It’s pretty clear what many moviegoers are looking for from “Fifty Shades of Grey,” director Sam Taylor-Johnson’s big-screen adaptation of E.L. James’ mega-selling erotic novel.
But what is it that we want from the film’s soundtrack, which despite a lack of sex scenes that you can watch with your eyes is selling robustly enough that it’s at No. 1 right now on the iTunes chart? (To be clear, that means it’s beating Taylor Swift’s smash “1989” and all the big winners from Sunday’s Grammy Awards.)
The first answer, as is so often the case, is Beyoncé. The superstar singer has two tracks on the “Fifty Shades” soundtrack, neither of which is available for streaming on Spotify or individual purchase on iTunes. So if you want to hear them, at least without hunting around on YouTube, you have to plunk down $11.99 for the whole album. Never underestimate the willingness of Beyoncé’s fans to demonstrate their devotion.
There’s more at work here than two songs, though. Like the carefully assembled “Twilight” and “Hunger Games” soundtracks, the “Fifty Shades of Grey” album corrals a bunch of buzzy, vaguely like-minded acts in an attempt to extend the vibe of the movie (which itself was created to extend the vibe of the book). It’s an accessory to an accessory, in other words.
And because “Fifty Shades” draws from a lifestyle more real-world replicable than those in “Twilight” or “The Hunger Games,” its companion album has a perceived practical value. This Valentine’s Day weekend, it seems safe to say, folks will be optimistically turning to this album.
Will they find success? The Beyoncé cuts are up to the task. She sounds even steamier in Michael Diamond’s remix of “Haunted” than she did in the original, from her plenty-raunchy 2013 album. Ditto a new version of “Crazy in Love” that remakes her effervescent 2003 single as a bruised, heavy-breathing slow jam.
The Weeknd takes the opposite approach for “Earned It (Fifty Shades of Grey),” letting some orchestral air (and a glimmer of emotional hope) into his claustrophobic electro-soul. “I’m so used to being used / So I love when you call unexpected,” he sings, and it might be the first time he’s made a late-night hook-up sound like something other than an act of war.
Other strong selections come from Jessie Ware, who slinks through the Prince-ly “Meet Me in the Middle” with an earthiness she rarely musters, and Ellie Goulding, who puts across a tender sensuality in “Love Me Like You Do” even as super-producer Max Martin jacks the stadium-rave beat. More surprising than that is a delicate, low-key cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire” by Awolnation, the L.A. group behind the bombastic alt-rock hit “Sail.”
At 16 tracks, though, “Fifty Shades of Grey” is a bit of a slog, with too many dreary midtempo numbers – by Sia, Laura Welsh and Skylar Grey -- that only feel more glazed (and less enticing) the longer you listen. The album’s pulse quickens near the end with the welcome inclusion of Frank Sinatra’s “Witchcraft,” reminding you of an idea that will likely feel light years away at that point: Sex can be really fun!
But then it’s back to the stylized gloom with “One Last Night,” a stifling minor-key ditty by the aptly named Vaults.
Serious faces, everyone: We’ve got a job to do.
“Fifty Shades of Grey”
2 stars out of 4