The following is an excerpt from an expanded piece based on my previous post about film scenes with memorable songs.
A song that contains great films is nice, but having the right great songs is what makes a film brilliant. Some films are known mostly by their soundtracks (Empire Records, New Jack City, City of Angels), which are often a collection of songs picked by the producer for mutual marketing purposes and are minimally heard in the film as playing in a car passing by or in the background of a bar/restaurant scene. The filmmaker who can pick a specific song out of a catalog of literally millions of existing songs to fit a scene is the brilliant film maker. When this match succeeds, the song will take on new meaning for the viewer and forever be associated with the scene.
There are plenty of well-known song/scene examples that can be named easily (The Graduate, “Sound of Silence”, Reservoir Dogs’ “Stuck In the Middle With You”, Rocky’s “Eye of the Tiger”) but let’s take a look at five examples in lesser-known films that contain a song/scene match made in heaven.
Death Proof: “Hold Tight” by Dave, Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mitch & Titch
No one curates a soundtrack like Quentin Tarantino. He has the unmatched skill of unearthing unappreciated singles of the sixties and seventies and turning them into unforgettable parts of his films. In his under-appreciated 2007 feature Death Proof, his contribution to the double feature Grindhouse. The scene finds a clique of young women lead by the charismatic and confident radio personality Jungle Julia, headed in a car out after a night of drinking to a girls getaway at a lake house. Jungle Julia calls the radio station to request “Hold Tight,” explaining to her friends that the band is a hidden gem who were on the verge of stardom. It is not unlike Tarantino characters to acknowledge and provide commentary in a film. The retro guitar riffs of “Hold Tight” provide the perfect soundtrack to letting loose on their road trip, and an equally startling soundtrack to the violent crash caused by the homicidal Stuntman Mike, who has been stalking them throughout the evening. The first half of the film has been building the tension up to this moment, and the building momentum of the rock song provides the adrenaline in the scene, reaching the moment of impact of the crash with the building climax of the drum solo. This being a Quentin Tarantino film, the violent aftermath of the crash is not left to the imagination.
Trainspotting: “Perfect Day”, Lou Reed
The film Trainspotting and its soundtrack certainly got its due attention in the nineties (no dorm room my freshmen year was without a Renton poster with the “Choose life… “quote, as some sort of obligatory statement against traditional consumerism). but with the recent passing of Lou Reed, Renton’s overdose scene backed by the sad but beautiful “Perfect Day” seems even more poignant. This is a textbook case of irony, being that almost dying from an overdose is the exact opposite of a perfect day, but the contrast still has the desired impact. WHen Renton overdoses, he envisions sinking into a hole in the rug, a visual perspective that continually frames the shot from his perspective. Throughout the simple verses and sweeping choruses, we see Renton being thrown into a cab by his companion and the driver drop him on the sidewalk of the hospital like a discarded item. It’s a dark view of drug use without any preachiness. This scene is an introduction to the work of Danny Boyle, who has proven in subsequent films that he understands how to incorporate music into a scene.
D.E.B.S: “A Little Respect,” Erasure
I find it almost criminal that more people don’t know about the 2004 action/comedy film D.E.B.S., about a select group of teenage girls who are trained at a secret spy academy. Central to the film is the emerging romance between the school’s star pupil and the evil supervillain she is trying to defeat; a same sex couples are rarely portrayed in comedies with such characterization and depth. The film is also a farcical look at the superspy tropes, and both Amy and Lucy employ comically cartoonish weapons and tactics. When Amy decides her loyalty is to her spy career, Lucy tries to win her back with supervillain gimmicks, all in a montage set to Erasure’s nineties megahit “A Little Respect.” Lucy tries to win Amy back by planting a bomb that when diffused, spits out flowers and balloons. Lucy tries to be a better person by returning bags of money (with large dollar signs on them, of course) to the bank she stole them from. Despite much of the film being a farce, there is nothing ironic about the montage of Lucy and Amy’s pining for each other; it’s pretty damn endearing.
The Virgin Suicides: “Come Sail Away”, Styx
Sophia Coppola’s first feature, The Virgin Suicides (1999), is in the form of a flashback to the seventies, a dream-like, adoring ode to the five blond, beautiful, mysterious Lisbon sisters, and seeks to explore any clues as to their demise (not a spoiler; it’s in the title). The closest the neighborhood boys got to the beautiful, mysterious creatures they worshipped from afar, was to take them to a school dance, a rare opportunity given to the girls by their strict parents. The sweeping, orchestral and almost melodramatic opening to Styx’s “Come Sail Away” provides the backdrop for the tentative first dance of the evening. As the song transitions into the main rock anthem, the couples become more and more wrapped up in the amazement of it all, and they finally see the Lisbon girls in pure, unfiltered joy. A song that is enjoyed presently for its kitsch works honestly and earnestly here.
You’re Next: “Looking for the Magic”, The Dwight Tilley Band
You’re Next was this year’s much-hyped independent horror film, both for its unique storytelling and new twist on old horror tropes. Much of the suspense is cleverly scored with synthesizer ode to seventies horror films. However, the one featured song, “Looking for the Magic” by the Dwight Tilley Band, is heavily featured in the film. In the prologue of the film, a young woman puts the song on repeat in the CD player of the man she is reluctantly sleeping with. THe song continues to repeat while she is savagely murdered by a masked intruder. The upbeat and retro nature of the song contrasted with the brutal murder sets up the contrasting tone of the film, a scary slasher film with an overlay of dark humor. You’ll be hard pressed to get the song out of your head after seeing this film, proven by the sudden influx of youtube hits on the video of a song that barely made a mark on the charts in the 1970s.