Saturday, May 20, 2006

Settling The Score

Calum Marsh

I read an interesting article this morning over at Stereogum regarding the fall of the great movie soundtrack. They argue that while films of the nineties used popular music well (Pulp Fiction, High Fidelity, et al), recent examples are harder to think of. They're indie kids, so, of course, they commend the use of music in The Life Aquatic and Garden State, but go on to complain that few other directors are bothering to work good music into their movies. Now, I might not know much about music (though I certainly pretend to), but if there's one thing I do know, it's film. The same can't be said for the guy who wrote the Stereogum article - are The Life Aquatic and Garden State the only movies with good soundtracks, or are those the only two trendy indie movies this guy has seen? I'm guessing the latter.

I can think of plenty of contemporary movies that use good music, but I'll get to that later. I have a different problem with Stereogum's article: they assume it's okay to praise a movie strictly because it uses music that you're familiar with and enjoy. The question Stereogum is asking is "why are there no good movie soundtracks?". Better question: Is using licensed music in a movie such a good idea in the first place? Maybe not.

Consider a discussion I had recently with some friends about this very idea: My pal Laura notes that while music certainly can be used effectively, it runs the risk of ruining an otherwise engaging piece of singular art. A narrative fiction film can draw the viewer in, masking its own construction in order to make the viewer respond to its conventions; for two hours, reality gets put on hold and the viewers invest themselves - emotionally and otherwise - into the fictional world of the film. A recognizable piece of music, however - let's say, a single from your favourite indie rock group - can work against this effect; a song you know and love swelling on the soundtrack at the height of an emotional scene, for instance, can completely remove you from the moment - you're suddenly made aware that you're watching a film, and although that sort of thing can be done intentionally and quite well (yes, Godard), it's more often completely unintentional and ends up detracting from the film experience. An emotionally gripping scene demands the attention of the audience in order for it work - you need to be in that movie moment or it's just not going to resonate. If a character dies and Sigur Ros is playing, you're probably thinking, even for a second, "I love this song" - and by then they've already lost you.

I can think of a few examples of films that use music poorly. Last year's The Squid And The Whale, by newcomer Noah Bachbaum, was an interesting and reasonably good picture that was almost ruined as a result of its soundtrack. The song selections were solid and, for the most part, appropriately chosen, but so insistent was Bachbaum that every scene by underscored with these tunes that it was nearly impossible not to concentrate on it. Scenes which would have otherwise been emotional and interesting on their own were accompanyed by totally unnecessary musical assistance. It's as if Bachbaum feared that his images couldn't stand alone, opting for emotional overkill over confident standalone filmmaking. This is a classic case of cheating your audience. Instead of establishing a mood or a tone with powerful images or interesting writing, the filmmakers just throw on a song that has that mood or tone already built in. Want to make the audience weep? Better use some somber love ballad. Sure, and expert artist might make a challenging and rewarding cinematic experience, but who has the patience to bother with thoughtful craft? Well, that might be a tad harsh, but I'm convinced that the climax of The Life Aquatic, wherein the Zissou crew finally finds their Moby Dick to the sound of Sigur Ros's Staralfur, is only touching and moving because, well, Staralfur is a touching and moving song. This is all somewhat understandable, though - these are young guys who love music, and what better way to show off - er, I mean, show your love for hip music than by peppering your soundtrack with it?

The music that is being improperly used is singular, in that it stands as a piece of commendable art all on its own, as sound that evokes images rather than being tied to specific ones. Music invites the listener to imagine the world of the sound, and the emotion comes from a combination of sonic and lyrical artfulness. Sound plays a role in film, but only as one convention of many. The sound should compliment the images, it should be a layer no different than lighting or set design.

There are, of course, many movies that use licensed music well. Here, then, are ten songs which are used excellently in a movie.

The Five Best Instances Wherein A Song Is Used Effectively In A Movie...ever!

05. The Movie: Buffalo '66
The Song: Yes - Heart Of The Sunrise
How It's Used: Vincent Gallo's brilliant debut is pretty much perfect throughout, but the climactic shooting at a strip club, set to Yes's rollicking 'Heart Of The Sunrise', is a cut above the rest. Yes's song is already cinematic, in that it builds and bombasts like a throbbing action score, but it's recognizable a tune enough to warrant apprehension about its use on a soundtrack. It's fortunate, then, that the intense arthouse action sequence is striking and memorable enough to match the audacity of the song, allowing the two to blend seemlessly and, even more surprisingly, unforgetably.

04. The Movie: Boogie Nights
The Song: Rick Springfield - 'Jesse's Girl'
How It's Used: P.T. Anderson may be known for his grandiose filmmaking, and that's all well and good, but it's his acute attention to detail, quite surprisingly, that I respect about his style above all else. Consider, for instance, a miniscule moment in the epic Boogie Nights: Dirk Diggler (Mark Walhberg) sits in the living room of a bizarre drug lord (Alfred Molina), who is dancing and singing to Rick Springfield's gloriously cheesy 'Jesse's Girl'. Diggler, dazed, sits silent on the couch as the song blares from the nearby stereo. The camera stays on him, observing as nothing happens, for what seems like ages, unwilling to pay attention to anything else. It's a memorable digression, made all the more intruiging and, well, hilarious by the music and Alfred Molina's drug-affected singing.

03. The Movie: Mulholland Drive
The Song: Roy Orbison: 'Crying'
How It's Used: To be honest, this really shouldn't work - but it does. Who knew a Roy Orbison track, belted out in a foreign language by a mysterious stranger and a late-night club, could be so damn moving? The beautiful yet haunting sequence turns downright chilling when the singer collapses on stage in the middle of the song - and the vocals carry on without her. David Lynch, the film's director, recognizes that recognizable songs affect the viewing experience, which is precisely why he's chosen a foreign rendition of such a recognizable track; the audience knows the song, but it's dramatically different. The result is a disturbed familiarity, like a half-remembered dream - the perfect segue into the film's twisted third act.

02. The Movie: Stranger Than Paradise
The Song: Screamin' Jay Hawkins - 'I Put A Spell On You'
How It's Used: I know I talked about this earlier in the week, but I couldn't exclude one of my favourite movies, especially when it uses one particular song so well. John Lurie's lonely hipster lifestyle is thrown off when his younger cousin visits his apartment in New York. She carries around a portable cassette player but seems interested in only one song: 'I Put A Spell On You', which John Lurie hates. "It's Screamin' Jay Hawkins", she announces, in broken English, "he's a wild man, so bug off".

01. The Movie: Blue Velvet
The Song: Bobby Vinton - 'Blue Velvet'
How It's Used: How is it used? Well, for starters, it's the title of the movie. Then, of course, it's sung quite beautifully (and creepily) by star Isabella Rossellini, in a scene you won't soon forget. This goes beyond simply using a song on the soundtrack. Here we a film that is so fervently tied to one song that it's totally impossible to think of the two seperately. The essence of that song seems to pervade the entire movie, seeping out of every shot and soundtracking every sequence (figuratively, that is). Put simply, this is just how it's done.

Screamin' Jay Hawkins - I Put A Spell On You (Live)
Bobby Vinton - Blue Velvet
Roy Orbison - Crying
Rick Springfield - Jesse's Girl
Yes - Heart Of The Sunrise

Buffalo '66 - DVD / OST
Boogie Nights - DVD / OST
Mulholland Drive - DVD / OST
Stranger Than Paradise - DVD / OST
Blue Velvet - DVD / OST

Comments on "Settling The Score"


Blogger shane said ... (20/5/06 1:38 pm) : 

I agree with Blue Velvet, but my personal favourites are Where Is My Mind? at the end of Fight Club (that was originally to be No Surprises), and We'll Meet Again in Dr. Strangelove, where they play clips of nuclear explosions. Despairingly funny.


Blogger Casey Dorrell said ... (20/5/06 3:32 pm) : 

Slut, I was going to post the full album friday replacement.

I mean, nice article. Which it is. Forgive me for havin not seen most of the movies. Though I've wanted to see Buffalo '66.


Anonymous Anonymous said ... (20/5/06 3:44 pm) : 

My respect for anyone drops several notches when I learn they have not seen Blue Velvet.


Blogger Casey Dorrell said ... (20/5/06 4:06 pm) : 

My respect for anyone who so superficially doles out or withholds arbitrary respect is little.


Anonymous mjrc said ... (20/5/06 6:34 pm) : 

i have to say i think the final scenes in "the 40-year-old-virgin" when they play "age of aquarius" are pretty awesome.

on another note, i'd heard the soundtrack for "garden state" long before i saw the movie, and so the whole time i was watching it, i was waiting to hear what song would play next--very distracting, indeed. not necessarily the moviemaker's fault, but it worked against the film instead of for it.


Blogger Calum Marsh said ... (20/5/06 7:41 pm) : 

Garden State's a particularly good example of songs not working in a movie for that very reason. The second you hear one indie song, you're waiting for next. Not the filmmaker's fault, I suppose, but, as you said, it hurts it.


Blogger Casey Dorrell said ... (20/5/06 10:49 pm) : 

Plus the movie itself was had so many ridiculously contrived scenes.

I read a Spin interview with Braff on the music - his basic thought behind selection was "music I dig"


Blogger Calum Marsh said ... (20/5/06 11:29 pm) : 

Go figure. That movie is pretty crap. All of these cheesy, obvious scenes - yelling into a canyon? Come on. And all of those boring shots "spiced up" with symetrical compositions and yadda yadda. Zach Braff thinks being a good director means doing "cool stuff" with the camera.


Blogger jer fairall said ... (20/5/06 11:48 pm) : 

Best use of songs in a movie?

Jesus and Mary Chain's "Just Like Honey" from Lost In Translation jumps immediately to mind.

Julie Delpy's performance of her own "Waltz For a Night" in Before Sunset is absolutely lovely.

I always find Echo + The Bunnymen's "The Killing Moon" in Donnie Darko to be hilarious, even if it turns out that the pun wasn't intentional (Richard Kelly originally wanted INXS's "Never Tear Us Apart" for the into, after all).

Sigur Ros, though practically begging to be oversoundtracked, have always been put to astonishingly effective use (Vanilla Sky, The Life Acquatic With Steve Zissou, Mysterious Skin) on film, or at least in the ones that I have seen.

In Fahrenheit 9/11, The Go-Go's "Vacation" was probably a cheap shot, but it worked, and Neil Young's "Rockin' In The Free World" over the end credits was poignant and note-perfect. Ditto "Street Fighting Man" at the end of V For Vendetta.

And of course I still love such iconic picks as "In Your Eyes" from Say Anything, "Don't You Forget About Me" from The Breakfast Club and "If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out" from Harold and Maude.


Blogger Jonathan Migneault said ... (21/5/06 2:51 pm) : 

I don't think The Squid and the Whale uses music poorly at all. My only problem with music's relationship to that movie is how an auditorium full of people did not recognize that the oldest son was plagiarizing Pink Floyd's "Hey You". The Wall was hardly an unknown album in 1986 and "Hey You" probably ranks among Pink Floyd's most popular songs.

Anyways, the biggest culprit in the "missusing music in a film" category is probably Cameron Crowe. His latest film, Elizabethtown, especially tries to cram as many good yet irrelevant songs as possible into the film's running time. The movie suffers greatly for this reason (and many more).


Blogger Calum Marsh said ... (21/5/06 5:17 pm) : 

It's never said that the crowd doesn't recognized "Hey You". In fact, the opposite is suggested: he doesn't get away with it. It was brought to the principal's attention, who may not have known the tune (and is that so unreasonable?). Nobody would boo or get angry in the middle of the song; this is some kid at a school talent show. I don't think that's unreasonable.


Blogger Brittany said ... (21/5/06 8:30 pm) : 

Hey I've been following your blog for a while now, good stuff indeed.

Had to comment on today's post though, as I specifically agree with 3 of your top 5, which not only worked in the movies but are also genuinely great songs. "I Put A Spell On You" is amazing (kudos for all the Screamin' Jay Hawkins recognition as of late), "Crying" by Roy Orbision (which I ironically just posted on my blog a few days ago), and "Heart of the Sunrise" by Yes (an amazing song that I think is vastly underappreciated by those who laugh overall at Yes and other "prog rock.")

Just my two cents.



Blogger J.E. said ... (22/5/06 5:17 pm) : 

I might be a bit prejudiced, because it's my favorite movie, but that scene in The Graduate where Dustin Hoffman is driving around in that nice convertible trying to stop the wedding to the sounds of "Mrs. Robinson" is really, really awesome. And although The Life Aquatic might not use music effectively (I haven't seen it), in both The Royal Tenenbaums and Rushmore Wes Anderson uses music extremely well without distracting from the movie. And for a guy that's so hip with the indie crowd, he uses a lot of boomer favorites; in fact, my favorite musical moment from one of his movies is when the Luke Wilson character gets rejected to "Ruby Tuesday".


Blogger Calum Marsh said ... (22/5/06 5:46 pm) : 

"Ruby Tuesday" works well, and so does "Needle In The Hay". The Graduate one is perfect, and it'd be number 6 on this list. I wanted to avoid it because it's pretty obvious though.


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