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 14 Newer Notes

Track of the Day: 'Town Called Malice' by The Jam

This entry for our cinema series comes from a reader in Bend, Oregon:

The movie Billy Elliot (UK, 2000) is about a boy in a coal-mining town in northern England who wants to become a professional ballet dancer. (The movie was adapted into a musical.) His goal does not go over well with his family or in his town, especially given the setting during the bitter coal miners’ strike of 1984-85. Billy’s frustrations come to a head in a dance scene:

The song is The Jam’s Town called Malice, itself a hard-hitting expression of frustration. (It was #1 on the British charts when it was released in 1982.) It’s a wonderful scene, even out of context. The volume is a bit low in the video, so crank it up.

Billy Elliot is played by Jamie Bell, and the only other film I’ve seen him in—and I coincidentally just saw it a few weeks ago—is Nymphomaniac, the deeply dark 2013 psychosexual study from Lars von Trier. Bell plays a baby-faced professional sadist known as K, and he lets out his aggression with a riding crop rather than tap shoes. The film is pretty forgettable, but the casting choice is canny.

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

A reader, Joseph, calls the soundtrack to Antonia Bird’s Ravenous “one of the most under-appreciated scores of all time, not surprising for a gory dark comedy about cannibalism in the American west”:

The film itself deserves more credit than is generally warranted for its bitter, bloody takedown of 19th century American imperialism and manifest destiny, but honestly the music is some of the most dramatic and hilarious that I think has ever been set to moving image. Yes, the music itself is funny. It is also bone-chillingly suspenseful in other moments, seamlessly blending both Americana and horror-film idioms.

In this clip you get a sense of just how good it is at building the tension of the scene, followed by a desperately needed catharsis that is delivered by an amazing fiddle and banjo-fueled chase, only briefly glimpsed here.

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

The latest reader entry for our cinema series comes from Al Berg:

From the movie The Doctor, Laurie Anderson singing “Strange Angels” perfectly captures the heightened sensibility and wonder of life as death approaches:

If, like me, you haven’t seen the movie yet, here’s part of the synopsis to better understand the scene:

Dr Jack MacKee is a successful surgeon at a leading hospital. He and his wife have all the trappings of success, although Jack works such long hours that he rarely has time to see their son and has become somewhat emotionally dead to his wife. His “bedside manner” with his patients, in many cases seriously ill, is also quite lacking. [...]

Returning home from a dinner party, Jack has a coughing fit. His wife Anne is shocked when he coughs up blood all over her and the car. In an examination, Jack has a sample of a growth removed from his throat. The biopsy comes back positive for cancer. [...] As Jack experiences life as a patient, there comes a clearer understanding of the emotionally void hospitals, some doctors, and his own colleagues can display. He befriends June Ellis, a fellow cancer patient who has an inoperable brain tumor.

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

Gary in Saskatchewan, the reader who highlighted “Wise Up” in Magnolia and “Lux Aeterna” in Requiem for a Dream, serves up another solid selection for the cinema series, this time from the 1999 French film, La Fille Sur Le Pont (The Girl on the Bridge). Its premise:

Adèle (Vanessa Paradis) is a 22-year-old woman whose life seems to have been a long series of miscalculations; she’s never had much luck with love, life, or career, and is standing on a bridge overlooking the Seine one night, contemplating suicide, when she’s approached by a man named Gabor (Daniel Auteuil). Gabor announces he’s a knife-thrower who needs a new human target for his act. Would Adèle be interested?

Gary points to an incredibly tense, sensual scene from the film:

Here’s another song [Marianne Faithfull’s “Who Will Take My Dreams Away?] that is now inseparable in my head from the scene it accompanied—and that’s exactly what should happen with a good film editor:

The sensuality and sadness of the song enhances those elements in this scene of two damaged people: a woman who had nothing left to live for, and a man who wants just one more shot at redemption. Both are helping each other to move on.

If you have a favorite scene from a film that entwines a song in a really artful way—even if you’ve already submitted one—please send it our way, along with any thoughts you may have on its meaning: hello@theatlantic.com. Update from reader Al Berg:

Gary’s great pick of a Marianne Faithfull song reminds me of one of my favorites: Marianne singing “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan,” which perfectly fit the tale of the heroine, played wonderfully by Susan Anspach in the quirky film Montenegro. The story is about a bored housewife who ditches her mundane world and cuts loose with a free-loving band of characters. The song was also appropriately used in Thelma and Louise.

(Track of the Day archive here)

A reader brilliantly blends our cover-song series and our cinema series by noting an emotionally complex and devastating scene from director Tomas Alfredson:

I can’t think of a cinematic cover song better-deployed than Julio Iglesias’s disco-fied version of Charles Trenet’s “La Mer” at the end of 2011’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

Those who have read the book or seen the film or the classic BBC/Alec Guinness series will understand the tortured love-hate, self-or-country dynamics at work in the scene. Those who haven’t … will need to in order to fully appreciate it! The scene is way too layered and complex to summarize. Suffice it to say that the wistful, nostalgic lyrics, contrasted with Iglesias’s jauntily triumphant treatment of the tune, perfectly match that complex dynamic, as well as the larger story arc: the downfall, redemption, and return of loyal English spymaster George Smiley to his beloved Circus (MI6), seen at the very end.

And in every way, led by the music but extending to the coloration and the wide shots, the scene breaks cleanly with the beautifully brooding, dark, discordant, claustrophobic film that preceded it. If you’ve ever wondered just how much “design” contributes to the emotional feel and weight of a great film, this engaging look at TTSS's palette and patterning is a fascinating primer.

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

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.)