As what was once called alternative rock has become the music of the majority, Hollywood--our national trend barometer--has jumped onto the bandwagon with its usual gusto. While challenging post-punkers and their ilk once were as likely to land a slot on the soundtrack to a mainstream blockbuster as was Lawrence Welk, current film producers are actually using modern rock to lure young ticket-buyers to their flicks. Take the CD that accompanies Batman Forever: Its lead single, "Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me," is by U2, and other acts on the bill include Mazzy Star, the Offspring and Nick Cave. And while it's not racking up Saturday Night Fever-level numbers, the platter has been among Billboard's twenty top-selling albums for nearly three months.
Of course, Batman Forever can't be described as a timeless artistic achievement; its handful of highlights--P.J. Harvey ("One Time Too Many"), Sunny Day Real Estate ("8") and the Flaming Lips ("Bad Days")--can't quite make up for its basic unevenness. But its popularity stands as a symbol of the filmmaking community's relatively newfound willingness to use modern rock as a consumer magnet (chart-toppers spawned by Friday and Dangerous Minds signify the same with regard to hip-hop). Moreover, the perception that companion discs of this type pay off at the box office has led to a rash of soundtracks featuring combos that come within spitting distance of youth-culture extremes. Because the marketplace is saturated by the successors to Singles and Reality Bites right now, many of these offerings are going straight to the nation's cut-out bins--but, hot or not, a number of them serve as unexpectedly strong musical samplers. Desperado, a fiery, tongue-in-cheek souvenir from director Robert Rodriguez's introduction to the multiplexes, is the premier soundtrack of the summer (it calls to mind the entertaining CD inspired by last year's Pulp Fiction), but it's far from the only slab of movie-linked plastic worth giving a spin.
Predictably, pictures that aspire to the broadest possible audiences tend to beget soundtracks filled with less interesting material--but even these recordings usually incorporate a passel of worthy selections. Tommy Boy (The Movie), fathered by the Chris Farley/David Spade super-stiff, contains Primal Scream's "Call on Me," Soul Coughing's "Is Chicago, Is Not Chicago," the Goo Goo Dolls' "Wait for the Blackout" and "Silver Naked Ladies," by Paul Westerberg, who can still write a decent tune when he puts his mind to it. The Alicia Silverstone starrer Clueless sports the Muffs' exuberant recasting of "Kids in America" (yep, it's Kim Wilde's sole claim to fame), Cracker's remake of the Flamin' Groovies' "Shake Some Action," Luscious Jackson's "Here (Squirrel Mix)" and the Beastie Boys' "Mullet Head." The CD from Mad Love, a Drew Barrymore vehicle that quickly vanished from the face of the earth, includes two good ones from 7 Year Bitch ("The Scratch" and "Icy Blue"), Grant Lee Buffalo's "Mockingbirds" and Rocket From the Crypt's feverish "Glazed." And Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie (were you expecting Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Opera?) offers up Devo's "Are You Ready?!" along with They Might Be Giants' "SenSurround" and a danceable, witty "Kung Fu Dancing," by Fun Tomas and special guest star Carl Douglas (whose "Kung Fu Fighting" was a guilty-pleasure hit in 1974). You may get ribbed by your chic pals for having it in your collection, but they'll probably enjoy parts of it, too.
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The soundtrack to Angus, another teen opus, is a more problematic affair, in that it's dominated by the most commercial brand of pop punk. The lead single ("J.A.R. [Jason Andrew Relva]") is by Green Day, in its musical Xeroxing mode, and while Ash and Tilt are energetic, they're not much more than that. Still, Angus is an okay, if fluffy, listen--and the presence of a track by Pansy Division ("Deep Water") is as unlikely as it is appreciated.
Other recent modern-rock soundtracks are more enjoyable because they're more idiosyncratic. Postcards From America is a truly twisted package: a couple of New York Dolls chestnuts ("Lonely Planet Boy," "Trash"), two from--gulp!--Connie Francis ("Among My Souvenirs," "Don't Break the Heart That Loves You"), plus efforts by Morphine ("Providence"), Fatima Mansions ("Only Losers Take the Bus") and Stonewall Jackson, whose backwoods take on the Lobo hit "Me and You and a Dog Named Boo" is better than anyone has a right to expect. The music from Kids is more severe, as befits the subject matter of the film: Daniel Johnston's "Casper the Friendly Ghost" and a slew of tracks from the Folk Implosion lead the way.
Better yet is the disc from Amateur, by director Hal Hartley. Its lineup (Red House Painters, Yo La Tengo, Bettie Serveert, Liz Phair, the Jesus Lizard, Pavement) is jammed with first-rate performers. And while the songs included here aren't their best, they provide an appropriate introduction to Hartley's enigmatic world, as well as to modern rock that doesn't always get screened on MTV. It is being heard, however, in a theater near you--and that in itself is a pleasant surprise.