''Phenomenon,'' ''Stealing Beauty,'' and more have soundtracks that capture the essence of the films' stars

By David Browne
July 26, 1996 at 04:00 AM EDT

EW reviews this summer’s movie soundtracks

Dog owners, so the saying goes, eventually resemble their pets. That truism can now be updated for the cross-marketing entertainment age: Movie soundtracks, which have become so ubiquitous that 17 of them are riding the Billboard 200, are now starting to acquire the personality traits of their stars.

Take Phenomenon, for instance. Its leading man, John Travolta, is a beloved, been-there-filmed-that veteran — newly grown up, redeemed, and recoiffed. The rock world has the same type of elder-statesmen country gentlemen, and some of them — Eric Clapton, Peter Gabriel, and Bryan Ferry — populate the movie’s soundtrack. All that’s missing is spark. Clapton’s ”Change the World” is a seamless blend of his easy-rolling folksy side and the soft-cushion soul of producer Babyface; it’s the latest example of Clapton’s savvy ability to tap into the musical zeitgeist without seeming crass. Unfortunately, the pairing of Clapton and Babyface is one of the album’s few surprises. Interspersing drab tracks from rock legends with dabs of mild gospel and soul, the collection (compiled by Robbie Robertson) is tasteful but phenomenally dull — coffee-table rock. The set’s only feisty newcomer, caffeinated folkie Jewel, resorts to covering a song by adult alternative underdog John Hiatt.

The spirit of Liv Tyler runs through the accompanying album for Bernardo Bertolucci’s Stealing Beauty. Contributions by Lori Carson and the distaff singers of Mazzy Star, Portishead, and the Cocteau Twins are the musical equivalent of the actress — languid, sensual, almost impossibly pristine, perhaps a tad too vulnerable, but ultimately winning. (For further evidence, consult the 16 photos of Tyler positioned throughout the packaging.) Like many other contemporary pop soundtracks, Stealing Beauty is a hodgepodge (Stevie Wonder to Liz Phair), but one with unerring good taste and a unified theme: Sam Phillips’ pining ”I Need Love” and a recent, steamy John Lee Hooker vamp, ”Annie Mae,” comment on romantic longing the way oldies by Billie Holiday and Nina Simone do. Another Tyler-associated soundtrack, for Heavy, features fewer pictures of her but several endearing slivers of roots rock — the Connells’ ”’74-’75,” which aches with nostalgia and loss, and Evan Dando’s puppy-dog ballad ”Hot Coals.”

Then there’s Demi Moore — steely and somewhat robotic, as both a person and an actress. So who better to contribute the first single (and video) from the soundtrack of Striptease but Chynna Phillips, the sculpted former front-wax-figure of Wilson Phillips? ”I Live for You,” a wispy synth-pop knockoff recycled from Phillips’ flop solo album, places her in a no-win situation: trying to sound tough while mouthing simpering lyrics about devotion. The remainder of the album, which relies on let’s-get-it-on oldies by everyone from Dean Martin to Billy Idol, is the Gump soundtrack for the singles-bar crowd.

What’s the connection between The Crow: City of Angels and its alternative-rock soundtrack? Sheer anonymity. Vincent Perez, the actor in the unfortunate position of having to replace the late Brandon Lee (in billing, if not actual role), is as nondescript as the bludgeoning modern-rock bands that fill up the disc. If proof is needed that alt-rock has become a wasteland strewn with nearly interchangeable acts, one listen to Filter and Bush and Toadies and Seven Mary Three, despite minor stylistic differences, makes the depressing case. Even tracks by PJ Harvey and Hole (a remake of Fleetwood Mac’s ”Gold Dust Woman”) suffer from generic Big Rock productions.

The stars of Trainspotting, director Danny Boyle’s alternately terrifying and comical look at Scottish heroin addicts, are — at least on screen — dank and skanky. Their vacant stares and ringed eyes are badges of decrepit honor. Trainspotting the album not only complements that mood but builds on it. As it does for the film, Iggy Pop’s 1977 ”Lust for Life” jump-starts the record with a blast of exuberant sleaze. (Pop, who has overtaken Lou Reed as the true patron saint of modern rock, is also on The Crow: City of Angels, with a raw, recent live version of his Stooges anthem ”I Wanna Be Your Dog.”) The rest of the Trainspotting album is like one long, druggy crawl through the U.K. underground, taking in subterranean techno and dance music (Bedrock featuring KYO, Underworld, Leftfield) and the pop daydreams of bands like Pulp and Blur. It’s Saturday Night Fever for the Ecstasy generation.

Even when it wanders into blissed-out New Age, courtesy of Brian Eno, Trainspotting is of a beautifully decadent, spaced-out piece; the tempo changes themselves are like chemically induced mood swings. Primal Scream‘s instrumental title song, which unfolds over 10 heavy-lidded minutes, couldn’t be more perfect: cocktail music for a very different type of cocktail. Phenomenon: B-; Stealing Beauty: B+; Heavy: B; Striptease: D; The Crow: C-; Trainspotting: A