10 Essential ’80s Movie Soundtracks
We tackled the best albums of the 1980s, and now it’s time for us to revisit the other best soundtracks to the decade—the, well, actual soundtracks. While the ’70s offered some of the most prominent early blockbuster soundtracks, like the 16-times platinum Saturday Night Fever album, the ’80s took that idea to every possible direction, from pop radio smashes (Top Gun) to fairy-tale musical (Labyrinth). Not that all of the best were the most visible—far from it. In fact, some of them, like Blade Runner, weren’t officially released until much later (or in the case of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, much much later). But much in the same way that the best movie soundtracks of the ’90s comprised a decade of great mixtapes, the ’80s showed just how eclectic that idea could be, from nostalgic throwbacks to note-perfect satire. Microwave some popcorn and queue up our list of the best movie soundtracks of the ’80s.
Beverly Hills Cop (1984)
Eddie Murphy became a global phenomenon with this first film in the Beverly Hills Cop franchise. Originally conceived with Sylvester Stallone in the lead, Murphy’s film desperately needed a soundtrack that would complement the enigmatic lead Black actor. The Pointer Sisters’ “Neutron Dance,” which sounds suspiciously similar to Prince’s “Delirious,” was instrumental in the group’s reinvention that dominated the 1980s. Glenn Frey’s saxual mantra “The Heat Is On” easily took residence on MTV’s rotation, and Patti LaBelle’s “New Attitude” remained a jukebox staple in Black hairdressing salons across the country. However, Harold Faltermeyer’s “Axel F” an instrumental synth-driven anthem, was recognized worldwide as some type of California svengali hypnosis and matched Murphy’s larger-than-life popularity note for note. – John-Paul Shiver
The Big Chill (1983)
This Lawrence Kasdan-directed film relies on a recurring trope used by American filmmakers when the national consensus appears befuddled and seeks desperate refuge from the troubled times in which they live. Make a film that you can flood with music from another era. American Graffiti, Grease and Dirty Dancing all use this device to tell their stories. And, by the way, those are all top-selling soundtracks. So, when a group of friends from the University of Michigan in the late 1960s (you can smell the shitty weed with stems attached all the way over here) reunites to mourn the loss of a friend, the soundtrack goes all ’60s stonerific. Because Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, The Temptations, Smokey Robinson, Three Dog Night, and Procol Harum are going to solve these Baby Boomer problems. In one weekend.
This mishmash of generational actors—Glenn Close, Kevin Klein, Jeff Goldblum, William Hurt, and Mary Jo-Beth Williams—do endearing work amidst a Motown dominated soundtrack playing underneath. Dang. Even if you own a home and have a college degree, voodoo economics under the Reagan administration can really bring you down. – John-Paul Shiver
Blade Runner (1982/1994)
Like the film itself, Vangelis’ soundtrack for Blade Runner had a rocky release. It had no official album release until 1994 following the commercial success of the Director’s Cut of the film, though Vangelis did include some of its tracks on his 1989 Themes compilation. Even then, many bootlegs remain more comprehensive than any official release. Regardless, the core of the 1982 theatrical release’s score remains the vital piece of music that shaped the legacy of neo-noir and cyberpunk. Vangelis took an improvisational approach to the score, playing along to clips of the film, which made for a dreamy and at times unsettling arrangement. He successfully captured a trepidatious sense of wonder for a film presenting both beauty and horror with awe. – Forrest James
Godfrey Reggio’s uniquely un-narrated visual tone poem required a wholly original and transcendent score, and along came Philip Glass. Like many of Glass’ compositions, each piece of the melodic puzzle is relatively rudimentary, and each one repeats often, but they layer together and contrast in various permutations. Glass’s droning melodies loop in cycles, accentuating the visual juxtapositions of different life cycles. The resulting sensation of comprehensible phenomena woven in a complex arrangement match the film’s message: all of these natural cycles, or human interruptions thereof, are quite straightforward, but the system as a whole is out of balance. This minimalist compositional technique had not yet made it on film before Koyaanisqatsi, and Glass’ work initiated a decades long trend in film scoring. – Forrest James
Passion (Music for The Last Temptation of Christ) (1989)
A large part of Peter Gabriel’s explorations immediately post-Genesis centered around “world music”—the songs, structures, and performers of underpromoted regions and indigenous peoples. In 1980 he cofounded the WOMAD organization that would spawn critically acclaimed music festivals, and in 1988 began scoring Martin Scorsese’s filmic vision of Jesus Christ with help from artists he’d met through these sonic explorations across three continents. Gabriel’s efforts necessitated the founding of the Real World label, and his soundtrack for The Last Temptation of Christ was one of the first titles in its catalog. With field recordings alongside contributions from the likes of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Youssou N’Dour, and Hossam Ramzy, it stands strong and beautiful enough to not need any association with the film. – Adam Blyweiss
Pretty In Pink (1986)
The crux of the central conflict in the mid-’80s teen classic Pretty In Pink remains hidden in plain sight within the soundtrack. It’s the redundant algorithmic pop music wafting from the malls across America versus the left of the dial terrestrial radio stations playing all the underground post-punk that would stand the test of time and become marketing gold thirty years later. The Smiths, Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark, Echo & The Bunnymen, and The Psychedelic Furs were among the acts brought to the Madonna, Prince, Bruce Springsteen, and Michael Jackson-owned MTV party of the 1980s by director John Hughes and actor Molly Ringwald. With lead characters Andie and Duckie (Ringwald and Jon Cryer) donning thrift store threads, predating hipster cool, and hanging at a record store that had more Otis Redding wax than Hall and Oates 45’s, these kids from across the wrong side of the tracks put a captivating (white) face on the alternative undertow happening in music during the Reagan Era. Just think, only a few years later Andie and The Duck would be bumping the shit outta Nirvana. – John-Paul Shiver
Purple Rain (1984)
There’s a lot about Purple Rain, as a movie, that might not hold up quite as well upon closer scrutiny. You could easily debate the acting, or the narrative, or just about anything outside of the iconic performance scenes, really. What’s not for debate is the actual star of the film: the soundtrack. The now legendary album is undeniably, one of the best in its class. A sheen of psychedelia covers the entirety, from the ethereal presence of synths, to a bevy of exquisite full band performances, and its own genre of prog funk, it’s an album that was made in a moment of unadulterated genius. Purple Rain was more than an album, it was Prince’s magnum opus, a pop masterpiece that yielded beauty and cultural staying power in equal measure. It features at least one song that nearly everyone has heard, and just as likely two or three. That’s not an inherent claim to its staggering brilliance, but it says a lot about the longevity and breadth of the work. – Brian Roesler
Repo Man (1984)
The punk movie was born in 1978 with Derek Jarman’s Jubilee, but it flourished in the ’80s with documentaries like The Decline of Western Civilization and rebellious fables like Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains. Repo Man is perhaps the least characteristic of the bunch, a kind of sci-fi/noir film with an incredible soundtrack that just happens to be punk as fuck: Black Flag, Circle Jerks, Iggy Pop and Suicidal Tendencies. Onscreen it’s more punk in spirit than in practice, but the hardcore-stacked soundtrack is as strong a starting place for anyone seeking an education in punk. – Jeff Terich
This is Spinal Tap (1984)
A mockumentary about the waning popularity of a heavy metal band that more than a few times hit a little close to home for a few touring bands, This is Spinal Tap put an outrageous comic spin on the rock ‘n’ roll movie. Miniature Stonehenge sight gags, trousers stuffed with cucumbers, flower-child flashbacks and one-sentence critical pans—rarely a moment goes by without a classic piece of buffoonery. It also wouldn’t be nearly as effective without its soundtrack, all of which was written and performed by the film’s stars, Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer (and co-written by director Rob Reiner). They’re funny, first and foremost, but perhaps more importantly impeccably crafted, so the triple-bass ode to the callipygian, “Big Bottom,” and the bonehead raveup “Tonight I’m Gonna Rock You Tonight” aren’t just good for a laugh, they truly and genuinely rock. – Jeff Terich
URGH! A Music War
Stop Making Sense was the decade’s quintessential concert film, Purple Rain its musical drama, and The Decline of Western Civilization its tightly focused documentary. But for a keen observational eye cast at a lot of music within such spheres, you can’t do much better than this soundtrack, released one year after its footage was shot and one year before the movie actually hit theaters. Its live performances crisscross the Atlantic and multiple genres, including punk (X), post-punk (The Police), art-rock (Klaus Nomi), synth-pop (OMD), reggae (Steel Pulse) and more. With curiosities from other rarely-discussed artists and a history of knotty presentation rights, both the film and the double vinyl of Urgh! A Music War are worth seeking out. – Adam Blyweiss
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Don’t mean to be an Answer Guy but you’re big boys and probably considered most of these anyway:
DIVA (1981); Consummate Euro art-house film at the height of indie (pre-video) with a sophisticated soundtrack to match. Opera, French New Wave, hints of No Wave.
PARIS, TEXAS (1985): This might be the best Ry Cooder recording ever, not sure how it didn’t make the cut.
SOMETHING WILD (1986): Your team probably considered David Byrne’s sole directing effort from 1986, TRUE STORIES. This soundtrack has his fingerprints all over it along with director Jonathan Demme’s eclectic and loyal tastes (reggae, Sister Carol and New Jersey’s The Feelies).
THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING (1988): Later decade Euro art-house where admittedly the soundtrack is the weakest between the book, the film and the music, though Eastern Bloc resistance tunes still scored high during the end times of the Soviet Union.
There are more I’m certainly forgetting as I spent half of the decade in a movie house but these were the ones that stood out to me…