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.