Rightfully so, Cameron Crowe and John Hughes receive lots of praise about their choice of music and how they weave it into their films.
But there's one other director I admire for the way he uses music to add extra dimensions to his work: Barry Levinson, particularly in his early films.
Can anyone imagine his directorial debut Diner (1982) without the mind-boggling assortment of 50s tunes that helps define the film's setting? Or how about the way Randy Newman's music in The Natural (1984) builds the tension and, eventually, brings out the joyfulness of the film's climactic scene?
Perhaps Levinson's most successful film to date, and the only one for which he won a directing Oscar, is another example of how music can play a key part in the way the film unfolds. This film about an autistic savant, played famously by Dustin Hoffman, and the cross-country road trip he takes with his brother is undeniably quirky – and the selection of the songs reflect both the theme of the film and the peculiar mind of Hoffman's Raymond Babbit. I mean, you have Etta James singing "At Last," Lou Christie of "Lightnin' Strikes" fame crooning "Beyond The Blue Horizon," Banarama doing their usual goofy stuff on "Nathan Jones," early r&b contributors Delta Rhythm Boys contributing "Dry Bones" and Aaron Neville combining with iconoclastic bassist Rob Wasserman on a delicate"Stardust." The one quibble I have is the inclusion of the Belle Stars ho-hum cover of "Iko Iko," rather than the Dixie Cups' original. But that's offset by the inclusion of one of my all-time favorite songs of the 80s: Juluka's "Scatterling of Africa"
Play "Scatterlings of Africa" by Juluka
Levinson's other unorthodox contribution was the hiring of a relatively unknown German composer to do the soundtrack. Although Hans Zimmer had done a few soundtracks, he was best known as an electronica composer who had played keyboards on the Buggles' "Video Killed the Radio Star." Zimmer contributed a score that mixed elements of Stewart Copeland's rhythmic innovations with the popular electronic music of fellow German Harold Faltermeyer.
The soundtrack itself included two of his instrumental tracks, "Leaving Walbrook On The Road" and "Las Vegas End Credits."
Play "Leaving Walbrook On The Road" by Hans Zimmer
Rain Man won four Oscars in 1989 – including one for Zimmer's score.
But that's not the end of the story.
Zimmer, of course, was on his way to a highly successful career as one of Hollywood's top composers. Five years after Rain Man, he hooked up with Walt Disney and was hired to compose the incidental music for The Lion King (1993).
Yeah, you might have heard of that movie. The Broadway musical. And the blockbuster money-making machine.
The funny thing is, Zimmer's music didn't turn out to be so "incidental." First of all, the musician Lebo M. used it as a basis to compose many of the songs on the CD sequel Rhythm of the Pridelands (1993). And that music was, in turn, used to expand the score of Julie Taymor's Broadway production. Listen to "He Lives in You" (the original Rhythm of the Pridelands version), which has become almost as identified with The Lion King as the songs from Elton John and Tim Rice.
Play "He Lives In You" by Lebo M. and Hans Zimmer
Notice any similarities? Yeah, Zimmer sort of ripped himself off.
But really, that's the life of the Hollywood composer. Right, John Williams?
Two more things to note if you are intrigued by autistic savants and other variations on the ADHD/Autism spectrum. For insight into how an autistic savant's mind works, I highly recommend that you read the autobiographical "Born on a Blue Day" by Daniel Tammet, an autistic savant who is somehow able to explain the way his brain functions to the non-autistic world.
And Ronald Bass, who wrote the screenplay for Rain Man, was also behind Mozart and the Whale (2005), a love story that represents Hollywood's first mainstream attempt to portray the related but less disabling condition known as Asperger's Syndrome.