Serious Question: What Happened To The Black Movie Soundtrack Era?
Being the Prince maven that I am, I recently went to an outdoor screening of Purple Rain. It was shown thanks to a summer series in L.A. that brings some of my favorite things together: movies, music, and food. Storyline aside (nobody watches Purple Rain for the story), watching the film with friends and fellow fans was akin to a collective sing-along. One woman even brought her tambourine, which she was not at all shy about playing during the movie. And when the film’s title song came on, a sea of cell phones – the modern-day version of the cigarette lighter, once crucial to the concert-going experience – swayed in the night air. As I looked around, I couldn’t help but think two things: Damn, these people can’t sing, and There’s a reason Purple Rain and its music still hold up some 30 odd years later…
Once upon a time, movies and the music they featured went together like white on rice. When done right, the combination is like magic. Soundtracks like the previously mentioned Purple Rain, along with films like Love Jones, Boomerang and Waiting To Exhale, to name a few, flew off shelves and launched countless careers. During the ’90s, in particular, where both comedic and dramatic films about Black love reigned supreme, the strength of a song alone could pull you into the theater. Aside from The Weeknd’s super hit “Earned It” off the Fifty Shades of Grey soundtrack, which was much better received than the movie itself, that aesthetic has virtually disappeared today. I’d be lying if I said I don’t miss it.
Take Love Jones, the only movie with poetry that most Black millennials can quote word for word. Beautifully written, shot and acted, the film gave open-mic nights a whole new name and had women jonesing for their own, tailor-made version of Darius Lovehall. Music was a crucial part of the lives of the artistic, intellectual couple that was Nina and Darius. It only made sense that the film’s soundtrack fed off of that, further enhancing its portrayal of a bluesy, honest and not so straight and narrow romance. Maxwell’s chopped and screwed version of “Sumthin’ Sumthin’” – “Mellosmoothe,” which can best be described as sexy upon sexy upon oh my goodness, was featured on the soundtrack. The song’s original version played in the background as Darius knocked on Nina’s door for the first time, signaling what was to come. Dionne Farris’ “Hopeless” perfectly summed up their on-again, off-again relationship. The soundtrack even opened with Larenz Tate performing “Darius’ Blues for Nina” (Brotha To The Night).” Complicated, smooth, moody – the soundtrack was the movie in musical form.
When Angela schooled playboy Marcus Graham on what love is and gave his cheek a good ol’ smack before chucking up the deuces, she told him: “Love shoulda brought your ass home last night.” Who better to belt out that heartache and that pain (and that slap) than Toni Braxton? “End of the Road” by Boyz II Men, Johnny Gill’s “There U Go” and other memorable songs rounded out the platinum-selling Boomerang soundtrack, executive produced by none other than Babyface. The singer and songwriter’s track record when it comes to soundtracks is top of the line. It’s no wonder Waiting To Exhale’s soundtrack was just as popular and well received.
Waiting To Exhale featured songs performed solely by Black women, which smartly played into the film’s storyline. Black female friendship was on display, along with the trials and tribulations of finding and maintaining romantic love. There weren’t any other films at the time that served the Black female movie-going audience in quite the same way, which the soundtrack fully reflected. Whitney Houston, Chaka Khan, Mary J. Blige, Patti LaBelle, Aretha Franklin – a cornucopia of some of the greatest singers we’ve ever known, gave voice to that holding your breath feeling that both the movie and soundtrack’s title spoke to. The result is a poignant, resounding, sexy, reflective tribute to love and to the people who let us be ourselves and never let us forget it.
To me, great soundtracks do more than accentuate critical moments in a film. Timeless, they have a life beyond the screen and take meaning in our personal lives. We play them in good times and bad, intermingling personal memories with the plots and storylines that live on screen, and of characters with whom we love to relate. The world of entertainment has changed a lot in recent years, but it wouldn’t hurt to experience a new era of this time long past when movies and their respective soundtracks fit together like hand and glove.