Wednesday, August 19, 2009
The Ten Most Effective Uses of Music In A Movie
Right up front: No musicals. I always hated them when I was a kid. What were people doing breaking out in song in the middle of a conversation?
And we'll leave out orchestral music composed as a soundtrack. We're talking about inserting regular music into a movie and have it work. It can be performed as part of the plot, or layed in there as a kind of wallpaper. Putting it in the plot is harder than it sounds. See: The Busboys in 48 Hours. On second thought, don't.
It's become common to cram all sorts of pop songs onto soundtracks, milk the cultural value they already hold, then drizzle it over second-rate entertainment vehicles to push them over the finish line. See: Tarantino; Quentin. It's incongruous to hack off an ear while listening to Stealer's Wheel. Naked incongruity is just a fart in church; it's good for a chuckle, but it ain't art. So please; no Pulp Fiction or Reservoir Dogs entreaties in the comments. The soundtracks are swell. They have nothing much to do with the movies, which are turds. A common soundtrack malady.
No 10: American Graffiti
George Lucas is the king of the pop culture vampires, but we have to give him his due: This movie almost singlehandedly popularized using music to establish a period vibe. Awkward transitions are avoided by twisting a car radio knob or popping a coin in a jukebox. And they play it live in the gym to good effect.
No 9: Zorba The Greek
Have a little fun. Laff a little. Dance. Dolce far niente, as they say a little west of there. I almost left this movie off because of the insane murder of the widow in the middle of it. What the hell was that all about? Everybody, including Zorba and his boss, the woman's lover, just shrugs and goes back to being Cretan cretins. But if you've ever wondered where all that vaguely familiar music they play over the loudspeakers when your baseball team is behind by two runs, here it is.
No 8: The Deer Hunter
The fun of singing a bad song badly as a bonding ritual doesn't get much better than this. It gets much worse. See: Top Gun. Karaoke started like this, and got awful when people tried to sing well but entered the uncanny valley between farce and seriousness. See: American Idol
No 7:The Ladykillers
The fun but generally execrable Blues Brothers movies tried to mine the church for ore they couldn't produce themselves. Lame. The Ladykillers just went to church, and saved the middleman's vig. A terrific all-around soundtrack.
No 6: Life Is Beautiful
I could have shoved Amadeus in here if I was lazy. But the second best integration of an operatic performance into a movie is the Barcarolle by Offenbach from Tales of Hoffman.
No 5: Moonstruck
Listen up men children: This is how the wimmins picture a date. You have to establish a sliding scale to compare your efforts to shoe shopping, wine drinking, and a trip to the opera with a man in a monkey suit. NASCAR and Bud Ice is about a 0.5 on a scale of ten, for instance.
No 4: Animal House
Hard to exaggerate the effect this had on keggers in the seventies and eighties. I weep for college kids now, with nothing but Vagina Monologues performances for entertainment and a 21-year-old drinking age hobble. Do the worm!
No 3: Goodfellas
We have to give Scorcese some sort of credit here. He has a deft touch when using pop music for audio wallpaper. And his depictions of gangsters as interesting to look at but ultimately just scary losers is the way to go in the genre.
No 2: The Bridge On The River Kwai
One of those things that becomes a cultural icon, not a trivia question. The Colonel Bogey March injected into this movie summed up the ebbing British Empire's weird blend of borderline masochistic stoicism and manic frivolity. If you're old and from the East Coast you remember the Getty Oil gas station army walking over a bridge whistling this in a TV commercial.
No 1: Being There
Forget the tedious 2001: A Space Odyssey, Being There is the place to go for the melding of Richard Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathustra ( Funkified here by Eumir Deodato) with a compelling visual sequence. The movie is filled with really good and interesting music. The studio botched the last couple minutes of the movie, but if you're wondering why I don't want to go back to the seventies, go for a walk with Chance.
Honorable Mention: The Day of the Jackal
Good god, not the Bruce Willis one. Get a grip. A sublime use of music: there isn't any -- just a few snippets of ambient stuff to give audio cues. A terrific movie.
Update: Many cogent suggestions in the comments. But remember, you have to throw someone overboard to allow another example in our ten-person opinion lifeboat. And you have to get past Number Eleven, which I'm holding in reserve, too: (some salty language)