Music is Cult! A Roundup of Cinematic Sounds
There are two camps of people when it comes to the phrase "you've probably never seen it before." There are those who say it often, and those who are filled with loathing at the elitist tones of the notion that you are missing out on something alternative and cool because you can't always help which subcultures you aren't exposed to. If you are in the second camp, I apologize on behalf of my fellow cult lovers. Why be a part of a fandom you can't include others in?
Cult movies, contrary to popular belief, are not particularly "unknown" or more "cool" than the movies that sell out for zillions of dollars at the box office and clean up at the Oscars and are right there for your viewing pleasure on whichever streaming platform you invest in. If a movie you like has a strong cult following, then it's a cult movie. By that definition, movies that are beloved by the masses, like Star Wars, can be considered cult. When I say cult following, I mean a fanbase where frequent viewings, audience participation, and quoting dialogue is at the backbone.
In this piece I would like to take this definition of cult a step further, as follows:
In order for movie to be considered cult, it must have
A strong, devoted fanbase (can quote lines on the fly, collects merchandise, lots of viewing parties etc.)
Some audience participation elements, either built into the movie or created by the fandom post-release
A kickass soundtrack
Let's unpack that last rule.
What is 60% of the fun of cult movies? Any music lover would answer that it's listening to the soundtrack! Most people know the plot of Rocky Horror by now, but fans keep coming back to those midnight shows for the awesome music. We might not be able to go out to movie theaters yet, but we're in quarantine and we have the internet, so the media world is our oyster. Let's binge some next-level cult soundtracks together, starting with one of the most beloved films to come out of Ireland: The Commitments
The Commitments (1991)
Let me preface this by saying that none of this music is original to the film, but the caliber of the performers most certainly is. In fact, the casting of the directors traveled to Dublin and invited local buskers to audition for the film in order to gather the most authentic talent they could. The results were a hilarious drama that produced a cast album that hit triple platinum status. The plot follows music lover Jimmy Rabbitte, who's dream is to manage a band inspired by the soul traditions of the African American community in the 60s. Jimmy recruits some friends and talents he discovers by chance- like vocalist extraordinaire Deco Cuffe- to form the Commitments; who are comically awful at first but eventually gel together to compliment the hilarious moments in the movie with soulful musical goodness. I'm going to give some honorable mentions to the iconic rendition of Mustang Sally, which put this soundtrack on the map, as well as the fabulous vocals of actress Maria Doyle on "I've Never Loved a Man," where she steps up to the lead.
Times Square (1980)
Allow me to preface this with the fact that I have never seen this movie in full. I stumbled across some of the footage in my YouTube recommended (aka my personal favorite corner of the internet) and was crushed to find out that you can only find it on DVD and there is no directors cut. Apparently, so much of the original movie's plot and footage was cut (including a romantic storyline between the two main female characters), and the soundtrack is merely a compilation of hits that were released independently of the movie. Still, I will admit that I have watched the scene in which the two main characters dance on the street to the music of Talking Heads many many times over. If you look up this movie on YouTube, you will find many clips full of iconic, quotable lines that gave this movie cult status. The plot follows Nicky Marotta (Robin Johnson) and Pamela Pearl (Trini Alvarado), who become friends rooming together in a psychiatric hospital, which they bust out of in an ambulance (I personally do not condone this behavior in real life but it is definitely quite the cinematic gesture). They start writing songs together and start a punk band called the Sleez Sisters. This movie was ill received at first, to say the least. However, Bikini Kill/Le Tigre/The Julie Ruin frontwoman Kathleen Hanna says it's one of her favorite movies, and who can argue with the biggest baddest coolest riot grrl in rock and roll history about what's good and bad? The movie is blessed with a soundtrack full of glam and new wave sounds by Lou Reed and Talking Heads, but the original music is deeply underrated. There is nothing better than punk music that has a strong spoken word element (It reminds me of Medieval music with spicy thrash); and it's even better in the context of the movie because it's two teenage grrrls expressing themselves with rock. Plus I would highly recommend finding clips of Tim Curry as radio host Johnny LaGuardia, especially his growly voiceover. It's hilarious!
(cw: catchy, but did not stand the test of time. Very loaded and offensive slurs in reference to family drama)
This is the movie's end, which is really moving and powerful and crazy, which also features a small clip of the original song "Damn Dog"
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
I don't mean to sound unprofessional... but DUH! I mentioned this classic before and I'll mention it again because if by some cruel reality somebody stumbles upon this piece and hasn't seen Rocky Horror, who am I not to shed light on this raunchy film which has sparked a revolution that has echoed through the decades? I won't spoil it too much but basically Brad and Janet are in love, and they get stuck with a flat tire during a rainstorm, and discover the oh-so-creepy mansion of Frank-N-Furter, who's a "sweet transvestite" and has created a handsome, muscly man named Rocky. Other than being delightfully absurd, the movie is the pinnacle of cult; famous for the midnight showings where people throw rice and toast and sing along and squirt water guns in the air and dress up (I have yet to attend one but it's on the top of my bucket list!). Anyway, this is my favorite song from the soundtrack and probably the most famous (alongside "Time Warp" and "Touch-a-Touch-a-Touch Me"). "Sweet Transvestite" is not only perfect from scandal/ridiculousness factor alone, but Tim Curry is HILARIOUS as Frank-N-Furter and it's an easy song to learn and sing along to if you are just starting to familiarize yourself with the movie. I'm also going to throw in "Science Fiction/Double Feature," which introduces the movie and is performed by "The Lips" (or if you watch the play, it is sung by the Usherette). "Science Fiction/Double Feature" is best described as the perfect slow-dance song at a prom, with contagious David Bowie essence, but extra creepy!
Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001)
As always, I have saved the best for last. I have loved this soundtrack my whole life more than any other movie soundtrack ever. I can even brag that I saw it live on Broadway with John Cameron Mitchell, and I will not not brag about it because if you listen to this soundtrack you will understand the sheer power of Hedwig: The bite. The heartache. The comedy. The FABULOUSNESS. Like Rocky Horror, Hedwig spins the concept of gender on its head, following the life of a punk rock genderqueer drag queen through her journey getting out of East Germany in the early 90s, her finding refuge in rock and roll, and her search for her "other half." I must add that the difference between Rocky Horror and Hedwig is that Hedwig is deeply emotional. This movie is an honest, in-your-face portrayal of the intersections of rock n roll, history, politics, queerness, fame, abuse, loneliness, comedy, cleverness, and love. This isn't A Hard Day's Night. It doesn't tell the story of music that anybody expects. Hedwig is fierce. It is possessive and timeless. And OH. MY. THE. SOUNDTRACK. There is nothing like clever lyrics, great vocals that span the full spectrum between whispering and shouting, and riffs that stick to your head and stay with you forever. Here are the two tracks that best describe the film, but I'd recommend listening to the full soundtrack. Every song is something special.