These movies have the greatest soundtracks ever.
Music and movies have been the peanut butter and chocolate of entertainment even before someone figured out how to put sound into cinema. Silent movies like the iconic vampire movie Nosferatu used live orchestral scores, Schmigadoon-like musicals dominated the box office for decades, and even the Beatles eventually got put up on screen. Some movies are ineffably elevated by their soundtracks, and fortunately for you, we put together a list of the best ones.
La La Land (2016)
Damien Chazelle’s 2016 ode to Hollywood dreams will likely be remembered most for the infamous Academy Awards incident in which it was mistakenly announced as Best Picture winner instead of Moonlight, and that’s a shame. While Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone’s sensitive portrayals of starcrossed lovers tell a lovely story in La La Land, the real draw of the movie is its magnificent soundtrack.
Chazelle’s longtime collaborator Justin Hurwitz wrote the movie’s soundtrack (technically score), a gorgeous, mostly instrumental orchestral series of songs that illustrate the couple’s bittersweet love story as much as the acting does. Try listening to the epic sweep of “Epilogue” without tears rising. You can’t.
Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
Inside Llewyn Davis is one of the Coen Brothers’ finest dark comedies, a blisteringly dark look at the boho culture of the 1960s, and the movie that fully cemented Oscar Isaac as a leading man, so we have a lot to thank it for. The movie’s soundtrack introduced a new generation of listeners to the traditional American folk music popularized by folk singers like Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger, so that’s yet more thanks from us.
Oscar Isaac stars as Llewyn Davis, a talented but unsuccessful folk singer largely modeled on the legendary Dave Van Ronk as he careens from disaster and disappointment, one after the other. Still, you didn’t know Poe Dameron knew how to play guitar like that.
School of Rock (2003)
Jack Black has always been a funny, enthusiastic guy and his musical efforts with Kyle Gass as the acoustic metal duo Tenacious D are well known. But Black’s talents for both comedy and music were given their finest showcase in Richard Linklater’s School of Rock, in which his schlubby loser of a would-be rock star trains a cadre of private school children into a kick-ass rock group.
Naturally, the movie soundtrack is the kind of comprehensive rock history lesson that Black’s Dewey Finn would give his student, featuring classic rock staples like the Who, Stevie Nicks, and (astonishingly, at the time) even Led Zeppelin. Add the AC/DC cover by the film’s stars at the end, and you’ve got something special.
Ray won Jamie Foxx a much-deserved Academy Award for portraying music legend Ray Charles over thirty years of his life and later made a cottage industry of singing hooks in the pianist’s unique tones for musicians like Kanye West and Ludacris. But Ray’s real service to pop culture is the movie soundtrack, which is a de facto greatest hits compilation of one of the greatest American singers of all time.
Tracks like “Mess Around” “I’ve Got a Woman” and “Georgia on My Mind” are as foundational to modern pop music as anything ever recorded, and we have Ray to thank for bringing them back to the radio.
Straight Outta Compton (2015)
Hip-hop biopic films are still in their infancy, but Straight Outta Compton already stands as one of the great music biopics. The F. Gary Gray film follows the spectacular rise of N.W.A., along with the group’s acrimonious break-up and legal battles, which is already a fascinating story in itself.
However, the movie soundtrack just further illustrates exactly how remarkable N.W.A. was in its prime, featuring prime cuts from the titular album, as well as solo tracks by Ice Cube and the late Eazy-E. If you ever need a primer on the Golden Age of West Coast gangsta rap, this is a good place to start.
Sing Street (2016)
Sing Street is an alternately comedic and tragic coming-of-age story set in 1985 Dublin, following a young boy’s attempts to woo the object of his affection by starting a rock band. Accordingly, the movie soundtrack is filled with awkward, lo-fi songs by the fictional band Sing Street, which is incredibly charming.
While the soundtrack includes a lot of stone-cold bangers of the time like Hall & Oates’ “Maneater” and the Cure’s “In Between Days,” the real draw here is the raw emotion of youthful people playing their hearts out in hopes of making their dreams come a just little bit true.
Purple Rain (1984)
As a film, Purple Rain has the simplest of plots: a very Prince-like musician (played by Prince in his acting debut) struggles with a difficult, abusive home life and spends his nights unleashing his incredible talents and charisma on stage. However, it doesn’t need more than that, considering the accompanying movie soundtrack contains some of the greatest pop music of the 1980s (or any decade).
Purple Rain (the film) features scintillating concert performances by Prince at the apex of his abilities, while Purple Rain (the album) is chockful of powerhouse bombs like “Let’s Go Crazy” “I Would Die 4 U” and the title track. In fact, we could list every song on the album and it would just sound like a greatest hits collection.
A Star is Born (2018)
Hollywood keeps making and remaking A Star is Born, but that’s because it is one of the most harrowing, tragic, and ultimately tender show business stories ever put to film. The 2018 version might arguably be the best of the lot, starring Lady Gaga as struggling singer-songwriter Ally and director Bradley Cooper as alcoholic country rock singer Jackson, drawn together and torn apart by their passions.
But for our purposes, the A Star is Born movie soundtrack is the real star of the show, a collection of original songs and standards sung by both Gaga and Cooper, including the instantly iconic “Shallow.” Listen to it, but keep some tissues for the tears nearby.
The Blues Brothers (1980)
The Blues Brothers originated as a goofy sketch on Saturday Night Live, and while they never got less comedic, they did eventually become a viable commercial product. The 1980 John Landis movie featured John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd as Jake and Elwood Blues, the deadpan yet dynamic duo of blues revivalists on a mission from God, and along the way, they made a pretty awesome movie soundtrack.
The Blues Brothers movie soundtrack is stacked with blues standards like Robert Johnson’s “Sweet Home Chicago” and R&B classics like “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love,” but you really have to see the movie to experience the exuberant joy of the music.
Almost Famous (2000)
Almost Famous may be the most definitive rock n’ roll movie ever made, a fictionalized version of writer/director Cameron Crowe’s experiences as a teenage music journalist. In the movie, real-life bands like the Allman Brothers that Crowe knew and toured with are amalgamated into the fictional band Stillwater, but the movie soundtrack managed to deliver the real deal.
The soundtrack to Almost Famous is a true love letter to the rock music of the 1970s, featuring everyone from Todd Rundgren to Rod Stewart to Cat Stevens. But if you want to see the true soul of the movie, just pull up the “Tiny Dancer” sing-along scene and marvel at the power of it.