' ' Cinema Romantico: My Christmas List: Top 5 Uses of Pop Songs in Movies

Friday, December 07, 2007

My Christmas List: Top 5 Uses of Pop Songs in Movies

Using pop music in cinema has become one of the greatest arts of the medium. But merely using a great pop song doesn't make its use in the movie great. For instance, the appearance of Bruce Springsteen's "Growin' Up" in Adam Sandler's "Big Daddy"(the only good part of "Big Daddy") is not neccesarily a great use of pop music in a movie. If you can only remember the song being in the movie, and not the scene the song went with, it can't be considered all that memorable. A great use of a pop song in a movie means that when you hear that song the first you think of is the movie scene that used it.

Martin Scorsese is the most famous pioneer of the cinematic pop music movement and Quentin Tarantino has since become arguably even more skilled at it. That being said, I could fill my whole Top 5 List with selections from their movies but I will resist. I will also not include the most obvious Scorsese/Tarantino selections (i.e. "Then He Kissed Me" and "Stuck in the Middle With You"). The list will also exclude "Tiny Dancer" from Cameron Crowe's "Almost Famous" as that one has become almost as obvious. Therefore, my list will be more personal. These are the uses of pop music that have affected me the most. And go right ahead and list the ones that have affected you.

1.) "Star Lfur", The Life Aquatic. For anyone who hasn't seen this film let's recap the song's appearance in it. Bill Murray plays the Jacque Costeau-like Steve Zissou. At the outset of the movie, Zissou's best friend has been killed by a so-called Jaguar Shark and so Zissou makes it his mission to find this shark and kill it. At the end he finds the location of the shark and descends to the depths of the ocean in a tiny submersible crammed with every key character of the movie to do just that. They find the shark only Zissou realizes it is too beautiful. He can't kill it. He fights back tears, and as he does every key character leans forward and rests a comforting hand on Zissou. And this song - by the band Sigur Ros - plays over the whole thing.

This scene, simply put, is ludicrous. And yet - yet! - it's also amazingly poignant. I don't know how it does it. I can't explain it. It walks the tighest, finest line in cinematic history. It works on both levels simultaneously and effectively. This is the best example I've seen of what I'll term Loony Poignancy.

And I realized while watching this that I think as a "screenwriter" I specialize in Loony Poignancy. I want to make films full of Loony Poignancy. And then I look at "The Life Aquatic's" middling box office and mixed critical reception and that freaks me way out.

2.) "Tracks of My Tears", Platoon. There comes a moment when the "stoners" of the platoon are off the front lines and so they partake in a bit of the ganja and wind up playing Smokey Robinson's great "Tracks of My Tears" and singing along and dancing about as those who may have smoked a bit of the ganja would. I have never been high and I have no plans to ever be high. But I have been drunk. And I know there comes a point when you're in the perfect state of drunkeness that you put on a perfect song and sing along and dance about to it and, quite frankly, it's one of the best feelings in the world. No scene in any other movie has ever captured an inebriated sing-along, dance-along better.

3.) "Best of My Love", Boogie Nights. This song accompanies the magical tracking shot that opens the film and seems to last forever. The camera whirls around the nightclub, introducing us to all the main characters, this disco tune whirling right along with it. It was the first time I recall leaving a movie theater and thinking I've got to get that soundtrack because I've got to hear that song.

4.) "Across 110th Street", Jackie Brown. I think this one best illustrates the mad genius of Quentin Tarantino. It goes with the opening credits which consist of nothing but Pam Grier as the title character riding an automatic walkway at the airport. That's it. Couldn't be simpler. And yet, somehow, it's one of the coolest things I've ever seen. I recall vividly the massive grin I wore at the theater where I watched this for the first time. How Tarantino knew this song would work and work so well is totally beyond my comprehension. But I'm glad it wasn't beyond his.

5.) "Damn It Feels Good to Be A Gangsta", Office Space. Perhaps if you've never worked in an office this one doesn't resonate quite as much. But if you've ever been assigned to a cubicle or heard the hum of a flourescent light for 8 hours, well, you pump your fist when you hear it. Office drone Peter Gibbons has essentially told his place of employment off and has chosen to make his life all about doing "nothing". And so we see his newfound joyous existence in montage with this song to emphasize the point. A person like Peter Gibbons may never be an actual gangsta but coming in late to work without fear of reprisal, chopping up a fish on a TPS report and watching kung-fu movies with the woman he loves are as close as he'll ever get.


Rory Larry said...

Nick, how can we respect a list that so glaringly leaves off "Leaving on a Jet Plane" from Armageddon?

Wretched Genius said...

5. "Scotty Doesn't Know," Eurotrip

Maybe this one shouldn't count, but it is such a funny gag. And they manage to stretch it into about 4 more funny gags throughout the film.

4. "Freebird," [tie] Forrest Gump & The Devil's Rejects

Gump uses it while Robin Wright-Penn almost jumps from a hotel balcony while in a heroin-induced delerium, and Rejects uses it while the murderous family is being gunned down by the police. In both instances it is a surprisingly good companion to the action onscreen.

3. "Free Fallin'," Jerry Maguire
Jerry has just landed a major deal, and as he is driving home alone, he is in a great mood and is searching the radio for something to sing along with. After several tries, he lands on this song and sings along in celebration.

2. "Just the Two of Us," Ghosts of the Abyss

It's unexpected, and yet absolutely perfect for the shot it occompanies.

1. "I Believe (When I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever)," High Fidelity

Sure, it's the end credits music, but the song works so well to sum up the lesson learned by the film's main character.

Honorable mention: "Sweet Home Alabama," Con Air

Just because it gives the setup for one of Steve Buscemi's all-time best lines/deliveries.

Wretched Genius said...

My bad, replace my #1 with this one instead:

"The Way," High Fidelity
As sung by Lisa Bonet, this Frampton cover causes John Cusack's character to stare longingly at the stage, speaking quietly about the reasons he wants to live with a musician. It's a great scene that touches on that special desire felt by everyone who truly loves music (or movies, for that matter).

Anonymous said...

Damn, "My Way" from High Fidelity. That's a good one. You could also say "Dry the Rain" by the Beta Band from High Fidelity. In fact, you could make a whole Top 5 on that movie alone.

Rory Larry said...

Brain's not really working but

1. One - Aimee Mann Magnolia. After the unbelievably memorable prologue narrated by Ricky J, the opening chords kick in and Ms. Mann begins belting out the lyrics as we get brief introductions to all the major players.

2. Looking out my back door - CCR Big Lebowski. The Dude is driving in his car drinking beer and smoking a joint and he throws the joint out the window but it bounces back into his lap and he pours the beer in his lap to extinguish it and loses control of his car and crashes into a telephone pole.

This last one isn't mine but was suggested by a friend

Apocalypse Now Doors, the End - opening sequence


Savvy Music Sister said...

"Keep it Comin' Love," KC and the Sunshine Band from Blow