It started in the ’60s with Frankie & Annette in a series of beach movies. The standard was set in ’73 with a soundtrack of teenage doo-wap hits from the 1950’s jukebox in American Graffiti. It was perfected in the ’80s with John Hughes oeuvre of soundtracks that embraced, and made the careers of, new wave tracks so underground that MTV was hardly even playing them — when MTV played everything they could get their hands on. It became an industry in the ’90s when everything from Clueless to Cruel Intentions required a soundtrack album release, to varying degrees of sales success. Today the Twilight franchise are the sales leaders in teen movie soundtracks, achieving multi-platinum success.
Most movies, teen or not, license pre-recorded songs, perhaps save a lead single that will be unique to the soundtrack. Or they did, until the Twilight franchise upped the ante with the soundtrack to its second film, New Moon, by filling half of it it out with new songs commissioned and composed specifically for the film.The Hunger Games is doubling down on Twilight’s bet, and doing it while creating a 100% original album soundtrack with music that does not score the movie, except songs by the Arcade Fire and Taylor Swift with the Civil Wars.
Several things about they way Lionsgate and Universal Republic went about crafting this soundtrack are unorthodox. Considering that very few movie soundtracks make their money back, spending more than the norm to record, mix, and master entirely new songs which are custom written for a film is a gutsy choice. But Tracy McKnight, the Head of Film Music at Lionsgate, says this was the plan from the start with The Hunger Games. McKnight says, “The process is — there’s a process if something is pre-recorded if you will, like your salad…but we knew we were never entering the process that way so it moved organically. T-Bone Burnett was a big part, he had those conversations and made the plan. He really was the over-seerer of all things on this album.”
And that’s another unorthodox thing: having T-Bone Burnett serve as executive music producer for a teen film. Almost as unorthodox as creating a teen movie soundtrack of post-apocalyptic alt-country and bluegrass songs. McKnight credits Burnett with developing the Appalachian sound of the film, although director Gary Ross had to be leaning that way from the start to select Burnett for the position. His Oscar-nominated song in Cold Mountain and Oscar-winning for Crazy Heart, along with his critically and commercially lauded soundtrack for O Brother, Where Art Thou? spoke loudly to Burnett’s abilities in the genre. The film and book are set 300 years into the future of a post-nuclear version of North America called Panem. The first Hunger Games book takes place largely in District 12 (which would be in the general area currently known as Appalachia), in The Capital (their seat of power, located near current day Denver), and in the arena where the Games are played. Since we can’t know, and aren’t particularly guided to know in the source material, what the music of the future might sound like, Burnett assumed it sounds a lot like bluegrass.