HEADBANGER’S CINEMA: ’90S METAL AND ALTERNATIVE FILM SOUNDTRACKS

1991 saw the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind and Metallica’s eponymous fifth album, two majorly successful albums that caused alternative music to explode in the mainstream like never before at the expense of ‘80s hair metal and synth-pop. Its cultural and commercial viability was firmly established leading to major record companies snapping up any band – Melvins, Therapy?, The Smashing Pumpkins, Pist.On, Godflesh, Stone Temple Pilots, and so on – that played loud with them hoping to have unearthed the ‘next Nirvana’. In turn, the influx saw some of these bands contributing to the soundtracks of many films during the subsequent decade.

Of course, this wasn’t the first time that these musical styles had found their way into cinema; numerous horror films such as Demons (1985) featured bands like Mötley Crüe and Saxon and the specifically music-themed films This Is Spinal Tap (1984) and Sid & Nancy (1986) speak from themselves. The ‘90s however saw a significant rise in alternative music appearing in films. This list, then, will take a look at a group of films from the ‘90s that featured prominent metal and alternative music in their respective soundtracks. For the sake of being concise, the list will avoid music-themed films such as Airheads (1994) and the Wayne’s World films (1992-1993).


POINT BREAK (1991)

Dir: Kathryn Bigelow

Reeves & Swayze In 'Point Break'

In accordance with one the most adrenaline fuelled premises Hollywood ever conceived – one that involves a gang of ex-President bank robbers, sky diving, Keanu Reeves at the height of his Keanu-ness, a shaggy-haired Patrick Swayze and Gary Busey’s teeth in full force – Point Break’s soundtrack is suitably rollicking for the most part. Having been released in the summer of ’91, Point Break’s soundtrack preceded the mainstream’s embracing of alternative music and is therefore mostly endemic in ‘80s hair metal with anthems from Ratt, L.A. Guns, Westworld and Shark Island; but elsewhere there is cuts from Concrete Blonde, Liquid Jesus and School of Fish that were unknowingly signalling the imminent grunge takeover. However, Public Image Ltd.’s experimental contribution, ‘Criminal’, seems to be completely unto itself.


LAST ACTION HERO (1993)

Dir: John McTiernan

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Whether Last Action Hero’s inclusion of the heaviest songs the newly-alternative mainstream had to offer was endemic in its intentional satire on contemporaneous pop culture and action cinema or whether it was purely part of Michael Canton’s (then head of Columbia) ploy to make his $85 million dollar movie – one of the most expensive in Hollywood history at that point – as marketable as possible is debateable. Either way, some of the music is pretty damn good. While half of the soundtrack is utterly forgettable, the B-side contributions from Alice in Chains and Megadeth and Fishbone’s stomping ‘Swim’, are minor metal classics in themselves. Anthrax’s ‘Poison My Eyes’ – an outtake from the underrated Sound of White Noise album – might just be one of the greatest tracks from the band’s John Bush era.


JOHNNY MNEMONIC (1995)

Dir: Robert Longo

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One of those astonishingly bad films that accomplishes very little, even after been gifted a thoroughly intriguing premise; in this case, one that concerns a Phillip K. Dick-inspired future where human minds can be used as hard-drives. Keanu’s casting as the titular hero whose brain is empty was inspired, but the best thing about this turgid cyber-punk mess is the soundtrack (and that’s still not saying much). As well as the grunge explosion that followed Nirvana’s breakthrough, ‘industrial’ music also became popular in the wake of pioneering bands like Ministry, Godflesh and Nine Inch Nails. By the mid-‘90s however, the movement had become painfully banal amidst a severe over-application of irritating digital sampling and circuit-board blips which bands begun to add to their music. Here you can listen to how it hinders tracks by KMFDM, the electronic outfit Orbital and even a bizarre contribution from U2. But at least there is B-side cuts by the ever-reliable Helmet and Henry Rollins (also in the film) that just about make the soundtrack worthwhile.


STRANGE DAYS (1995)

Dir: Kathryn Bigelow

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The urban thriller Strange Days’ – another Kathryn Bigelow film and one of the most spectacular and criminally overlooked films from the ‘90s – fares much better than Johnny Mnemonic with its eclectic selection of music assembled to reflect a grim future, in this case 1999 Los Angeles’ anarchic and uncertain approach to the new millennium. Amongst the selection of dance and rap tunes that make up the soundtrack is the inclusion of forgotten industrial rockers 13. Mg. and a cover of The Doors’ ‘Strange Days’ (naturally) by influential New York metal outfit Prong. There is also the, jazz-infused experimental-metal track ‘No White Clouds’ by Strange Fruit and a couple of Juliette Lewis’ own contributions, most notably ‘Hardly Wait’ which rides a fine line between being sincere and just plain grating. Best of all, however, is the Skin-fronted politico-rockers Skunk Anansie with their scathing track, ‘Selling Jesus’, which underpins the film’s climactic riot sequence perfectly.


LOST HIGHWAY (1997)

Dir: David Lynch

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David Lynch’s 1997 cinematic head-fuck was a retaliation to the extreme backlash that Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992) received upon release; it is one of the most outlandish, violent and divisive offerings the high priest of weirdness ever devised. Whilst the Trent Reznor-produced soundtrack features work from Lynch regular Angelo Badalamenti as well as other instrumental tracks from Barry Adamson and Antônio Carlos Jobim, the soundtrack also contains the song ‘Eye’ by ‘90s rock/grunge favourites The Smashing Pumpkins, ‘I’m Deranged’ from David Bowie’s overlooked Outside album and a couple of contributions from Reznor himself. There are even a couple from Rammstein and Marilyn Manson which might have seemed edgy in the late ‘90s, but now just appear disruptingly incongruous when they crop up during the film’s psychotic climax. The chance of Lynch including such artists for any sense of commercial viability is slim (after all, this is a man who had negative remarks from Siskel and Ebert printed on the film’s poster) and is more likely due to Reznor’s affiliations with Manson, Bowie, Billy Corgan, etc. Overall, this is still an accomplished soundtrack and most certainly conveys the schizophrenic themes in Lost Highway.


CLERKS (1994)

Dir: Kevin Smith

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If a soundtrack cost more to licence than it did to produce the actual film, then it must be one damn good soundtrack. Well, considering that Clerks – Kevin Smith’s foul-mouthed but achingly accurate cult comedy concerning the tribulations of working at a convenience store – was shot for well under $30,000, that notion shouldn’t really apply. But still, it is still a pretty great selection of songs. Whilst many inclusions fall flat out of context by blurring into a monotonous haze of buzzy guitars and snotty vocals, Smith’s hometown cohorts, Love Among Freaks, deliver an infectious title track and Alice In Chains’ ‘Got Me Wrong’ (from their Sap EP) is simply one of the greatest songs the dirgey Seattleites ever recorded. However, the best cut to compliment the film comes with Soul Asylum’s ‘Can’t Even Tell’ that plays out over the end credits.


GUMMO (1997)

Dir: Harmony Korine

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Whilst arguably more palatable artists such as Madonna and Buddy Holly are heard in the film, Gummo’s soundtrack is still one of the most unconventional. Just as the film is prone to polarising audiences – largely for its surreal and shocking depiction of some aimless adolescents’ destructive behaviour in their tornado-stricken town and its general lack of conventional storytelling – the soundtrack, although very reflective of the film’s abrasive content, will too not be for everyone. Boasting sludge and stoner metal veterans such as EyeHateGod, Corrosion of Conformity and Sleep as well as a handful of breakneck death and black metal contributions from Mortician, Mystifier, Absu and so on, this soundtrack could well be the outright heaviest soundtrack ever compiled. A film and soundtrack that is completely devoid of commercial appeal, and is all the better for it.


NATURAL BORN KILLERS (1994)

Dir: Oliver Stone

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Not one known for his restraint or to shy away from controversy, Oliver Stone went all out with this controversial, avant-garde and not completely unproblematic satire on American’s sensationalisation of serial killers and violence. As the production transgressed from a much more standard Tarantino-scripted action picture about married mass-murderers into Stone’s radical, subversive vision – one that employs a plethora of cinematographic techniques and rapid channel-switching style editing to resemble ‘90s TV as much as possible – the soundtrack too became increasingly esoteric and cacophonous to compliment the schizophrenic culture that feeds on violence the film depicts. Stone approached Reznor (the go-to guy for edgy soundtracks in the ‘90s, long before his Oscar win for Social Network [2010]) to conceive and produce the soundtrack; Reznor would also contribute some of his own pre-recorded Nine Inch Nails songs and even write the fan-favourite track, ‘Burn’ for the film. Although not completely made up of heavier material, other notable loud cuts on the soundtrack include L7’s ‘Shitlist’, a couple of Rage Against the Machine tracks from their 1992 debut, and the Jello Biafra and Al Jourgensen side-project, Lard, whose song ‘Forkboy’ blasts over the climactic prison riot.


JUDGMENT NIGHT (1993)

Dir: Stephen Hopkins

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While it was clearly inspired by Rage Against the Machine’s success and prior rap-rock/metal collaborations such as Aerosmith & Run DMC’s ‘Walk This Way’ and Anthrax & Public Enemy’s ‘Bring the Noise’, the soundtrack to the largely forgotten action thriller, Judgment Night, must also bear some of the blame for inspiring the mostly insipid Nu Metal wave. Though its style has little to do with the film itself, this unique – albeit slightly dated – soundtrack, that is comprised of prominent early-‘90s metal/grunge/alternative bands teaming up with various rap acts, is one of the ‘90s greatest. The very best that Judgment Night’s mongrel OST has to offer comes with the improbable pairings of Faith No More’s psychosis with Boo-Yaa T.R.I.B.E., Helmet’s staccato riffing with House of Pain and Therapy?’s lurching mix with Fatal. Among the strangest pairings are Cypress Hill with Pearl Jam and Mudhoney’s with Sir-Mix-A-Lot! Any soundtrack that managed to bring the likes of those seemingly disparate acts together deserves, at the very least, some form of commendation.


THE CROW (1994)

Dir: Alex Proyas

The-Crow-1994-Movie-Free-Download

Though this cult favourite is quite rightly remembered as Brandon Lee’s final film – due to his tragic, freak-accidental death during production – many overlook its absolutely terrific soundtrack (one which even managed to top the Billboard 200 chart). Instead of being a mostly haphazard selection of songs, it’s a nice touch that certain bands that certain bands which are featured – such as The Cure and Joy Division (whose song ‘Dead Souls’ is given a very respectable cover by Nine Inch Nails) – actually had a significant influence on James O’Barr’s original comic. The soundtrack has its fair share of gloomy and melancholic soundscapes that enhance the film’s gothic tableau, but it is largely dominated by much heavier bands that can be heard (or seen) in the background of the scuzzy Detroit bars that T-Bird and his gang frequent. A couple of relatively unknown and long since forgotten bands – such as Machines of Loving Grace, For Love Not Lisa, My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult and Medicine – were given some well-deserved exposure on this soundtrack and they more than hold up their own against the much more established alternative acts they rub shoulders with here. With other bands such as Stone Temple Pilots, Rollins Band, Rage Against the Machine, Pantera and Helmet present, The Crow’s soundtrack epitomises the era’s alternative music scene almost perfectly. All that is missing is ‘Black No.1’ by Type O Negative.

  • Liam Hathaway

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