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 email@example.com.
Okay, [like Miami Vice and Southland,] this isn’t a movie, but Breaking Bad is arguably the most cinematic TV show ever, and it’s almost like the whole plot was written around this montage being the musical punchline of the entire series—or is it just me? It’s just me, isn’t it? Oh well, really great sequence anyway.
An even more brilliant use of a song in Breaking Bad was the very last one, in the very last scene, starting with the opening lyric, “Guess I got what I deserved”:
(Track of the Day archive here. Pre-Notes archive here. Submit via hello@.)
I saw your Miami Vice/“In the Air Tonight” note and immediately thought of this: The opening scene of the pilot of the NBC/TNT show Southland and its amazing use of “School" by Supertramp. (I grew up listening to Supertramp and their album Crime of the Century was always my favourite.) This scene is even further into the TV arena than Miami Vice, so it might fall outside your boundaries for the cinema series, but it’s something that has always stuck with me. It’s rookie cop Ben Sherman’s first day on the job, and he is doing crowd control at a homicide scene:
The show used the haunting harmonica opening from the first track “School,” played over top of low-frame-rate shaky cam footage with no sound, quick-cutting among the confused throng of people around the scene. The producers cut out the song’s lyrics, jumping right to the instrumental break in the middle of the first verse. As the music builds to the child’s playground scream, the music cuts out to show an onlooking woman screaming instead, which jolts Sherman awake to what’s going on around him. Thus, while Sherman has graduated from the academy, this homicide is his first day at school.
(Track of the Day archive here. Pre-Notes archive here. Submit via hello@.)
Gary in Saskatchewan, our serial contributor to the cinema series, delivers another solid track: Danny Elfman’s orchestral “Ice Dance” in Edward Scissorhands. (Full instrumental version here.) As Gary puts it, “This scene captures a brief moment of magic before everything falls apart.”
Once, on a flight from Australia, I watched three Wes Anderson films back-to-back and gave myself a bad migraine. But can you blame me? Clever and whimsical, Wes Anderson’s music choices are as colorful and precisely-exacted as his cinematography. One of my favorite examples is the scene in Royal Tenenbaums where Richie meets his adopted sister Margot at a bus station (also, he’s secretly in love with her).
“These Days” has a strange story behind it. Although the song was first released in 1967 by singer Nico, she didn’t write it. Instead, it was plucked from a demo that 16-year old Jackson Browne recorded and sent in to the same publishing label. Browne went on to release his own version of it, six years later. Nico’s cover, with its addition of strings, has an lush urgency to it that Browne’s version doesn’t convey, but nevertheless, it’s his lyrics that make the heart of the song.
Maybe it’s the slow-motion of Margot Tenenbaum stepping down from that funny green bus in her fur coat, or Browne’s young lyrics, or Nico’s deep croon. Whatever it is, in this film, the song drops us right in the middle of an indie romance. It’s a tribute to capturing that gut-punch, unable-to-breath moment—you know, the one when you really see someone you love for the first time.
Another reader, Noam, adds: “The fragility of the music and characters matches perfectly. It’s a perfect scene.”
Speaking of the fragility of those two characters, Margot and Richie, a subsequent scene shows Richie shaving his head and beard and then calmly slitting his wrists. It’s a dark complement to the scene above because Richie is in psychological turmoil over his love for Margot and discovers that she’s been sleeping with his best friend and a string of other men. The wrist-cutting scene is all the more macabre because Elliott Smith’s “Needle in the Hay” is playing in the background. Smith died in 2003—two years after the release of Royal Tenebaums—from knife wounds to the chest that were likely self-inflicted. But even without that tragic irony, the song selection for Richie’s scene was fitting given Smith’s long, well-known struggle with depression.
Update from reader Tim, who cheers things up a bit:
When I saw your “These Days” headline, I immediately thought it referred to this gem by English singer-writer-artist Ron Sexsmith (no, for real, that’s his name). Same title, different song, but it would have worked at least as well as the Nico in Tenenbaums.
Even better, here’s reader Nathan:
A nice rejoinder to the darkness of Nico’s “These Days” is Drake’s surprisingly lighthearted cover of the song, an under-the-radar pre-Views leak. Drake’s take borders on silly, but its wistfulness actually ends up capturing his Views-era M.O. in a way that much of his actual album does not. “I had a lover / It’s so hard to risk another these days” just works better than “Wonder if they’re second guessin' their decisions / I hate the number 2, that shit is unforgiven.”
(Track of the Day archive here. Earlier archive here. Submit via hello@)
A reader, Christian, keeps our cinema series alive with The Righteous Brothers closing out Top Gun:
You can crack jokes all day about this movie’s comic-book politics and repressed sexuality, but if you can sit through it and not feel something as the freeze-frame end titles begin, I don’t understand you:
(Track of the Day archive here. Earlier archive here. Submit via hello@.)
I was looking at some of your recent “Track of the Day” movie scenes. Thanks for these nuggets of beauty and inspiration. I was reminded of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, a film about the former editor at French Vogue who suffered a massive stroke and ended up suffering from Locked-in Syndrome, where he could hear and understand all that was going on around him but unable to communicate in any way except by blinking his eye.
There is a scene in the film where he is remembering back to a trip he took to the city of Lourdes with his mistress. They are driving in a convertible and her hair is flailing in the wind while the opening guitar riffs of U2’s “Ultraviolet (Light my Way)” is playing and the camera is positioned as if the viewer is in the back seat.
I will never forget that scene. It’s such a powerful combination of image and sound that elicit freedom and movement from a man trapped in his own body. It is one of the most visually stunning moments in cinema for me and also an awesome song.
(Track of the Day archive here. Submit via hello@.)
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@)
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: firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.
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:
A former Jehovah's Witness is using stolen documents to expose allegations that the religion has kept hidden for decades.
In March 1997, the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, the nonprofit organization that oversees the Jehovah’s Witnesses, sent a letter to each of its 10,883 U.S. congregations, and to many more congregations worldwide. The organization was concerned about the legal risk posed by possible child molesters within its ranks. The letter laid out instructions on how to deal with a known predator: Write a detailed report answering 12 questions—Was this a onetime occurrence, or did the accused have a history of child molestation? How is the accused viewed within the community? Does anyone else know about the abuse?—and mail it to Watchtower’s headquarters in a special blue envelope. Keep a copy of the report in your congregation’s confidential file, the instructions continued, and do not share it with anyone.
The unusual situation facing Robert Mueller does not somehow work a repeal of well-established traditions of confidentiality.
As the nation awaits the Mueller report, a return to first principles is in order. One relevant first principle was dramatically illustrated in the breach during the waning weeks of the 2016 presidential campaign. Then–FBI Director James Comey announced at a press conference that no criminal charges would be brought against Hillary Clinton. Comey didn’t stop there, however. In that press conference, which will continue to live in infamy, Comey sharply criticized the former secretary of state for her ill-considered conduct in housing a server in her private residence, only to receive official and—not infrequently—classified information.
The nation should have risen, as one, in righteous indignation in the aftermath of the Comey press conference. In a single misadventure, Comey both seized power that was not his—the power to seek an indictment, a prerogative that was entrusted to the attorney general—and then violated one of the fundamental principles of public prosecution: Thou shalt not drag a subject or target of the investigation through the mud via public criticism. Prosecutors either seek an indictment, or remain quiet.
The attorney general says he may be able to advise Congress of the special counsel’s principal conclusions as early as this weekend.
After one year, 10 months, and six days, Special Counsel Robert Mueller has submitted his final report to the attorney general, signaling the end of his investigation into a potential conspiracy between President Donald Trump’s campaign and Russia.
Mueller’s pace has been breakneck, legal experts tell me—especially for a complicated criminal investigation that involves foreign nationals and the Kremlin, an adversarial government. The next-shortest special-counsel inquiry was the three-and-a-half-year investigation of the Plame affair, under President George W. Bush; the longest looked into the Iran-Contra scandal, under President Ronald Reagan, which lasted nearly seven years. Still, former FBI agents have expressed surprise that Mueller ended his probe without ever personally interviewing its central target: Donald Trump.
Why the HBO host is wrong that public shaming encourages public accountability
On the most recent episode of Last Week Tonight, an HBO show that often sounds as if The Daily Show and The Rachel Maddow Show had combined their writers’ rooms, John Oliver dedicated his monologue to public shaming.
After a brief survey of excesses culled from local television-news reports, the host said, “You may be expecting me to say that all public shaming is bad, but I don’t actually think that.” In his estimation, “misdirected internet pile-ons can completely destroy people’s lives.” But if public shaming is “well directed,” then “a lot of good can come out of it. If someone is caught doing something racist or a powerful person is behaving badly, it can increase accountability.”
The balance of the segment did not substantiate his thesis.
Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation has wrapped up, but Trump and his associates may not be out of legal jeopardy yet.
After 675 days, Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation is over. But President Donald Trump’s legal troubles are far from finished.
What has ended is the Department of Justice’s investigation into Russia’s role in the 2016 presidential election, which began after the United States assessed that Moscow had intervened in the vote to tip the election in Trump’s favor. Both Trump and Russia have consistently denied this. But Mueller’s investigation has led to 215 criminal charges, 38 indictments or pleas, and five prison sentences so far. His probe ensnared Trump’s business associates, many of whom had become involved in his political career, including his former personal lawyer Michael Cohen and former campaign chairman Paul Manafort. The special counsel’s office also unearthed a web of criminality, not always directly related to Russian interference.
Supreme Court justices should resist the urge to refer to presidents by name.
Schoolhouse Rock, and the Constitution, teach that a bill becomes a law when the president signs it. Often the Supreme Court will explain that a given bill was signed by “the president.” But on rare occasions, the justices will refer to the president by name. Does this SCOTUS name-dropping matter? If the Court merely notes which president was in office when Congress passed a specific bill, there is no problem. That fact, in the legal lingo, is merely descriptive. However, if the Court identifies the president to make a broader point—for example, that the bill was passed by a liberal or a conservative—there may indeed be a problem. The Court should resist the urge to wade, or even dip a toe, into partisan squabbles by naming the politicians responsible for legislation, unless, of course, those facts are necessary to resolve a given a case.
William Barr told Congress he “may be in a position to advise [lawmakers] of the Special Counsel’s principal conclusions as soon as this weekend.”
On Friday, Special Counsel Robert Mueller delivered to Attorney General William Barr a report detailing his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Below is the full content of the letter Barr sent to congressional committee members confirming that Mueller’s inquiry is finished:
Dear Chairman [Lindsey] Graham, Chairman [Jerrold] Nadler, Ranking Member [Dianne] Feinstein, and Ranking Member [Doug] Collins:
I write to notify you pursuant to 28 C.F.R. §600.9(a)(3) that Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III has concluded his investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election and related matters. In addition to this notification, the Special Counsel regulations require that I provide you with “a description and explanation of instances (if any) in which the Attorney General” or acting Attorney General “concluded that a proposed action by a Special Counsel was so inappropriate or unwarranted under established Departmental practices that it should not be pursued.” 28 C.F.R. §600.9(a)(3). There were no such instances during the Special Counsel's investigation.
After waking up with a searing pain that radiates down to my shoulders, I hunt for the culprit.
My body’s preferred way to remind me that I’m aging is through pain. In recent years, my level of consequence-free drinking has plummeted from “omg liMitLe$s!!” to one and a half standard glasses of Chardonnay. In yoga, I am often forced not to enter the “fullest expression of the pose” and instead to just kind of lie there.
And then there is The Tweak. About once a month—not at any certain time of the month, but roughly 12 times a year—I will wake up feeling like someone French-braided my neck muscles overnight. The pain burns from the base of my skull, down one side of my neck or the other, and onto the adjacent shoulder blade. The Tweak makes it impossible to rotate my head fully to one side or the other for the day. It’s not an athletic injury—I know no sport. It’s also not related to any underlying medical conditions that I know of, though when I talked with experts for this article, they asked me “if I am stressed,” which I took to be a rhetorical question.
In his latest film, the comedian turned director continues to reinvent how the genre uses fear to comment on humanity’s evil.
This story contains mild spoilers for the film Us.
It’s perhaps the most indelible image in cinema: Janet Leigh’s scream, her open mouth signaling unmistakable terror, in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Taken from the movie’s famous shower scene, the shot is now virtually synonymous with the horror genre. There are other elements that establish the gravitas of Hitchcock’s crown-jewel sequence—the shocking and graphic death early in the film, the reveal of Norman Bates’s slashing, the implied nudity and risqué setup in the running shower—but they are best crystallized in that one, almost audible, still.
In his recent run as a bona fide heir to Hitchcock, the comedian and filmmaker Jordan Peele has given the world a potential successor to Leigh’s scream: a black face, skin humidified and reflective, two bulging and bloodshot eyes, and the streaks of two tears. The face belonged to Daniel Kaluuya in Peele’s 2017 Oscar-winning work Get Out, and lives on in Lupita Nyong’o’s performance in the director’s new movie, Us. That silent expression of fear is now a trademark of Peele’s, and a visceral reminder of what he adds to the game. The very act of incorporating black actors and black creators turns horror inside out, giving the genre new dimensions and new power as social commentary.
Netflix’s shiny biopic of the hair-metal band barely tries to understand the destruction it portrays.
Mötley Crüe is canceled! The latest harrowing #MeToo-era music film highlights the ’80s metal touchstone’s conduct, which was hardly hidden from the public but can now be seen for the abuse it was all along. The lead singer, Vince Neil, killed a man while driving drunk. The drummer, Tommy Lee, is shown punching his first fiancée in the face. Band members harassed innocent bystanders and destroyed their property while habitually treating women like dishrags. Time’s up on the glorification of all that.
Or not. The Dirt, a new Netflix biopic, is co-produced by Mötley Crüe and adapts the 2001 memoir the four bandmates co-wrote with the journalist Neil Strauss. It is a Walk Hard–style mythologizing of their stumble from dive-bar brawls to hydraulics-enabled arenas. That journey generated very little enduring music but did help set a visual template of male excess, a fact that the band members now seem too thick to even appreciate. Aluminum-siding riffs and hernia-evoking growls don’t rule today’s charts, but the star rapper Travis Scott has been at least copying Tommy Lee’s onstage carnival equipment—a fact about which Lee has been raging in caps-lock on Instagram.