By Spencer. Picking up where we left off with our series on the most iconic uses of music on film, many of today’s picks use song to play with reality, spanning the gap from indie musical to surrealistic nightmare and looking at masters of the form like Tarantino, Lynch, Anderson, and Hitchcock.
Envisioning “A Step You Can’t Take Back” in Begin Again (2014): Begin Again, director John Carney’s follow-up to the hit musical, Once, didn’t quite manage to capture the same poignancy as its predecessor—but it had plenty of charm. Featuring Keira Knightley as a folk singer and Mark Ruffalo as the down-and-out record producer determined to show the world what he hears in her, it’s a lighthearted picture that still manages to ask deeper questions about the conflict between selling out or keeping true to artistic vision. And this scene at the beginning of the film does a remarkable job of visualizing the creative process of taking a few chords and lyrics and building them into an actual record, as Ruffalo hears Knightley on stage at a club with just an acoustic guitar and, in his mind, begins to arrange imaginary instruments around her. Clever in its execution and endearingly hopeful in its message, it’s the start of a movie that will remind you why you love music.
David Bowie’s “Cat People” in Inglourious Basterds (2009): In this shitty, shitty year in which we lost too many musical greats—Leonard Cohen, Prince, Merle Haggard, Lenny Kilmister, George Martin—none seemed to break more hearts than David Bowie. And nobody used his music in a movie better than Quentin Tarantino. Of course Tarantino has long been a master of soundtrack selection, but this particular scene stands out in his catalog not just for the song but for the cinematic execution. It begins with Melanie Laurent’s Parisian theater-owner in a moment of quiet contemplation, before she puts on her makeup for the evening, has a glass of wine … then loads her gun and films a final message to the victims of her coming revenge. Bowie’s song turns these simple actions into an expression of her resolute badassery, and the historical anachronism of using an 80s New Wave song in a WWII setting is one of those directorial moves that is uniquely Tarantino. It sets up the payoff for everything the movie has been building to, and though the song choice is unconventional, once you’ve seen it, it’s hard to imagine any other song working quite so well.
Dancing on the Beach to Francoise Hardy in Moonrise Kingdom (2012): Wes Anderson’s cinematic universe is built on quirky understatement, and his soundtrack choices are an essential component of that style. In this scene from Moonrise Kingdom, you have all of his signature elements: self-serious young people speaking every line with detached stoicism; a fantasy-like stage construction that uses vintage props and costumes to create an omnipresent sense of nostalgia; that trademark use of symmetrical shot composition; and of course, a kitschy and obscure song choice. It’s Francoise Hardy, a 60s pop ingenue from France who, if realism were a consideration, is way too fucking cool for a couple of kids to know. But that pretentiousness is exactly what makes Anderson’s films so wonderfully distinctive, and as our two main characters dance in their underwear on the beach and then matter-of-factly figure out their first kiss like they’re reading from an instruction manual, it’s hard not to laugh at the absurdity of it all. That’s all intentional, of course: Anderson is taking a situation that we all lived through and he’s magnifying the awkwardness we remember up to cartoonish levels. But that’s pretty much what Wes Anderson does—he makes living cartoons.
The Opening Credits of Blackboard Jungle (1955): At first glance, you might mistake this for an utterly ordinary set of opening credits. But you’re watching history. Because the opening of Blackboard Jungle is where the rock-and-roll generation was born. The song by Bill Haley And His Comets, “Rock Around The Clock,” was the first rock song to achieve mainstream popularity, and though it had actually been released on record the previous year to middling sales, it was its inclusion on the soundtrack of this film about a teacher with a class full of juvenile delinquents that propelled it to #1 on the charts and rewrote music history. Some theaters, fearful of the bad influence it might have on youth, silenced the song during the opening credits. And in theaters that did play the song, there were instances of teens rioting and tearing the seats out of the floor. That all seems comical now, but after a generation put to sleep by the likes of Perry Como and Johnny Mathis, the sound of rock-and-roll was a catharsis of teenage rebellion. And to hear it in a studio motion picture was completely revolutionary.
The “Llorando” Theater Scene in Mulholland Drive (2001): David Lynch isn’t for everyone, and Mulholland Drive, though it’s widely considered a masterpiece of this century by film critics, has its share of detractors who think it’s just convoluted nonsense. Count me in the former camp, because the brilliance of this piece of cinematic surrealism is in the way it becomes a moving Salvador Dali painting, and this scene is the point where the whole film comes together. For reasons unexplained, Naomi Watts and Laura Harring sneak off in the middle of the night to a strange L.A. theater called Club Silencio. The emcee warns in several languages that everything is an illusion, followed by a singer (Rebekah Del Rio) who performs an a capella version of “Llorando” (a Spanish-language take on Roy Orbison’s “Crying”). It all has a dreamlike quality, but then the dream takes an ominous turn as the singer collapses on stage—and the music continues without her. Watts, overcome with tears, reaches into her purse to find a mysterious blue box—the significance of which I won’t ruin. Suffice it to say that this is the instant where her reality comes apart, and the unearthly music provides a perfectly unsettling tone for what proves to be a defining moment in a narrative (if you can call it that) that plays by no rules.
Singing “Twist And Shout” on a Parade Float in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986): You know you’ll always love this one. “What do you think Ferris is gonna do?” Mia Sara asks in one of those great lines of movie understatement. The answer, naturally, is to take over an entire parade in downtown Chicago with an impromptu lip-syncing of The Beatles’ “Twist And Shout.” And as Matthew Broderick twists his hips and mimics the howling vocals of John Lennon—and then a marching band kicks in, and then the crowd breaks out into choreographed dance—it becomes one of those quintessentially 80s film moments where the ridiculous doesn’t matter because it’s all just too much damn fun to care.
The Kiss in Vertigo (1958): In this series, we’ve typically focused on the use of pop songs in movies. But conventional score can be just as powerful, and any worthwhile course in film study will point you to this scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo as an exemplar in pairing visual and score. The music itself, composed by Hitchcock’s longtime collaborator Bernard Herrmann, is haunting in its own right. (Portions of it it were later re-purposed as the score for 2012’s The Artist). But watch the scene back twice, once with the sound muted and once without. It utterly doesn’t work without the music; the camera lingers far too long on Jimmy Stewart, and then on Kim Novak, and then back on Stewart, and then it spins around them for what seems like forever as they engage in one of those over-the-top kisses that can only exist in classic Hollywood.
Without the music, the scene is dull, listless. But bring in those melodramatic flourishes of strings and it becomes something wholly different. The first swells as Stewart, bathed in neon green light, sees the face that so reminds him of the dead lover he can’t forget. A second swell as the camera turns to Novak, walking out of the darkness with an almost ghostlike quality that makes Stewart question the reality of the moment. They exchange longing glances as the strings crescendo. And then they finally kiss, and the camera dances around and around them as the orchestra plays toward an uneasy resolution mired in doubt and then surrender. There’s no better marriage of sound, color, and camera movement in film history, and every piece makes the others work. When you look at the other films they collaborated on—including The Birds, North By Northwest, and Psycho—you could easily argue that (with the possible exception of Steven Spielberg and John Williams) Hitchcock and Herrmann are the most dynamic pairing of director and composer ever seen (and heard) on film.