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Music From ‘Black Panther,’ ‘Greatest Showman’ Spurs Movie Soundtrack Renaissance

Undeniable songs like "Pray for Me" and "This Is Me" are driving streams and sales.

If you were to plot the successes and declines of film soundtracks on a stock chart, one might think that there was a movie-music drought or depression for much of the aughts. Indeed, there kind of was. Since the late 1990s when “Space Jam” and “Titanic” moved millions of albums, 2006’s “High School Musical,” a hit for Disney which launched the career of Zac Efron, was the only soundtrack to make Nielsen’s top 15 soundtrack sellers of all-time. How fitting that the dry spell should end with the glacier that was 2013’s “Frozen.”

In short order during the twenty-tens, music from “Guardians of the Galaxy,” “Furious 7,” “Justice League,” the “Fifty Shades” franchise, and “La La Land” ascended the charts, not to mention cast recordings of such Broadway hits as “Hamilton,” “Dear Evan Hansen,” and “The Book of Mormon.” Further proof of a soundtrack renaissance: the unwavering reign of “Black Panther,” currently looking at three weeks at No. 1 with a major assist from new Kendrick Lamar songs “Pray for Me” (with the Weeknd) and “All the Stars” (with SZA); music from “The Greatest Showman” and “Coco,” buoyed by an Oscar nomination and win, respectively; and even “Fifty Shades Freed” has a bubbling hit in Liam Payne and Rita Ora’s “For You.”

“If you look at the last handful of years, there’s been an incredible resurgence,” says Kevin Weaver, west coast president for Atlantic Records, which released several of the above-mentioned soundtracks including “Showman” and “Hamilton.” “It feels like when the right music is aligned to the right media, especially with these new means of music distribution, primarily streaming, it’s created a whole new world for soundtracks that didn’t previously exist.”

Manny Smith, senior VP of A&R at Interscope Records, who, along with Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith from Top Dawg Entertainment (TDE), supervised the “Black Panther” soundtrack, sees another connection to streaming and the resurgence of soundtracks. “You get a great variety of sounds and songs from different artists that, streaming-wise, attracts a broader audience,” he says. “There’s a song that’s good for every type of person. It’s so spread out. And the streaming world, it lets people pick and choose what they want to listen to.”

Smith remembers when, back in the ’90s, “soundtracks like ‘Above the Rim’ used to make a killing” by offering songs from the most popular artists of the day on one disc. It’s the same principal today with compilations like “Fifty Shades” and “Suicide Squad,” but “Black Panther” is not that. The music, curated by Lamar, in its exploration of sound and texture, its lyrical bravura and messaging aligned with the movie, has the makings of a cultural touchstone. “I think it’ll spark people to make more culturally relevant music and be more aware,” says Smith. “That’s always our goal — to push further.”

Certainly that’s been Lamar’s M.O. since bursting onto the hip-hop scene in 2011. So what makes “Black Panther” something other than a new Kendrick album? Director Ryan Coogler’s direction, for one, which resulted in a relatively quick turnaround. “The film led the way [and] Ryan and Kendrick were on the same page,” adds Smith. “Usually, when people struggle it’s because they don’t have a direction. Kendrick brought in each producer; he wanted a specific sound for each [piece of music]; he would say, ‘so-and-so would sound good on this.’ … Like how a composer would conduct an orchestra.”

“Greatest Showman” has also spawned a cultural phenomenon in its anthemic theme song, “This Is Me.” Written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul and sung by Keala Settle it was always earmarked as a potential breakout. “We knew the song was saying something really important in how it speaks to the themes of individualism,” says Atlantic’s Weaver. “And as current affairs played out in front of our eyes, the song connected with people in a very meaningful way.”

“This Is Me” has contributed to the “Greatest Showman” soundtrack hitting one billion streams, but as a radio single, it has yet to crack MediaBase’s top 50. Still, adds Weaver, the hope is that it will climb organically. “We’re out there in radio and being very cautious in how we work it,” he says. “We don’t feel that there’s any need to rush this song. It’s really taken on a life of its own and we’re letting it do its own thing.”

“Rewrite the Stars,” another track from the film that’s sung by Zendaya and Zac Efron, has also shown signs of gaining momentum, much like “All the Stars” from “Black Panther” has for Lamar and Sza. “Pray For Me” is the quantifiable smash in the bunch, though, as it hits No. 13 on U.S. radio airplay and No. 4 on MediaBase’s PowerPlaylist consumption chart. The “Black Panther” soundtrack has sold 508,378 album equivalent units since its Feb. 9 release. The Disney movie has grossed more than $500 million in the U.S.

Some songs, like Wiz Khalifa and Charlie Puth’s “See You Again” from “Furious 7,” have a “life outside of the four walls of the film,” says Weaver. Other times, for example on “Showman,” they are part of the DNA of the project. But ultimately, adds the label executive, it’s about creating a robust body of work and doing what’s best for the movie’s music. “To have this incredible through-line, with the theme and vibe and sensibility of the project, is a little like threading a needle from front to back.”

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