After the dissolution of The Clash, Joe Strummer took his time forming another band. Instead of rushing into a new group, he worked with the hippest independent filmmakers of the day, writing the score for Alex Cox’s Walker, appearing later in his Absolute Beginners and acting again for Jim Jarmusch on Mystery Train (as Elvis). He finally formed The Mescaleros in the late 90s, which itself came out of some film work he’d done. Clearly the group was never going to recapture the energy of The Clash, but they proved a solid and intriguing outfit. Tracks like Get Down Moses announced that Strummer still had charisma to burn. Mixing big ideas with an undeniable reggae-style groove, it’s a laudable nod to the work that made him one of the greatest rockers of all time.
Riccardo Tisci has certainly always skewed dark at Givenchy. He’s normally looked to religion and history to infuse his shows with a seriousness and an iconoclastic bent. In his 2011 Spring Menswear show, he dialed back some of the ornateness and went for cleaner details, but he still needed a way to provide some dark romanticism that has become signature. Cue Gerard McMahon’s Cry Little Sister. The theme to The Lost Boys is dramatic, smoky goth-pop. Wholly earnest in its drama, the song’s eerie kids choir and tribal synth-drums announce its era immediately. On its own, it’s arguably a bit cheesy today (although still pretty fantastic). Yet set against the ghostly gimp masks, crisply tailored white skirts and the flesh colored leggings of the runway show, the song somehow earns back some of its gravity. The presentation and the soundtrack feel slightly incongruous, but that actually makes the histrionics of the track feel brilliantly, intentionally alienating. It’s like watching The Silence of the Lambs’ Buffalo Bill dance in the mirror. Only such an antiseptic, artificially-produced song could create that much of an inhuman feeling.
Check out the original, along with a Givenchy show snippet below:
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.
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.
It’s pretty unusual to let a four minute performance of a song play out in full onscreen, so if you’re going to do it, it better be a doozy. Ewan McGregor channels Iggy Pop in his Velvet Goldmine rendition of Gimme Danger. Normally letting an actor indulge their rock star fantasies is an iffy proposition, but I’m sure there were never any doubts as to whether McGregor was capable. It’s dirty, glam-punk at its best.