It’s Time to Talk About Those “Music From and Inspired by ‘Spider-Man’” Albums
The official unofficial soundtracks to Sam Raimi’s trilogy reflect an odd moment in the history of popular movie soundtracks—namely one in which the soundtracks’ songs don’t actually appear in the movies.
We’ve all been there: Sitting bolt upright in bed, suddenly remembering a pop culture experience we had years ago—particularly a then-negligible detail which now seems entirely surreal—and suffering future sleepless nights after confirming the detail in the morning. It’s Time to Talk About is our way of bringing these issues to light in hopes that such conversations can become easier in the future. Sometimes it’s better to talk about it.
Ah, yes, the storied history of pop music in popular cinema: “The Sound of Silence” in The Graduate, “The End” in Apocalypse, Now, that weird Cheech & Chong cover in Space Jam. For decades now, the marriage of film and beloved radio hits has given us a surplus of cultural landmarks guaranteeing immortality for any musician with the potential to fall from the public eye—especially if their music is upbeat enough to score a scene of sadistic violence.
It wasn’t too long ago that Richard Linklater’s carefully curated nostalgia on the Dazed and Confused soundtrack buoyed its otherwise-lukewarm reception, eventually even climbing Billboard’s soundtrack chart to number two in 2016. But at the turn of the century, the pop movie soundtrack would take a new direction: the “Music From and Inspired By” phenomena popularized by the indie rock of The O.C., the mama’s-spaghetti rap of 8 Mile, and even the Christian contemporary of the Narnia franchise.
Before reaching something of a confounding climax a decade ago when Thom Yorke, Bon Iver (featuring St. Vincent), and Grizzly Bear (featuring Victoria Legrand) all wrote original tracks for the (best) Twilight installment, New Moon, these soundtracks were mostly comprised of original recordings by artists who fit the demographic of the attached film or TV show (ever wonder how preteens in the early aughts found out about the Pixies?)—or at least a demographic that buys CDs. In exploiting this brief cash-grab opportunity at the height of its popularity, Sam Raimi’s batshit Spider-Man trilogy raised an interesting question: Do any of these songs even need to be in the movie?
Looking back on the prelude to Marvel’s recent dynasty, there’s a lot of weird details to sort through—the excessive post-Y2K phobia of science and technology, the excessive post-9/11 phobia of falling from skyscrapers, the excessive post-Shrek enthusiasm for CGI. But something that’s tripped me up for well over a decade now is the bonkers assemblage of songs toted as “inspired by” the films due to the absolute resilience the filmmakers evidently demonstrated in ensuring that as few as possible of these fifty-plus soundtrack cuts could be considered “from” the movies, each film instead making the most of original scores by Danny Elfman and Christopher Young. Which begs more questions: Why are the few pop songs that appear in the movies not even the ones on the soundtracks? Why are the soundtrack songs that do make it into the movies so hard to hear? Why are there so many previously released songs on these soundtracks in the first place?
Spider-Man (2002)—a movie about a teen hitting a very delayed puberty overnight as his best friend’s proto-Musk father grapples with a mid-life crisis, which, for some reason, the kid is tasked with sorting out while failing to make a living as a freelancer—set an incredibly odd precedent for the series, featuring a soundtrack of new tracks from within the realms of power pop and nu-metal and previously released material from The Strokes and The Hives (what a weird time for music!) that really had nothing to do with the movie’s plot. The soundtrack cuts that do appear in the film are just as baffling: The Strokes’ “When it Started” and a version of Sum 41’s “What We’re All About” featuring Slayer’s Kerry King play diegetically at a barely perceptible volume on car stereos, while Macy Gray’s “My Nutmeg Phantasy” is actually performed by the artist in the movie’s most awkwardly tacked-on scene (per the tracklist, it’s a Tom Morello remix featuring Mos Def and Angie Stone in a twist somehow more early-’00s than lemon-flavored Pepsi).
As Raimi was probably obligated to prominently feature at least one of the dozen-plus original tracks he was allotted for each movie (oh, Aerosmith also provided a hard rock take on the cartoon’s theme), the first Spider-Man proved that dumping them into the end credits was good enough (Chad Kroeger’s angelic “Hero” ushered us out of the theater, for those who refuse to remember). While Dashboard Confessional’s contribution to the Spider-Man 2 soundtrack was a certifiable life event for the middle schoolers among us in 2004, it was surprising to revisit the film and learn it was cut down to two minutes in the end credits before abruptly transitioning into the Train original “Ordinary,” and then, ultimately, Michael Bublé’s jazzy take on the Spider-Man theme.
The third movie in the trilogy concludes with the routinely moody Snow Patrol single “Signal Fire,” followed by The Killers’ “Move Away”—which, let it be known, absolutely spanks—and a shockingly palatable song by Jet. The most incomprehensible of the three records, the Spider-Man 3 (2007) soundtrack was a curation of Dave Sardy–produced original tracks with his past collaborators (Jet, Wolfmother, Simon Dawes, The Walkmen) and future clients (Black Mountain, Snow Patrol). In its final form, Music From and Inspired by Spider-Man 3, unlike its predecessors, is true to its name: a concept album of original songs honoring the distributors’ marketing of the movie as a dark departure from its prequels. Also, “The Twist” by Chubby Checker.
It’s not everyday that fifteen-year-old me and present-day-me can agree on music, so I want to take a moment to reflect on this album. What we have here is some of the best music ever released from the likes of The Killers, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and, yes, Wolfmother, not to mention stellar introductions to bargain-bin surrogates for Dashboard, Parker-doppelgänger Conor Oberst, and, uh, Yeah Yeah Yeahs again. While Dawes and The Flaming Lips took their assignments seriously and wrote songs with this movie very much in mind, most of the record’s lyrics are pretty abstract, if not totally surreal (“I have never seen the moon this drunk before,” “Oh, beautiful ponies / They’ll kill us all,” “Krispy koo coo quo,” etc.).
True to form, the only song here that actually appears in the film prior to the end credits is Wolfmother’s “Pleased to Meet You,” which, scrubbed of its vocals, is played briefly during a photoshoot in a building that gets demolished by a rogue wrecking ball; likewise, Coconut Records’ “Summer Day” (probably only included for its Kirsten Dunst guest spot) was released prior to the record. With the series’ soundtrack sales dropping with every subsequent release (from two million to one million to a negligent “N/A”), tracks like The Walkmen’s “Red River” and YYY’s “Sealings” have gone almost entirely unheard, while The Killers had to slip “Move Away” into their Sawdust comp to ensure its vitality, and Black Mountain snuck “Stay Free” onto their forthcoming Sardy-produced LP.
Setting aside just how strange it is that such hips bands would ostensibly take the time to write songs for the (best) Spider-Man installment, the idea of a mixtape being released alongside—but not featured in (but officially sanctioned by)—a major motion picture seems like it should have been much more successful. Where New Moon dropped its soundtrack in a totally different era of music blogging (approximately two-and-a-half years later), Spider-Man 3 was released too early to get slammed by Pitchfork or gawked at by Stereogum. What was popularly dubbed the “emo” Spider-Man movie made a bold artistic choice in sidestepping its tradition of emo and angst-ridden artists for an indie all-star lineup, which never really got the promotion it deserved.
Despite the convoluted Kendrick/Alicia/Pharrell/Zimmer outro of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014) falling directly in line with the Raimi films’ youth-oriented original tracks, the cultural shift to streaming may have put an end to any and all weird marketing experimentation for physical music releases tied to their films. When we look back on the prevalence of hard rock, emo, and indie, the Spider-Man soundtracks will each prove an apt synopsis of their respective eras, though probably not of their respective films. That is, if anyone still owns a CD player. FL