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)


John S. said...

Honorable mention for Heard it Through the Grapevine in The Big Chill?

Anonymous said...

The music in "The Big Easy" is exceptionally entertaining. I had never even heard of "Zydeco" before.

Ricky Raccoon said...

What Anon said.

And forgive me in advance please, but I love the music in Nacho Libre.

Jaws (East Coast here) is so good I don't notice the music. (How dare me.) Is there any? - yeah, I think there's a Carpenters song... and John Williams makes an appearance, I think.

Henry said...

I'd put John Sayles' Matewan in the top 5 -- especially Hazel Dickens' gospel singing.

Nicole said...

John Landis: American Werewolf in London, Blues Brothers, Innocent Blood.

Nicole said...

Ah, and I do agree with Ladykillers (as well as most of your other choices), though I don't think BB was that bad. The church scenes weren't all that, true. But I did like the rest of the soundtrack and I thought it added rather than detracted from the movie. :)

wayne berry said...

of course this is the sort of thing that film AND music nerds
could yammer on endlessly about...

i thought of three (or four) movie and music moments that sippican
must've forgotten.

firstly, he pretty much said NO quentin tarentino! all he does is fart
in churches!
which is true and usually quentin's point. but sippican forgot when he
does the opposite which is to sing a hymn in a brothel!
for reference, i would nominate, the duel between uma thurman and lucy
lui that is scored with santa esmerald's version of "don't let me be
initially i thought i was responding to that version of that song
which i truly love. but after seeing this scene constantly on SPIKE,
it really is a perfect meld of music and cinema and even better
because it is the last thing you would expect.

then, i realized that he left out kubrick... "dr. strangelove"!?!
first i thought of vera lynn's "we'll meet again" (or is that really,
"white cliffs of dover"?) scoring the endless parade of atomic
explosions at the end. but that reminded me of the in-flight
refueling of a B52 scored to something by dusty springfield (try a
little tenderness, i just looked it up) which was 10X better than

hitchcock's use of Doris Day's "que sera sera" in the remake of "the
man who knew too much" and made my eyes get wet a little. (I swear i
wasn't crying, smoke got in my eyes!)

or my last example of perfect melding of music and movie?
from a comedy and those get such disrespect, you know.

the scene in "fast times @ ridgemont high" where judge rheinholdt
masturbates thinking of phoebe cates stepping out of a pool to the
tune of "moving in stereo" by the cars. to my teenage eyes and ears it
might've had more to do with judge rheinholdt pretending to jerk off
(am i seeing THIS?) than the melding of music and image. but NO! the
song is perfectly utilized he's "dreaming" (and jerkin' it) imagining
him and phoebe are indeed "moving in stereo" and it is used even
better, when the song abruptly stops and she sees what's happening and
say something like "eww, gross!" and him trying to quickly zip up.

just my plug nickel's worth!

teresa said...


"We Were Soldiers"

"How Green Was My Valley"

SippicanCottage said...

Interesting comments.

John- I thought about the Big Chill. It had a similar effect on the zeitgeist as Animal House for music. I shied away from music that was just run over credits. Midnight Cowboy was like that, too.

I guess I have to rent Matewan, or Henry will think I'm a rube

Wayne- I thought about the Man Who Knew Too Much and Que Sera Sera. An excellent example for the genre.

But everyone, if you want to add a song, you have to say which one it bumps off. Top Ten!

Teresa- Zulu is an excellent example.

Phil said...

Ok, #6 is out with apologies to Roberto Benigni. Replaced with Return to the Nursery, which is by Carter Burwell (sort of). It is the opening tune in Raising Arizona, which is a delightfully retarded movie.

Va Beach

Pastor_Jeff said...

Coincidentally, I had just watched The Blues Brothers before you posted this. Lightweight fun, but the best part was how the scene in Bob's Country Bunker made me think of Sippican's First Rule of Entertainment -- play something people actually want to hear!

Rich Jordan said...

I hesitate to post this but...

Dueling Banjos in "Deliverance"

Not a great movie (pretty typical Hollywood-insular) but the first to give me nightmares and leave a song I could not get out of my head.

And one personal one. The original Star Wars "Return of the Jedi" before Lucas' remake and downgrade... the final scene where the tribal hooting and dancing transitions to the triumphant orchestral theme... always sent a chill down my spine.

I haven't seen enough of the top ten to suggest a sacrificial goat.

misterarthur said...

Oh for god's sake. THE THIRD MAN

Eric said...

Good call on 'Zulu', I was going to mention that.

I usually consider movie music I remember as effective:

So which I'll add:

Conan the Barbarian

All the stuff Morricone did for Leone. Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good the Bad and the Ugly.

Sam said...

I'll probably get a quizzical from the commenters, but I would put "The Apostle" on the list and drop any of the others. It is non-stop packed with southern country gospel. Too many good songs to list but my favorites are Two Coats by Patty Loveless, Soldier in the Army of the Lord by Lyle Lovett, and Victory is Mine by Sounds of Blackness.