The Brilliant Soundtracks of Summer

By  · Published on August 25th, 2016

In a summer Hollywood would otherwise like to forget, here are a few of the soundtracks that made it all bearable.

While everyone pretty much agrees that 2016 has been a particularly bad year for summer movies, a few independent and foreign films have still managed to peek out from amidst the wreckage to entertain and move audiences worldwide. One thing these movies have in common is a standout soundtrack. Even if we treat the summer period as strictly falling between Memorial Day and Labor Day – which means no soundtracks for movies like High-Rise and Midnight Special — for my money, this has still been an uncommonly good summer for movie soundtracks. And rather than focus too much on the negatives surrounding box offices and cinematic universes, I thought we might take a few minutes to acknowledge the one thing that did go right these past few months.

Here are some of my picks for the best soundtracks of summer 2016.

Swiss Army Man (by Andy Hull and Robert McDowell)

It may actually be cheating to put the Swiss Army Man soundtrack down alongside other movie scores from this summer. While movies like The Fits and Hunt for the Wilderpeople use their music to help inform the development of their characters, Andy Hull and Robert McDowell’s music in Swiss Army Man quite literally is the development of their characters. Manny and Hank – one a farting corpse, the other somehow less socially adjusted than a farting corpse – experience the world together as a kind of hallucinatory music video, where each character exists as both performer and star. Their observations of the world around them become woven into the songs they share together; pulling the music out of Swiss Army Man would rip the very heart out of the movie itself. And while some may argue that the film is little more than a feature length version of the music videos that made their two directors famous, it might be better to think of Swiss Army Man as a brand new take on the movie musical.

The Fits (by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans)

In Anna Rose Holmer’s debut narrative film The Fits, we follow a young girl named Toni as she navigates the afterschool scene at her local high school and tries to trade in her boxing gloves for a dance routine. Unlike most coming-of-age films, The Fits aims for something considerably more mature in its musical stylings. Composers Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans have described the “breathy feel” of the clarinet as being one of the reasons it features so prominently in the score – they view it as a nice match for the physicality of the characters— and both composers refer to the way the music becomes “more sentimental” the closer they move to the ending. This slow coalescing of sound into melody is realized fully in the big closing number, “Aurora,” by singer-songwriter Kiah Victoria. Like the rest of the score, “Aurora” features plenty of ambient noise and violent percussion; unlike the score, however, the song does not play coy with its melody, blasting forth as a ballad to possibility and adolescent triumph.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople (by Moniker)

In Hunt for the Wilderpeople, New Zealand director Taika Waititi has resurrected a kind of movie that doesn’t really exist anymore. Whether you view Wilderpeople as a kid’s movie for adults or an adult movie for kids, the music helps underscore the playful adolescence of its main character. “Makutekahu,” the first song we hear, serves as a kind of musical indicator for the mish-mash of musical queues throughout the film. There are elements of chamber music, tribal rhythms, and synthesizer music that even Waititi admits has been lifted directly from the floor of John Carpenter’s editing room. As good as the soundtrack may be, however, it’s the one song actually performed in the film that becomes Hunt for the Wilderpeople’s ultimate earworm. “Ricky Baker Birthday Song” is damnably catchy; it also perfectly highlights the awkward sincerity possessed by each of the film’s main characters. Only a kid like Ricky would start singing along with his own nonsensical birthday song and beam so broadly once the song has been completed. Only a movie like this could get the darn thing stuck in our heads for weeks after we’ve left the theater.

The Neon Demon (by Cliff Martinez)

Whether you loved or hated Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon, odds are you walked away impressed by the latest soundtrack from composer Cliff Martinez. The balance on a movie like The Neon Demon can be a tricky thing to nail down – using electronic music to walk the line between horror and arthouse – and here Martinez has managed to find the perfect space between the club and the killing floor. As the film’s neophyte model dives deeper into the seedy underworld of the Los Angeles fashion scene, the music moves seamlessly between the dreamlike electronic rainfall of “Runway” to the digital nervous breakdown captured so perfectly in “Get Her Out of Me.” And, keeping with the theme of tremendous scores that build to standout singles, The Neon Demon culminates in the song “Waving Goodbye” by Australian artist Sia. Just as the film tries to make the fashion world seem both alluring and monstrous, so does Martinez build a score whose shallow electronic pop veneer peels back to reveal deeper layers of darkness.

Hell or High Water (by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis)

I’ll be honest and say I’m predisposed to put any soundtrack by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis on my list of favorites at the end of the year. It’s probably fair to say that if you’ve heard one of their soundtracks then you’ve heard the full breadth of musical queues available to them as composers. It’s probably also fair to say that Cave and Ellis belong to a very specific niche of modern and revisionist Westerns; it’s a musical aesthetic that can be applied only to a very narrow genre of films. For all those caveats, however, no composers working today are quite as adept as capturing the sound of an oncoming storm as this Australian duo. When all is said and done, Hell or High Water should rank among the best movies of 2016 – it is in every way the modern John Hillcoat movie that Triple 9 failed to be – and a big part of that is the blend of country, western, and frontier music pulled in by Cave and Ellis. It is a sound that is both incredibly localized and yet somehow universal; a version of folk music that belongs to all countries and times. And it shows why Cave and Ellis are one of the best songwriting teams working today.

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Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)