chart fortunes would remain ice cold until they made their surprising comeback with One the following year. This song sounds to me like a leftover from 1987's ESP, and I mean that as a sincere compliment.

"Young," Jason Scheff
No one saw it, but 1989's How I Got Into College is a pretty good — well, halfway decent — teen comedy that bears most of the hallmarks associated with director Savage Steve Holland, up to and including a delightful cameo from Taylor Negron. If I'm being honest, the movie is probably rarely half as funny as it should be, but its best bits make it worth a watch anyway; think of it as the slower, shaggier cousin to Better Off Dead and you'll be fine. Oh, and it also includes this exquisitely '80s solo number from Jason Scheff, then just a few years into his tenure as bassist and singer for Chicago.

"All for Love," Nancy Wilson
This is definitely a cheat, because the Say Anything... soundtrack held a place of honor in countless teenage tape decks. It's absolutely not anything close to obscure, but I'm including this song anyway because it fucking rules and the soundtrack itself has apparently fallen out of print. Is there anything that sounds more like 1989 than Nancy Wilson singing "All for Love"? Your honor, I submit that the answer may very well be no.

"My Great Escape," Marc Cohn
Directed by thirtysomething vet Peter Horton, the 1995 movie The Cure is one of those well-intentioned dramas that would almost certainly never be made today, solely because the entire plot revolves around a kid who moves to a new town, befriends his neighbor, discovers his neighbor has HIV, and bands together with him to find a cure. It's a sweet film, but the potential for unintentional offense is high at all times; in retrospect, it's kind of amazing that it came out at all. I remember it chiefly because it included this non-album track from Marc Cohn, which has never been officially released and is really a couple of songs cobbled together. I harassed Cohn about releasing it when I interviewed him in 1998; he did not listen to me. (You can get an early version of it here.)

"All I Know," Michael McDonald and Amy Holland
I swear I don't know the story here, but in 1994, SBK Records — hallowed home to Wilson Phillips, Vanilla Ice, and Kingofthehill — released a One Life to Live soundtrack. The bulk of the record is taken up with then-popular adult contemporary artists like Wendy Moten and Billy Dean (plus an appearance by David Foster's favorite singer, Warren Wiebe), but the reason I bought it was to get my hands on this cover of the Jimmy Webb classic "All I Know," performed by Michael McDonald and his wife Amy Holland. Is it essential? Perhaps not. Is it well made? I would argue yes.

"Simply Meant to Be," Gary Morris and Jennifer Warnes
We'll close out by going back to the Blind Date soundtrack for this number, which plays as the movie reaches its inevitably happy ending and drifts into the closing credits. The singers are Gary Morris, who was then very popular as a duet partner for Crystal Gayle, and Jennifer Warnes, a.k.a. the best singer who never had a hit that wasn't a soundtrack duet. Like the movie it came attached to, this was decidedly not a hit — but in a different world, I think it's easy to imagine it doing just as well as "Up Where We Belong" and "(I've Had) The Time of My Life." Fun fact: It was written by Henry Mancini with an assist from George Merrill and Shannon Rubicam, otherwise known as Boy Meets Girl!