Everyone knows the brilliance of Led Zeppelin’s Rock & Roll. It’s a blazing sharp track that epitomizes the hard rock ground they paved in the early 70s. But the really wonderful thing about it is how it does so very intentionally and cleverly on the foundation of some of the earliest bits of rock music. It starts with a drum intro that could have been a haphazard solo on a song by The Surfaris, before Jimmy Page kicks in with some blistering electric guitar work. But if you listen carefully, you’ll notice a very familiar chord progression, one that hearkens back to early rockabilly and even jump blues songs like Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy. Here it’s all about the delivery though. No longer playful and plodding, the chords are electrically charged. Then comes Robert Plant’s angelic, shattering blues belting. “It’s been a long time since I rock and rolled….It’s been a long, lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely time,” he howls. You feel the desperate urges screeching out of your speakers. This is not a song with gentle momentum. It’s belted and yelped and wailed. By the end, when everything’s kicked off all the way, we even get a touch of manic Little Richard piano, just to drive it home. Sure, the song’s not really about rock and roll, but it embodies it as musically, thematically and soulfully as any track before or since.
If there’s one thing rock and roll has always been great at, it’s self-mythologizing. The Stranglers did it right out of the gate with the brilliantly bizarre (Get A) Grip (On Yourself). The bandmates weren’t your normal punk upstarts. They were highly trained as professional musician and it shows. Only someone with a firm, and I mean firm, grip on music would attempt to meld such ridiculously disparate elements into a cohesive and catchy punk song. At times, the dead sounding bass is borderline out of a hardcore song. The keyboards sound like totally over the top, early-psychedelic, high speed button mashing, that is when they’re not being oppressive and plodding. There is a flitting, Skylark-eqsue saxophone lick (apparently played by a Welsh miner). And the whole thing is topped off by sneering, snotty vocals that can be seen as a response to the decision by founding member Jet Black to start a punk band in his 30s after having already become a successful businessman. “The worst crime that I ever did was play some rock and roll/But the money’s no good/Just get a grip on yourself.” The band sometimes took flack for being high-minded and well trained, but they flew the flag for the punk ethos as well as anyone. The song pounces on the necessity of the music, brushing off those that ill never understand. At the advent of an epochal scene, it was exactly the type of bold statement that was needed: simultaneously insouciant and confident, and utterly unique.
Xavier Dolan has made a name for himself reinventing less than beloved pop songs into essential elements of his film soundtracks. While he does the trick most famously in Mommy, my favorite instance of it occurs in Québécois thriller Tom at the Farm. Sunglasses at Night, by fellow Canadian Corey Hart, plays on a seemingly endless loop throughout the tense climax of the film, a foreboding neon conversation between bartender and patron. I’m actually a huge fan of the song anyway, but the scene takes full advantage of the menacing synths and sometimes Billy Idol aping vocals in order to amp up the weirdly threatening mood. The warmth of the familiar pop song contrasted with the spotlight on its incongruous meaning creates a deeply discomforting scene that isn’t easily forgotten.
It’s impossible to talk about modern song usage without including Quentin Tarantino. Kill Bill: Vol. 2 marked a rare moment of maturity, one that looked like it could be the tipping point of a whole other type of career (it turned out that couldn’t be further from the truth). The emotional climax of the film showed a subtlety and poignancy that Tarantino had dared not attempt before. Soundtracking it was About Her, a track by punk pioneer Malcolm McClaren incorporating stretched out samples by Bessie Smith and The Zombies. It’s a slow burn, a dreamy, soulful heartbreaker. It’s also the sound of a former enfant terrible showing off a mellowed sophistication. In fact, in that moment, that goes for McClaren, Tarantino and main character The Bride. The blues-y beauty captures the hardship of life, but also the reward, a sentiment that goes against the against the punk and new wave ethos that shaped both artists.
For as briefly as it appears, I’m Shipping up to Boston leaves a lasting effect on The Departed. Miles away from the classic rock and punk that Martin Scorsese often uses to soundtrack his films, the Dropkick Murphys song places the movie in very different territory. Based on a Woody Guthrie poem, the song recounts the story of a sailor who lost his leg climbing the topsail. Sure, it’s a tale out of time, but the Murphys bring a rage and chaos to it that makes it seem current and raw. Their mix of Celtic instrumentation with punk rock rarely produces compelling results, but on this particular track they seem to have stumbled on to a winning combination. Quick and sharp, it’s Black Flag meets Celtic folk. The guitar and accordion combine to form a wall of noise that’s at once spritely and aggressive. The ragged call and response creates a tribal feel, reinforcing the gang-like mentality of the film’s characters. The whole scene, and the whole film, balances on the edge of the knife for those characters, and the song expertly conveys the tension that they feel in those moments. It’s an expert choice, communicating atmosphere, history and personal emotion in a matter of seconds.
Wes Anderson’s music choices tend to be a bit on the twee side, but for The Royal Tenenbaums, an exploration in part of a certain New York, he wisely chose The Ramones for the soundtrack to youthful indiscretion. Judy is a Punk is arguably the best song the band ever recorded (okay, maybe Blitzkrieg Bop). Like all of their best songs, it’s short, sweet and simple. But it’s also surprisingly tuneful while managing to hit upon the childhood desire to run away and join the circus (or in this case the ice capades) and be free. Anderson uses the song as the backing track for a droll montage showing Margot Tenenbaum’s timeline of trespasses, starting with cigarettes at age 12 and escaping boarding school at age 14 and ends with making out with a lot of strangers on various forms of transit. It’s a perfect fit for her blasè rebellion, more symbolic protest than meaningful action. And isn’t that the truth of almost any teenage revolt soundtracked by The Ramones?
On the surface, there’s nothing that special about Susie Q. It’s a simple rock standard that’s been covered repeatedly. Creedence Clearwater Revival’s version might be the most famous, with its swampy, bluesy flair marking it out from other releases. Still, it’s not the type of song that makes you think too deeply. That’s what makes the way it’s used in Apocalypse Now so subversively brilliant. It begins normally enough, with Playboy Bunnies dancing to the song at a USO show in Vietnam. But things get out of hand quickly, as the desperate enlistees rush the stage and make a grab at the dancers. The disastrous performance is quickly abandoned, with the Bunnies whisked away by helicopter. Surely the scene is commenting on bigger things, but it also reveals the threatening and possessive nature of rock ‘n’ roll, from the very earliest and most straightforward tracks. The song suddenly sounds dark, toxic and obsessive. It doesn’t feel so run of the mill anymore. Instead, its lechery is front and center. While that’s a very bad thing for the Playboy Bunnies, it’s a great thing for the song. It’s instantly much more memorable and meaningful: a slithering, desperate lo-fi groove that leaves you feeling downright dirty after a listen.
In Midnight Cowboy, Harry Nilsson’s Everybody’s Talkin’ provides the soundtrack to some of the most delightfully misleading opening scenes in film. It’s a country-tinged trifle about going your own way and not letting anyone tell you otherwise. Plastered over sunny images of Joe Buck (a brilliantly oblivious Jon Voight) burning bridges on the way out of his small town to the big city, the song fills the air with possibility. Nilsson croons Fred Neil’s lyrics: “I’m going where the weather suits my clothes.”. It should be the height of optimism. But in director John Schlesinger’s hands it becomes a warning. Confident affirmations like the one in the song sound like a sure path to freedom. “Everybody’s talkin’ at me/I can’t hear a word they’re sayin’,” but maybe he should have listened to those voices. The twinkling guitar and shuffling, soft drums are too confident to be believed. Instead they become the accompaniment to a scene so bright that it can only melt into a nightmare. Rarely has such an upbeat song clearly portended something this disastrous. Of course, the irony didn’t prevent it from becoming a buoyant, feel-good classic.
Trainspotting was known for its propulsive 90s soundtrack and canny use of music, but the best scene in the film, and one of the most affecting uses of music in all of film, came at the hands of a much earlier cut, Lou Reed’s Perfect Day. It’s a song of pure beauty, but deeply penetrated by sadness. “It’s such a perfect day/I’m glad I spent it with you,” it begins before descending into elegy of what sounds like a last day on earth, finally giving into the darkness threatening to drag each of us down. In a stroke of utter genius, Danny Boyle uses it as the soundtrack to an overdose, the soaring warmth of too much heroin that leads to the deadly low. The screen is literally bookended by the world, as Ewan McGregor’s Mark Renton sinks six feet below into an effective coffin. Reed’s soporific, affectless vocals and the serenely melancholy piano deliver Mark to the underworld. But it’s not to be that day. “You just keep me hanging on,” Reed declares. It’s a song on the edge: pulchritudinous, wistful and almost unbearably moving.
One of the most startling and memorable uses of diegetic music in all of film, the closing scene of Claire Denis’s Beau Travail finds humanity in Italian Eurodance. Rhythm of the Night by Corona becomes the surprising soundtrack of a crossover, maybe revealing more about a character than the 85 minutes that came before.