From ‘The Bodyguard’ to ‘Barbie’: Is the movie soundtrack back and bigger than ever?

This image provided by Atlantic Recording Corporation/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc./Mattel, Inc., shows the cover of the "Barbie The Album" soundtrack. (Courtesy of Atlantic Recording Corporation/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc./Mattel, Inc. via AP)

This image provided by Atlantic Recording Corporation/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc./Mattel, Inc., shows the cover of the “Barbie The Album” soundtrack. (Courtesy of Atlantic Recording Corporation/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc./Mattel, Inc. via AP)

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Throughout the billion-dollar “Barbie” film, an instrumental version of Billie Eilish’s hit “What Was I Made For” weaves in and out, soundtracking the famous doll’s existential crisis. In the final scene — no spoilers! — Eilish’s crackling, saccharine falsetto is finally heard atop the familiar piano. Cue the waterworks.

It is one of many standout musical moments in a movie stacked with them: from Dua Lipa’s disco-pop “Dance the Night,” with lyrics that perfectly sync up to Margot Robbie’s bespoke choreography, to a reimagination of the 1997 Europop hit “Barbie Girl,” courtesy Nicki Minaj and Ice Spice.

The music of “Barbie” has become its own blockbuster, selling 126,000 copies in its first week and debuting at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 200 albums chart.

“Barbie” music has also earned three Grammy Awards, one Golden Globe and two Academy Award nominations in the original song category – more than any other film.

It is hard to pinpoint how long it has been since a soundtrack has dominated conversation the way “Barbie” has, particularly at the Oscars — Lady Gaga’s “A Star is Born” performance comes to mind, with the success of “Shallow.” Then there’s “La La Land,” and “Dreamgirls,” which received three of the five original song nominations in 2007. But overwhelmingly, there has been a drought in zeitgeist-defining film soundtracks.

So, is “Barbie” an exception? Or are soundtracks back?

SOUNDTRACK FORMULAS

Each decade has produced iconic soundtracks. The all-time best-seller is still 1992’s “The Bodyguard” powered by Whitney Houston and her iconic “I Will Always Love You,” with 45 million copies sold.

And there are many ways soundtracks are created. Often, studios will license recognizable, pre-existing music — likely “the safer play,” as Gary Trust, Billboard’s chart director says — because two-thirds of all music streams are older music.

In the current era, most “successful” soundtracks opt for that — like “Guardians of the Galaxy” and its 2014 “Awesome Mix Vol. 1” soundtrack, which hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200 with songs from the Jackson 5, David Bowie and Marvin Gaye. Musicals have also done well, like “La La Land,” and Disney hits like “Moana,” and “Frozen” — although the genre typically doesn’t crossover to pop radio airplay. (Exception: “Encanto” and its megahit “We Don’t Talk About Bruno.”)

Another option is to use original material, like in “Barbie” — what Trust views as a throwback to movies like “Dirty Dancing,” released during a time when a single soundtrack could produce multiple radio hits from various artists. In “Barbie’s” case, that’s Lipa, Eilish, Minaj and Ice Spice.

Spring Aspers, president of Sony Pictures Music Group, says a successful soundtrack is one that works with the film’s narrative to become a critical part of its story.

“It’s not just finding who’s the most popular but finding incredibly talented artists that know how to create something that really does an extension of the storytelling,” she said.

When it works, you get songs that permeate pop culture with real staying power linked to the film: like Seal’s “Kiss from a Rose” from “Batman Forever,” or Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” from “Titanic.”

“They just become these forever songs…. It’s like a great band who has chemistry: the right song, the right visual, the right scene, it just becomes something so much bigger than itself,” explained Aspers. “I know that that’s because of the brilliance of the song and the movie. It’s the two of them together.”

SOUNDTRACKS: A CAREER BOOST

The right soundtrack sync has the power to break an artist, like in the case of Post Malone’s “Sunflower” with Swae Lee on the “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” soundtrack — the first ever double-diamond single — overseen by Aspers.

Soundtracks can also introduce new audiences to an artist. Take Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s 2001 indie dance hit “Murder on the Dancefloor”; recently, the song went viral because of its use in a very memorable (and very nude) final scene in the divisive film “Saltburn.”

In January, “Murder” broke the Billboard Hot 100 — a career first for Ellis-Bextor — 23 years after the song’s release. By the end of that month, on TikTok alone, the track has been featured in more than 550,000 videos and the #MurderOnTheDancefloor hashtag has nearly 170 million views. In February, the viral song brought her U.S. television debut on “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.”

“Lucky me!,” she told The Associated Press. “What a cool thing to be a part of.” She theorizes that her song has connected with a new audience (and a nostalgic one who heard it the first time around) because of its relationship to the film. It is the last song in “Saltburn,” it arrives in a pivotal scene, it’s played loud in the mix and the entire song is heard — not just a snippet, which is most common.

In her view, “Murder on the Dancefloor” became one of those significant movie moments — think Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” in “Almost Famous” — because the right placement “unlocks the next level of emotion in the film,” she says.

DOES A SUCCESSFUL SOUNDTRACK MAKE FOR A SUCCESSFUL FILM?

There’s a synergy across fans of both film and music. According to Luminate’s 2023 end-of-year report, U.S. movie theater goers are 70% more likely to have attended a live concert in the last six-months than those who don’t go to movie theaters.

What’s more, the industry data and analytics company found that 42% of female Gen Z consumers are more likely to discover new music through film soundtracks, which is 20% more than the general public — and could likely speak partially to the success of a film like “Barbie.”

“The film is not a musical, but it was always going to have music at the heart of it,” says Mark Ronson, the executive producer of the “Barbie” soundtrack.

Kevin Weaver, president of Atlantic Records West Coast, which released “Barbie The Album,” says it was always the label’s ambition for the soundtrack to stand on its own outside of the film but also work symbiotically – a reflection of how movies and their musical companions can work together.

“We tried to come with the highest caliber of music and artists,” Weaver says. “And when we do (soundtrack) albums, we really try to do them in a way where they are a body of work, and where you can live with that as a body of work.”

For artists like Ellis-Bextor, it underscores a connection between the two. “Music is a really useful tool. Nothing can set the tone for a scene like music can,” she says of the relationship.

“Music will lead you by the hand to what it is hoping you feel. That’s music’s sole intention. So, a soundtrack is like an extra character… And with a soundtrack, you get a shared, emotional, visual memory.”

Ronson agrees. “When you walk out of a movie on such a high that you want to relive it and you’re like, ‘What can I do?’ and you go and get the soundtrack,” he says. “I used to do that: I’d walk out of the movie theater to the mega store on the corner and buy it. So, I think that really helps when a movie gives you that feeling.”

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Hamilton reported from New York.

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