Posted by Richard Harland Smith on January 6, 2009
Since movies like THE GRADUATE (1967), THE HARDER THEY COME (1972), AMERICAN GRAFFITI (1973) and THE BIG CHILL (1983) changed the landscape of movie music, popularizing a trend towards scrapping classic orchestral or electronic scores in favorite of a hit list of chart toppers or nostalgic curios, movie soundtracks have suffered immeasurably. Hoping to triangulate their ticket sales, producers nowadays lard their releases with wall-to-wall tunes that too often ride roughshod over the action or, even worse, telegraph the exact emotion of the scene unspooling (e.g., Nazareth’s cover of “Love Hurts” supports the message of Rob Zombie’s 2008 HALLOWEEN reboot that love hurts). It’s all so much overkill, resulting in soundtrack albums and CDs that are often better than the movies they support… but even though my preference is for old school film scoring, I do thrill to a pop song used not to pander but placed precisely to surprise and delight the viewer. In no particular order, my faves:
1. In the Korean cop film NOWHERE TO HIDE (1999), a hitman (Sung Ki-ahn) lies in wait for his target at the base of Inchon’s landmark 40 Steps. A hard rain starts to fall, pedestrians open their umbrellas and the doomed man steps into view… as “Holiday” by the Bee Gees begins to play. Now, I’m not a Bee Gee fan and have never counted this ditty among my favorites, and yet the use of this song in a Korean language film is so spot-on and haunting that I now find myself humming “Holiday” whenever I watch the rain.
2. Sogo Ishii’s ANGEL DUST (1994) is an unusually quiet serial killer movie from Japan in which a trouble psychologist (Kaho Minami) investigates the murders of former cult members. For a very subdued yet undeniably creepy two hours, the boundaries of reality and dreams and of good and evil dissolve and overlap. No one shouts, no shots are fired, there isn’t any blood and when the thing is over you’re not quite sure what you’ve just seen. And then, as the credits roll, The Zombies’ “Time of the Season” starts playing and you can’t help but smile because it’s so unexpected.
3. Both music cues listed above are classified in their respective contexts as “non-diegetic” music, which is to say music that doesn’t arise organically from the narrative (on a radio or performed by one of the characters) but is rather laid on top of the scene as a sort of commentary. In Barbara Albert’s FREE RADICALS (2003), the alienation and soul crushing sadness of a disparate (but intricately connected) group of Austrians of various ages is lifted somewhat when a tortured teenager (Désirée Ourada ) with morbid tendencies happens upon a street busker performing Scott McKenzie’s hippie anthem (written by John Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas) “If You’re Going to San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair).” Letting loose for the first time in her life, the girl dances as if no one is watching, letting her cares go. (The song has great cachet in Europe and was adopted by the freedom fighters of Prague’s spring uprising against Communism in 1968.)
4. Pete Walker’s HOUSE OF WHIPCORD (1974) is an exceedingly unpleasant horror film about a family of potty British barristers/gaolers who imprison young women they find guilty of possessing loose morals with a mind toward instructing them via incarceration, starvation and corporal punishment. It’s a dreary, upsetting movie (scripted by movie critic David McGillivray, who appears in a small role) and as such it’s strange as Hell to hear, arising like a breath of fresh country air in the middle of one conversation scene, Joan Armatrading’s dreamy ballad “Visionary Mountains.” The song doesn’t seem to have any purchase on the storyline and just seems to have been on the radio or the record player when the scene was shot. I actually like this creepy little movie and love the song, so I was grateful for the very brief respite from all the unpleasantness.
5. You may well feel like you’re going mad the fifth or sixth time they play The Mamas and the Papa’s “California Dreaming” in Wong Kar-wai’s CHUNGKING EXPRESS (1994) but I liked the way the song became a symbol for the frustrations and ambitions of the various characters who, as in FREE RADICALS, don’t realize how connected they all are.
6. I enjoyed the refreshingly adult employment of John Cale’s cover of Leonard Cohen’s somber “Hallelujah” in the Dreamworks mega-hit SHREK (2001). It’s my favorite part of an all-around enjoyable movie… but at the same time this choice unleashed a veritable Pandora’s Box for fans of the song. After TV producers realized its awesomeness (the tune’s been covered by countless recording artists, including Jeff Buckley, Sheryl Crow, k.d. lang, Damien Rice and Bon Jovi), “Hallelujah” began to be piped into TV show after TV show (WITHOUT A TRACE, THIRD WATCH, THE O.C., HOUSE) for instant, just-add-water atmosphere. It’s enough to put you off good music.
7. I love a movie that treats one song as if it were the only song and such a movie is Jim Jarmush’s STRANGER THAN PARADISE (1983). This indie classic’s incessant use of the 1957 “I Put a Spell on You” may drive some viewers to distraction but it drove me to the record store. The grinding, obsessive number was intended to be a proper love song until the number’s producer got the band drunk in the recording studio and the result turned blues singer Jay Hawkins into shock rock shaman Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, whose Grand Guignol performances inspired the later likes of Screaming Lord Such, Alice Cooper and Marilyn Manson, whose cover of the number can be heard on the soundtrack for David Lynch’s LOST HIGHWAY (1997).
8. Speaking of HALLOWEEN, I loved the original film’s use of the Blue Oyster Cult song “Don’t Fear the Reaper” back in 1978. As a stand-alone piece, I don’t thrill to the single quite as much as I did when I was 17 but the cue still gives me a smile when I watch it in the context of John Carpenter’s ingenious seminal slasher (where it is heard over a car radio, early on, before night has fallen). “Romeo and Juliet/Are together in eternity,” go Donald Roeser’s lyrics, an homage to the transcendent power of love, as small town girl Jamie Lee Curtis dreams of a tall, dark and handsome stranger who only has eyes for her.
9. Johnnie To’s gangster drama A HERO NEVER DIES (1998) is a nasty piece of work whose roster of shocks includes a harmless old man shot in the foot as punishment, a beautiful woman horrifically burned and a main character who loses both legs and is reduced to homelessness. The protagonists of the film (including Lau Ching-wan, above) are a pair of alpha dogs in the employ of rival gang bosses and their common enmity provides the drama with its spine until both mean realize they have common cause: revenge. The film’s excessive violence is put on pause for one brief scene, as the criminals share an edgy drink in a roadhouse where the lounge singer strikes up a haunting cover of “Sukiyaki,” an international pop sensation (13 million copies sold) that became a US hit in 1963. The movie is a bit much for repeat viewings… but I do pop in the DVD just to re-watch this scene.
10. I don’t really go for Tony Scott’s TRUE ROMANCE (1992), the sale of which enabled fledgling screenwriter Quentin Tarantino to direct his own (and, to me, preferable) RESERVOIR DOGS (1992) but I do love the use of the Burl Ives cover of Hank Cochran’s “A Little Bitty Tear Let Me Down” by way of introducing the lonely yet entirely indomitable (in every way except literally) character played by Dennis Hopper. Who rembered this 1962 hit (No. 35 on the Billboard charts) more than 30 years later? I don’t know if the cue was the inspiration of QT or Tony Scott but I have my suspicions.
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