Musical Musings: Pop songs in film…love it or hate it?
Welcome back to Musical Musings. Today, I’d like to talk about a personally divisive issue: pop songs in movies.
I’m thinking about it now because, if you have read the new issue of the Reflector, you’ll notice on the CD review page that we’ve (unintentionally) focused on recent soundtracks: Where the Wild Things Are, which is made up of original, written-for-the-movie songs by Yeah Yeah Yeahs frontwoman Karen O; Flight of the Conchords’ newest, I Told You I Was Freaky, which doesn’t really count as a soundtrack, I guess, because the HBO show is built around the songs on the disc; and Twilight: New Moon, which is a more traditional modern-day soundtrack comprised of primarily indie bands (Bon Iver, Grizzly Bear, St. Vincent, Death Cab for Cutie), as well as a few bigger names that still fit in with this indie crowd (Thom Yorke, the Killers).
All three work very well as albums, but as I noted in my review of the Twilight disc, it will be interesting to see how these songs work in the context of the film. (The Wild Things songs work wonders, not just because they were written specifically for the film, but because Karen O is just that good…seriously, watch the film. It’s out now.) It takes a skilled filmmaker to successfully integrate a well-known song or a popular artist’s voice into a scene and have it do what music is supposed to do for movies: underscore the action and create more of an emotional core.
There are a few directors out there who are, frankly, masters at this balancing act. The one who arguably started this whole phenomenon in the first place is the great Martin Scorsese. According to what I’ve read (please feel free to challenge me on this, because I don’t pretend to know everything) 1973’s Mean Streets was the first mainstream movie to not have a “Music by…” line in the credits, because the whole film was scored by popular songs. The most famous scene – the watershed moment – is the viciously graphic fight in the pool hall being ironically scored by the Marvelettes’ “Please Mr. Postman,” which you can hear coming from the jukebox until the fight breaks out, when it comes up in the mix and works as some sort of bizarre theme music:
That was hard to beat, especially since this was only his third movie, but Scorsese didn’t stop there. The man practically invented the process of building a soundtrack out of the songs from your record collection, but he was (and still is) a genius at knowing just what song will work best where. Goodfellas, from 1990, is arguably the best example. The defiant song “My Way” was the perfect way to end this gangster epic, but rather than use the Frank Sinatra original, he used the more appropriate, anarchic, orchestral-punk sneer that is Sid Vicious’ cover – brilliance.
And, of course, to use the piano/slide guitar coda to “Layla” to score the sad turning point of these goodfellas’ story is still a classic piece of film history (the actual montage in question starts 2:30 into the clip):
As Scorsese proved time and time again, pop songs could be used to even better, more thought-provoking effect than a traditional orchestral score, and his followers took notes. One of those second-generation mavericks was Mr. Quentin Tarantino, whose own use of pop-song-as-soundtrack is nearly, if not totally, equal to Scorsese’s. Who can forget that infamous scene that proved to the world that, yes, he had arrived:
(My favourite part is when he leaves, and comes back and the song is still playing.)
What made Tarantino seem like an original, rather than a follower of a previous generation’s example, is that his music taste and record collection is even more eclectic than Scorsese’s. I had no idea Pete Townshend had almost left the Who until I saw Death Proof, let alone for a band called Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich. I also didn’t know about the Delfonics until I saw Jackie Brown, which used their hit “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time)” to represent Robert Forster’s bail bondsman character’s obsession with Jackie. Most recently, in Inglourious Basterds – whose soundtrack is mostly made up of Ennio Morricone instrumentals and old war-era German cabaret hits – Tarantino used David Bowie’s “Cat People (Putting Out the Fire)” to score a pivotal scene to brilliant effect.
But sometimes – sometimes – you just have to break out of the box and use a pop song in a completely different way. This clip, from Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterpiece Magnolia, pushes the limits of believability for the sake of connecting the plot’s many disparate threads, but ends up reeling us in as well and causes us to feel each character’s pain:
But now we’re getting into the realm of “obvious use of a pop song,” and while the above clip works, and others have worked similarly well (like Ellen Page and Michael Cera singing a Moldy Peaches song at the end of Juno), obvious or uncreative use of pop songs in film are jarring to me, to the point that I am tempted to stop watching. The opening of Iron Man, for instance, almost made me walk out of the theatre:
Maybe it was the shock of that opening riff after the silence of the initial credits, or maybe it’s the simple rule that AC/DC should never be used to soundtrack any sort of film that isn’t associated with the WWE, but that clip is so CHEESY, it made me wanna barf. It’s a classic example of trying to hard and not marrying the shots on screen with the audio being heard. Even if the song had soundtracked Iron Man himself flying through the air, it wouldn’t have been that good (or maybe worse…I don’t wanna think about it to find out), but it would have been better used than here. Not cool. Even the “joke” realization that the song is coming from a radio inside the jeep doesn’t save the initial cheesiness.
Maybe it doesn’t bug you as much as it does me, but I’ve noticed and recoiled from obvious pop song use for as long as I can remember. I can still recall seeing the film adaptation of Louis Sachar’s novel Holes and witnessing a scene where the scary warden of the camp drives up in a jeep (what is it with this particular cinematic device in movies that causes pop retardation?) while Moby blasted through the speakers of the theatre. I was 15, still in my infancy when it came to appreciation of art (hence why I was seeing Holes) and I still thought to myself, “This isn’t right.”
I can’t think of any other examples to show you of bad use of pop songs, because I’ve learned how to avoid movies that do such a thing. Essentially, if the trailer uses a pop song in a cheesy way, chances are the movie will follow suit, so let that be a warning to you.
I’ll leave you, appropriately enough, with a clip of one of my favourite uses of a song for the end of a movie. Sure, it’s a little obvious, but it still works somehow. Maybe this whole balancing act isn’t so easy after all….
I would like for you to leave your two cents, though. Do you agree that marrying pop song to film scene works when appropriate, or should it simply not be used and you think directors should just stick to composers? And what’s your favourite music moment from a movie? Let me know, and check out Musical Musings next week. It’ll be delicious.