When classic songs hit the wrong note

Do great artists really need to flog their wares on arbitrary film soundtracks? Chris Mugan mourns some besmirched gems
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The Independent Culture

Many musicians remain wary of having their works used on adverts, but what's the harm in being associated with feature films?

Very little seems to be the consensus, as upcoming artists and established stars allow their tunes to appear on soundtracks without a second thought. Think Johnny Cash's "When the Man Comes Around" on the knockabout remake of zombie bloodfest Dawn of the Dead. Clearly, while artists may worry about selling out to the rank commercialism of advertising, movies are seen as harmless entertainment.

Now comes Eat Pray Love, a Julia Roberts vehicle (released on 24 September) based on the bestselling self-help memoir. Roberts plays the author Elizabeth Gilbert, who recovers from a divorce and breakdown thanks to a global jaunt that takes in Italy, India and Bali. There, she finds solace via hearty grub in Italy, spiritual enlightenment in Asia and passion via one Brazilian factory owner.

On the face of it, its soundtrack album is a hassle-free source of income for the acts involved. And if Eat Pray Love was merely a love story, then there wouldn't be a problem, as we swoon to the romantic strains of bossa nova king João Gilberto. Yet rather than just matching music to emotions, the chick-flick's producers want to suggest that this film is a regenerative experience for all. So we get Sly & the Family Stone's "Thank You (Falletin Me Be Mice Elf Agin)". Now the mercurial Sixties soul talent may have lost his way, and perhaps his mind, over the years, but his legacy is a group that through their mixed-race line-up and genre-defying music sought to break down racial boundaries. Their joyous tunes were designed to celebrate emancipation, not professional thirtysomethings finding themselves in ashrams.

Then come two lovely tunes from Neil Young, "Heart of Gold" and "Harvest Moon". Yes, these are fairly unaffected love songs, but they lose much of their magic when taken out of context. Part of what makes them so special is that the Canadian singer/songwriter is generally a grumpy old curmudgeon. For proper impact, you need to hear "Heart of Gold" alongside its peers on the album Harvest, especially "Old Man" and "Alabama".

Together, these tunes and others join a whole range of spin-offs used to rake in money for the brand. Besides the film, there are now Eat Pray Love fragrances, jewellery and even tours. These days Hollywood movies often come with the values and market imperatives of commercials. For that reason, the likes of Young should think twice about where their work appears.

All of this undermines one of the more pleasing finds on the soundtrack. "The Long Road" is a surprisingly cohesive collaboration between Pearl Jam's throat-stinging frontman, Eddie Vedder, and Pakistan's musical genius Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. This song originally appeared on the soundtrack to Tim Robbins' film about the friendship between a nun and a death-row prisoner, Dead Man Walking, and was one of the last pieces Khan worked on before his death in 1997. It's a genuinely effective collaboration between two inquisitive musicians, rather than a misguided piece of cultural tourism. Still, as a practising Sufi, I suspect being sold as a New Age accessory alongside prayer beads is not quite what Khan had in mind.

When I'm feeling down, I often find a dose of righteous Sixties psychedelic funk or Seventies disco soul brightens my outlook. If some of Gilbert's followers listen to Marvin Gaye's life-affirming "Got to Give It Up" and decide to put off their quest for enlightenment, then I can't resent his label offering up said track. Yet I suspect that the film's slick marketing campaign will ensure that they are left yearning for more.

'Eat Pray Love: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack' is released on 20 September on Island