Amazing Soundtrack Moments in Film/Television Using Obscure and Retro Songs


Here’s an obvious statement: an amazing soundtrack can really enhance the quality of a scene from film and television. Sometimes a memorable scene is memorable because of the soundtrack, and the scene becomes synonymous with the scene whenever you hear it outside of the context of the film.  The 90s were likely the heyday of the soundtrack album, a carefully curated compilation of songs were written especially for the soundtrack to be packaged with an album that was meant to climb the music charts while the film climbed the box office charts. Think Empire Records, Singles, Batman Forever, Boys on the Side, New Jack City, Clueless, etc etc.)

I’m particularly intrigued by the idea of a film maker searching for a song from the past that they they feel is the best fit for the scene, rather than being courted by current record companies striking a deal to cash in on a new band’s popularity by partnering with the film.

This idea of mining older songs came to mind this past weekend, when I saw the much-hyped horror film You’re Next, whose score utilized some great throw-back synthesizer music to build the tension. The unsuspecting surprise was the important role of the 1977 song “Looking for the Magic” by the Dwight Tilley Band. You’ve heard of the Dwight Tilley band, right? Exactly. But somehow the director/producer knew that this obscure song was the perfect fit for the story they were telling.

The prologue of You’re Next concerns a couple who is  savagely murdered in their home. The woman, after a session of awkward lovemaking, walks downstairs and puts on the song on repeat while her lover is in the shower. The masked intruder bludgeons them to death, but chooses to leave “Looking for the Magic”  playing loudly on a continuous loop. The upbeat nature of the song provides a startling contrast to to the murder, and the song is still playing when the bodies are discovered by a neighbor, once again providing the ironic soundtrack.

Why pick an obscure rock song from the seventies that, although popular at the time, didn’t have any staying power? It was most likely a song hand picked by the director/writer. Although You’re Next is far from a blockbuster film, the counts and comments on the youtube video show that it has had a surge in popularity for the first time in 30+ years. And I am sure, if any viewer of You’re Next would encounter this song on an oldies station, they would immediately recall the chilling way in which it was used.

This lead me to think of other films that have this unique ability to showcase songs from the past that perhaps never gained large success upon the time of release, but have been hand-selected to help with a filmmaker’s vision,  giving it a boost in acknowledgement that they perhaps never had in their current era.

No one curates a better soundtrack than Quentin Tarantino. The man scours back catalogs of artists to find the perfect music for his films. Who can imagine Pulp Fiction without “Miserlou”? Can you imagine Michael Madsen torturing a cop to any other song besides “Stuck In the Middle With You?” The characters of his films often acknowledge the music playing, such as the ladies of the first act of Death Proof, Quentin’s contribution to the double feature Grindhouse, an homage to the grindhouse films of the seventies. [This remains an underrated delight that was tragically not appreciated by the box office. But that’s another article altogether.]

In the first act of Death Proof, a group of close friends head out to a lake house after a night of drinking. Jungle Julia, the de facto leader of the women,  calls the radio station to request the song “Hold Tight” by the sixties band Dave Dee Dozy Mick & Tich, even providing an explanation of the band. Tarantino has the characters actually acknowledge their love for the song in the script; I don’t think he could spell out his love for the song any more than that. The women fill the scene with their reactions to the song, which is some good old-fashioned jamming out. “Hold TIght” It also provides a grim soundtrack for a brutal car accident, caused by the evil murderer Stuntman Mike. [Warning it’s incredibly graphic.] The contrast of the women enjoying the song and its ironic use in showing their brutal demise is so dark but incredibly brilliant. It’s amazing that this song wasn’t more popular; it has all the hallmarks of a great pop song. I couldn’t stop listening to this song after I saw the film, but I also couldn’t stop picturing Jungle Julia’s severed leg.

The recent HBO show Girls has Lena Dunham’s Hannah Horvath as the embodiment of the modern twenty-something, and ironically, the voice of her generation.  In an season one episode, she is dealing with finding out that her ex-boyfriend is gay, coupled with a series of disappointing information about her love life and career life. Alone in her room, she is on the verge of settling into a depression, but she suddenly chooses to dance without abandon to Swedish pop star Robyn’s single “Dancing On My Own.” The subject of the song both laments her lack of “success” with men, but also as a declaration of being her own person. Her best friend/roommate Marnie comes home and joins in on the dancing, providing an homage to the power of female friendships.

Robyn is a contemporary artist, but has found most of her success overseas. The selection of “Dancing On My Own” for Girls certainly helped her break out in the States. And damn, it is catchy: sad and yearning, but with a fucking great hook.

Back in 2003, the tv talk around the water cooler was the question “What’s in the hatch?” . The season one cliffhanger of Lost left us with Locke and the gang staring into the hatch after a beam of light generated from it, leaving a summer to speculate the mystery. The season two cold open showed us a faceless man deciding to play Mama Cass’ “Make Your Own Kind of Music” in some sort of bunker, following a daily routine of exercising, showering, and…not much else. We quickly are introduced to Desmond, who has been living in the hatch for two years. {Just go with me on this, it’s a bit complicated.]

The choice of a Mama Cass song is interesting: it provides a retro feel, almost ironic, and serves as a motivator for Desmond, who, as we find out, has made some unpopular choices that has paved his unique path through life and the afterlife [again, trust me on this, it’s a lot to explain. ] There’s an underlying sadness to the song, but perhaps I am seeing that in hindsight after Mama Cass’ death and associating with Lost.

There’s no way in which the plot of Inception can be mentioned casually, but I’m not going to get too much into the plot. However, I can say that it involves a renegade team of experts from all area of the globe. And, for reasons I won’t get into, they need a trigger song that they will all recognize when it is time to leave the current dream scenario. Edith Piaf’s “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien” is the chosen song, given the international span of the characters, and the main characters tumultuous relationship with his French-born wife. This was certainly a popular song in its time, but it became known to a new generation of film fans. Christopher Nolan must have really enjoyed this song, for it was also the basis of the score of the film:

It’s hard to believe that the original incarnation of The Office, created by Ricky Gervais in the UK, was only 13 episodes. In those thirteen episodes, I became so attached to the characters and their hopes and desires that I cried tears of joy that in the Christmas Special and finale, Tim and Dawn finally were able to be together. They share their first kiss at an office party where the eighties new wave song “Only You” is playing, and it fit the situation perfectly, once again making me remember how much I love eighties New Wave. With today’s alternative bands turning back to electronica and retro feel, it wouldn’t even surprise me if this was a current single from The Postal Service. [Jim and Pam were loosely based on Dawn and Tim, but we were able to follow them way past their first kiss.]

The song was also central to the epilogue of Can’t Hardly Wait, but I wasn’t as affected as when Jennifer Love Hewitt and what’s-his-name got together, obviously.

A Kevin Smith farce about amateur pornography may not be the first place you’d think about meaningful scenes. To give Smith credit, he does curate a great soundtrack for all of his films. The titular characters of Zack and Miri Make a Porno, platonic friends since high school, agree to have their first sexual experience with each other to be filmed for their DIY dirty film. The leadup to the sex includes all the tropes associated with a bad, trashy porno, but the film, both in tone and direction, promptly switches to a really touching scene. The song that plays is nineties rock juggernauts Live “Hold Me Up.” Immediately after seeing the film, I ran home to unearth my discography of Live, furiously looking for the song. After some frantic message board perusing, I found that the song had never been officially released by the band and rarely even heard by their most devout fans. The scene is actually one of the more realistic and tender sex scenes in recent mainstream films, and that is definitely enhanced by the inclusion of “Hold Me Up.”

Kevin Smith somehow must have heard the song several years ago and chose it specifically for the moment. “Hold Me Up” is Live at their best: a slow, tender chorus followed by a heavy rock chorus (one would say it provides the same dynamics of a couples’ first time together). As always, the internet delivers; after this film many other sought out the song, finding a obscure copy and even enhancing the sound quality. Video NSFW because, duh.


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