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Five for Friday: Great Soundtracks

The return of a big movie franchise, like Star Wars, was expected this winter. More of a sleeper, however, is La La Land, a slick, feel-good romance starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. The film, from director Damien Chazelle, known for his work in the music-focused Whiplash, resurrects the mostly lost Hollywood genre known as the movie musical. While it's common these days for animated films to feature song and dance, the live-action musical fell out of favor decades ago. It's still too early in its run to tell if the jazzy La La Land ignites film-going audiences the way the films of Judy Garland and Gene Kelly once did, but the release has us excited for at least one reason: It's getting people talking about soundtracks. Here are five of our favorites, ranging from household names to cult hits that span the decades.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
Overlooked when it hit theaters, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World has become a mainstay on the midnight movie circuit – and for good reason. While not a traditional musical, the film is bright, cartoonish, and a slightly zany celebration of all things rock n' roll. Featuring luminaries of the indie/alt-rock music scene – Beck, Frank Black, Metric – the film captures the ways in which rock n' roll soundtracks a life. There are songs for breakups and songs for romancing (kind of). But mostly, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is about how music creates a sense of community. People come together – and fight – with a guitar in hand. You can enjoy choice cuts from the Rolling Stones and T. Rex, but the unheralded star of the show turns out to be Sex Bob-Omb, a Beck-led fictional garage-rock outfit whose tunes capture awkward coming-of-age moments.

The Beatles Live at the Hollywood Bowl
Really, any Beatles-related film will do, but this companion to Ron Howard's 2016 documentary The Beatles: Eight Days A Week - The Touring Years provides the biggest time-warp thrill. Today, when one thinks of the Beatles' sold-out shows at the Hollywood Bowl in the mid-60s, the screaming teens in the audience immediately come to mind. They're all over this meticulously mastered release, culled from the original three-track recordings by George Martin's son, Giles. Yet never before have these live songs – "Twist and Shout," "Can't Buy Me Love," "Things We Said Today," and plenty more – sounded so clear and immediate. Considering the Beatles soon stopped touring and performing live, this 17-track album feels like a long-lost treasure, especially when one hears John Lennon's vocals pushed to the max on the record's opening moments. Or the trippy guitars of "Ticket to Ride." Or the cascading rhythms of "Help!" Or, well, you get the idea.

The Harder They Come
This is one of those works where it's okay to make a grand, clichéd pronouncement: If you own one reggae album, it best be The Harder They Come. This 1972 Jamaican crime film stars Jimmy Cliff, both on screen and on record. His creamy, soulful vocals prove irresistible, even as the songs – and the film – deal with issues of class and poverty. Coming in at just 12 tracks and 39 minutes, the soundtrack nonetheless showcases the genre's diversity. "Many Rivers to Cross" remains a tender, gospel-tinged ballad while "You Can Get It if You Really Want" marries a twisty guitar with triumphant horns and soaring backing vocals. The title track engages as a shuffling, optimistic protest anthem, and contributions from Toots & the Maytals – "Pressure Drop" and "Sweet and Dandy" – will get any room shaking.

Prince Purple Rain
The past 12 months proved exceedingly difficult for music fans. We lost great artist after great artist, from Prince to David Bowie to Leonard Cohen, to name a few. Still so close to heartbreak, it feels bittersweet to listen to this album, no matter how striking a rock n' funk masterwork it remains. Yet we've got to power through, as Purple Rain comes on not only as one of Prince's greatest works but a perfect soundtrack. Working with his ace backing crew the Revolution, Prince makes the album heady, psychedelic, and sexy, flirting equally with rock n' roll and R&B. Check the stomp n' grind of "Darling Nikki," where surface sleaze gives way to shocking vulnerability. Or marvel at the title track, a slippery ballad with a scorching guitar solo. Weirder still are the surround-sound drums and haunted-house effects of "Take Me With U," which give way to swinging, romantic euphoria.

Mary Poppins
By today's standards, live-action movie musicals can risk appearing a tad outdated – or even a little weird. Few are as left-of-center as Disney's adaptation of Mary Poppins, which stars Julie Andrews as an umbrella-hovering nanny. The music, some of Disney finest, arrives courtesy of Robert and Richard Sherman, Disney maestros that composed many recognizable nuggets for the brand, including the theme for the It's A Small World attraction. Of special note for Disney aficionados and music nerds: The film's "Feed the Birds (Tuppence a Bag)," a graceful, Andrews-sung number about enjoying life's little moments as well as the importance of having a charitable heart. The tune is said to have been Walt Disney's favorite, and the Sherman Brothers performed it for the Mickey Mouse creator on an almost weekly basis. The film also contains the zany exuberance of "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious," the lighthearted give-and-take of "Jolly Holiday," and, of course, "A Spoonful of Sugar," which turns daily chores into a joy.

December 23, 2016

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