In Defense of '80s Synth Soundtracks

Watch a video essay that celebrates the dated sounds of '80s movies.

Blade Runner
Twentieth Century Fox

In the early 1960s, a new instrument emerged and later changed film scores and soundtracks forever: the synthesizer. Easy to access and play, the synthesizer enabled aspiring musicians and film composers to effortlessly experiment with the instrument’s otherworldly and artificial sound. As a result, the synth hit a stride in the 1980s. Bands like Soft Cell, Duran Duran, and The Human League dominated the Billboard charts, and the instrument was heavily implemented in popular Hollywood blockbusters, including The Terminator, Ghostbusters, and Beverly Hills Cop.

In 2018, we tend to view synth scores as dated emblems of pure ’80s cheese: Vangelis’ iconic, Academy Award-winning Chariots of Fire theme comes to mind. The synth sound, which some criticize as overly artificial, plastic, and empty, situates movies like Escape from New York as cultural artifacts of the decade. While we can dismiss these synthy soundscapes for being so quintessentially ’80s, and therefore painfully outdated, some of them uphold a legitimate thematic value for their films. As Julian Palmer argues in a video essay entitled “The Sound of ’80s Movies,” some synth-heavy scores immerse us into a film’s onscreen world and evoke the upheaval of its characters.

Watch the compelling history lesson below:

Palmer cites Italian composer Giorgio Moroder, who notably produced Donna Summer’s pulsating, revolutionary disco single “I Feel Love,” as pioneering electronic dance music and later integrating the sound into cinema. Moroder composed soundtracks for the films Midnight Express, Flashdance, Scarface, and American Gigolo, with the vibrant soundtracks of the latter two especially suiting their visual aesthetics and brazen, artificial environments.

Brian De Palma’s flawed, sprawling, and occasionally brilliant Scarface features a soundtrack comprised of a moody, bombastic score and a grab-bag of synth-pop songs. Impressed by Moroder’s work in American Gigolo, De Palma sought out the musician to write and produce the soundtrack to modernize the gangster film’s soundscape and aesthetic. The resulting work evokes the trashy allure defining the Scarface‘s mis-en-scene and overarching mood. Speaking to drug kingpin Tony Montana’s (Al Pacino) rise and fall, Moroder’s score feels equal parts melancholy and triumphant, which starkly contrasts to the grandiose, over-stylish anthems performed by artists like Debbie Harry and Amy Holland. To indulge in his excessive opulence, Tony visits discos occupied by drugged-out patrons flailing to these groovy, hollow synth tracks. As Tony descends further into this hedonistic decadence, his lifestyle becomes as shallow as the music in the background. Moroder’s synth soundtrack, therefore, effectively blends with De Palma’s critique of greed and capitalist systems.

Moroder’s soundtrack for Paul Schrader’s visually arresting American Gigolo accomplishes the same feats as the work he did for Scarface. Schrader presents a neon-lit Los Angeles drenched in striking reds and blues. A manufactured, synthetic atmosphere pervades Moroder’s soundtrack, which enhances the visual artifice of LA and the moral depravity of the film’s protagonist, Julian (Richard Gere). As Palmer astutely notes, “Julian is a narcissistic, materialist male gigolo who sees relationships with women as merely a paycheck,” so the score’s synthetic sleekness reflects Julian’s often superficial, inhuman treatment of others. Plus, the stone-cold-classic “Call Me” performed by Blondie is the lead song of the soundtrack, and you can’t really get much better than that.

Several other ’80s synthy soundtracks amplify the mood and allure of their film’s cityscapes. Michael Mann’s debut feature, Thief, uses its neon lights and engaging, alarming synth-heavy score composed by Tangerine Dream to illuminate its rain-soaked streets. Meanwhile, Vangelis’ sweeping, forlorn, and ambitious score masterfully orchestrates Blade Runner‘s presentation of an indifferent, dystopian Los Angeles in 2019. Seductive, cold, and full of synth subtleties, Vangelis’ score is a wonderful companion to the film’s grim and artificial environment, where characters poignantly question their own humanity and undergo existential crises. 

Throughout the video essay, Palmer notes how Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive features a retro synthpop soundtrack and score, composed by Cliff Martinez,  to heighten Ryan Gosling’s character’s seemingly indifferent and expressionless disposition, as well as the metals and neons of its Los Angeles setting. Because of its 2011 release, Drive constitutes one of the films leading the 2010s resurgence of synth-led scores amid our intense nostalgia for the ’80s. Martinez doesn’t treat synth soundscapes as a gimmick or ironic punchline, nor do the composers of the synthy Stranger Things, It Follows, and The Social Network soundtracks. Rather, they riff on the ’80s synth soundtrack to plunge the viewer further into the film’s action, mis-en-scene, and characters, all the while illustrating the abiding strength and appeal of the soundtracks Palmer highlights in the video essay. It’s a beautiful time to be a synth fan, baby.

Darby is a student who loves Jack Black and Nastassja Kinski's pink sweater in Paris, Texas.