[Guest blogger Scott talks about pop music in film. I discuss one film at the end.]
Too often, popular music in film is used as nothing more than a marketing gimmick. However, when done properly, a good tune can elevate a scene to a whole new level. The Graduate is probably one of the earliest examples that I can think of where popular music, quite literally, is used as the score of a film. As I mentioned in my post last week, “The Sound of Silence” serves as a theme of uncertainty throughout just as “Scarborough Fair” serves as the love theme for Ben and Elaine. The Graduate set a standard that would eventually reach its apex a decade later in The Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, one of the most enduring and commercially successful soundtracks of all time. Since then, pretty much any movie that is attempting to have its finger on the pulse of pop culture has an accompanying soundtrack. Of course, some are more successful, both commercially and artistically, than others.
A couple of my favorite examples come from Cameron Crowe’s underrated (or at least underappreciated) Almost Famous. The film has been described by Crowe as a ‘Love Letter’ to the rock music of the 70s and nowhere is that more apparent in this, the movie’s most famous scene:
Here, the band and their entourage who had been fighting with one another, are brought back together through the magic of music; the reason why they came together in the first place. However, there’s another reason I love this scene and it lies in the choice of the song “Tiny Dancer.” Yes, this is, of course, a song that sounds great when you have a group of people singing along to it but there’s more to it than that: Almost Famous is, essentially, a love story about a groupie, Penny Lane (Kate Hudson) and the song “Tiny Dancer” is, you guessed it, a love song about a groupie. For those of you not ‘hip to the lingo’, “Seamstress for the Band” or the more ambiguous “Costume Girl” were (are?) common euphemisms given to groupies. Basically, it was a way of putting a group’s “road girlfriends” on the payroll without it being considered prostitution. So, in short, this scene isn’t just great because of the ‘Love of Music’ bringing the band back together, thus keeping in line with Crowe’s “Love Letter” to music, but also because the song chosen for this scene serves as a sort of summary to character arc of Penny Lane’s character.
Of course, rather than emphasis, music can be used to provide a contrast or a subtext to a scene. Here’s one of my favorite examples using a traditional score from Road to Perdition.
Even though the action in this scene is violent, basically a massacre, the music played over the scene (notice how the sound slowly faded out at the beginning and the end of the scene leaving only the score) is quiet and haunting, reflecting the conflict in the relationship between the Tom Hanks and Paul Newman characters (without spoiling too much… they had a father/son relationship that Newman betrayed by doing something really horrible to Hanks early on in the film).
Of course, popular music can be used in much the same way. Perhaps one of the best examples is the use of Stealer’s Wheel’s jubilant “Stuck in The Middle” for the torture scene in Reservoir Dogs (Tarantino is arguably a master of this ‘contrasting song’ trick).
In one of my favorite examples from Almost Famous, Patrick Fugit rushes to save an overdosing Kate Hudson and while the wonderful use of “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters” got the lion’s share of the attention, it is the song at the end of the scene that is used the most interestingly.
In case you didn’t notice, the song being played as Hudson is having her stomach pumped is Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amour”; this is hardly the kind of song that one might normally pair with a young woman vomiting but, as soon as we see the look on Fugit’s face, we understand why: He’s completely smitten with her. It doesn’t matter that she is engaging in what is, quite possibly, the most repulsive action that a person can perform; she’s still beautiful to him because he’s completely head over heels in love with her.
So, what are some of your favorite uses of popular music in film? Just off the top of my head I’m already thinking “Bohemian Rhapsody” in Wayne’s World and “Hold Tight!” in Death Proof (It’s the song played right before the head on collision)…. I could go on and on with this one… hopefully you guys will too!
[Grosse Pointe Blank makes great use of a pop soundtrack:
My favorite bit, not on YouTube, is when he goes into the minimart that now stands where his childhood home had been. Live and Let Die plays, sort of capturing his anger, and it stops as soon as he enters -- except if you listen closely, you can hear that it has not stopped at all: it is playing as Muzack on the minimart sound system.