Music has always played a crucial role in the filmography of Paul Thomas Anderson, whether it be recruiting such geniuses as Jon Brion and Jonny Greenwood to compose a score or commissioning Aimee Mann to write some of her best songs for Magnolia. The director tends to favor original compositions for his film's soundtracks, but there is one notable exception to that rule in his canon, and it celebrates its 20th anniversary this month.
To speak of Boogie Nights, a saga based around the porn industry of the San Fernando Valley in the late '70s and early '80s, without speaking of the music accompanying the story is like talking about Star Wars with no mention of the droids. Released in October of 1997, it was the perfect throwback to help shake off all the moody brooding that defined a decade of grunge and gloom. Its soundtrack was filled with perfect, era-appropriate songs often used in highly unconventional contexts — most memorably, the scene in which Dirk (played by Mark Wahlberg, then still mostly famous as a rapper and underwear model) finds himself in the mansion of a gun-happy coke dealer that his buddy (played by a young Thomas Jane) wants to scam. The tense, crazy situation, made even more nervous by a little kid throwing firecrackers, takes place as Night Ranger's power ballad “Sister Christian” blasts out of the dealer's expensive hi-fi.
“What killed us was that ‘Sister Christian’ is about this young girl — [drummer/singer Kelly Keagy's] little sister, actually — coming of age,” says Night Ranger bassist/vocalist Jack Blades, when asked by L.A. Weekly about the inclusion of the band’s hit power ballad in the movie’s frenetic climax. “And the juxtaposition of how Anderson took this song into the scene depicting Dirk Diggler bottoming out and at the lowest point in his life was just brilliant. His attention to detail in the placement of all those songs he used for the movie captured exactly what was going down at the time.”
By putting the song in a darker context, he helped a lot of people finally admit their love for it without pretense. In fact, the same could be said about many of the songs that were featured on the Boogie Nights soundtrack (though others were beloved evergreens by the likes of Marvin Gaye, War and The Beach Boys).
Here are five particular highlights from the soundtrack to Boogie Nights that epitomize the distinct relationship between sound and celluloid P.T. Anderson established with a film that's still as revered today as it was 20 years ago.
“Best of My Love” by The Emotions
“I think if you’re dealing with this many characters, I think you just gotta fuckin’ jump in and get it out of the way. I’m gonna introduce you to all of these people in two minutes,” explains Paul Thomas Anderson of the opening scene to Boogie Nights in his commentary on the two-disc “Platinum Series” edition DVD. “I think part of the reason why I did this is because my first movie, Sydney [later renamed Hard Eight], was very, very slow. Very deliberate pacing. And I wanted to go 180 degrees and start this one off loud and immediately. It was like this mash of sound, like the Phil Spector ‘Wall of Sound’ [laughs] with dialogue and people screaming and it’s not important to hear every single word.” After a brief original orchestral composition from Anderson's longtime friend and collaborator Michael Penn, the film dives into the Maurice White-penned hit single for The Emotions, which debuted at radio in June of ’77. So in the film, this was literally the newest, hottest tune in the clubs at the time.
“Machine Gun” by The Commodores
Beastie Boys fans already knew the groove to “Hey Ladies” was hoisted from this instrumental Commodores funk classic. But it was an extra kick for Paul's Boutique fans to hear the original placed in its proper era as accompaniment to a split-screen montage chronicling Dirk’s rise to fame that Anderson said was inspired by something he saw in a John Holmes film. The disco dance sequence, timed perfectly to the funky instrumental, made the joy shared between Dirk and his BFF and co-star Reed Rothchild (a never-better or more quotable John C. Reilly) exponentially more gleeful.
“The Touch” by Stan Bush
If you were in elementary and middle school in the mid-'80s, you probably watched the scene in which Dirk Diggler cuts a vanity single in the studio and thought, “Where have I heard that tune before?” Then the next time you played your beloved VHS copy of the 1986 animated feature Transformers: The Movie, it hit you like a ton of Energon cubes — that's where it's from! Mark Wahlberg has not done much press around the 20th anniversary of his breakout role, but when he posted video of himself singing “The Touch” with Stan Bush at this year’s Hasbro Convention, it was the best homage to Dirk he could have paid.
“Sister Christian” by Night Ranger
“He was a big fan of Night Ranger and the song,” Jack Blades explains about how his band’s biggest hit, written and sung by the band's drummer, Kelly Keagy, wound up in Boogie Nights. “And he told us he wanted to put it in one of the film’s pivotal moments. And he seemed to us like a hip, edgy dude who was making a cool film. So we said, ‘Just put it in a good spot.’ And he was like, ‘Oh, don’t worry about that!’ So we didn’t know where it was going to be used when me and Kelly and my wife went to see the premiere. And when that scene went down, we’re sitting there watching it and all three of us, sweat broke out on our foreheads, and me and Kelly look at each other like, ‘We’ve been to this guy’s house in 1983!’” He laughs. “This was way too close for comfort. I remember how much we partied in the Hollywood Hills when Night Ranger first came out and all the insanity that was going on. Everywhere we went, we were hanging out with porn stars at the Rainbow or at shows. We’d cut our records in L.A. and bring 20 or 30 people from the Rainbow down to the studio afterwards and we’d be up all night. He captured that moment in time unbelievably perfect.”
“Livin’ Thing” by Electric Light Orchestra
“I always planned to end the movie with ‘Livin’ Thing,’” revealed Anderson in the DVD commentary for Boogie Nights. “Always.” In the end, he used The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds hosanna “God Only Knows” to signify better days ahead for the strangely endearing, dysfunctional family Jack Horner and Amber Waves made out of their group of misfit adult film performers. But once ELO's strings kicked as the credits rolled, Boogie Nights left you with the same sense of elation you experienced at the film's beginning, when The Emotions burst through the theater speakers and that neon purple lighting exclaiming the title of the movie hit the screen. They are perfect bookends of positivity for the frenetic tunnel of love Anderson takes you through for the two-and-a-half hours in between.