© 2024 WBGO
Discover Jazz...Anywhere, Anytime, on Any Device.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Rhythm Revue Spotlight on soul and R&B in film and television soundtracks

Music has always been an important part of movies. In the silent era, before sound was married to film, in the ‘20s, music was sometimes provided by a live pianist or organist in the theater. But even with the development of the talkies, as they were first called, music continued as an important element in movie production.

One of the first Hollywood feature films to use a rock ‘n’ roll opening theme song was Blackboard Jungle from 1955, which opened with “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley and the Comets. Later in the 50s, a number of movie musicals featured R&B and rock ‘n’ roll artists like Little Richard, LaVern Baker, Chuck Berry, and The Moonglows, sometimes featuring a radio personality like Alan Freed. These thinly plotted movies were the precursors to music videos of later decades.

R&B and jazz were becoming more frequently heard in movies. Jazz trumpeter Miles Davis scored the 1958 French movie Elevator to the Gallows. This was one of the early modern jazz soundtracks where music was not an important part of the storyline of the movie.

Composer and producer Quincy Jones, who would become a prolific composer for films, scored a 1965 film called The Pawnbroker, which starred Rod Steiger. Decades later, “Soul Bossa Nova” was revived in another movie called Austin Powers. 

Soul Bossa Nova

By the ‘70s, several TV shows featured R&B music. “The Street Beater,” another Quincy Jones composition, provided the theme for the popular sitcom Sanford and Son, starring comedians Redd Foxx and LaWanda Page. Donny Hathaway recorded the theme for another 70s sitcom, Maude, which starred Bea Arthur. The early ‘70s were also the peak years of a school of filmmaking called Blaxploitation. These were movies geared toward African-American audiences, which featured Black heroes like Superfly and Shaft. Curtis Mayfield, Isaac Hayes, Marvin Gaye, J.J. Johnson, James Brown, Melvin Van Peebles, and Willie Hutch are just a few of the R&B and jazz artists who provided soundtracks for these movies.

In recent decades, filmmakers have relied more and more on existing hit records for soundtrack music. A modern soundtrack album can provide a wonderful greatest hits collection. Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee are among modern filmmakers who have used classic R&B to great effect. Next time you watch a movie, don't forget to bring your Shazam.

Listen above.

Recommended Listening

 “Soul Bossa Nova” – Quincy Jones (heard in The Pawnbroker, Take the Money & Run, Austin Powers)

“Brother's Gonna Work It Out” – Willie Hutch (from The Mack)

“Give Me Your Love” – Curtis Mayfield (from Superfly)

“Trouble Man” – Marvin Gaye (from Trouble Man)

“Life Is But a Dream” – Harptones (from Goodfellas)

Trouble Man

Deep Cut

 “Down & Out in New York City” – James Bown (from Black Caesar)

Felix Hernandez started his career as a producer and radio journalist while in college. In the 1980’s, Felix independently produced the award-winning radio series BluesStage, which had a 6 year run on over 200 NPR stations. He also worked extensively as a journalist with WBEZ in Chicago, and NPR.