Top Moments in Cinemusic: When Film and Pop Music Collide
Per the title, we’re not dealing with orchestral scores, although that would merit its own discussion. These are the points when, almost more than the dialogue or action, the music tells the story in a poignant and especially memorable way. Sometimes the writer has specific song cues in the script, sometimes it’s the director’s call. Rare is the writer or director (or writer/director) who has a keen enough understanding of and appreciation for popular music to employ it best–Stanley Kubrick, Quentin Tarantino, Cameron Crowe, and Wes Anderson are a few noteworthy examples.
Also, the bulk of this list (just as an extension of my own age limitations) will reference movies that are relatively recent. Not to exclude the older films–I’ve just seen less of them. So, if you’ve got some broader perspective, by all means comment and help me out.
Fight Club – “Where Is My Mind?” (The Pixies):
When I asked a few friends if they had any suggestions for this list, every single one of them mentioned this moment from Fight Club‘s final scene. With good reason. The movie’s soundtrack, as a whole, is fairly negligible–only “Where Is My Mind” sticks out as a piece of recognizable and memorable pop music. Thus, its placement in the final scene makes it all the more significant. Beyond the basic implications of a song asking “Where is my mind” during a movie largely about multiple personality disorder and, subsequently, self-definition, the Pixies’ haunting melody does more than echo the movie’s preexisting questions.
As “The Narrator” (appropriately anonymous) finally faces Tyler Durden, and his own sense of identity comes crashing around him (symbolized by the falling buildings in the downtown area, courtesy of his terrorist group Mayhem), there’s no grandiose symphonic swell, no hardcore rap to “toughen” the scene. Instead, the Pixies’ gorgeous guitar work and eerie harmonies provide the perfect sonic backdrop for thie destruction of a post-postmodern man.
Hustle and Flow – “Baby, Please Don’t Leave Me” (Buddy Guy):
If Fight Club knew how to end a movie, Hustle and Flow knows how to begin one. After the first scene, in which DJay tries to pimp Nola out of his broken-down, air-conditionless Buick, Buddy Guy’s slow and ominous drumbeat kicks in as we ride through their Memphis neighborhood. Of course, Craig Brewer (a Memphis native) knows his city well-enough to begin his movie about Memphis music with the blues, specifically Mississippi-to-Chicago bluesman Buddy Guy. His song, “Baby, Please Don’t Leave Me,” doesn’t just set the proper tone of rising desperation, it establishes a musical dichotomy that the rest of the film develops.
Later in the film, Shelby (the token white guy and, unpredictably, beat-maker extraordinaire) draws parallels between blues and rap. So, it’s no coincidence that DJay’s first successful studio outing produces “Whoop That Trick,” composed by Three Six Mafia and Al Capone in real life. “Whoop That Trick” painstakingly revisits the gutteral howl of “Baby, Please Don’t Leave Me,” right down to the arrangement (percussion, bass line, then melody). If Buddy Guy perfectly illustrates where our protagonist starts his journey, Three Six shows us where he’s headed.
Say Anything – “In Your Eyes” (Peter Gabriel):
Most children of the 80’s would expect to see this on the list. Although Say Anything was really before my time, I’ve seen it enough to get why it’s such a cult favorite: quintessential 80’s, right down to the cheesy soundtrack, sad-eyed loverboy (played by, you guessed it, John Cusack), and female lead that is in no way attractive. Check, check, check.
But, this moment deserves mention, not because of what it does but because of what it doesn’t do. Although there’s no real indication as to why Lloyd Dobler picks this song to blast outside Diane’s window, the song itself doesn’t matter so much as Cameron Crowe’s commitment to let it fill the scene. Rather than having Lloyd play the song, press pause, climb up a ladder to her room, and have the two teens talk about their feelings, he lets the scene exist completely devoid of dialogue, but plenty of telling action. Guy makes his grand gesture, girl privately responds, they never see each other, and the music fills the rest. The first of many cinemusic moments for Cameron Crowe, but this is possibly his most memorable.
Back to the Future – “Johnny B. Good” (Chuck Berry):
Moving from one 80’s classic to another, this moment cheats a bit because the song is actually performed in the movie itself, rather than existing on a soundtrack. “Sung” by Michael J. Fox, and backed by the fictitious Starlighters, this Hollywood version of “Johnny B. Good” isn’t remarkable for musical merit, rather its placement in the film.
Clever screenwriters Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale play up the irony of a kid from the future playing a past hit before it’s become a hit. Fox has unintentionally tongue-in-cheek lines like, “Watch me for the changes and…try to keep up,” and “You might not be ready for that yet, but your kids are gonna love it.” Of course, a band member in the back just happens to be Chuck Berry’s cousin, who immediately phones Chuck himself and holds the receiver up to the band. At the song’s end, Fox gives an 80’s guitar-solo outtro to a 50’s classic, horrifying the conservative crowd and prompting his high-school mother to remark, “Marty, that was very interesting music.” Clever, fun, and memorable screenwriting from one of the 80’s most popular films.
American Beauty – “The Seeker” (The Who):
American Beauty‘s soundtrack is famous for its own brilliantly quirky score, but “The Seeker” stands out as the one true “rocking” moment of the film. Interestingly, Alan Ball places the upbeat rocker at a point where most filmmakers would opt for melancholia: the song is played as Lester (narrating the story from the dead) tells us that this is the last day of his life.
As the camera swoops over the town, echoing the opening shot of the film and inviting the viewer to compare Lester’s life then and now, The Who’s bombastic power-chord progression gives the story the boost to carry it to its finish. Of course, the song’s lyrics (“I won’t get to get what I’m after/till the day I die”) couldn’t be more appropriate, as Daltrey sings about a misguided man whose personal development has come too late. But it is essential to watch this moment as a microcosm of the film’s tone: tragic, yes, but also light-hearted, fun, and, most importantly, beautiful.
Pulp Fiction – “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon” (Urge Overkill):
Of Tarantino’s cinemusic moments, my brother prefers the famous “Stuck in the Middle with You” scene from Reservoir Dogs, in which a cop’s ear is cut off by his sadistic captor while Stealers Wheel sings in the background. This is a great pick in terms of Kubrick-ian weirdness (“These Boots Are Made for Walking” during Full Metal Jacket being one example of perfectly incongruent pieces working together), but Urge Overkill’s occupation of Pulp Fiction’s “overdose” scene serves its movie better, I think.
As Marsellus Wallace’s wife (Uma Thurman) puts on some music to make Vincent feel more at home, he’s in the bathroom talking himself into not sleeping with her. Of course, her musical choice only makes things worse: “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon” is seductive beyond its title. But, as the scene progresses, it becomes clear that Mia Wallace isn’t losing her sexual innocence–she’s about to “grow up” because of a drug overdose. The music develops the irony of the scene perfectly and, by the time it kicks into double-time, it pushes the scene into full-on desperation, as Vincent tries to save her life. Little did she know (but Tarantino did), that she picked the perfect soundtrack for her near brush with death.
The Graduate – “Mrs. Robinson (reprise)” (Simon and Garfunkel):
The Graduate‘s soundtrack just might be the best in a major motion picture, and it’s far and away some of Simon and Garfunkel’s best work. While “The Sound of Silence” and “Mrs. Robinson” are absolute classics, their reworked “Scarborough Fair” and pitch-perfect “April Come She Will” are highlights of the movie. But it’s the reprised version of “Mrs. Robinson” that seems the film’s best moment to me, if only for its variation on the original.
Right when Benjamin realizes he’s racing against time to stop the wedding of the woman he’s pretty sure he loves, an alternate version of “Mrs. Robinson” kicks in, only this time the sleepy upward melody of the original is replaced by up-tempo strumment and a keen sense of urgency. It is, as near as I can tell, as close as Simon and Garfunkel ever got to rocking. Even when the opening chord pattern is played repeatedly, percussively, almost to the point of monotony, it pushes the sequence forward and tellingly illustrates Benjamin’s mindset. He’s going somewhere, and fast–he’s just not sure where yet. Appropriately, this forecasts his similar mindset after his goal is accomplished: he’s stolen away the bride and set out with her down the road, only neither of them have a clue what to do next. And it’s this reprise that encapsulates the immediacy, youthfulness, and anxiety of the scene.
The Royal Tenenbaums – “Needle in the Hay” (Elliot Smith):
Wes Anderson straddles the invisible line between ludicrous and poignant with almost Shakespearean grace. Every fan of his movies knows how imminently peculiar, hilarious, and strikingly sad his stories can be, and he develops his characters with expert precision. Such is the case with Richie Tenenbaum, the eldest Tenenbaum son and former tennis star whose unrequited love for his adopted sister devestates his personal and professional life. And if that sentence sounds ridiculous, it’s because it is: Anderson illustrates that, although the circumstances of our relationships can be absurd, our feelings about them can be nonetheless real and complex.
So, when Richie locks himself in the bathroom and shaves his head, beard, and takes the razor to his emaciated arms, it’s somehow not surprising, yet entirely resonant. As Elliot Smith (who later committed suicide himself) begins the chord progression to his amazing acoustic piece “Needle in the Hay,” Richie tells no one in particular “Tomorrow I’m going to kill myself.” Then, in a piece of expert screenwriting that doesn’t let the viewer in on the character’s inner monologue, he decides to do it right then. Beautifully shot, alternating between the deep blue of the bathroom and quick golden flashes of Richie’s past with an almost violent quickness, the scene explores how one man can completely break down. And “Needle in the Hay” is the only sound, filling the scene with its own quiet tension. The song itself isn’t so much about reaching the breaking point as anticipating the breaking point, which makes it all the more poignant when played next to a man who has clearly gone well past it–an insight into what has been going on in Richie’s mind all this time. Though Richie’s suicide attempt fittingly fails, the scene itself is arguably the most successful piece of filmmaking Anderson has produced, showing that even his comedies can run (as well as anyone’s) the complete emotional gamut.
That’s what you’ve come to expect,