January 4, 2011

BEST OF 2010: Cinema Jukebox Edition

by Vadim Rizov

Inception and Shutter Island... DISQUALIFIED!

One of the incidental pleasures of watching even a mediocre movie is experiencing the way a specific song is used. As long as they're not the bland sonic equivalent to wallpaper for montages (e.g. the breathy singer-songwriter blandness of Morning Glory, or any peppy pop-punk shopping sequence), most movies make a token stab at rewiring the associations of a given song. Here are 10 of my favorite examples from the past year, with any film-length scoring (like Shutter Island's primer on 20th-century chromatic classical music, or the ever-popular BRAAAAAAAHM of Inception) disqualified:

"Tubthumping," Chumbawumba
(heard in And Everything Is Going Fine)

And Everything Is Going Fine This comes from an excerpt of Spalding Gray's 1999-2000 monologue "Morning, Noon and Night." It's one of his softer orations, a divorce-remarriage-parenthood saga with lots of awestruck descriptions of his kids. Gray was a preternaturally hypnotic speaker, though, so even a potentially maudlin moment—a description of dancing with his kids to Chumbawumba's permanently ubiquitous, much-loathed drinking anthem—transcends the sensation of someone droning about the photos in their wallet. This is also the only performance I saw Gray do in real life; it was April Fool's Day, on which he announced from offstage that as "Gray" made his way to the theater from a late flight, his good friend Regis Philbin would entertain the crowd. The Chumbawumba bit was showy but effective, clearly an easy highlight to summarize for reviews; it's one of the instances in Steven Soderbergh's retroactively constructed autobiography for Gray where what Gray's saying onstage is exactly in sync with where he is in his life right then.

"Helicopter," Bloc Party
(heard in Charlie St. Cloud)

Much like The White Stripes' "Ball and Biscuit" firmly places The Social Network's opening in 2003—a time just long-ago to require a specific song choice to set the mood—so does a lesser tune in a much sillier movie. Bloc Party's "Helicopter" plays as Charlie St. Cloud (Zac Efron) drives his little brother to a party; "is this 2005?," you may wonder. Sure enough, the film flashes forward five years to 2010 (and Andrew Bird), a neat trick. It's better than most of director Burr Steers' previous musical choices, which most unforgivably include a suitcase being set down while a Travis cover of "The Weight" plays in Igby Goes Down (and using "Bust a Move" in 17 Again). Here, music's just a timepiece.

"Loveless Love," The Feelies
(heard in Carlos)

Carlos The song that gets Carlos moving, The Feelies' tense, frustrated "Loveless Love" immediately establishes a few things. Most notably, it answers the question "Will director Olivier Assayas bring his beloved post-punk collection into anachronistic territory?" He does, though besides simply creating a cool playlist, the point might be that politically feckless post-punk has had more lasting impact (for better or worse) than the Cold War politics the film focuses on. More potently, it kicks the film into unexpected action-movie gear really fast.

"Fly Me to the Moon," Frank Sinatra
(heard in Dogtooth)

The monstrously protective (?) parents in Dogtooth, who corrupt their teenagers' vocabulary enough in Greek with false definitions, do even worse things to Frank Sinatra's English, rendering it as their grandfather's pledge to love and protect his grandchildren. The savage, didactic rasp dad delivers the cuddly sentiments in is amusingly pedagogic. It also, thankfully, erases the song's connotation with Space Cowboys, in which Clint Eastwood stupidly literalized it in a final shot that left a dead Tommy Lee Jones gazing at earth from lunar orbit.

"Saints," The Breeders
(heard in The Fighter)

The Fighter There's a strange culture war going on in The Fighter. David O. Russell's ostensibly straightforward, inspirational boxing drama takes place in the mid-90s. After a hiatus, Micky Ward returned to boxing in 1994, the same year Russell completed first feature Spanking the Monkey. As a former angry, countercultural filmmaker insurgent (or something marketable like that), Russell seems to take a slightly unhealthy amount of glee in pitting Mark Wahlberg's horrible, frumpy sisters/Greek Chorus against new girlfriend Amy Adams, who they promptly dub "MTV" as code for "skank." Russell synthesizes Boston prole and spiky outsiders with a training montage set to the Breeders—some of Boston's finest, to be sure, but also outliers of mid-90s alternative nation. "Saints" was no "Cannonball," the popular crossover single that's been in no less than five films (from Moonlight and Valentino down to Whip It). "Saints" was their third and final single from accidental blockbuster Pod, which ended up as a used-CD store staple once people realized most of the album sounded nothing like "Cannonball." This is the first time "Saints" has finally gotten film time.

"Strange Overtones," David Byrne/Brian Eno
(heard in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps)

Like Bloc Party or the White Stripes, using music from 2008 to soundtrack a film set in 2008 is oddly over-specific for a time in recent memory, but can still be oddly evocative. Oliver Stone soundtracks his entire movie with David Byrne, mostly from the 2008 Bryne/Brian Eno collaboration Everything That Happens Will Happen Today. Sometimes the music really is just wallpaper, pleasant but insignificant except as a time marker. But "Strange Overtones" stands apart within an already-hyperactive movie's trippiest segment, a dramatization of economic turmoil as seen on TV news, laid out against freefalling stock numbers that form collapsing skyscrapers, a surprisingly apt metaphor from the normally overheated music. Byrne's cooing paranoia and pessimism ("strange overtones" indeed) is an aural and thematic fit.

"To All the Girls I've Loved Before," Willie Nelson & Julio Iglesias
(heard in Everyone Else)

Everyone Else This global '80s staple has aged poorly, big drums and all. Its placement in Maren Ade's savage breakup drama serves a double function. First off, it provides a startlingly insensitive backdrop for Chris (Lars Eidinger) to drunkenly dance to, underscoring—maybe a little too hard—the fragility of his relationship to Gitti (Birgit Minichmayr). By the time it's disclosed that Gitti is a music publicist (as the saccharine balladry of German favorite Gronemeyer plays in the background), the joke gets sharper: she may work for a big music label, but Gitti has nothing good to listen to.

"The Chaffeur," Duran Duran
(heard in Greenberg)

More about '80s superhits deployed ironically: lots of people were thrown off or perturbed by the high emotional damage content of Greenberg, but some people just bitched about Korn. At a coke-fueled party of twentysomethings, Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller) bitches about Korn and puts on this song instead, only to have his choice booed off. As the L.A. Times' Todd Martens noted, it's an "odd reference," which is a polite way of saying many people had surprisingly vigorous arguments about whether kids these days actually still listen to Korn. That seems to have left more of an impression than this '80s staple, considering there's not actually any Korn in the movie. (Trivia: Greenberg also uses Albert Hammond's "It Never Rains in Southern California." Hammond was also the writer of "To All the Girls I've Loved Before.")

"Chances Are," Johnny Mathis
(heard in I Love You, Phillip Morris)

I Love You, Phillip Morris This is a staple ballad you don't need to consciously have heard from start to finish to know-it's acquired through osmosis. There's only one thing to do with an evergreen wedding song like this, and that's to use it for incongruous but sincere romance: a lovely night between two men in prison, meant non-ironically. One of the film's strongest points is that gay couples deserve to be just as materialistic and vacuous as straight ones. Yoking the song to that sentiment brings it very close to diamond-ring commercial territory, only with actual feeling rather than venal calculation.

"Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)," The Eurythmics
(heard in Tron: Legacy)

Aside from the Daft Punk light show, there's the surprisingly pleasing use of this most overplayed of pop songs. Since no one really wants to sit through all the real-world exposition, the use of the well-known title lines signal that the big Wizard of Oz descent will be forthcoming in under four minutes.

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Posted by ahillis at January 4, 2011 4:21 PM


Forgot about the use of "Fly Me to the Moon" in DOGTOOTH. That was indeed a disturbing scene.

Another great use of music in a movie last year was SOMEWHERE using Gwen Stefani's "Cool" during the scene where Elle Fanning is practicing her ice skating, and Stephen Dorff goes from indifference to really appreciating her for maybe the first time. Also unusual in that they let the song play out for the entire time.

Posted by: Seankgallagher at January 4, 2011 6:49 PM

The Breeders hit record, with Cannonball and Saints etc, was Last Splash, not Pod, which only did well on college radio. That's a pretty big error.

Posted by: Finn13 at May 15, 2011 12:07 AM
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