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What the Right Soundtrack Does for a Movie Like “The Help”


Any period-piece movie runs the risk of sounding tone-deaf to the nuances of the times. Add to the mix a controversial or emotionally laden theme and the result can be decidedly off-key. But the right music doesn’t just set the tone for the movie; it can add the weight of history and emotional authenticity. 

Such is the case in The Help, the new movie about a young white would-be author in early-’60s Mississippi and the African-American maids whose stories she wants to tell.

Based on the bestselling novel by Kathryn Stockett, the movie stars Emma
Stone (Easy A, Zombieland) as Skeeter, an ambitious college grad whose
mother just wants her to find a nice man and settle down; Viola Davis
(Doubt, Traffic) as Aibileen, the long-suffering maid who raises
countless white children but has a crisis of identity after losing her
own son; and Octavia Spencer (Seven Pounds, Ugly Betty) as the
irrepressible maid Minny, whose tongue gets her in trouble with her employers.

It’s about a moment that represented a crossroads for both race
relations and political activism in the U.S. Music, of course, played a
vital role in that struggle, both as nostalgia and as an agent for
change.

The soundtrack for The Help tells the story in song, with choices
that represent the disparate currents of the time. Here’s the full track
listing: 

1. “The Living Proof,” Mary J. Blige
2. “Jackson,” Johnny Cash and June Carter
3. “Sherry,” Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons
4. “I Ain’t Never,” Webb Pierce
5. “Victory Is Mine,” Dorothy Norwood
6. “Road Runner,” Bo Diddley
7. “Hallelujah I Love Her So,” Ray Charles
8. “The Wah-Watusi,” The Orlons
9. “Personality,” Lloyd Price
10. “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” Bob Dylan
11. “Let’s Twist Again,” Chubby Checker
12. “Don’t Knock,” Mavis Staples

 
Other than the theme by Mary J. Blige (who has said that she was
inspired by her aunt, “one of those women,” when writing “The Living
Proof” for the movie) and the legendary Mavis Staples’ “Don’t Knock”
(which came out in 2010), all of the songs are time capsules from the
era.

There’s the late-’50s honky-tonk of Webb Pierce’s “I Ain’t
Never” alongside dance crazes (“The Wah-Watusi” and “Let’s Twist
Again”). There’s inspirational gospel (“Victory Is Mine,” in addition to
Staples’ “Don’t Knock”) and country royalty (“Jackson,” by Johnny Cash
and June Carter). Bo Diddley, who is often credited with making the
shift from blues to rock & roll, and soul legend Ray Charles are
both featured, along with “Mr. Personality” Lloyd Price. And of course
“Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” by Bob Dylan, whose songs famously
fomented social upheaval.

Just as the different threads of American
culture butted heads, overlapped and ultimately inextricably wove
together, so did the music of the time. As do the songs on the
soundtrack for The Help.

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