Changing the Tune

A few years ago if I heard Blue Oyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear the Reaper” I’d just enjoy the song. Now if I hear it I get a mental picture of Christopher Walken saying “I’ve got a fever, and the only prescription is more cowbell.” This line comes from a classic Saturday Night Live sketch where Walken as the band’s producer urges them to feature the cowbell. Now I can never think of the song the same way.

Film has a similar power. The use of a song with the a film scene can change that song’s entire context. The song will instantly trigger a thought of a that scene in a way that would make Pavlov proud. This isn’t that surprising. Many songs can evoke personal memories of times and places. Ever since the sound era began, filmmakers have used the power of songs to establish time periods, moods and atmospheres. This practice became more frequent in the late 60s and early 70s with films such as Easy Rider, American Graffiti, and Mean Streets.

What makes a scene/song match work? The answer varies. Sometimes the song’s tune or words underscore a scene by sharing similar themes or rhythms. Other times the song will serve as ironic counterpoint to the scene. Occasionally a scene might even parody a song.

As with much of film there are no clear criteria. You know a good match when you see it and hear it. You’ve probably guessed that I have many songs that trigger these type of film memories. I offer my top ten, with a couple of rules. First, only one song per film. While many films have multiple great song/scene matches, I don’t want to describe a whole soundtrack. Second, it has to match a specific scene. While American Graffiti and The Big Chill have excellent soundtracks, no single song/scene matches stand out. Finally only rock/pop songs. This is no slight on any other genre, just an admission that I don’t know those songs as well and would be ill-equipped to comment. With that out of the way, let’s start the countdown:

10. “The End” by The Doors in Apocalypse Now – Simply a perfect fit. Take a film about both the Vietnam War and the breakdown of civilization. Then use a song from the 60s most nihilistic band. Ironically, director Francis Ford Coppola uses “The End” at the very beginning, to introduce the film’s themes. He also blends the song into the sound effects seamlessly, pairing the instrumental opening with the choppers flying by. Then, with the sound of the choppers still in the background, Jim Morrison sings “This is the end...” just as the explosions start. Gradually, while the song continues, Coppola works in the dazed face of Captain Willard (Martin Sheen). The chopper sounds continue but they become the ceiling fan in Willard’s room. Almost without the audience realizing it, Coppola has used the song and the sound effects as a bridge from the macro to the micro, from the hell of Vietnam as a whole to the hell in Willard’s mind and soul.

9. “Tiny Dancer” by Elton John in Almost Famous – Writer-director Cameron Crowe fills Almost Famous with wonderful songs from the early 70s rock era. What works here is not so much the song’s lyrics but that it’s a catchy uplifting tune. Crowe plays it as the fictional band Stillwater is falling apart. Lead guitar Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup) has gone on a bender and the band retrieves him in their bus. As the bus pulls away, you can feel the tension in the air. But as the song plays, the band and their entourage gradually sing along. By the end all is forgiven (for the time being anyway). Crowe understands the power of music to unite people and he’s demonstrated that here.

8. “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen in Wayne’s World – This one’s a little different since it’s not the whole song, but merely the middle section that plays. As a “Saturday Night Live” sketch, “Wayne’s World” often poked fun at rock music and it does the same here. What better target then one of the theatrical rock group’s operatic self-important songs. Nothing fancy here. It’s just Wayne (Mike Myers), Garth (Dana Carvey) and their buddies mouthing the song’s lyrics. Their manner and expressions, though, are hilarious and set the tone for the rest of the movie.

7. “I’m Into Something Good” by Herman’s Hermits in The Naked Gun – This is a parody too, but not of the song. Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen) and Jane Spencer (Priscilla Presley) have just fallen in love. The film then skewers “Isn’t love great” montages as Frank and Jane run on the beach and eat cotton candy. The light, breezy bubble-gum tune helps set the stage as the montage moves from the cute to the ridiculous. The song merrily plays along while Frank and Jane go to the rodeo, get matching tattoos, and spray each other with condiments. The highlight comes when they walk away from a theater laughing hysterically. The camera pulls back to reveal the film that Frank and Jane just watched: Platoon. After all of that Jane remarks “To think we just met yesterday.” The Naked Gun actors play it straight to great comic effect. The song has the same impact.

6. “Jessie’s Girl” by Rick Springfield in Boogie Nights – Writer-Director Paul Thomas Anderson makes extensive use of 70s and 80s hits in his tale of the Southern California porn world. Besides just evoking that era, Anderson usually finds just the right song to set the mood for the scene. This is especially true at the end , when former porn stars Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg) and Reed Rothschild (John C. Reilly) and their crazy friend Todd (Thomas Jane) visit playboy Rahad Jackson (Alfred Molina), ostensibly to sell him drugs. Todd actually plans to rob Rahad. As Dirk, Reed and Todd sit and discuss the deal, Rahad grooves to the music playing. Anderson quickly builds the tension by having Rahad’s boy lover intermittently exploding fireworks. Dirk and Reed grow terrified knowing what is to come. At one point Anderson moves to a close-up to Dirk and the music stops. Meanwhile, the coked-out Rahad dances to “Jessie’s Girl” while having no idea what’s really going on. The music is a wonderful counterpoint to the action. Anderson uses it to show how the characters are on different planets.

5. “Johnny B Good” by Chuck Berry in Back to the Future – Unlike others on this list, where the song helps set the stage for a conflict or create the right move, here the music is the scene. Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) has reunited his parents thus ensuring his own existence. The band at his parents high school asks him to stay and jam, so he lets loose with the Chuck Berry classic. Of course he’s in 1955 and no one has heard this yet. It’s a simple, fun celebration for the characters and the audience.

4. “Girl, You’ll be a Woman Soon” by Urge Overkill in Pulp Fiction – Picking one song from Pulp Fiction was not easy. Not only are they terrific songs, but Quentin Tarantino uses them to create seminal, iconic, moments. There’s Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman) meeting to “Son of a Preacher Man.” Then there’s the two of them dancing to “You Never Can Tell.” I’m going with this one because it’s use comes at such a pivotal point in the story. Returning from the dance contest, Mia turns on the music and makes drinks, while Vincent uses the bathroom. Mia dances rhythmically to the music and Vincent tries to talk himself out of sleeping with Mia. The song’s verses are fast while the chorus is slow, mirroring the contrasting actions of the characters. It draws you in leading to Mia overdosing on Vince’s heroin (thinking it was cocaine), just as the song ends. Party’s over.

3. “Layla” by Derek and the Dominos in GoodFellas – Director Martin Scorsese is the master at using music to establish an era, but here its more for mood and tone. Scorsese only uses the second part of “Layla” referred to on the soundtrack as the “Piano Bridge.” This part of the song is entirely instrumental. Somehow it’s both up-tempo and sad. The guitars sound like they are wailing. Scorsese uses the music to underscore a montage of dead bodies, gangsters who we have come to know through the film. Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) has killed his former associates out of paranoia, destroying most of his crew. Each image is more powerful than the one before, leading up to the frozen body of one gangster dangling on a meat hook. The mournful music continues as Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) is preparing to become a “made” man. But we know through the music that this won’t happen, and it doesn’t. There is no promotion and Tommy is executed just as the song ends. In Scorsese’s hands, “Layla” has become an elegy.

2. “Old Time Rock N’ Roll” by Bob Seger in Risky Business – Here’s the only song on my list that didn’t just make a movie, it launched a career. The song plays right into Tom Cruise dancing in his underwear with shades on. This worked for women because, well, he’s Tom Cruise. It worked for men because of the context. High school kid Joel Goodson’s (Cruise) parents are away and he has the house to himself. What teenage guy doesn’t want that? “Old Time Rock N’ Roll” is a hard charging exuberant, song, which was all that was needed.

1. “Stuck in the Middle with You” by Stealers Wheel in Reservoir Dogs – As with “Girl, You’ll be a Woman Soon” and “Old Time Rock N’ Roll” it’s the blending of the song and the dance that works so well. Except here it’s the slow lumbering dance of Michael Madsen as Mr. Blond. A cop is tied helplessly to a chair, and Mr. Blonde has already said he would torture him. So when lead vocal Joe Egan sings “I got the feeling that something ain't right” you know he ain’t kidding. Mr. Blonde’s dance prolongs the cop’s agony before the famous ear slicing. Just as Mr. Blonde has cruel fun with the cop Tarantino teases the audience a little, having the song stop when Mr. Blonde leaves to get the gasoline and resume when he returns. The song is both a counterpoint and commentary on the scene. The counterpoint is the upbeat melody, and the commentary is the lyrics. For the cop is certainly stuck with someone he doesn’t want to be with. The song adds so much to the scene’s perverse pleasure that they are permanently meshed together.

Adam Spector
November 2, 2007

Contact us: Membership
For members only: E-Mailing List Ushers Website All Else

1 1