This Summer’s Movies Offered a Course in Pop Music History

By  · Published on August 22nd, 2014

Universal Pictures

It is hard to believe summer is almost over, but as we look back on a season that gave us surprise hits (who knew Edge of Tomorrow would be so entertaining?) and surprise misses (Let’s Be Cops didn’t quite capture the buddy comedy magic it was looking for) the most interesting trend to emerge was how this summer’s soundtracks were all about the past.

From 1920s jazz to 1960s funk to 1970s pop rock, this summer felt more like a music history lesson than the expected barrage of radio hits piped into every blockbuster looking to generate box office heat. (Granted those were there too – looking at you Transformers: Age of Extinction and Imagine Dragons.)

And audiences were into this change of pace. So much so that a soundtrack full of songs from the 1970s made it to the #1 spot on the Billboard 200 chart.

Guardians of the Galaxy’s mix tape styled soundtrack is a huge part of the film’s narrative and became a must-have for fans of the film (who helped get it to that #1 spot on the charts). Full of songs like Blue Swede’s “Hooked on a Feeling” and Elvin Bishop’s “Fooled Around and Fell In Love,” the soundtrack for Guardians was a bit unexpected, but it worked and helped the film stand out from the rest of the superhero films to come out this summer.

You may not have expected to be humming The Five Stairsteps’ “O-O-H Child” this summer, but within the frame of the Guardians narrative the throwback to the ’70s makes sense because it’s the last physical memory Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) has of his mom (who would have been into music from the ‘70s). We get to jam out (and shed a single tear) to his baggage.

The music in Boyhood is used almost as chapter markers to subtly hint at the different years the film passes through as you watch Mason (Ellar Coltrane) age from 5 to 18. The biggest jump might be from Bob Dylan to Goyte. Boyhood takes a natural approach to the music by showing how, in life, music is always in the air. Whether it is your younger sister annoying you with her constant renditions of Britney Spears hits to your dad forcing you to listen to some of his favorites as he tries to teach you what “good” music sounds like, there isn’t a day that goes by without sonic reinforcement.

Boyhood’s soundtrack is its own perfect mix tape that takes you through the musical landscape of 2002 to 2014. While these may not be the “coolest” songs from each year, they are ones that would populate the world of a kid growing up through the early 2000s.

Anyone who has listened to a James Brown song knows it is hard to keep yourself from moving to his funky beat, but you might not have Brown’s records on regular rotation. Biopics like this summer’s Get on Up are fantastic for giving audiences a glimpse behind the curtain into a famous artist’s life, but the soundtrack for Get on Up also worked to remind audiences how timeless Brown’s music is (and how much it has influenced where modern R&B is now).

Brown was certainly a big personality, but he truly had an ear for bombastic melodies and that slightly off-center beat that introduced the world to “the funk” (a style that is hard to explain, but easy to feel). Again, you probably didn’t think you would be grooving to “Get Up Offa That Thing” this summer, but Get on Up brought this song back into the mainstream and proved that Brown truly knew how to deliver.

Baz Luhrmann tried to capture the feeling of the 1920s jazz era with his re-boot of The Great Gatsby last year, but did so with current music from today’s artists. Woody Allen’s Magic in the Moonlight brings the 1920s to life with era appropriate music from artists like Bix Beiderbecke and Al Bowlly. For a film about the idea of magic and mysticism, it helps to place it in a era full of music that inspires that feeling. Most of Allen’s recent films have taken place in modern day (although Midnight in Paris did dabble in the 1920s) making Magic in the Moonlight not only a fun throwback to the jazz era (and all the summer garden parties it still inspires), but also to Allen’s period films like A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy and The Purple Rose of Cairo.

Out of all the seasons, summer is the perfect time for this kind of throwback feeling because, no matter what your age, this season inspires people to think back on those lazy, school-less days that you would look forward to all year. You may not have thought the soundtracks of this summer would be full of artists like Blue Swede, Goyte, Brown and Bowlly, but this music is fun – and summer is the time to have fun! Plus these throwback tracks worked to elevate (or reinforce) the feeling of each of the film’s they were placed in – not simply acting as easy emotional shortcuts.

Regardless of what decade these songs may have come from, the soundtracks of the summer of 2014 are full of entertaining tunes that are sure to get you dancing as you (hopefully) take advantage of these last few weeks of the season. Grab your Walkman, and you can take them with you all year long.