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?

Goodfellas (1990)
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.

Trainspotting (1996)
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.

Debuts Blogathon: Joel Coen – Blood Simple (1984)

Debuts Blogathon

Today in the Debuts Blogathon, hosted by myself and Chris at Terry Malloy’s Pigeon Coop, I’m delighted to welcome the contribution of Mark from Marked Movies. This was one of the first blogs I followed and I’ve never been less than mightily impressed by his output. Mark’s reviews set a high standard, while his great features, such as ‘Classic Scene’, are great fun to read. Here Mark covers Joel ‘Coen Brother’ Coen’s celebrated first feature Blood Simple. In case you haven’t already signed up to Marked Movies, do so now. You won’t regret it.

Joel Coen

Blood Simple (1984)

Having cut his teeth as Assistant Editor on director Sam Raimi’s cult classic The Evil Dead in 1981, Joel Coen went on to become a fully fledged director himself with his debut Blood Simple in 1984.

Blood Simple Poster On the advice of Raimi, Joel and his brother Ethan (whom it has always been said, actually shared directorial duties) went door-to-door showing potential investors a two minute ‘trailer’ of the film they planned to make, which resulted in them raising $750,000 and just enough to begin production of their movie. It was at this point that two of cinema’s most consistent and original talents had arrived.

Blood SimpleIn West Texas, saloon owner Julian Marty (Dan Hedaya) suspects that his wife Abby (Frances McDormand) is cheating on him with Ray (John Getz), one of his bartenders. Marty then hires Loren Visser (M. Emmet Walsh), a private detective, to investigate. Once Marty gains proof of the adulterous affair, he pays Visser to kill them. However, Visser is a very unscrupulous type and has plans of his own.

When you comb through the filmography of the Coen’s, three renowned and highly respected crime writers will inevitably surface. They are: James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. However, it’s their debut Blood Simple that fully harks back to the hard boiled noirs of the 1940′s, namely The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity – both of which are written by Cain and the latter, in fact, co-scripted by Chandler when it made it the screen.

Blood SimpleHammett was also a contemporary of these writers and wrote the novel Red Harvest, which actually coined the term “blood simple”. It is described as “the addled, fearful mindset people are in after a prolonged immersion in violent situations”. This very description sums the movie up perfectly. It’s a homage to these great writers and the genre they excelled in. Also, like their stories, once the characters and their motivations are established, there is no going back.

Although this was their debut, labyrinthine plots and double-crosses would become a staple of the Coens’ work that followed. Give or take the odd zany comedy, their filmography largely consists of these writers; Miller’s Crossing was heavily influenced by Hammett’s The Glass Key, while The Big Lebowski loosely took its structure from the work of Raymond Chandler, and James M. Cain would resurface in The Man Who Wasn’t There. Even the Oscar-winning Fargo and No Country For Old Men could be seen as riffs on Blood Simple itself. The thing that’s most apparent about this debut from the Coen’s, though, is that their stylistic approach is plain to see. It cast the mould from which we have witnessed their serpentine abilities in storytelling and hugely inventive directorial flourishes.

Blood SimpleMuch has been said about the cinematography on the Coens’ output. This has largely been due to the work of their regular collaborator Roger Deakins. However, it was Barry Sonnenfeld who worked on the first three Coen’s movies and you’d be hard pushed to notice much of a difference between them. This simply comes down to them translating exactly the vision that the brothers had. That’s not to take away from the work of Deakins or, in this case, Sonnenfeld as their cinematography has always been sublime but ultimately it comes down to the Coens’ inventively keen eye for a shot.

Blood SimpleThey are known for being sticklers for detail, knowing exactly what they want and exactly how it should look and working from a shoestring budget doesn’t prevent them from realising their Hitchcockian melee of passion, bloodshed and suspense. If anything, their limited budget shows how artistic and creative they really are and they’re not without (or what would become) their trademark moments of irony.

The Coen Brothers have gone on to become two of the most respected filmmakers in the business, and rightfully so. With many classics – cult and mainstream – under their belts already, there’s really no end to what they’re capable of. That being said, it’s always a pleasure to return to their roots and see where it all began.

Over at Terry Malloy’s Pigeon Coop, Alex from And So It Begins… writes about David Gordon Green’s much-loved debut George Washington. Head over to Chris’s site now by clicking here.

Next up, it’s the turn of Ruth from the awesome FlixChatter. Ruth will be covering Ben Affleck’s first feature Gone Baby Gone. Looking forward to this; see you then.