Five of the best…times cinema has changed how I feel about a song/band/artist

Film and music are two forms which make for interesting and creative bedfellows, the power of the two combined have created some unforgettable partnerships.  There are so many films that are hard to imagine without their score (too many for me to even mention here, for fear of leaving out a classic) and there are those that are notable for the absence of any music at all. And away from the meticulously crafted scores, there are the songs that are chosen for films that can work wonders in a scene, from heightening the drama and pulling on the heartstrings to puncturing the memory with a slice of pop culture pop that makes you smile and tap your toes. And then there are the times in cinema, where a song comes along,  bursting within the walls of the frame  and takes you by surprise, whether it’s because you didn’t expect its  welcome presence or whether due to its somewhat strange appearance in a scene, it then changes your previous feelings towards that song completely.  And it’s these times when a song being used in cinema has transformed my relationship with it or the artist that I have pondered below to try and rationalise/excuse/accept what has happened.

*Please note that the below songs may have been used in other films but I am referencing them in the films that they stood out for me.

Dancing in the Moonlight- Toploader (used in Four Lions)

Man I hated this song, I mean really hated this song, when it first came out and ever since. Having not heard the original, all I had to go was Toploader’s annoying 90s version and boy did I hate it. It was the type of song that if it came on when I was out and about, I would be cursing in my head and counting down the moments until it was over. It was the type of song that if it came on in the car I would turn it off or mute it until it was over (if it was someone else in charge of the music, I would plead for their mercy to turn it off). It was the type of song that made me detest Jamie Oliver just for using it in his Naked Chef shenanigans. Bugger off Toploader with your big Moka!

Then something happened. When I first watched Chris Morris’ black comedy Four Lions, during a scene, that bloody song came on and at first I cringed at the prospect of having to endure the pop banality of the load of Top. But then I began to find its presence amusing, as a group of Muslim men sung along to the tune in between planning a suicide bombing, the song took on a different quality, the cheery inoffensive pop song cast amidst a plot that flirts with controversy created an absurd juxtaposition.  But then Morris does this so well, finding the humour within the incomprehensible, sometimes the only way to rationalise is with laughter. And then so Toploader’s one time Sainsburys advertising diarrhoea ditty becomes funny and dare I say likeable? Likeable in the sense that now when I hear it, I don’t imagine Jamie and chums whipping up tasty bangers in the kitchen but instead now imagine a bunch of idiots in a van or in a flat in Sheffield, the goofiness of the situation makes me smile.  Something I never thought would happen with a Toploader tune.

God Only Knows- The Beach Boys (performed by Paul Dano in Love and Mercy)

Ok so I already really liked this song and had heard it many many times, Pet Sounds is often played on repeat in our household (as it is one of the greatest albums ever made) but when I watched Love and Mercy, the song was transformed for me. The film is a biographical drama about Brian Wilson, seen through two major periods of his life, the 60s and the 80s and offers two versions of Wilson in the form of Paul Dano and John Cusack. Whilst Cusack is competent as the elder Wilson, it is Dano as the younger version that steals the film and leaves you wanting more of his timeline; in fact a whole film of Dano’s Wilson during the making of Pet Sounds would have been better. It is in one of these scenes that Dano performs a simple early version of God Only Knows, just him at the piano in his house, watched by his domineering father and it is in this moment that I felt I was hearing the song for the first time; such was the power of the scene.  The fragility of Wilson and in turn, the song made God Only Knows feel so much more beautiful, its simplistic nature also turns out to be its greatest strength, it has a purity and honesty that endures and still captivates. Learning about Wilson’s life in the film also gives the song another layer of depth, the cathartic output coinciding with the pain he suffered.  Dano’s performance of God Only Knows gave me goose bumps in the cinema and took a great song and made it into celluloid majesty.

Firework- Katy Perry (used in Rust and Bone)

Katy Perry conjures up many thoughts and connotations – bubblegum pop princess with a tendency for over-shouting in her songs, purveyor of kitsch costumes and enough Technicolor to give you eye strain, sworn enemy of the Swifty or most recently one lucky lady on her hols (if you haven’t already seen the pics, google Orlando Bloom on a paddle board). But, as popular as her music is, we don’t tend to see it as very deep, instead it is pure emphatic pop, though when taken into a different situation, what was previously a cheesy pop song suddenly feels empowering and dare I say moving? That is what happens in Jacques Audiard’s 2012 drama Rust and Bone, in a scene featuring Marion Cotillard, a former killer whale trainer who has lost both her legs after a terrible accident at the whale park where she worked. We first hear Katy Perry’s song Firework as we see Cotillard’s character Stephanie performing a routine with the whales for a crowd of visitors at the park; it is the song that they use for the performance. After Stephanie is injured she loses all sense of her previous identity, confined to a wheelchair and unable to adjust to her new circumstance she is consumed by a sense of defeat. An unlikely friendship with an unemployed man trying to support his son (Matthias Schoenaerts) brings a change in Stephanie and in a scene where Perry’s song again is heard on the radio this time as Stephanie is by herself, she begins to perform the routine that she used to with the whales. Whilst she is in her wheelchair this time, her face begins to change as she performs her arm movements and the song kicks in to accompany this, Stephanie remembers the life she had but this time, it is not in a negative way. She begins to smile, a sense of purpose returns to her, you can see the fight returning to her and as this happens Perry’s song becomes emotive and triumphant. It may seem contrived to say that the lyrics of Firework take on a deeper meaning but in that moment, they really do, the power of cinema shows that in the right context, a song that once felt throwaway can become resonant and leave you now imagining that imagery whenever you hear it. Not bad for a bit of pop fluff eh?

Avril 14th– Aphex Twin (used in Marie Antoinette)

My knowledge of Aphex Twin was pretty narrow (and still is to be honest) and I only associated the British electronic artist with the terrifying imagery from the video Come to Daddy or the equally disturbing Window Licker which I remember being fascinated and horrified by in a film studies lesson. So when I was watching Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette and a beautiful piece of piano based music was played during a scene I was really surprised when it turned out to be Aphex Twin. It was also surprising that in a film with a soundtrack of pop and offbeat choice which Coppola uses to juxtapose the time period, (like hearing The Strokes as Kirsten Dunst runs around the palace in a full powdered wig), that the inclusion of Aphex Twin turns out to be one of the pieces of music that fits the most. Its soft, melancholy piano also lends to the shift in Coppola’s film where the hedonistic earlier scenes of Marie Antoinette indulging the riches of her new royal lifestyle give way to a woman who is confined into the life that she has married into, the images of her in full regalia as she walks through fields craving more solitude, that she later briefly finds when she bears a child. Interestingly the song is also used in the closing credits to (previous entry) Four Lions and also provides the most melancholy moment in that film too.

Avril 14th hints at what a film score from Aphex Twin might be like, that the artist who is always one step ahead, who sounds like the future (according to my musical other half) might be able to strip back the electronica and produce a more classical sound akin to film composition, one which could be emotive and soulful. Aphex Twin’s inclusion in Marie Antoinette created a shift in how I saw/heard the artist and perhaps if he could produce more music like this I could see less of the earlier scary images in my head.

Dancing in the Dark- Bruce Springsteen (used in A Place beyond the Pines)

I am going to make a confession here- before hearing this song in Derek Cianfrance’s cross generational crime drama, I didn’t realise how awesome it was. My only thoughts on it were that it was ‘the one where Monica dances in the video’ and perhaps shamefully thought that Bruce Springsteen wasn’t really my sort of music, resigning it the label of ‘Dad Rock’. But when Ryan Gosling appeared in the film, he was at the height of his powers, coming off the back of his cooler than cool performance in Drive (he is the sole reason the rise of the shiny bomber has come back with a vengeance) and anything he did was laced with an air of stylish charm. Dancing in the Dark appears in a brief scene where Gosling’s stunt biker Luke has just completed a successful robbery and is celebrating with his cohort Robin (the equally awesome but for different reasons Ben Mendelsohn) and his dog. Sometimes it takes a different setting to make you see or hear something in a different way and this is what happens with the Bruce Springsteen track for me. It is likely that any scene where Gosling dances with a dog is going to charm you and make you take notice but the song still has to be good and hearing it in A Place beyond the Pines , I realised how good it actually was. I began to seek out a bit of Bruce and realised I had been wrong, or maybe it’s because I am getting older that I am succumbing to old American rock. Whichever it is, I know recognise that Bruce is boss and Dancing in the Dark now reigns supreme on most of the playlists I create. When it comes on at the next wedding reception I am at, I will take to the dance-floor and channel Gosling and his furry friend.


Five of the best…Films I love but find hard to go back to

Warning- Contains plot details/spoilers

Perhaps I am an overly sensitive soul but do you ever watch a film for the first time, a film that grabs you emotionally, pierces through your heart and jumps straight into your list of all time favourite films? Then when you come to watch it again, you hesitate, your heart twitches and a melancholy wave creeps upon you as you remember the ache that you felt upon the first viewing? These are not to be confused with the type of films that are too arduous to watch again (yeah Dogtooth I am talking about you) but the type of films that cause a malaise inducing dilemma. Like Joel and Clementine ponder in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,-do they go through their relationship again knowing it will end badly just so they can experience the good moments, I, in turn, ponder the merits of getting a case of the blues to experience the beauty in certain films. Hopefully I am not alone in this quandary, that there is cinematic solidarity for this predicament, and so as a cathartic exercise I have listed five films that I absolutely adore but find it hard to go back to.

Where the Wild Things Are (Spike Jonze, 2009)

Any film that explores childhood, from the heady excitement to the realisation that something along the way will have been lost, will always edge on the side of melancholy but Spike Jonze’s adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are absolutely floored me. Stirring up wistful memories of being a child, Jonze’s take on the beloved book by Maurice Sendak is not really a film for kids, despite the presence of giant furry creatures and is instead for those who have lived and lost their adolescence. We follow Max (Max Records), the boy who has behaved badly and is sent to bed without supper, who then escapes to a forest inhabited by the Wild Things, a journey that feels like one of those endless summer school holidays where you play all day, fall out with your best friends, make up again and go home at the end of it all, grubby from climbing trees and playing in the dirt but with a dreamy satisfaction as the sun goes down. Where the Wild Things are beautifully captures this feeling and more, through its spirited direction and its wondrous realisation of the wild creatures, created through a mix of Jim Henson’s workshop and digital face work, and all voiced perfectly particularly James Gandolfini’s lead Wild Thing Carol. And yet for all the joy that there is to behold, the abandonment that comes with childhood, there is also a looming sense of heavy-heartedness, from the autumnal palette of the film to the repeated hints that all things have an end. This is achingly realised in a scene with Max and Carol, as they walk across a desert, Carol exclaims ‘soon the whole island will be dust and I don’t even know what comes after dust’.  Karen O’s glorious soundtrack fits the mood beautifully slipping between the euphoria of the wild rumpus to the reflective nature of Carol’s hideaway and by the time her cover of Daniel Johnston’s Worried Shoes can be heard, I begin to get a serious case of heavy boots. This builds throughout the film to an ending that, despite having not watched the film since its release in 2009, is still etched into my soul, as Max leaves the island and in turn his new friends, Carol runs after his boat and the sight of Gandolfini’s Wild Thing crying at the loss of Max is truly devastating. Where the Wild Things Are is a bewitching capsule of childhood, one that whilst I am watching leads me to mourn for a time that I can never return to and so makes it hard to return to the film, it is only on reflection of a period of time that we can only hope we savoured every (bitter) sweet moment of it.

Inside Llewyn Davies (The Coen Brothers, 2013)

For their 2013 folk masterpiece, The Coen Brothers are firmly on melancholy form asking the wistful extensional question that many (struggling) artists will have to ask themselves at one point; whether they are going to continue, to persevere on or whether they consign their art to the back burner and get a ‘real’ job. For Llewyn Davies (Oscar Isaac) a folk singer working the Greenwich Village circuit in 1960s New York, there seems to be no choice, despite what the world is conspiring to tell him and we watch as he treads a weather worn path in pursuit of his passion, penniless, relying on the kindness of strangers and sometimes literally without a coat on his back. On the initial surface, Llewyn does not fit the mould of the lovable loser that we would usually root for yet it is his unfaltering commitment to non-conformity that provides a bittersweet connection to our anti-hero as the film unfolds. In one scene his sister hints to Llewyn that he should quit the music to which he replies ‘So I should just exist?’ a feeling that will resonate to anyone with a passion that will not diminish. And therein lies the rub and the reason I find this film a soul searching struggle, if life gives you lemons, what if you can’t even get anyone to take your lemonade? How many no’s does it take before you give in? The Coens reflect the narrative handsomely with the contrast of the intimacy of the warm hued folk scene to the harsh realities of a cold New York winter, again an autumnal palette is peppered through the film, which seems to be a precursor to my blues, the passing of seasons are a prelude to introspective behaviour. There is also a recurring motif with a ginger cat, which is at once amusing but becomes quietly devastating, in one particular scene, Llewyn is leaving the car he has been hitching a ride in and to which the cat has been his companion. He stops and looks at the cat, debating whether to take him any further, a moment occurs between them, a look that the cat portrays is remarkable and the emotion that this scene creates is almost too painful to recall. And that’s the Coen’s great trick, like a cinematic slight of hand, they misdirect you with unique brand of humour and amusing cameos and all the while they are building a beautiful brooding picture which creeps up on you and tenderly breaks your heart. The bastards!

Blue Valentine (Derek Cianfrance, 2010)

We all want to believe that love can conquer all but sometimes it just…doesn’t and those love stories that begin rapturous and burn brightly are all the more devastating when they crumble. Such is the case with Derek Cianfrance’s beautiful bruiser Blue Valentine, a film about the relationship of Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams), a couple whose marriage begins to disintegrate through resentment and lack of understanding. The film tells their story in a non linear style, in two time frames, so we start at the decline of their marriage and piece together their relationship in flashbacks, the harsh reality of the present cut together with their meet-cute blossoming romance. And this is what makes Blue Valentine so cruelly bittersweet, by interplaying between the shifts in time; we see the destruction and long for the joy. It becomes even more affecting by the naturalistic chemistry that Gosling and Williams have and the intrusive camerawork that positions us close to Dean and Cindy relationship in all its rawness, this is a couple that despite their issues (for which there are several, they are not angelic chick flick characters) I want to succeed because I have been seduced by their initial happiness. This was a film that had me crying many times in many places, an early scene where Dean, working for a delivery removal company, transports an old man to a nursing home and decorates his room for him left me with teary eyes as did the scene where Dean and Cindy are flirting outside a store at night. As Dean plays ‘You always hurt the ones you love’ on the ukulele, Cindy tap dances and the tentative dalliance becomes even more poignant. The final scene shows the end of their relationship interspersed with the day they got married, as Gosling pleads with Williams and reminds her of the vows she took; we cut to the couple at the registry office, happy, in love, a bittersweet juxtaposition of what they have become and by this point I am a blubbing wreck. The film is also majestically scored by Grizzly Bear, a band I adore, which adds another sucker punch to my flailing heart. Most women will say that The Notebook is the Gosling weepie of choice but for me it is, and should, be Blue Valentine, a film that painfully makes us realise no matter how much we root for something, life, time and we ourselves sometimes find a way to destroy it.

WALL-E (Andrew Stanton, 2008)

Let me start by saying that I have a melancholy affinity with robots, which may have stemmed from early childhood viewings of the Short Circuit films (seeing Johnny Five write ‘I am dying’ on a wall is truly horrific) or may just mean I am a little strange, oddly wired if you will. But whenever there is a cute robot in a film, my first thought/worry is what is going to happen to the little guy/gal, making me wish there was a website equivalent of to spare any potential heartache. Honestly if something bad happens to BB8 in the forthcoming instalments of Star Wars I am going to go turbo. Which brings me to Wall-E, a film I find to be absolutely gorgeous yet strewn with scenes and moments that make my soul wince and curl up into a foetal position, it is one that I hesitate to re-watch for the blues that it creates. The first part of the film is what kicks it to me, the wordless elegance for which Pixar should be applauded for featuring in a (supposed) kid’s movie, sees Wall-E as the last robot on Earth, tidying up the planet one piece at a time. But Wall-E has developed a personality and a home, littered with items he has found on his travels that creates a haunting sense of loneliness. In one scene as he wheels about the planet, he replaces one of his faulty parts with one of the many ‘fallen’ versions of him that scatter the Earth (Kids film? God it’s like Short Circuit all over again) which is eerie and saddening. Of course this being Pixar, the mood and narrative of the film lightens and becomes filled with adventure and Wall-E does find love with the sophisticated robot Eve, but not before being smashed in and (temporarily) losing his identity and uniqueness (God it really is like Short Circuit all over again). And it also doesn’t help that, despite being a ramshackle rust bucket, Wall-E has the most adorable expressive face and mannerisms that make my heart hurt every time something bad happens to him.  Perhaps I have said too much of my robot inclinations but Pixar have an innate way of, whilst entertaining the children, giving the adults a hefty tug on the heartstrings, from the fate of Bing Bong in Inside Out to the emotional devastation of THAT montage in Up, and Wall-E is no exception. The cute little robot had to wait 700 years for his Eve to arrive, a shorter time than it will take me to watch the film again, but still a time it will take for me to revisit that lonely planet.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004)

I deliberated with myself whether to include this film in my list for two reasons, firstly because I feel I include it in pretty much every list I tend to write (the reasons why may become apparent shortly) and two because it is a film I have watched many times but it is one that becomes harder to watch as the years go by, despite being in my top 5 all timers. But then I decided it had to part of this list because the film has become so intrinsic to my life, for which I cannot ignore and for which makes tough viewing. As with certain songs that can transport you back to a time and place, I find the same is true of films and none so more for me than Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. When the film was released I was just into the first throes of University (studying film of course) and I became a little obsessed with it, immediately influenced by the way it was filmed and wanting to be the next Michel Gondry ( I didn’t of course). I went to watch it five times at the cinema and endlessly played the soundtrack on repeat, but it wasn’t just the style and direction that I fell in love with, thematically the film spoke to me and I still believe it is one of the greatest representations of love to be depicted on screen. Despite its offbeat approach and inventive visuals Eternal Sunshine manages to be a wholly honest portrayal of relationships and how we often repeat the same mistakes over again, even though we convince ourselves that we won’t. Joel (Jim Carrey) and Clementine (Kate Winslet) may be doomed but they are willing to go experience the heartache to relive the golden moments, to bask in the sunshine of the early flourishes and promises. It is a question I often ask my (if you hadn’t realised already) melancholy self and the reason for this list of films. Would I go through University again knowing that I would not become the next Gondry (or Sofia Coppola as I also once hoped) and the answer is yes, because I still love film and despite the pain that comes with watching films such as Eternal Sunshine, it reminds me of my passion and why I love film, because sometimes films get me, and affect me, more than I can ever comprehend. I also realised writing this article that just because a film is one of my all time favourites, it does not mean watching it over and over again because they are already so ingrained into me, the pleasure and the pain, that the mere mention of them will stir an emotive response, one that I will never forget and one that does not necessarily need repeating. Although I cannot resist the chance to see Eternal Sunshine on the big screen again next week at Hyde Park so with my pack of tissues and my bag of malaise I will endure the heartbreak for the magnificence. Wish me luck dear reader.