Notes

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Your Favorite Songs in Cinema
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Readers and staffers recommend the most memorable use of songs in movie scenes. To submit your own, with a brief explanation of why it’s so effective and why you love it so much, please email hello@theatlantic.com.

Show 19 Newer Notes

Track of the Day: 'Lux Aeterna' by the Kronos Quartet

No series on the artful use of songs in cinema would be complete without the haunting violin of composer Clint Mansell, performed by the Kronos Quartet, which stalks the tragic characters of Requiem For a Dream throughout the film and culminates in this closing montage:

The reader who flagged that score, Gary, also submitted the song we posted from Magnolia, “Wise Up.” He ties the two together:

A parallel to the Aimee Mann track, “Lux Aeterna” links all the characters in this film together in their respective tragedies. Beautiful and bleak.

(Track of the Day archive here. Submit via hello@)

Another excellent pick from a reader:

In this sequence from Magnolia, everyone is reaching their tipping point, with their fates in the balance. It’s almost like the director set up the whole movie just to bring all the disparate characters together with this one song.

Aimee Mann dominates the soundtrack as a whole and is inextricable from the film, directed by the genius Paul Thomas Anderson (whose Boogie Nights will definitely see an entry or three for this cinema series).

Update from reader Marc:

Just wanted to say: I love Aimee Mann, love “Wise Up,” love Magnolia, and double-special love that scene from Magnolia with that song.

But.

I am also a horrible person, so I can’t stop re-imagining “Wise Up” as Elmer Fudd leading a protest: “Wise up, evwybody!  Wise up and fwow off youah oppwessahs!”

That is all ...

folks.

(Track of the Day archive here. Submit via hello@)

Reader Margaret makes a brilliant choice from a brilliant soundtrack (one I listened to on repeat during a summer in Seattle):

I just stumbled upon your series on music in movies. There are so many choices from Wes Anderson’s films, but I think Rushmore’s closing sequence is my favorite. It always hits me in the guts, reminding me that this movie that I've been laughing at for a few hours is ultimately bittersweet. This cuts off, but here is a youtube of it:

(Track of the Day archive here. Submit via hello@)

A transcendent pick for our cinematic series comes from reader Jesse Madsen:

So I’m going to step out on an unpopular limb with Cliff Martinez’s sublime composition and arrangement for Traffic. His film work is prolific and selections impeccable. Traffic would be a completely different film without Martinez’s score. Even “Helicopter” as an ambient track takes on an almost lyrical quality. Each of the tracks convey a distinct idea and emotion.

But I think his use of Brian Eno’s “An Ending (Ascent)” at the end of the film is the best of the best [full version above]:

You’d be forgiven at this point in the film if you mistake this for Martinez’s work. But it’s a testament to the rest of the original score and getting melody (almost pop) out of three-minute ambient music. Using Eno here is no coincidence; the score is Eno’s progeny. Martinez’s selection elevates the scene and the brutal and violent cynicism that came before it, but he also pays tribute to Eno’s influence.

(Track of the Day archive here. Submit via hello@)

Reader Owen has an exceptional pick for our ongoing series on the best songs in cinema:

Danny Boyle selected some great tracks for Trainspotting. You mentioned Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” playing when Renton shoots up and survives an overdose. Yet Boyle makes an arguably better pairing when he plays Underworld’s “Born Slippy .NUXX” in the final scene, both for how the song draws you into the scene and how the lyrics reflect the protagonist’s story:

Begbie sleeps, passed out from drinking the night before, hugging the bag containing the profits from a heroin deal. Renton wakes early with “Born Slippy” playing quietly at first.  He walks over to the bed, and as he begins to gently move Begbie’s arms off the bag, the drumbeat kicks in. It quickens and syncs with your heartbeat as you watch, building the suspense, as the song and the beat grow louder. Will Begbie wake? Will Spud raise the alarm? Will Renton rip off his friends and escape with the cash?

The song continues as he walks out of the hotel with the money into the open fresh air.  Darkness pervades most of the movie, but now we are in the light.  Renton speaks his soliloquy promising to grow up and clean up. He promises to achieve a bright, boring, middle-class life. Yet the lyrics do not match Renton’s uplifting statements.  

Karl Hyde, who wrote the song, told The Guardian he was recreating how “a drunk sees the world in fragments” and described it as a cry for help when he “was still deep into alcoholism.” Although written about alcohol, the manic lyrics stand in for heroin abuse in Trainspotting. And the song’s refrain of “boy” echoes Renton’s nickname “Rent Boy,” making it sound as if the song is speaking to Renton about his struggles with heroin. It leaves you wondering whether Renton will make a clean break or whether the addiction, like the lyrics, will continue to follow him.

(Track of the Day archive here. Submit via hello@)

A reader, Michael Poole, goes meta with the new series on songs in cinema—by picking a cover song:

Might I suggest the use of the song “Mad World,” originally composed and performed by Tears for Fears [embedded above] but covered by Gary Jules in the film Donnie Darko. The pathos it evokes, while the camera shows faces stricken with grief and confusion, is almost unbearable. I thought the movie was good, but this scene is exceptional:

(The song ends here at the 3:00 mark, and beyond that the dialogue is in French. It’s the only video I could find that shows the scene with the music as it is in the film.)

Thanks for the Track of the Day feature, plus everything the Atlantic does.

(Track of the Day archive here. Access it through Spotify here. Submit via hello@)

Adam Feiges has a stellar selection for the new reader series on the best use of songs in cinema:

If you are willing to expand the definition to television, I nominate the scene from the pilot episode of Miami Vice that used Genesis’ “In the Air Tonight” to set the mood for the lead-up to the climax of the episode. [CB note: The pilot episode is feature length, so it counts I think.] The song starts about 45 seconds into this scene and it’s really haunting:

The scene has lingered in my memory for over 30 years because it was the first time (in my experience at least) that a popular song was used effectively in the plot of a television show. The mood building, the timing (Tubbs checking the loads in the shotgun and then snapping the breech closed in time with the music), and the fact that Genesis was one of the most popular bands of the era made a visceral impression that this show was something new and different. It has become a cliché to use popular music to advance the plot of a TV show, but in 1984 it was astonishing.

I had never watched that pilot episode until Adam’s email inspired me to, so when he suggested “In the Air Tonight,” I first thought of this scandalous scene from Risky Business, which came out a year before Miami Vice:

Somehow that song works exceptionally well juxtaposed with two very different themes: betrayal and imminent danger in Miami Vice, and sultry subway sex in Risky Business.

So what’s the original meaning of “In the Air Tonight”? Here’s Phil Collins:

I don’t know what this song is about. When I was writing this I was going through a divorce. And the only thing I can say about it is that it's obviously in anger. It’s the angry side, or the bitter side of a separation.

In that sense, the song is closer to Crockett’s mindset in Miami Vice, who’s going through a marital separation and who just discovered his close colleague is a corrupt cop. And the refrain I can feel it coming in the air tonight / oh Lord / I’ve been waiting for this moment all my life is something you could be thinking if you suspect you might be driving to your death. To watch that perilous scene, the one that immediately follows the one above, start at the 31:20 mark here.

Have a song/scene to recommend? Drop us an email.

(Track of the Day archive here. Access it through Spotify here.)

Yesterday I tested the waters for a new Track of the Day series on the most artful use of songs in cinema. This reader contribution from Michael gets us off to a great start:

I’ve really enjoyed your series on transformative covers (the only kind of covers that matter, to my mind). Adding the best use of songs in movie scenes makes a good thing better.

The scene that immediately springs to mind is the one in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels when Eddy loses all of his and his mate’s money to gangsters in a rigged card game. As the enormity of this loss sinks into a numbed Eddy, the droning guitar strains that kick off Iggy and the Stooges’ “I Wanna be Your Dog” match up perfectly with the disoriented camera perspective that stumbles out the door with him.

What Eddy feels might not be exactly what Iggy feels, but they share a bleak desperation that makes you really feel the gut-punch of his situation.

Have fun with this new sub-series, cheers!

(Track of the Day archive here. Access it through Spotify here. Submit via hello@)