The only thing that makes sense about Saltburn is its killer soundtrack

Saltburn is its killer soundtrack”>


*Contains spoilers for the movie Saltburn*

Saltburn is a deeply flawed movie, a poorly constructed jumble of ideas and burned acting talent that a director creates when they have spent too long following One Perfect Shot on Tumblr. The movie, essentially a millennial take on The Talented Mr Ripley with confused class politics, is set in 2006. And while the movie is far from a success, there’s no denying that it nails its era-specific soundtrack, appropriately stuffed with tracks from indie rock bands, blog house faves, and U.K. pop hits from TV talent shows of the time. It’s a uniquely British mix with one through line, all of the songs likely soundtracked a club night where the dance floor was sticky with spilled alcopops and cheap lager.

38-year-old director Emerald Fennell would have been a teenager at the time Saltburn is set and her understanding of the importance of music to university life contributes to its genuinely enjoyable first half. Arcade Fire’s “No Cars Go” and “This Modern Love” by Bloc Party soundtrack scenes of Barry Keoghan’s character Ollie arriving at Oxford and slowly transforming himself from a lonely and bookish student to a close friend of the big man on campus, Felix (played by Jacob Elordi), via nights in the pub and euphoric house parties. “Mr Brightside” makes an inevitable appearance while Rosamund Pike as Felix’s mother delivers what might be the funniest/only Britpop joke in cinema history.

“The music really is key to this film. And Emerald is a genius. Most of the music was her choice,” Saltburn music supervisor Kirsten Lane told GQ. “The music she’s chosen is very specifically… not throwaway, but the [artists] might have only had a handful of hits at that time. They aren’t necessarily artists that are around now. But they meant something then.”

This is true of songs like “Hang Me up to Dry” by Cold War Kids, Ladytron’s “Destroy Everything You Touch,” and even the novelty duo The Cheeky Girls. However, some song selections highlight Fennell’s sledgehammer touch when it comes to storytelling. “Time To Pretend” by MGMT is a cornerstone of the era but it also spells out exactly what the duplicitous Ollie is doing as he climbs Britain’s notorious class ladder. Saltburn is riddled with similar moments when a little subtlety would have gone a long way.

As the movie progresses to its climax and things have crumbled with each emptily provocative scene (if you don’t know about the grave and bathtub moments by now, then just know they’re not family friendly) what seems to be the signature musical moment arrives. “Murder on the Dancefloor,” a 2001 U.K. hit by the British pop star Sophie Ellis-Bextor, is an effective choice for the closing scene. Ellis-Bextor sings with a cut-glass English accent and delivers the ecstatic disco-pop tune in a way that suggests she has never had to worry about money. Then again, there’s that subtlety issue: It’s hard to ignore that she is singing about murder and dancing while the murderer Ollie dances in the nude through his ill-gotten country estate.

Ellis-Bextor is currently enjoying a huge uptick in her streaming numbers but is the fact that lots of people want to stream her song after watching the movie an indication of Saltburn’s success? It’s clearly a suggestion that the film has made an impact. The song features in practically every TikTok about the movie, particularly those keen to show off their own privileged upbringings. Observing a lot of the posts about the movie, there does seem to be a gap between Twitter users, elder millennials who remember the time period or perhaps those who are simply more jaded, where opinion trends largely negative. On TikTok, meanwhile, the Gen Z reaction tends to be more appreciative of experiencing a film that pushes buttons; a rarity in mainstream cinema over the last decade. Saltburn, then, could become a great gateway movie, a flickering of weirdness that leads to the brighter lights of David Lynch, John Waters, or any arthouse director that lets their freaky side show.

It has always felt a little dismissive when the criticism “they should direct music videos” is aimed at a filmmaker. Lots of talented people make music videos and the pipeline between the two has led to great work from the likes of Jonathan Glazer, Sofia Coppola, and Melina Matsoukas. Music can, however, fill the gaps when narrative and any sense of a bigger message begin to falter. As a director clearly capable of delivering on individual moments while stumbling over anything more extensive, it may apply to Fennell more than most. So it’s not surprising that the enduring part of Saltburn for many viewers has been the time capsule soundtrack. It’s made up of songs that have already stood the test of time; Saltburn, however, may well be forgotten by the time the bath runs dry.