There is something about life in New York City which lends itself to mood music, to movie soundtracks. It could be all the waiting; despite the popular notion that NYC residents are always on the move, we are, in fact, always in a type of suspended animation. Life goes on above the surface while sitting or standing in a cramped subway train hundreds of feet below. On the bus, in a taxi, the world passes us by while we glance through windows. In motion, but not entirely. Add a little overcast, maybe a few skyscrapers, all playing out while listening to a cinematic score, and I find myself in the middle of my own movie, starring me: solipsism at its most beautiful.
Perhaps I’m being hyperbolic, or cliched—the typical Brooklyn writer who can’t help mentioning NYC. Maybe my love for soundtracks begins with my proclivity for albums, as opposed to single, disparate songs. It all stems from the pleasure I always receive from the sum, the greater whole, of a project. The music album is literary in design, whether one considers songs as chapters in a novel, or as poems or stories in a collection. The album lends itself to a narrative arc, even if a story, in the traditional “beginning, middle, end” sense, isn’t being explicitly told through lyrics. The movie soundtrack is supposed to act as an enhancement to the narrative arc presented on screen.
Yet, the soundtrack is easy to miss while viewing a movie; it is inherently background music, almost white noise, to break up otherwise monotonous dialogue, to accompany a series of explosions in an action scene, or a silent car ride shared between two or more characters. The soundtrack to the sci-fi movie Moon, starring Sam Rockwell, was the first I truly heard, and enjoyed, while watching the movie—so much so, I bought the album. A beautiful, dark album—moody and, at times, monotonous (much like space and the moon, where the movie is set)—the Moon soundtrack, written by Clint Mansell, has provided the perfect ambient music for writing sad, sometimes morbid short stories and essays.
Other soundtracks make for great writing music, such as Inception. Composed by Hans Zimmer, the Inception soundtrack blends brass, bass, strings, and synthesizers to create a multi-layered texture of sound and mood, a depth which attempts to mirror the “dream within a dream (within a dream)” thematic structure of director Christopher Nolan’s film. Standout tracks include “528491,” “Dream Is Collapsing,” and the closing track “Time.” Zimmer also briefly includes French cabaret singer Édith Pilaf’s “Non, je ne regrette rien,” which Nolan used as a plot device in the movie.
Similar to the orchestral and electronic elements of the Inception soundtrack, TRON: Legacy is also full of texture and depth. Daft Punk fuses their robotic, computerized EDM with a full orchestra to create, in all, a sound more “organic” than most of their discography. (One could argue that the fully organic, “human” sound of their album Random Access Memories began with TRON: Legacy.) The soundrack’s bookends, “Overture” and “Finale,” as well as “Adagio For TRON,” are beautiful, sweeping compositions that belie the assumptions that the duo were perhaps chained to the synthesizers and drum machines they’ve used to worldwide acclaim.
Unlike Moon and Inception, I haven’t watched TRON: Legacy (or the original 1982 movie). It’s interesting to listen to the soundtrack, purchased solely on the strength of my fandom for Daft Punk, completely out of context with the movie. Listening to violin crescendos and timpani drums pounding in the background elicit the idea that something important or relevant or exciting occurred within a particular scene in the movie. Without seeing the movie, I listen to these shifts in the score and imagine my own scenes, something involving the glowing motorcycles that, I believe, appear in the movie.
My personal favorite soundtrack, and one that gets constant replays on my iPhone, whether I’m writing or not, is Drive. Curated and composed by Clint Martinez, Drive is a nineteen-track album front-loaded by the five tracks most recognizable to those who’ve seen the movie, from Kavinsky’s “Nightcall,” lifted from his debut album Outrun and used for Drive’s title credits, to The Chromatics’ “Tick of the Clock,” used to excellent effect in Drive’s opening scenes (and has since been overused and ran into the ground by car commercials).
The remaining fourteen tracks come from the movie’s actual score. These tracks strip away the electro-house, the synth-pop, and leave behind minimalistic, sometimes cold ambience, reminiscent of the shift in the film’s plot, tempo, and tone when Ryan Gosling’s face is covered in blood. Equally relaxing and tense, the Martinez-composed portion of Drive’s soundtrack accompanies hipster-watching on the L train through Williamsburg, a favorite activity of mine.
The strength of these soundtracks are within their sums, within the cohesion of each track woven together to create whole soundscapes, for lack of a better word. The result, then, is true mood music; from a literary perspective, movie soundtracks are closer to poetry collections than novels or short stories. Poetry often attempts to capture moods, feelings, that are seemingly indescribable with words, but can be experienced through music.
And as I am inclined to reach for and read Tracy K. Smith’s Life On Mars on one occasion, or Terrance Hayes’ Lighthead on another, I’ll listen to Trent Reznor’s The Social Network, or Steven Price’s Gravity. Disconnected from the movie, a soundtrack becomes an enjoyable piece of music worthy enough to stand on its own. A complete, composed body of music is still relevant in our current streaming environment full of user-curated playlists.
* Note from the author: I wondered if I should include Prince’s Purple Rain, but decided against it. While I love the movie, it was, as others have noted before me, a feature-length music video for an album. You’re more than welcome to find me on Twitter, where we can discuss it further.
mensah demary is editor in chief of Specter Magazine and a columnist for Fourculture Magazine. His fiction and nonfiction has appeared in Metazen, Little Fiction, PANK, Thought Catalog, and elsewhere. Originally from New Jersey, he currently lives and writes in Brooklyn. Find him on Twitter @mensah4000.