SINCE SOUNDTRACK ALBUMS have been doing such a booming business lately -- "Dirty Dancing's" mix of oldies and sugary ballads recently kept both Michael Jackson and Bruce Springsteen away from the top of the chart for several weeks -- it seems every movie with even a trace of music in it is releasing an "Original Soundtrack."
So here's a browser's guide to the recent surfeit of movie music, some of which merits a life beyond the shadows and light and some that deserves to be melted down.
LESS THAN ZERO --
Various artists (Def Jam SC 44042). When asked to score the film of Bret Easton Ellis' bestseller about nihilistic L.A. teens, producer Rick Rubin rounded up a posse of unlikely record mates and made some crucial alterations in the music mentioned in the book. He substituted his trademark bottom-heavy hip-hop and heavy metal mix for the artsy, alienated punk-pop that served as Muzak for Ellis' fast-lane kids. Rubin's switch makes commercial sense, and some of the tunes here have a chilly, distanced feel appropriate to the subject -- the soundtrack LP should prove more durable (certainly more endurable) than the movie. Rubin gives the Bangles their best single yet with a crisp and punchy version of Simon and Garfunkel's "Hazy Shade of Winter" -- here's hoping he'll produce their next LP. Other highlights: L. L. Cool J's brooding "Going Back To Cali," Public Enemy's frighteningly aggressive "Bring the Noise," Roy Orbison's sonically updated "Life Fades Away," and Slayer's decimation of "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida."
MADE IN HEAVEN --
Various artists (Elektra 9 60729). Something for everyone in this odd jumble of contemporary pop and soul: two fair-to-good previously unreleased tracks by R.E.M. and Luther Vandross; some neat covers (the Nylons' zippy a cappella remake of the Supremes' "Up the Ladder to the Roof"); some oldies (a pair of Buffalo Springfield-era Neil Young tunes); and nebulous New Age-isms (three Mark Isham uncompositions that sound like a computer programmer's dream of the digital hereafter). Completists may want the R.E.M. and Vandross tricks; the rest is nonessential.
EMPIRE OF THE SUN --
John Williams (Warner Bros. 9 25668). When you come out of a movie remembering and remarking on the score, chances are it was composed by John Williams, whose Hollywood epic style -- the last of the Real Movie Music makers -- is the perfect accompaniment to Steven Spielberg's sweeping romanticism. Here, to underline the story of a British boy entering adulthood in a Shanghai under siege, Williams combines an ethereal boy's choir, lilting traditional melodies, and, for the battle scenes, whomping symphonic bombast. It's all resoundingly recorded, so a track like "The British Grenadiers" booms through your room like the home version of Sensurround.
CRY FREEDOM --
George Fenton and Jonas Gwanga (MCA 6224). Richard Attenborough's second self-important epic -- this one about Steven Biko's struggle against apartheid -- benefits immeasurably from the delicately powerful score by longtime Attenborough collaborator George Fenton, who in turn tapped South African musician Jonas Gwanga for authenticity and inspiration. Together, they've created a stirringly melodic blend of electronic and traditionally African textures and voices. It makes for a beautiful record that creates its own images independent of the movie screen. It's odd, though, that Peter Gabriel's anthemic chant "Biko" -- prominently featured in the film and an obvious commercial draw for a soundtrack LP -- is absent.
THE BIG EASY --
Various artists (Antilles 7087). A romp through Cajun country, and a worthy primer of New Orleans styles and legends, starting with the Dixie Cups' "Iko Iko" (forget Cyndi Lauper's digital desecration); through Professor Longhair's rollicking "Tipitina" and stuff by contemporary Cajuns like the Neville Brothers (represented by the hit "Tell It Like It Is") and Beausoleil ("Zydeco Gris Gris") and the glorious gospel of the Swan Silvertones. You really have to see the movie to appreciate Dennis Quaid's, um, unique vocals on "Closer To You," but the inclusion of the track proves that swamp music is democratic at the very least.
THE LAST EMPEROR --
Ryuichi Sakamoto, David Byrne and Cong Su (Virgin 90690). One of the initial releases on Virgin's new Movie Music label (most major record companies are starting up special soundtrack divisions), this score for Bernardo Bertolucci's lavish interpretation of the life of Pu-Yi, last god-emperor of China, offers one 26-minute suite of melancholically atmospheric but melodically aimless Hollywood orientalism by Japanese synth-star Ryuichi Sakamoto and five new tracks in a similar vein written and performed by head Talking Head David Byrne. Also included are the poignantly spartan "Lunch" by Chinese composer Cong Su and Johann Strauss' "The Emperor's Waltz," which is intended to be ironic.
Ennio Morricone (Virgin 90644). The demo tape for this one came with no information about the movie, not even the composer's name. So I tried to figure out what kind of movie it was by ear. Let's see: ominous chords, minor keys, repeated descending scales, brooding synths 'n' strings, malevolently chanting choirs -- must be a fright flick. A check of the press kit reveals that it's a new William Friedkin thriller about a serial killer. This soundtrack can't survive when divorced from the picture; why anyone besides the composer would want a record of this mess is beyond me.
Joe Strummer (Virgin 90686). Also arrived as a preview tape without details. But from the first track, "Filibustero," a chunky dollop of salsa, it immediately announces where it's coming from. Ex-Clash guitarist Joe Strummer is responsible for the handsomely textured music for Alex Cox's second set-in-Nicaragua movie, and the tunes fulfill rousing titles like "Viperland" and "Smash Everything." The record also features some flavorful fusion, driven by acoustic Spanish guitar and conga. A good, if slick, sampling of Latin sounds.
HIDING OUT --
Various artists (Virgin). Anne Dudley from the innovative digital sampling group Art of Noise created the score for this Jon Cryer teen vehicle. Dudley also assembled the eclectic, electronic pop tunes, and the LP positions Boy George's buoyant "Live My Life" next to Madonna-clone Pretty Poison's compulsively danceable "Catch Me I'm Falling," Lolita Pop's electrobeat cover of AC/DC's essentially metallic "Bang Your Head," and still more of the Roy Orbison renaissance, a new version of "Crying," on which Roy sobs along with K. D. Lang. It all concludes triumphantly with PiL's gorgeously raucous "Seattle."
Various artists (MCA 6212). Another Jon Cryer quickie, this one opts for electric guitar over electronics. The result is a heavy metal pileup, with most of the current crop represented: Keel, W.A.S.P. and piquantly-named thrash outfits like Jane's Addiction and Sweden's The Leather Nun. The album also includes some outlandish cover versions: Megadeth's stomps all over "These Boots Are Made For Walkin'," and the usually unleashed Steve Vai performs a beautifully resonant "Amazing Grace" on electric 12-string. If nothing else, this soundtrack sampler demonstrates to the skeptical the variety within the metal field.
I WAS A TEENAGE ZOMBIE --
Various artists (Enigma SJ 3296). "I was young, reckless, and in love. And then . . . I was DEAD, young, reckless and in love." Whether the movie lives up to its funny ad blurb remains to be seen, but if the music involved is any indication, it should work just fine. The lineup includes the hippest, garage-est bands in the land, including the Fleshtones, who do the wiggly theme song; the dB's, who rumble through "Neverland"; the Dream Syndicate, turning in a Velvet-y "Halloween," and the Ben Vaughn Combo combine jungle and surf on "Vibrato in the Grotto." You also get strong tracks by Alex Chilton, Violent Femmes and Los Lobos, and another chance at owning The Waitresses' essential "I Know What Boys Like." This could just as easily be an afternoon on WHFS as a soundtrack.