The 10 best Australian movie soundtracks
Australian cinema, so often inventive and challenging, tends to be creative when it comes its use of music.
Look over some of the best films this country has produced in the past few decades and you'll find Australian songs used not just as a cover-all to dress up the production, but as a vital part of the overall expression.
Everyone from Nick Cave and John Paul Young to Decoder Ring and The Necks have made music for films that has stood the test of time.
Here are 10 of our favourite scores.
Young Einstein is a characteristically Aussie film. How could it not be? It literally imagines the German theoretical physicist as a rock-and-roll-loving larrikin living in the Australian outback.
That means the soundtrack is full of characteristically Aussie music. The film came out in 1988, so of course the music is all big drums and big guitars. There’s ‘Dumb Things’ by Paul Kelly, Mental As Anything doing a version of ‘Rock N’ Roll Music’, as well as The Stems and The Saints.
You can imagine Yahoo Serious (remember him?), his hair standing on end, plugging in his homemade, clock-face guitar and playing along to the solo on ‘Weirdo Libido’ by The Lime Spiders, trying to prevent a nuclear explosion. – Paul Donoughue
Sydney band Decoder Ring wrote the score for this film, which starred Sam Worthington and Abby Cornish. It’s a perfect fit: Decoder Ring made sparse, slow songs that blended elements of post-rock and electronica. The movie, meanwhile, seemed to just unfold at its own pace.
Cornish and Worthington’s characters, awkwardly discovering their places in the world, were reserved and inward-looking, which made this score a perfect fit. Don’t just go by my word: Somersault won several awards for Decoder Ring, including an AFI Award for Best Original Music Score, and was nominated for an ARIA.
The film arrived at a time when Australian cinema felt particularly morose and hyperreal (I’m throwing Jindabyne and Candy in there). Celebrate that period with this beautiful soundtrack. – Paul Donoughue
Gonna put it out there: I have no idea how to ballroom dance. But the soundtrack to this film demands the listener move with the kind rhythmic joy I associate with ballroom dancing, the kind with which Paul Mercurio, in 1992, made everyone swoon.
The soundtrack brings together all sorts of numbers: from Doris Day’s ‘Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps (Quizas, Quizas, Quizas)’ to Mark Williams and Tara Morris’ ‘Time After Time’, which is basically mandated by law to be used in any film that has any kind of dancing scene.
The centrepiece of the soundtrack, of course, is ‘Love Is In The Air’, the John Paul Young song that is a certified Australian classic. – Paul Donoughue
Bran Nue Day
Jimmy Chi’s 1990 musical got the attention it so richly deserved in 2009 when Bran Nue Dae was made into a feature film.
Dan Sultan’s rollicking ‘Seeds That You Might Sow’ is stirring, but his best performance – and the soundtrack highlight – is the simple and unaffected ‘Black Girl’. A pertinent reminder of his immense power as an interpreter of song.
Jessica Mauboy’s lead on ‘All The Way Jesus’ is the perfect midpoint between pop and spiritual. And Ernie Dingo and Missy Higgins are a surprisingly great match on ‘Feel Like Going Home’.
It has its emotional peaks and troughs, but there’s a breezy feel that runs through this deeply musical road trip movie. A fine adaptation of Chi’s brilliant work. – Dan Condon
The soundtrack The Necks created for The Boys, one of the most disturbing portrayals of dysfunctional masculinity, is deeply embedded in the shocking nature of the film. In fact, it’s hard to imagine The Boys having its brutal impact without the mood created by Australia’s acclaimed improvisational trio.
It was this soundtrack that introduced me to The Necks, and it was the perfect entry point. The ominous piano motif, restrained percussion and distorted strings on the title track are hypnotic, providing a portent for the violence to come. The Necks’ compositions ebb and flow through The Boys in a dreamlike way, dark and beautiful. And like all great soundtracks, The Boys works as an arresting collection of music for home listening. But perhaps not at a party. – Karen Leng
The soundtrack to Idiot Box is a beautiful celebration of the breadth and brilliance of Australian alternative music. Great 90s bands took on a series of 80s Aus underground classics in what felt like a great labour of love.
There are countless highlights: You Am I doing The Victims and Beasts of Bourbon, Snout doing Icehouse, Magic Dirt doing God, Crow doing Tactics, Hoss doing The Saints…
But the biggest stand-out is The Mark of Cain’s rendition of X’s delinquent anthem ‘Degenerate Boy’. In John Scott’s hands, the song goes from being gnarled and cheeky to absolutely terrifying and it gave new life to an unsung song that has aged superbly. – Dan Condon
Many of us who grew up away from the big cities understand what it’s like to desperately want to leave, and the idea that we could be better people if only we were given the opportunity to get out.
Watching Muriel Heslop, sitting at the end of her bed, staring sadly at herself in the mirror singing along quietly to ‘Dancing Queen’ is one of the saddest scenes in a film. But, in that moment, she is the Dancing Queen.
The role of the Muriel’s Wedding soundtrack is the role that music has played in most of our lives – it’s there to take us to where we wish we were. – Liza Harvey
Until I saw The Proposition, it hadn’t really dawned on me that our history is rooted in stories of such brutality, lawlessness and desperation for survival. The soundtrack is as bleak as it is hauntingly beautiful and feels as if its risen out of the same barren and desolate terrain of 1880s outback Australia depicted.
There’s Warren Ellis’ frayed and weary bow on ‘Martha’s Dream’, Nick Cave’s mournful tone on the chilling ‘Rider’ trilogy. And the eerie expectancy of ‘The Proposition Parts 1-3’ hangs thick in your ears like flies drawn to the sweat and stench of the bloodletting that’s on screen.
It’s a magnificent but vicious film that’s difficult to watch at times, and it’s the music that both amplifies that, but also provides much-needed comfort where there is little to be found. – Caz Tran
The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert
I challenge you to put on Charlene's ‘I've Never Been to Me’ and not see Hugo Weaving with a sparkly pout, lip syncing it to welcome you into a film.
I'd never been to a drag show when this film came out, and I suspect the many millions who watched and then bought the soundtrack hadn't either; much less heard the tunes that have been anthems for the queer community and the clubs that run along Oxford St, Sydney for decades.
Stephan Elliott took us all into this universe, but better yet connected it with a wider Australian narrative and weaved it into the stories in this music; disco torch songs that have sung of longing and love, celebration, isolation, and revenge.
As the girls head into the desert, a moment of solidarity between the oppressed (the drag queens and their Indigenous hosts) could not have been soundtracked better than with ‘I Will Survive’.
For all the power and fun of Priscilla, it also gave me another simple arsenal: a whole new catalogue to karaoke with. – Zan Rowe
Dogs In Space
I will never forget the first listen. I was an innocent, 12-year-old girl from the suburbs. I had no idea music could make you feel the way the music on this soundtrack made me feel.
It was dark, it was chaotic, it was dirty, loud, bleak, rebellious and life giving. It was punk, and it corrupted me. I could only imagine the outlaws who lived in Dogs In Space’s dilapidated, party- and drug-fuelled share house in Richmond in 1978 lived on ‘Dog Food’, like Iggy Pop sings.
I didn’t know music could sound so deconstructed and otherworldly like Gang of Four’s ‘Anthrax’. It was the gateway to a whole new world of music for me: to Brian Eno, Primitive Calculators, The Boys Next Door – and I’ve never looked back. – Meagan Loader