From “Somewhere over the Rainbow,” Hollywood learned that the right song at the right time could take a film places images and dialog could not do on its own. Try not to think about bicycles when you hear “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.” It’s impossible if you saw Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
Beginning with the Blackboard Jungle with “Rock Around the Clock,” Hollywood has repeatedly gone to Rock and Roll to enhance its movies. This use of rock songs reached a new level when Mike Nichols went directly to Simon and Garfunkel for pieces that would evoke the story of his film the Graduate. There, the music is inseparable from the film.
When it works, like with “Mrs. Robinson,” it’s terrific. When it doesn’t, it becomes a banal cliché – the troubled family getting back together and singing an overly loud Motown tune like “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” into a hairbrush.
Scoring popular songs into Movies and TV for plot value has become common and often a sign of lazy direction or plot development. Having trouble having the storyline and characters add up? No problem, license a familiar song and insert it into a dot connecting montage.
This trend has become so common that it was lampooned in the film Team America nearly a decade ago in the song “Montage.”
Still, integrating a familiar rock song into a film is very high art. When it works, it is memorable. The wrong music at the wrong time can take the viewer out of the movie or show. “Where did I hear that song before” runs through the viewer’s head instead of what is happening at that moment to the plot.
Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks” in Argo was a terrific use of the right song at the right time.
So in the wake of Oscar night, I thought it a good idea to think of “The Best Use of Rock Music in Film!”
Again, this is not “incidental” music or songs explicitly composed for the film – this is the use of songs that had a life before their use in a film sequence.
Here are my choices for the best examples:
The End – The Doors – Apocalypse Now. Perhaps the greatest ever. The song by itself is epic and cinematic. It’s the song where the police would haul away Jim Morrison in handcuffs after going on his Oedipal rant. The way Coppola uses the song to frame his great film puts the film and the song in a new light. The perfect example of using rock music in film.
Sister Christian/Jessie’s Girl – Night Ranger/Rick Springfield – Boogie Nights. The Boogie Nights soundtrack is flawless. The loose recreation of the Wonderland murders against the backdrop of a coked-out Alfred Molina – with some naked guy shooting off firecrackers – elevates both the film and these two very pedestrian songs to a higher level than they could have achieved without each other. Chaos as art.
Stuck in the Middle with You – Steelers Wheel – Reservoir Dogs. Tarantino has raised the bar for all auteurs with his great soundtracks. Pulp Fiction has at least four great songs/sequences. Not sure he succeeded this year with Jim Croce’s “I Got A Name” in Django Unchained, but he did with Steelers Wheel juxtaposing their giddy song with torture and terror.
Surfin’ Bird – The Trashmen – Full Metal Jacket. Kubrick is a master of using music in his films. I love Chris Issak’s “Baby Did Bad Thing” in Eyes Wide Shut – but that movie is just too weird. “Also Sprach Zarathustra” became known as the “2001 theme” – that’s how powerful Kubrick’s images were when matched to classical music. In Full Metal Jacket, he underscores the existential absurdity of the Vietnam war, then with this throw-a-way novelty song we all vaguely remember hearing somewhere.
Helicopter Sequence from GoodFellas. We all know Martin Scorsese is a master filmmaker. But this sequence – and the particularly driving “Toad” drum solo by Ginger Baker of Cream – illustrates the manic flavor of the era, and the paranoia that went with cocaine is simply brilliant. Nilsson, The Rolling Stones, The Who, Muddy Waters, George Harrison, and Cream – and Scorsese – wow!
Tiny Dancer – Elton John – Almost Famous. I could have chosen “Sparks” by the Who, but this song – one of Elton’s very best – takes on a whole new meaning as the band buries their internal hatchets as they sing along, remembering it’s the music that matters and brings them together in the first place. We see it and feel it. Former Rolling Stone music critic Cameron Crowe always has great music in his films, but the time he takes with this scene perfectly matches Elton’s time to get to his chorus. Brilliant. Another great one from Crowe is John Cusack lifting the boom box playing “In Your Eyes” in Say Anything rejuvenated Peter Gabriel’s career.
There are, of course, many others.
What are your favorites?