Monday, September 08, 2008

Scott on Almost Famous and Popular Music In Film

[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.


scott91777 said...


I was totally going to mention the "Under Pressure/Baby moment" as one of mine too!

The "Live and Let Die" moment is great... as is the line "Apparently, you can't go home again... but you can shop there."

James said...

Bowie in Grosse Point Blank gives me goose bumps every time, holy shit.

Mikey said...

It's not pop exactly, but the Coens top Stealer's Wheel (and Road to Perdition for that matter) in Miller's Crossing: Albert Finney's mob boss going apeshit with a tommy gun while Danny Boy plays out.

Grosse Point is the shit. An 80s reunion could be a great excuse for a goofy nostalgia-driven movie/soundtrack (Wedding Singer). Grosse Point is even better than that because there are actually some good songs that interact with the plot so well. Although I prefer 99 Red Balloons in German...

Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas - the music choices and sequencing are perfect. That ending, with Jumping Jack Flash blaring and Depp perfectly intoning. "I felt like a monster reincarnation of Horatio Alger..." Plus: Dead Kennedys.

Marc Caputo said...

Scott: GREAT insight on the 'Tiny Dancer' scene.

I'll add: I like Elton John's music a great deal. "Tiny Dancer', however, not one of my favorites. After seeing it in AF, I don't like it one bit more. BUT - it works, despite the sing-along being one of THE shittiest ways to do a scene in a movie. I'd also add the use of Aimee Mann's 'Wise Up' in Magnolia as an effective example/twist on the sing-along.

pla said...

The switch from rock/musak was also done in Raising Arizona, wasn't it? I think that was the first film I saw to pull that when a character walks into a store. It's a nice bit.

Madd_Hadder said...

One of my favorite contrasting music moments is in John Woo's Face/Off. A little kid is listening to "Somewhere over the rainbow" on a walkman while there is a massive gun fight going on around him. Of course, being John Woo, much of it hapens in slow motion. I have never looked at that song the same way since.

nicholas reed said...

The Pixies "Where Is My Mind" coming in at the end of Fight Club is spectacular. With the "oohs" and acoustic guitar slowly fading in, and the song proper kicking in just when things start to blow... "beautiful" is a good word.

Another is the opening scene of Vanilla Sky. Radiohead's "Everything In Its Right Place" playing as Tom Cruise's character frantically runs down a completely empty New York street is eerily perfect.

Jason said...

There are great examples in "Alias" -- I think J.J. Abrams is a real master of using unexpected music. The pilot starts playing a song ... I think by Sinead O'Connor? Very melodic and poppy ... right at the moment when Sydney succeeds in bombing a facility (the climax of the final action sequence), and the shift in tone is remarkable.

In Episode 13 or 14, the end of the Quentin Tarantino two-parter (speaking of that dude), when the camera pans over the aftermath of what was, at that point in the series, the most intense violence yet depicted ... Fleetwood Mac's delicately precious piano ballad "Songbird" plays over the top. The contrast is so striking, and the music itself so plaintive and gentle, it just hits me right in the heart.

That's the best example of contrast in the series, but it was also great at choosing new songs -- over dozens of episodes -- to accompany the umpteenth reveal of Jennifer Garner in another fetish outfit (fantastic examples include Venus Hum and the Blue Man Group's cover of "I Feel Love" in the Season 3 premiere, the Breeders' "Cannonball" near the end of Season 2, and Smash Mouth's "Diggin' Your Scene" early on in Season 1).

Man, I loved that show.

"Fringe" debuts TONIGHT!!!

Jason said...

Oh! And the final moments of the Season 4 finale -- an utterly surprising car crash (violently surprising) set against the strains of Dylan's delicate "Lay Lady Lay." AWESOME.

Paul said...

I love "Make Your Own Kind of Music" at the beginning of season two premiere on Lost.

The "Sha-Boom, Sha-Boom" sequence was pretty fun in Clue.

scott91777 said...

Keep these coming guys! This (along with my Johnny Cash/NIN "Hurt" piece) are possible contributions for a departmental "Texbook" or learning modules for a sort of common departmental database that we're trying to put together.

They're both basically write-ups of lessons I use in class.

Other teachers feel free to steal freely!

Kyle said...

Could you post a link to that "Hurt" piece, please?

scott91777 said...


I think it's under the best of the blog comment thread under the link 'Cover Songs'

Kyle said...

Thanks. And previously posted by me in one of the free-form comments:
In "That Thing You Do" the band The Wonders is a new band on tour with the Play-Tone label. A few members start singing another artist's song to him. He walks away, and they continue singing. The scene cuts to him performing that song. This is a bit like that Muzak transition (reversed), with the sing-along element Cameron Crowe and Magnolia have popularized.