In recent years, movie soundtracks seem little more than a ragbag of songs underpinned by a big-name hit that appears to have little relation to the movie. Face it, the only earth-shattering thing about Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Wanna Miss a Thing” (for Armageddon) was that it was their first #1 single. Other times, the “why the hell is this here?” factor is intentional, as with Huey Lewis’s “Hip to Be Square” soundtracking the most violent murder of American Psycho. But sometimes, music and movies come together in harmony…
It can still happen. Hans Zimmer’s Oscar-nominated score for Inception (2010) only came to life, the composer said, when he recruited guitarist Johnny Marr to add a brooding twang motif. But we’re here for when guitar and guitarist is absolutely key to a vintage movie theme or even the whole soundtrack.
In no order of rating, here are just 10 great guitar themes.
Cameras, lights, guitars… action!
Movie: Superfly (1972)
Music: Curtis Mayfield
A classic case of a soundtrack eclipsing the film that spawned it, Superfly saw Curtis Mayfield at the height of his powers. Simultaneously joyful and mournful, Mayfield’s title track, plus “Pusherman,” “Freddie’s Dead” and more make the Superfly album as addictive as the movie’s subject matter. The ’72 movie trailer – watch Superfly here – is dated, but the soundtrack remains superfine.
Movie: Paris, Texas (1984)
Music: Ry Cooder
Working only with producer Jim Dickinson and fellow guitarist David Lindley, Cooder’s haunting score got to the heart of Wim Wenders’ road movie’s images of fragility and otherworldliness. Cooder played an array of slide instruments in different tunings throughout, yet Paris, Texas’s main theme is so simple you never forget it. It’s far removed from a “normal” soundtrack, but perhaps how a truly empathetic soundtrack should be? Cooder’s The Long Riders and Last Man Standing also show how well he understands melding guitar music and movies.
Movie: The Graduate (1967)
Music: Paul Simon
Paul Simon’s work for The Graduate is strange in some ways. Only one song, “Mrs. Robinson” obviously, was specifically written for Mike Nichols’s movie but Simon’s other guitar tunes fit the mood perfectly. Dave Grusin’s subtle and jazzy orchestral score intertwines with Simon and Garfunkel’s song snippets perfectly: the likes of “April Come She Will” and “The Sound of Silence” sound as if they were written for the movie, even if they were not. In its melding of “traditional” score composers and pop artists, The Graduate was a soundtrack watershed. Simon and Garfunkel’s full version of “Mrs. Robinson” hit #1 on The Billboard charts in 1968.
Movies: James Bond series (from 1962… and still going)
Music: The John Barry Seven and Vic Flick
As with most movie franchises, James Bond themes are now about a big-name singer. Adele is tipped to be singing the “signature tune” to 2012’s Skyfall, going where A-ha, Sheryl Crow, Rita Coolidge, Garbage and many more have all previously stumbled. Fact is, nothing beats the original James Bond theme, orchestrated in a rush by composer John Barry, with London session player Vic Flick providing the surf-inspired twang. It still appears in every Bond movie because it has to. Flick also played on other incidental themes in the Bond movies Dr. No , From Russia with Love, Goldfinger, Thunderball, You Only Live Twice, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Diamonds are Forever and License to Kill. Hear this oh-so-simple guitar riff, and you immediately think: “Bond: James Bond.”
Movie: Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973)
Music: Bob Dylan
Dylan had a vested interest in his soundtrack for the Sam Peckinpah movie being good: he also acted in the movie, as the character Alias, and temporarily moved his family to Mexico for the task. Dylan’s instrumental contributions aren’t perfect – just as the film is flawed – but it is underrated. “Bunkhouse Theme” is a delicate instrumental, and the soundtrack did spawn one of Dylan’s most enduring songs, “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” His first music for three years, the soundtrack for Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid proved the singularly minded Dylan could work across genres.
Movie: The Deer Hunter (1978)
Music: Stanley Myers/John Williams
Myers’ “Cavatina” is classic example of a musical theme working in an incongruous context. Michael Cimono’s The Deer Hunter, a gritty movie about three Vietnam vets’ intertwining lives, hardly seemed ripe for a sweeping strings and classical guitar theme, but it worked. Australian guitarist Williams had recorded Myers’s piece earlier in the ’70s, but via the new Deer Hunter arrangement, it became a chart hit. It doesn’t rock, but remains perfectly poignant in the context of the movie.
Movie: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)
Music: Ennio Morricone
Italian composer Morricone is a legend of numerous soundtracks, but never more so than for his work on Sergio Leone’s “dollars” trilogy, of which The Good, the Bad and the Ugly was the third and arguably the best. The “spaghetti western” guitar twang of TGTBaTU may have originally come from surf guitar, but it became its own style. This is not guitar-centric, but shows how well electric guitar can work in a dramatic orchestra and choir setting. The guitar motif is played by Bruno Battisti D’Amario, usually a classical player, but who once released a “killer sitar funk” track called “Hua Hua Rock.” Go figure. A classic movie theme, and one defined by the simplest of guitar motifs.
Movie: Pulp Fiction (1994)
Main theme: Dick Dale
Dale’s version of “Misirlou” pre-dated Pulp Fiction by decades, yet although it wasn’t written for the movie it somehow encapsulates it. A traditional-influenced Greek song first performed in 1927 (“Miserlou,” its original name, translates as “Egyptian Girl”), Dale’s surf guitar version from 1962 is the perfect movie-intro rumble. Pulp Fiction is a rare example of a soundtrack of old songs somehow fitting perfectly. It’s not often you hear an old Mediterranean song played surf-style and immediately think of John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson shooting people dead.
Movie: Shaft (1971)
Music: Isaac Hayes
Even more than Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly, Isaac Hayes’ Shaft soundtrack defined the “Blaxploitation” sound of the early ’70s. Hayes agreed to write the soundtrack after being promised an audition for the lead role of John Shaft: the audition never happened, but Hayes kept his part of the bargain. The wah guitar is played by Charles “Skip” Pitts, who also played with Rufus Thomas and Albert King, among others. Great theme, great wah guitar, the Shaft theme remains badass. Can you dig it? Yes you can.
Movie: Young Guns II (1991)
Music: Jon Bon Jovi
Some may consider JBJ has a hack rock anthem writer. But he certainly came good on his first soundtrack. The movie makers for Young Guns II only asked if they could use Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive”: JBJ said yes, but suggested he then write the whole soundtrack. And he did. In an interview for Uncut magazine, Young Guns II star Keifer Sutherland said, “When Jon [Bon Jovi] joined the team for Young Guns II, we were all eating hamburgers in a diner and Jon was scribbling on this napkin for, say, six minutes. He declared he’d written ‘Blaze of Glory,’ which of course then went through the roof in the States. He later gave Emilio Estevez the napkin. We were munching burgers while he wrote a #1 song... Made us feel stupid.”
And before y’all complain, the likes of The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night, The Who’s Tommy and Quadrophenia, and Prince’s Purple Rain don’t really count… they are movies written to existing songs, not the other way around. Essentially, they are extended music videos.
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