The first time a Kendrick Lamar song plays in Black Panther, T’Challa is in the club. As the doors to the underground casino in Busan, South Korea swing wide, the song presses outward like a hand: “Tell me, who’s going to save me from myself?” It thrums across the room as T’Challa, the king of Wakanda, played by Chadwick Boseman, and his companions, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) and Okoye (Danai Gurira), survey the scene below from a second-floor balcony.
The song — “Pray For Me” — is the closing salvo of Black Panther, the soundtrack companion to Ryan Coogler’s Marvel juggernaut. In December, the record, produced by Kendrick Lamar, landed eight Grammy nominations, making it the most-nominated project at the 2019 awards this month. Among its eight nominations is one for Album Of The Year, where it faces off against Cardi B’s Invasion Of Privacy and Kacey Musgraves’s Golden Hour. Though they’ve been nominated 14 times, film soundtracks have won Album Of The Year just three times: in 1979, for Saturday Night Fever; in 1994, for The Bodyguard; and in 2002, for O Brother, Where Art Thou?. This year, Black Panther looks especially well-positioned to become the fourth: It’s got Kendrick Lamar, it’s got blockbuster momentum, and it’s got precedent. All these soundtracks operate in parallel with the films themselves, using their themes as a framework, but they also stand apart from the movies, eventually becoming entirely their own thing, unmoored.
This wasn’t always the case. For much of Hollywood history, film soundtracks were largely, indelibly affiliated with the movies they came from. “In the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, and into the ’80s, for a little while, if you were a fan of music soundtracks, you were talking mostly about the underscore music — that is to say, the instrumental music that was recorded in the film,” like those for Star Wars, The Mission, and Breakfast At Tiffany’s, explained Daniel Carlin, the chair of the screen scoring program at the University of Southern California who worked as a playback engineer on The Bodyguard. Movies really only focused on songs, rather than score, if they were outright musicals — The Sound Of Music, for example, or West Side Story. When the transistor radio came around, though, it set a new standard: Film characters, like people, had to be playing music on the go, longtime music supervisor Maureen Crowe told me.
Then came Saturday Night Fever: Two years before the Grammy for Best Disco Recording made its debut, the same year as Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” was released, and the year after Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell turned Studio 54 into a nightclub. It was the zenith of mainstream disco, the era depicted at the beginning of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights. Saturday Night Fever opens with “Stayin’ Alive” — John Travolta saunters down a Brooklyn street, grabbing a slice on his way to work at a local hardware store, Barry Gibb’s crooning falsetto instructing, “Well, you can tell by the way I use my walk, I’m a woman’s man, no time to talk.” The Bee Gees wrote “Stayin’ Alive” specifically for the film — along with other now-immortal disco tracks like “How Deep Is Your Love” and “You Should Be Dancing.”
When it was released, the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack proved inescapable. “We weren’t on the charts,” Maurice Gibb said at the time, according to Rolling Stone, “We were the charts.” Saturday Night Fever, per the same story, topped the charts for six consecutive months; the magazine described the soundtrack as the “ne plus ultra of mainstream disco.” It marked the ascendance of the Bee Gees as the popular faces of disco — despite the genre having emerged as the soundtrack of nightclubs frequented by queer people and people of color. (The co-opting of a music form emerging from Black, Puerto Rican, and queer discos by white musicians and fans in the ’70s is the theme of the film’s climax: After winning the top prize at a dance contest, Travolta’s character, Tony Manero, gives the trophy to the more deserving black couple who would have won, he explains, were it not for a racist panel of judges.)
The soundtrack’s astonishing success led The New York Times to remark that the Bee Gees “are getting as big as The Beatles,” underlining the “increasingly important commercial links” between music and film. There was a “well-orchestrated plot” to ensure the success of both soundtrack and film, film music historian Jon Burlingame told me recently. “It was a remarkable campaign that worked like gangbusters,” he said. Disco, while ubiquitous, had just crested its peak — under the surface of its mainstream success, the scene itself had already begun its inexorable decline; in a way, Saturday Night Fever captures this tragedy — but the band was only about to reach its own.