Pop Music in the Movies

There are few things more powerful than the perfect combination of music and visuals. Think of your favorite movie scenes, and I’d be willing to bet they’ve got amazing music in them.

On one hand, you’ve got the great film composers; Herrmann, Goldsmith, Williams, and so on. They’re all worth study in their own right, of course. But what I find equally powerful, and arguably more interesting, is the effective use of popular music.

Interesting, because often, directors (and presumably, music supervisors) get it so horribly wrong.

To see when it works, we can study at the feet of the masters of the craft: Anderson, Crowe, and Tarantino. There are others, of course, but these three have consistently shown a love and understanding of the power of the right music with the right scene, elevating both to legendary status.

To give some basis of what we’re talking about, let’s start with the iconic scene from Say Anything...

I’m not going to dissect the brilliance here, if you’ve seen this movie, you remember this scene. It’s pretty as simple as that.

Or this scene, from Rushmore by Wes Anderson:

Or for that matter, this scene (cello cello cello cello cello). The ending of this movie (and most of Anderson’s movies for that matter) is a fantastic example of perfect music selection, but I’m not going to post it here in case you haven’t seen the movie.

Song selection isn’t easy. One has to have a pretty extensive knowledge of music, have trust in someone who does, or at least have a song in mind when writing a scene. It’s probably not a coincidence the three directors who are so good at this, also usually write their own movies.

There are so many examples of Tarantino’s skill it’s hard to pick just one. Where Crowe and Anderson, fitting their styles, find music that evokes a longing, or a melancholy, Tarantino often picks music that nails a specific time, place, or character.

Take the opening of Jackie Brown, a long tracking shot down a corridor at LAX (the wrong way, incidentally):

Bobby Womack’s song sets the style and tone for the whole movie. Granted, this song was from a movie itself, but, well, it’s not like I can use a lot of Tarantino’s stuff. The juxtaposition of Stealers Wheel in Reservoir Dogs is great, but a touch... unpleasant.

While I could go on and on about great musical choices in films (and TV, of course), the real crime is when this tool is used poorly.

When good music goes bad

Except on rare occasions, movie audio of all kinds is there to supplement the picture. We are a very visually-biased species, so the majority of our attention is going to be taken up by what’s on screen. Music can call attention to itself, and directors can choose to highlight that music for specific purposes, but generally that’s not the point. Nor should it be.

The issue is when a director tries to reach a little too far with what they’re “saying” with music. An audience isn’t going to get the “meaning” behind a song. There’s the emotional impact of the music itself, and maybe a line or two gleaned from the lyrics if it’s mixed that way. In reality, they’re probably not listening to the lyrics at all, unless it’s something simple and repeated. The Say Anything... and Rushmore clips are good examples of that.

There are likely an infinite number of film school shorts (and even some real movies) with music selected for its lyrical meaning. The most common result is a jarring contrast for the audience —perhaps consciously noted, perhaps not — that the music creates, but with little or no emotional impact from the lyrics themselves. There isn’t the intellectual interaction with music in a movie like there can be when the music is on its own. It’s almost entirely emotional, based on the sound.

For proof of how little a visual audience pays attention to lyrics, I’d like to enter into evidence a few of examples where lyrics are entirely counter to the mood presented in the visuals. By using these songs, the director assumes no one is listening to the lyrics at all.

My favorite example is from the long-running Royal Caribbean cruise line advertisements. The music, “Lust for Life” by Iggy Pop, is pretty blatantly about heroin. Yet there are all these happy families dining, swimming and doing all sorts of fun stuff and not heroin. By editing out a few key lines, it’s fair to argue the song takes a new meaning, sort of, yet it’s the feel of the music the advertising was going for.

Ah, but wait, you say. What about the lyric “lust for life?” Exactly. That’s the one part of the song that sticks. The rest of the lyrics “Of course I’ve had in the ear before,” (which is actually in the commercial, amusingly) don’t stick in the brain when there’s visuals. The minds behind this commercial wanted the tone of the song, the “lust for life” line, and the rest didn’t matter. For the Iggy fans that recognized the song, or anyone that saw Trainspotting, it was like a bizarre joke. For the presumed target audience, i.e. cruise connoisseurs, it was a catchy jingle and a clever slogan.

That’s why the the Peter Gabriel song is so perfect in Say Anything... not just because of its sound, but also because the one key lyric “your eyes...” is repeated, and hangs on its own. This short snippet of words is enough to register as fitting, without forcing the audience to concentrate on the lyrics (which they won’t do) for some deeper meaning.

To be fair, it’s rare a mainstream movie would have a poor musical choice specifically because for the lyrics. However, there are other ways to screw this up.

One of the worst recent offenders I’ve seen is the movie Trishna by Michael Winterbottom. Now even if I hadn’t loathed every simpering second of this atrocious movie, I would have been yanked from the story by the director’s incompetence. Taking place entirely in India, Winterbottom smartly uses Indian music throughout the film. So far, so good. Except, and this still blows my mind, he had so little faith in the music and/or the audience’s reception of it, that he put subtitles for the lyrics on screen. To me, this is akin to explaining a joke: sure you’ve made the meaning clear, but you haven’t made it better. Sitting there, in the theater, watching the translated lyrics scroll on the screen (where was the bouncing ball, I wondered?), I could only figure the intellectual response of the audience: “Oh, OK, this is what this song means, and how it ties in with the movie.” That’s not what you want an audience to thinking about.

You don’t have to limit yourself to movies or commercials to see the blatant disregard of lyrical meanings. Every high school dance since the 80s has had at least one slow dance to “Every Breath You Take,” a song even Sting admits is about stalking. Ronald Reagan using “Born in the USA” was brutally and unintentionally ironic. Or more currently, Paul Ryan saying Rage Against the Machine is one of his favorite bands.

While the these movie and commercial examples show a poor understanding of the power of music, my biggest complaint is when directors consciously choose to mess with this great power.

The worst offense

There is one use of pop music I find so egregious, it makes me physically angry: anachronism. What do I mean by this? The best example is a period drama, using modern music. Baz Luhrmann is one of the worst offenders, but you can also site Sofia Coppola and others. Brian Helgeland’s abomination A Knight’s Tale is another recent example. Here’s the trailer:

That’s the actual music used in the movie, not just for the trailer. Roger Ebert cheekily said “Some will say the movie breaks tradition by telling a medieval story with a soundtrack of classic rock. They might as well argue it breaks the rules by setting a 1970s rock opera in the Middle Ages.” No, I would argue it uses music poorly. If you’re going to make a movie based in reality, you need to extend that reality to the music. There’s an expectation that the music, however non-diegetic, would still exist in the movie’s universe.

Here’s another example, Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, which is especially disappointing given how skillfully she used music with Lost in Translation.

I can imagine the path that would lead someone from “let’s make a period drama” to “hey, let’s use modern music cause the kids, they like the modern musics!” The justifications are always the same. Coppola said the film (and it’s music, apparently) was “intentionally very modern in order to humanize the historical figures involved.” Well, if you’re writing is so pathetic you need a gimmick to get the audience to care, may I suggest hiring a better screenwriter.

This is a common trick sci-fi movies/TV shows use when a writer or director doesn’t have faith they can connect with the audience. They’ll have a character be into “way-old 20th century stuff.” It’s cheap, lazy writing, written from a place of fear of your audience.

The end result of this anachronism is a disconnect between the visuals, the story, and the audio. Note that middle one, for it’s the most important. For a film to work, it needs to work as a cohesive package, all serving the story. Unless your goal is to intentionally disconnect your audience (either for shock or humor), using anachronistic music is going to create a subtle or not-so-subtle layer between the audience and the film.

Some people won’t notice, and others won’t care, this is true. That isn’t an argument for poor music selection. There will always be apologists for crap. That doesn’t mean the rest of the entertainment form can’t be something better.

So what am I getting at with all this? To infest your brain with the film school nonsense infecting mine? Maybe, but also something else. The best directors, the true masters of their craft, either know and study every aspect of filmmaking — visuals, story, acting, sound, music, and so on — or are smart enough to hire people who are experts in their own right.

Which is to say, just because a studio gives someone the go-ahead to make a movie, doesn’t mean they’re any good at it. Just look at how Brett Ratner still has a career. 

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