Sound And Vision – The Best Uses Of Songs In Movies
Since its birth more than a century ago, cinema has used music to heighten and manipulate our emotions.
Before the invention of sound, everything from a simple piano to a full-blown orchestra was employed by silent movies to make us smile, tug the heartstrings or set the pulse racing.
This kinship between sound and vision has continued to this day and, when done right, can leave a lasting impression and elevate a film in the eyes and ears of the viewer.
The thought struck me again during a recent viewing of Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha, specifically the scene in which Greta Gerwig’s titular protagonist dances giddily through the streets of New York as David Bowie’s Modern Love plays over the soundtrack. It’s a joyful confluence of moving picture and an 80’s classic that, more than anything else in the film, has stayed with me.
There are far too many memorable examples of movie scenes that remain stuck in my head because of the way the director has used a song to enhance the action on screen. Here are just a handful of my picks – as ever I’d love to know:
What are your favourite movie scenes set to a great song?
Layla (Piano Exit) by Derek And The Dominos
Martin Scorsese has long been a master of the soundtrack, none more so than in his 1990 masterpiece Goodfellas. The film is chock full of classic music overlayed over striking visuals; however, the scene that always sticks in my mind is when dead bodies start showing up across the city, be they in a car, a refuse truck or the back of a meat lorry. Regarded as one of rock ‘n’ roll’s most definitive love songs, Scorsese’s inspired use of Derek And The Dominos’ Layla (Piano Exit) instead gives the scene an elegiac tone as we know this marks the beginning of the end for wiseguys Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci).
Easy Rider (1969)
Born To Be Wild by Steppenwolf
And low, the New Hollywood was born. Although released a year earlier, Steppenwolf’s Born To Be Wild will forever be joined at the hip with Easy Rider, such is the impact the film had. It’s impossible to think of another song that could be used in its place as Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper’s drug-smuggling bikers take to the road to get to Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Just as Fonda’s decision to dispose of his watch marked a turning point in cinema, that iconic opening drum beat and insanely catchy guitar riff was the perfect soundtrack.
Reservoir Dogs (1992)
Stuck In The Middle With You by Stealers Wheel
Another director synonymous for using the ‘needle drop’ is Quentin Tarantino; so much so in fact that for his debut feature Reservoir Dogs, the fictional K-Billy’s Super Sounds of the Seventies is as integral a character in the film as Mr White et al. Call it unfortunate timing for poor old Officer Marvin Nash (Kirk Baltz), but when Stealers Wheel’s appropriately titled Stuck In The Middle With You takes to the airwaves, it provides the psychopathic Mr Blonde (Michael Madsen) with the musical spur he needs to perform some unwanted ear surgery. There are numerous other great songs used to superb effect by Tarantino throughout his career, but this remains the most potent example.
Boogie Nights (1997)
Jessie’s Girl by Rick Springfield
Once the porn star’s porn star, Dirk Diggler’s (Mark Wahlberg) desperate collapse into drug addiction reaches its sad nadir in this mesmerising scene, one of the finest of Paul Thomas Anderson’s astonishing career. Dirk, Reed Rothchild (John C Reilly) and their pal Todd’s (Thomas Jane) misguided attempt to sell drug dealer Rahad Jackson (Alfred Molina) baking soda instead of cocaine predictably goes awry. As Jackson dances to Rick Springfield’s uplifting Jessie’s Girl, the folly of their plan gradually dawns on an increasingly jittery Dirk and the unbearable tension builds with every firecracker dropped by Jackson’s mute friend. Anyone who says Wahlberg can’t act just needs to watch how he gets lost in the song before strung-out paranoia and self-loathing seeps into his eyes – it’s a masterclass in subtle character shifts. Molina, meanwhile, is spot-on as always with a genuinely unnerving performance as the loathsome dealer.
Born Slippy.NUX by Underworld
Danny Boyle is among a rare breed of directors who understand how and where to use dance music in their films without it sounding naff. He had demonstrated his keen understanding of the form by inventively switching between slow motion and speeded up footage to the penetrating sound of Leftfield’s title track in his debut film Shallow Grave. In his adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s cult novel, Boyle laid a little-known b-side by the then equally little-known Underworld over the film’s closing scene. Played quietly in the background at first, the tune slowly builds to a pulse-quickening crescendo as Ewan McGregor’s Renton steals off with his friends’ loot and vows to choose life over heroin.
The Big Lebowski (1998)
Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In) by Kenny Rogers & The First Edition
It’s easy to forget just how integral music is to the Coens’ oeuvre. From O Brother, Where Art Thou? to their latest Inside Llewyn Davis, their use of music is as carefully thought out as their storyboarded visuals. Arguably their most memorable needle-drop scene is the surreal ‘Gutterballs’ dream sequence from The Big Lebowski. Set to the psychedelic Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In), a wide-eyed Dude’s (Jeff Bridges) love of bowling is indulged as he rents a pair of shoes from Saddam Hussein, teaches Julianne Moore’s Nordic-clad Maude Lebowski how to bowl and then becomes the ball as he ‘rolls’ through the spread legs of dancing girls in swimsuits. The Dude does, indeed, abide.