The Brilliance of Eighties Soundtracks

‘San Junipero’. ‘Dirty Dancing’. ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’. On the surface, none of these seem to connect. One tells the story of two women that fall in love against the backdrop of an alternate universe, created for those that would prefer a life beyond death, and based in a coastal Californian heaven. Another centres on the thrill of first love and the ascent into adulthood, set amidst the tumultuous changes of the American sixties, and featuring a young, rather flexible, Patrick Swayze. The latter of the three focuses on the desire to break free of convention, and captures the youthful need to make ourselves into something else. So, what links each of these films together? It’s simple: a thundering, joy-inducing soundtrack. See, a soundtrack is as important to a film as its direction, its cast and even its plot. Let’s ask ourselves, for example, what is the most iconic scene in ‘Pulp Fiction’? Of course, it’s Mia and Vincent’s dance! Set to Chuck Berry’s ‘You Never Can Tell’, it is one of the most memorable parts of the film, and the image of John Travolta’s frankly terrible dancing is instantly recognisable. What is the best part of ‘Scott Pilgrim Vs the World’? Easy: Brie Larson’s version of ‘Black Sheep’ by Metric. It is electrifying, sensual and, overall, damn good fun. It fits in perfectly with a film like ‘Scott Pilgrim’, it is a standout indie performance accompanied by Edgar Wright’s array of multi-coloured visuals. So, we can agree that soundtrack matters. Now, we can get specific. We can talk about different types of soundtracks, and the one I want to focus on here is the joyous, most unashamedly upbeat soundtrack of them all: the eighties soundtrack.

There is quite possibly nothing else in the entire world that can compare to the brilliance of the eighties soundtrack. Maybe I’m being a little hyperbolic, but can you really imagine a world in which ‘San Junipero’ doesn’t end with Kelly and Yorkie riding off into the (eternal) sunset while ‘Heaven is A Place on Earth’ plays in the background? I know I can’t. In fact, the entirety of the ‘San Junipero’ soundtrack is bursting with wonders, from the gentle guitar strums of ‘Girlfriend in a Coma’ by The Smiths, to the sheer fun of Alexander O’Neal’s ‘Fake’. With the introduction of each song, we are given more, intimate insights into Yorkie and Kelly’s burgeoning relationship, as they manage to find happiness in even the bleakest of times, as death itself looms over them. With the help of a vibrant soundtrack, ‘San Junipero’ somehow manages to deliver a sense of hope in the face of despair, as the joy of eighties music guides Kelly and Yorkie through the horror of no longer existing, and leads them to the kind of comfort that ‘Black Mirror’ so often steers away from. So, what does this tell us about the eighties soundtrack? That it is enough to distract us from the inevitability of our own demise? That it, alongside love, of course, is the only possible thing that can bring us happiness when coming to terms with the reality of death? The answer to each of these questions is unequivocally yes.

While we’re on the subject of eighties music, then, let’s turn our attention to the behemoth of films with an eighties soundtrack. The film that spawned a plethora of iconic quotes and showed just how great the impact of a headstrong woman in cinema could be; ‘Dirty Dancing’. It’s a romantic classic, yes, but it’s also a brilliant example of the importance of a great soundtrack in film. Throughout ‘Dirty Dancing’, Baby and Johnny’s relationship brims with sensuality, and while the chemistry between the actors is palpable, would the tension that dominates at least the first half of the film be just as intense? Think about it, would their dance montages be nearly as enticing without Eric Carmen’s aggressive pining in ‘Hungry Eyes’? As the heavy beat of the song provides the background to Baby’s attempts to learn how to dance the way Johnny does, we are left to sigh dreamily as the two begin to inwardly acknowledge their attraction towards each other, forming the basis of one of the most iconic relationships to ever grace the screen. Furthermore, can we envision the film ending with Baby and Johnny dancing their hearts out to anything other than ‘I’ve Had the Time of My Life’? I don’t think so. Like ‘San Junipero’, the song that brings ‘Dirty Dancing’ to its finale is far more than just a song. It signals the end of a journey not only for our beloved characters, but for ourselves, too. Watching ‘Dirty Dancing’ as an adolescent is a rite of passage, and it means that we, too, experience the same kind of realisation that Baby does. That the world is not always the wonderful place we once thought it was, but that, maybe if we try, we can help to make it into one. ‘I’ve Had the Time of My Life’ suggests that Baby’s teenage years are nearly over, and implies that she is on the cusp of adulthood, a young woman preparing to enter reality; a feeling that resonates with a great deal of us, and is expertly captured by the simple inclusion of a song.

Soundtrack, then, should surely be considered as one of the most important aspects of film. It makes it impossible for us to avoid associating certain songs with certain scenes in movies and television programmes, and it often allows us to engage further with the journey of our protagonists, as by setting their story to a tune, they become that little bit more relatable. Soundtrack ensures that we see a reflection of ourselves in some characters; ‘I mean, hey, if Starlord himself likes 10cc, too, then maybe we’re pretty similar!’ If two women living in a parallel universe, found in the near future, can enjoy ‘Heaven Is a Place on Earth’, then perhaps our worlds aren’t so different after all. So, here’s to the brilliance of soundtrack! Long may it live as the best part of films for years to come.

by Hannah Ryan

Hannah is 19, lives in Cardiff and is into female protagonists, visually pleasing movies and Star Wars. Her favourite films include Pan’s Labyrinth, Casino Royale and Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy. She generally prefers dogs to people and you can find her talking endlessly about films at @_hannahryan on Twitter.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.