Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Mockingjay, Super Fly, and the evolution of the companion film soundtrack

Illustration for article titled iMockingjay/i, iSuper Fly/i, and the evolution of the companion film soundtrack

In late September, Lorde released “Yellow Flicker Beat,” the first single off The Hunger Games: Mockingjay–Part 1 soundtrack. It’s a moody piece, with warbling a cappella hums heralding the New Zealander’s robust mezzo-soprano, a lightning-lit storm cloud that, even when buoyed by pulsing synths, can’t help but signal an encroaching darkness. Such is appropriate for Mockingjay, which, despite the legion of dead children piled atop its predecessors, still manages to be the most unflinching book in Suzanne Collins’ dystopian young adult series.


If “Yellow Flicker Beat” is any indication, the forthcoming film adaptation should reflect the book’s war-torn milieu. Unlike the tracks that dominated the previous soundtracks, there’s no mention of love, family, or triumph; as with the series itself, “Yellow Flicker Beat” is concerned foremost with power. Yet Lorde, like Collins, understands that theme isn’t what keeps the pages turning.

“It’s my attempt at getting inside her head,” Lorde said about the single. “Katniss, I hope you like it.” Katniss Everdeen, the Hunger Games protagonist, finds herself a capable, if unwilling, pawn of the rebellion in Mockingjay. By adopting her perspective, one entirely divorced from her own, Lorde allows her song to serve as more than mere atmosphere. She allows it to be a character study.


That her single came first is no surprise; Lorde’s been tasked with curating the soundtrack, following in the footsteps of The Hunger Games’ T Bone Burnett and Catching Fire’s Alexandra Patsavas, seasoned curators who ably captured their respective film’s tone. Burnett drew upon spare acoustics to reflect the skeletal nature of District 12, while Patsavas tapped effervescent wailers like Santigold and Christina Aguilera to evoke the Capitol’s kaleidoscopic excess. Daunting footsteps to follow, to be sure, but Lorde’s lineup, released late last month, ups the ante with artists that skip along the shadows of mainstream pop—Chvrches, Bat For Lashes, Kanye West. This is an impressive group, and should their entries align with the empathetic perspective of “Yellow Flicker Beat,” it could prove to be a boon not just for the Mockingjay–Part 1 soundtrack, but for companion soundtracks in general.

A companion soundtrack is defined here as an album’s worth of songs “from and inspired by” a film, and isn’t to be confused with a film’s score, which is traditionally instrumental. In some cases (Twilight, Wild Wild West), the companion soundtrack serves as auxiliary marketing, while in others (Singles, Dazed And Confused) the album goes a long way toward defining the film’s world. As mainstream commodities, they’re rarer these days, raising eyebrows only when attached to a tentpole franchise or prestige period piece.


Regardless, this last decade has seen a renaissance of sorts in terms of quality. Much of that credit goes to Patsavas, who, through her work on Grey’s Anatomy and the Twilight films, displayed a preternatural ability to pair under-the-radar indie with heart-rending drama, even if the stories and songs shared nothing but a vague concept of romantic longing. Even the original songs commissioned for the Twilight series—from critical darlings like Death Cab For Cutie, Bat For Lashes, and Bon Iver—bore little resemblance to the tween-vampire sensation, aside from vague allusions to moons, blood, and eternity.

In a making-of featurette for the video to Taylor Swift’s “Safe & Sound”—the lead single off the first Hunger Games soundtrack—collaborator and Civil Wars member John Paul White said of the soundtrack single, “It doesn’t have to be specific to the movie. We like to keep the edges just gray enough. It can be whatever you want it to be.”


This makes sense. Historically, songs that deliberately threaded themselves into a film’s universe edged more into novelty than pathos. Remember the Fat Boys? Their “Are You Ready For Freddy” is seen, along with Dokken’s “Dream Warriors,” as a catalyst in the cartoonification of the Nightmare On Elm Street series. In the late ’90s, Will Smith seemingly reached a nadir with his singles for “Men In Black” and “Wild Wild West,” wherein Big Willie recites puns and plot points over infectious soul samples. And the less said about “Ninja Rap,” the better. It’s no wonder an ambiguity of perspective has been the standard template for companion soundtracks: Capture the tone, but let the music video do the rest.

From the ’90s onward, companion soundtracks relied on that music video as much as they did the film it was promoting. Credit this to the fact that most singles—U2’s “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me” from Batman Forever comes to mind—were relegated to the closing credits, divorced from the story and characters. Instead of complementing each other, song and film were like the Riddler and Two-Face: unlikely allies in pursuit of the same goal. (It should be noted, however, that when a hit single was wedged into the film, we ended up with this.)

Soundtracks of this era were commonly built around a hit single—think “Wild Wild West” or Space Jam’s “I Believe I Can Fly”—then padded out with covers, remixes, and licensed material. Gimmicky collaborations were also a staple (Slayer and Atari Teenage Riot, for example) as the reliance on the single paved the way for greater freedom on the fringes to experiment.


This wasn’t always so. In the ’70s and ’80s, there was a much larger emphasis on cohesion, with several visionaries of the era trying their hands at soundtracks. Queen, for example, paired original songs with dialogue snippets and instrumental passages for their marvelous take on Flash Gordon, making the group one of the very first rock bands to both compose and perform the score for a feature film. That same year, Harry Nilsson teamed with whimsical composer Van Dyke Parks to create the sumptuous, bizarrely melancholy soundtrack to Popeye. Neither were enduring successes, but both showed artists didn’t have to sacrifice their singularity in pursuit of another’s vision. The same goes for Prince, who not only composed the entirety of the Purple Rain and Batman soundtracks, but christened them as legitimate entries in his discography.

A decade earlier, however, this was less of an anomaly. Soundtracks by soul musicians like Curtis Mayfield, Willie Hutch, and Isaac Hayes were integral to the success of blaxploitation staples like Super Fly, The Mack, and Shaft, their contributions often eclipsing the films themselves. This rings especially true for Mayfield’s Super Fly, considered not just one of the greatest soundtracks of all time, but one of the most influential albums, period. Much of that is due to Mayfield’s lush, complex arrangements, but his lyrical approach is equally inventive. To Mayfield, the film’s script was simply a starting point, a canvas on which he could paint his own colors.

It began with his moral approach, which sidestepped the film’s economical view of the drug trade to focus on its deteriorative effect on the individual, both junkie and pusher. Mayfield made his points by emphasizing, with no ambiguity, specific characters from the film, a nod, perhaps, to Ennio Morricone, whose Western soundtracks of the ’60s often gave each character their own musical motif. “Freddie’s Dead,” for example, sets its sight on a supporting character that Rolling Stone’s Bob Donat classified as a “sad fat stooge.” The film’s take is as reductive as Donat’s, but Mayfield was blessed with the ability to see even the flimsiest stereotypes as fully formed humans. “Everybody’s misused him,” Mayfield croons, “ripped him off and abused him.” This empathy is solely Mayfield’s, and its use in the film adds depth and dimension where there previously was little.


I recalled Super Fly, oddly enough, while listening to The Lumineers. Their contribution to Patsavas’ Catching Fire soundtrack is a soulful, first-person account of lost love. Its lyrics are vague, evocative in the manner of so many soundtrack songs. Its title, however, is not. It’s called “Gale Song,” linking it inextricably with Gale Hawthorne, a key component in The Hunger Games rebellion, not to mention the third member of Katniss’ love triangle.

The fact that nobody likes Gale (sorry) is exactly what makes “Gale Song” so remarkable. It’s easy to write a song about Peeta: He’s vulnerable, complicated, and charming. Gale? He’s kind of a dick, all bluster and jealousy. Not in “Gale Song,” though. There, he’s lonely and conflicted, a man torn between love and duty. It is, in many ways, a more compelling portrait of the character than we get in the films.


Patti Smith’s “Capitol Letter” appears just two songs later, literally heralding itself with a whispered “Katniss.” It shares DNA with “Daughter’s Lament,” a track off the prior soundtrack by the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Both stand out for their direct references to the film—bows, mining, mockingjays—but also because they posit themselves as songs that exist within the world, rather than outside of it. Unlike “Gale Song” and “Yellow Flicker Beat,” they eschew the first-person perspective, functioning more as folk songs about heroes made mythical by their actions, the sort of thing some ethereal troubadour might sing as he wanders through District 12.

Earlier this year, Catch The Throne, a hip-hop album inspired by Game Of Thrones, was released. The talent was incredible—Big Boi, Common, Wale—but the songs amounted to little more than casual references to the series (“Fuck the Lannisters and everybody that ride with ’em”), a modern-day equivalent to the Will Smith tie-in. There’s potential in the idea, but to succeed it takes more than a fleeting familiarity with the material. What’s key is immersion and empathy, something The Hunger Games soundtracks have quietly been cultivating the last several years.

It’s unlikely that the entirety of Lorde’s Mockingjay–Part 1 soundtrack will adhere to her specificity of perspective, though there’s promise in the latest single. A collaboration between The Chemical Brothers, Miguel, and Lorde, “This Is Not A Game” announces itself with its title, a direct reference to the series’ departure from the games. Though tremulous and atmospherically resonant, the song isn’t nearly as immersive as Lorde’s initial contribution. That’s okay, though. Like Katniss in Mockingjay, the companion soundtrack is ever-evolving, a confluence of influences in search of an identity.

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