Cruella’s spot-on songs make a strong case for the movie-soundtrack revival

·5 min read
Emma Stone in Cruella
Emma Stone in Cruella

Cruella makes a major addition to what has become Disney’s standard approach to translating its animated library into live-action: The origin story for the 101 Dalmatians villain provides one hell of a soundtrack. The film is absolutely stuffed with vintage pop songs—37 needle drops across its 134-minute runtime. Taken as a whole, they make an excellent case for the concept of the movie soundtrack album. If Disney knows what’s good for it, they’ll be pushing Cruella: The Original Motion Picture Soundtrack harder than the Baroness pushes her dressmakers.

The music in Cruella is nothing if not on point. When young Estella is inside a fancy party and being chased by dogs while we see her mother outside the mansion begging for financial help, The Animals’ “Inside—Looking Out” plays. The first time we’re shown Emma Stone as the grown-up Estella, in a montage meant to highlight her colorful life and personality, we get the Rolling Stones’ “She’s A Rainbow” to emphasize that theme. The scene in which Estella gets drunk and redoes her employers’ storefront display window to prove her talents? Set to Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’.” Estella’s first introduction to the world as Cruella De Vil? Suzi Quattro’s “The Wild One.” The montage of Cruella upstaging Baroness time and again? Blondie’s “One Way Or Another.” And so on, and so on.

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Cruella director Craig Gillespie and music supervisor Susan Jacobs run a giddy game of “What’s next?” that enhances the kinetic fun of the film. (Or, if it’s not working for you, maybe an, “Oh god, what’s next?”) And for kids hearing many of these songs for the first time (or at least the first time outside of, say, an ad for Dior), the film’s candy-coated appeal can provide an engaging framework from which to then let the music earworm its way into their minds and hearts—and Spotify playlists. The Cruella soundtrack could easily serve as a glossy gateway drug, or as The A.V. Club’s Katie Rife put it in her review of the movie, “make a good introductory course to popular music from approximately 1966 until 1981 for a curious young person.”

Movie soundtracks, on the whole, have fallen out of fashion. The combination of the digital revolution and the death of the compact disc certainly hastened their demise, but the entire culture of expected musical accompaniments to major studio releases faded in the early 2000s, as it became easier for kids to mix and match their own compilations online. But that disappearance isn’t permanent; movie soundtracks have long been a way in to different genres, styles, and classic songs of pop music’s past—that can then be rediscovered by a new generation. This particular trick reached its zenith in the 1990s: Dazed And Confused provided Gen Xers with a collection of ’70s hard rock that sounded almost as vital as it must’ve the first time around. In between iconic dialogue clips from the film, Pulp Fiction’s soundtrack managed to expose millions of kids to the idiosyncratic joys of surf music, alongside killer soul and funk tunes from Al Green and Kool & The Gang (to say nothing of somehow making Neil Diamond’s “Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon” a hit again, thanks to Urge Overkill’s cover). And the soundtrack to Trainspotting hooked a bunch of American youth on the pleasures of Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, and a host of Britpop artists that had flown under the mainstream radar.

It’s still possible for a hit film to generate a hit album, as most recently demonstrated by Guardians Of The Galaxy Awesome Mix. Vol. 1. Older music fans may not have found much to talk about among Guardians’ collection of AM Gold—none of these songs were anything you wouldn’t hear on an oldies radio station in the past few decades—but for kids who normally have no outlet for hearing such songs (and no desire to seek it out on their own, or to listen to any radio station), hearing tracks like “Hooked On A Feeling” or “Moonage Daydream” must’ve been a revelation. At least, that’s what the numbers suggest: Awesome Mix Vol. 1 sold more than 2 million copies in the U.S. alone, implying there’s a lot of folks who found a way in to older music via the release, hearing the songs over the course of a popular movie and using that reference point to dig into the soundtrack.

Cruella, by that measure, makes for an ideal representative of movie-soundtrack synergy, in large part because its uses music in more overt and on-the-nose fashion than James Gunn’s superhero space opera. And like those musical Marvel backdrops, they are elevated and made more vibrant and memorable for first-time listeners by the grand spectacle they accompany. The muddy riffing of “I Wanna Be Your Dog” isn’t always the most grabby of melodies if you’re just skipping through old tracks, but set to a grand, punk-rock-aping fashion runway show with fireworks, flames, and a smirking Emma Stone, the song commands attention. The movie’s version can lead right to The Stooges’ original for curious viewers, and that’s not nothing.

It would be silly to expect a full-blown return to movie soundtracks regularly sitting atop the Billboard charts. But if Cruella can serve as a means of reviving the time-honored soundtrack, even just as a semi-annual appearance, it could help keep deserving music in the ears of the next generation—who can then turn up their noses at the presence of, say, Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Maps” in Cruella 2040.