The Get Down on the Artistic Freedoms & Cultural Merits of Soundtracks

Through exploring soundtracks like Netflix’s The Get Down and the work of Craig Wedren the potential of that medium to reshape musical dogmas emerges.

The best movie soundtrack from 1994 is undoubtedly the one from the film The Crow. Although it spanned many genres, the way in which each song served the aesthetic of the film united them in a way which transcended each bands historical style.

If you listen to The Crow Soundtrack today you will be transported directly back to the aesthetic, or world, of the film; which feels like 1994 even though the world in which it takes place is imaginary and the film itself was made prior to that year.

But this is true of any memorable film and soundtrack. So even though The Crow was probably the best soundtrack of 1994, it wasn’t necessarily the most interesting.

That honor, I believe, belongs to a mostly forgotten soundtrack and film in which a supergroup of that time covers the songs regularly covered by the greatest rock band of all time. Backbeat was a biopic of the early Beatles career playing seedy nightclubs for successive long nights while fueled by amphetamines, ambition and passion for rock music. As such it dramatizes the band playing crowd pleasing cover songs as they honed their craft and solidified their line up.

The soundtrack was performed by The Backbeat Band, which was comprised of the darlings of the days alternative rock roster; including members of REM, Sonic Youth, Soul Asylum, The Afghan Whigs, Gumball and predictably Dave Grohl – who has consistently appeared in every piece of entertainment media made since about 1994.

The soundtrack is good. It is not great, but mostly because the artistic limitations inferred by covering another cover band. But it remains interesting because in 1994 the film and its soundtrack transported you back to 1960, the year in which most of the period depicted took place. Today if you watch the movie or listen to the soundtrack it transports you back to 1994, and then depending on your level of immersion, maybe back to 1960 as well.

However had The Backbeat Band made the very same album without the contextual backdrop of the film it would probably be completely non-memorable and fail to provoke any strong sense of time or place in the listener.

So the question is, how is it that long irrelevant musical styles can regain immediacy and relevance through a merger with the medium of film?

Not so fast.

Four years after Backbeat grunge had been murdered in a vast plot by Courtney Love and Creed; sending its greatest luminaries plunging headlong into nostalgia for the genesis of their punk rock roots. Along the way they gathered up a few of their punk forefathers and re-explored glam rock and proto-punk, a collision which was facilitated by the 1998 film Velvet Goldmine.

Velvet Goldmine was a musical period piece loosely based off the lives and music/art of David Bowie, Bryan Ferry, Iggy Pop, Marc Bolan, Lou Reed and others. It is a masterpiece of story, direction, cinematography, acting, music and more; including inducing homophobic squeamishness in prudish viewers – a category for which there is unfortunately still no Grammy awarded.

The soundtrack contains both original compositions and cover songs. Once again a supergroup was formed to provide music for the soundtrack, using the film-period appropriate name The Venus In Furs. Interestingly The Venus in Furs contained two musicians, Thurston Moore and Don Fleming, from The Backbeat Band. It also boasted Mike Watt, Thom Yorke, Ron Asheton and several other highly notable musicians.

On top of that it includes original contributions from bands like Teenage Fanclub, Placebo, Pulp, Grant Lee Buffalo and Shudder to Think.

Every song on the soundtrack is heavily inspired by the period of the film, which gave all of these musicians the opportunity to re-explore expired musical styles in a way that somehow felt fresh again. It was neo-retro, and it sounded amazing.

However had any of these musicians made the same music without a film to anchor itself to, without another piece of art as a unifying theme, it would be largely unmemorable today. This is not to detract from the music, which is stellar, but only to point out that great music still needs a cultural context to give it significance. And if you want to revisit your musical heritage in your current cultural climate, it must come attached to another work of art that feels absolutely new.

The legacy of the Velvet Goldmine soundtrack, aside from the music itself, will probably best be as the place where a long awaited The Stooges reunion got started. However it should probably also be remembered for the contributions by Shudder To Think, whose central member Craig Wedren has since become the embodiment of the central theme of this essay.

In 1997 Shudder to Think completed their last album, as well as contributing songs in a similar style to three independent films. In 1998 they contributed two more to Velvet Goldmine and then called it quits. Upon their dissolution Craig Wedren began focusing more of his musical output on film scores and soundtracks, especially for projects by former members of the sketch comedy troupe The State, whose director David Wain was a childhood friend.

Wain’s cult film Wet Hot American Summer was musically masterminded by Wedren. He scored the film, supervised the soundtrack and also contributed to it. It opens with Jane by Jefferson Starship, which sets the feel for the entire soundscape of the film. It also contains musical elements of the late 70’s and early 80’s summer camp films it satirizes, but the pure bombast of Jane is present throughout, especially in the soundtrack contributions from Wedren.

This would set the tone for Wedren’s later, and continuing, soundtrack work. His ability to recapture past genres and styles, and cross freely among them, has earned him an invitation to contribute to numerous film projects that require just that. And while he also continues to make mind-blowing solo music, he has been given relatively free reign to a musical time machine. A position which is both monumental and obscure, considering the humble commercial success of the projects he has worked on.

Wedren has made a career and amassed a cult following from committing a cardinal sin of music – directly revisiting the musical styles of those who influenced his own.

No musician has ever escaped their influences entirely. Yet most of them understand that merely retreading the musical paths of their influences will either result in the perception of novelty or commercial disinterest. In music-as-art you are always supposed to try pushing forward. Only the most vapid pop stars are able to continue capitalizing on old formulas, because the perception of their artistic merit is not entwined with the perception of their music. Their image takes merits place.

Yet all music is built upon all that came before. Every piece of music is made of 99.9% recycled musical DNA in the most basic sense. And still the inability to explicitly travel backward and forward in musical time is a limitation almost impossible to overcome without attracting stigma. There is nothing musically wrong with complete temporal mobility, but the 20th century’s mixing of music with the market has led to a perception that music is supposed to be a straight line ahead.

I personally retired this hypothesis years ago, largely through exposure to the soundtracks and musicians I have been discussing. But as transcendent as Velvet Goldmine was to me, its greater overall commercial and cultural impact was very minute.

Most people have been unknowingly conditioned by market factors to effectively disregard retrospective musical offerings. However that could be changed if the strategy became successful in a landmark cultural artifact.

This, obviously, has been tried numerous times to varying degrees of musical or commercial success. However it has yet to hit both evenly. A formula in which astoundingly great new music that sounds like astoundingly great old music, and also achieves widespread commercial success alongside critical success on genuine artistic merits, has been elusive. However it has always been possible, and may actually finally have been realized.

The Get Down, a two part mini-series presented by Netflix, has recreated the feeling of early hip hop in such an immediate and accessible way that it’s original compositions feel as fresh to most Americans as their earlier counterparts felt to those living during hip hop’s inception in NYC.

By the time hip hop had been packaged and marketed to a larger commercial audience it had already undergone much of its evolution. It came to the larger world fully formed without any historical or cultural context, unlike rock and roll which had entered the public consciousness in its raw early form and gained its maturity and context in full view of it’s audience.

The Get Down gives us that history and context, in a genuine and accurate enough way that most of us will feel the initial excitement of hip hop we missed out on the first time. And in doing so it will give us a direct connection to that early music most of us never had, re-instilling it with a sense of urgency and importance in the now.

However none of that would matter if The Get Down wasn’t also a fantastic piece of art itself, which it very much is. It would matter even less if the music were only mediocre and serviceable, which it most certainly isn’t. The music is amazing.

I speak mostly of the hip hop. Disco and 70’s pop fans might find those portions of the musical re-imagining more personally compelling. And while they may also be great, they will not have the same export. Besides the fact that Saturday Night Fever prematurely covered disco’s nostalgia in the midst of it’s own hey day, thus making any future attempts even more of a novelty, hip hop is still a highly relevant musical form. One that thrived with its roots largely hidden from the audience it amassed over the years.

Last year De La Soul redefined the perceived limits of works of commercially important hip hop with their long-awaited comeback album. They expanded beyond their genre and time period so successfully that they rose from cult legends to chart-topping kings. And in doing so they set the stage for a rebirth of hip hop. Is The Get Down also part of that rebirth?

I hope so, and not is just because I personally find it to be artistically transcendent, but because it could open up the doors to musicians which only soundtracks have previously offered. It could open up the history of modern western music to re-exploration in ways that seem genuine rather than merely novelty trends.

Where it seems that music has reached the ends of it’s possible sonic boundaries, where nothing truly new can ever be done again with sound, perhaps the only way for music to survive in an advanced technological civilization is to shed the restrictions of linear progress. When it becomes impossible to make anything that sounds objectively fresh, the art becomes in finding ways to make them feel fresh within our experience of them. And because technology will probably continue to yield new mediums, and thus the opportunity to create those experiences, it may become possible to refresh points in musical history by reconnecting them with points in new medium.

The Get Down is technically within known and tried mediums. Yet modern approaches to long form cinematic storytelling recently pioneered by cable and internet services have made artifacts like The Get Down possible by transforming the amount and method of our media consumption. Commercial-free, binge-able cinema has not only offered us a more direct access to variety, but offered those creating art within it a latitude that was previously not possible. With more media consumed comes more room for exploration by its content creators.

Including the radical possibility that the old can become new again.

Finally.

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