Pop Culture

Who you gonna call? Good music makers

Memorable theme songs can help producers and directors deepen the impact of their work

Where have all the great movie and television theme songs gone?

Much has been said about why this year's Ghostbusters film fared so badly compared with the original. But one of its biggest flaws has to be the lack of an iconic theme song.

One of the things that made the first 1984 film special was that electro-pop tune with the immortal "Who you gonna call? Ghostbusters!" chorus. It was a song so effective that it became an integral part of the Ghostbusters canon, and the singer behind the tune, Ray Parker Jr, will probably never be remembered for anything else.

Television shows up to the 1990s had memorable theme tunes - what is Friends without that jangly, pop-rock tune by The Rembrandts, or The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air without its intro rap, arguably one of Will Smith's most memorable musical output?

Superhero movies rule the box office today and there was a time when each marquee character had its own iconic tune.

One of the things that made the 1984 film was that tune with the “Who you gonna call? Ghostbusters!” chorus. It became an integral part of the Ghostbusters canon, and the singer Ray Parker Jr will probably never be remembered for anything else.

Who can forget the dizzy, go-go tune that kicked off every episode in the 1960s Batman television series starring Adam West or the Spider-Man song written by Oscar-winner Paul Francis Webster from the Marvel character's 1960s cartoon?

Granted, the Batman on the silver screen today is nowhere near the campy TV version from 50 years ago, so it is appropriate that Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice was driven by an atmospheric Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL score as far removed as you can get from Neal Hefti's perky pop tune from the 1960s series.

With the exception of children's films and shows (2013's Frozen's Let It Go, anyone?), moody, majestic instrumentals seem to be in vogue today, with singing, lyrics and pop or rock song structures taking a back seat.

Game Of Thrones' solemn score is destined to be a classic, as is Stranger Things' synth mini-masterpiece.

But even then, how many of us can hum the Avengers soundtrack or assign any melody to any of Marvel's film and television characters the way we associate John Williams' The Imperial March with Darth Vader?

Aside from scores, there is also the tried-and-true method of song compilations by various artists.

These can be giant-sellers themselves - Suicide Squad: The Album, a heady mix of high-octane rock, hip-hop, pop songs both contemporary (by the likes of Skrillex and Grimes) and classic (like Creedence Clearwater Revival), topped the Billboard mainstream charts upon its release.

This does not happen very often. The last time a soundtrack topped the album charts was when Disney Channel's Descendants went to No. 1 in August last year.

According to the Recording Industry Association of America's list of all-time best-selling albums, the top soundtrack albums were from the 1970s to the 1990s, from films such as The Bodyguard (1992), anchored by Whitney Houston's I Will Always Love You, and Saturday Night Fever (1977), anchored by several hits fro m The Bee Gees.

Film scores are an art, but not many, save the ones by master composers such as Williams (Star Wars, Jaws, Superman) and Ennio Morricone (Once Upon A Time In The West), break away from niche audiences to become a part of popular culture.

Title theme songs that are powerful and highly memorable, like Ghostbusters or Prince's Purple Rain, can have a longer shelf life than mere pop hits.

When producers and directors hit on the right mix of story and song, they elevate the movie or TV series and deepen the impact the work will have on mainstream consciousness.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 07, 2016, with the headline 'Who you gonna call? Good music makers'. Print Edition | Subscribe