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:
The backlash against the incoming congresswoman’s “very nice” outfit is both tedious and predictable.
Earlier this week, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez posted a tweet: At congressional events, she shared (the representative-elect of New York’s 14th Congressional District is currently in Washington for a series of orientations on the workings of the House), she keeps being mistaken for an intern. Or sometimes for the spouse of the person who must be the true new member of Congress. Ocasio-Cortez, a young woman who is also a woman of color who is also a democratic socialist—a politician who won her election, earlier this month, with 78 percent of her district’s vote—keeps getting told that she doesn’t quite belong in Congress. Her tweet sharing that experience was punctuated by a face-palm emoji. It went viral.
Despite the easing of taboos and the rise of hookup apps, Americans are in the midst of a sex recession.
These should be boom times for sex.
The share of Americans who say sex between unmarried adults is “not wrong at all” is at an all-time high. New cases of HIV are at an all-time low. Most women can—at last—get birth control for free, and the morning-after pill without a prescription.
If hookups are your thing, Grindr and Tinder offer the prospect of casual sex within the hour. The phrase If something exists, there is porn of it used to be a clever internet meme; now it’s a truism. BDSM plays at the local multiplex—but why bother going? Sex is portrayed, often graphically and sometimes gorgeously, on prime-time cable. Sexting is, statistically speaking, normal.
Between 1 and 5 percent of U.S. adoptions get legally dissolved each year. Some children are put up for “second-chance adoptions.”
The little girl in the photograph squints and smiles broadly in the sunlight. According to a now-deleted public post on Second Chance Adoptions’ Facebook page, the girl, who the agency calls “Reese” to protect her privacy, is 10 years old, and she has been a member of her family since she was born—first in foster care, then legally adopted just before her first birthday. She loves to laugh, her adopted mom says, and she smiles all the time. She loves pink. She has no special needs. But she needs a new home.
In other posts with more pictures, the reader learns that Reese is the youngest of four daughters; the other three are the biological children of her parents. She gets straight A’s. She loves her parents and her sisters. She grumbles only when her siblings ask her to clean her room. She rarely lies and loves to wear skirts and dresses and listen to music. But according to the information provided by her parents, “This family has drastically changed their lifestyle and have left their faith and extended family for a quiet, secluded life.” It is their hope that “a different family will step forward who can provide her with the socialization and continued relationship with God that she desires.” After spending her whole life thus far with her family, Reese was being advertised on Facebook and the internet at large as available for re-adoption.
Protesters harassing prominent conservatives in their private lives fall short of the standards of civil disobedience.
Last Saturday night, a Fox News contributor named Kat Timpf was at a bar in Brooklyn. As she recounted the incident to National Review, a man asked her where she worked. A while later, she said, a woman began “screaming at me to get out.” Timpf walked away, but the woman followed her around the bar while other patrons laughed. Fearing physical attack, Timpf left. She told National Review and The Hill that it was the third time she has been harassed since 2017. A few months earlier, a woman yelled at her during dinner at a Manhattan restaurant. The year before, while she was about to give a speech, a man dumped water on her head.
Protests like these, that target people’s private lives, are wrong. They violate fundamental principles of civil disobedience, as understood by its most eminent practitioners and theorists. And they threaten the very norms of human decency that Trump and his supporters have done so much to erode.
Despite vast increases in the time and money spent on research, progress is barely keeping pace with the past. What went wrong?
The writer Stewart Brand once wrote that “science is the only news.” While news headlines are dominated by politics, the economy, and gossip, it’s science and technology that underpin much of the advance of human welfare and the long-term progress of our civilization. This is reflected in an extraordinary growth in public investment in science: Today, there are more scientists, more funding for science, and more scientific papers published than ever before:
On the surface, this is encouraging. But for all this increase in effort, are we getting a proportional increase in our scientific understanding? Or are we investing vastly more merely to sustain (or even see a decline in) the rate of scientific progress?
A judge suggested that it’s unconstitutional to revoke a reporter’s press pass without providing a reason.
The books have undoubtedly been taken down from the shelves of Island Trees High School and Island Trees Junior High: well-thumbed copies of popular 1960s books including The Fixer by Bernard Malamud and Soul on Ice by Eldred Cleaver, they were probably sold long ago to a used-book outlet.
But they (or rather the empty spaces on library shelves they left) stand for a principle that is important to reaffirm in the dispute between the White House and CNN. The first round of that dispute was resolved Friday, when Judge Timothy Kelly granted the network a temporary restraining order requiring the White House to restore correspondent Jim Acosta’s “hard pass” to cover White House events.
The judge, an appointee of President Trump, made the order with some hints of reluctance, telling the courtroom that “I want to emphasize the very limited nature of this ruling. I have not determined that the First Amendment was violated here.” Instead, he ruled that CNN had shown the likelihood that the procedures used by the White House violated the Fifth Amendment, which binds the federal government not to deprive any “person . . . of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” The granting of the TRO indicates that the judge thinks CNN will likely win after a full hearing; but it doesn’t tell us whether that likely victory would be purely on procedure, or also on the important First Amendment questions raised by the case. (As of 5 p.m., Judge Kelly had not issued a written opinion and order.)
The latest news about Facebook is a wake-up call that “leaning in” doesn’t mean doing right.
Back in 2013, many women of a certain ideological stripe and geographic location (D.C., New York, or basically any big city) wanted to be just like a woman most of us had only recently heard of: Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook.
With her blockbuster book, Lean In, she seemed to offer women a way—as long as we had nannies, an education, and smart biz-cazh attire—to finally get treated the way men do at the office.
The answer: It was on us. She had anodyne advice for being noticed: “Sit at the table,” literally. She had tips for tricking your boss into thinking you’re working harder than you are: “Holding my first and last meetings of the day in other buildings to make it less transparent when I was actually arriving and departing.”
It was a blue tide, not a blue wave: While some results have been slow to arrive, they show that Democrats had more success in the elections than was immediately clear.
Thursday was a bad day for House Republicans.
In the morning, Maine officials declared thatDemocrat Jared Golden had defeated Representative Bruce Poliquin, the last Republican in Congress from New England, with the aid of the state’s new instant-runoff voting system. Then, in the evening, the Associated Press projected that Democrat Katie Porter would unseat Representative Mimi Walters, yet another loss for the GOP in historically rock-ribbed Orange County, California. Meanwhile, elsewhere in the O.C., Democrat Gil Cisneros edged ahead of Republican Young Kim.
There have been a surprising number of these bad days for Republicans since November 6, which was itself a pretty bad day. As the outstanding races continue to gradually come in, they are changing the way the midterm elections look. Instead of the “blue wave” that pundits predicted before Election Day, it’s more like a blue tide—rolling slowly but inexorably in and washing Republicans away.
“Rich people don’t get their own ‘better’ firefighters, or at least they aren’t supposed to.”
As multiple devastating wildfires raged across California, a private firefighting crew reportedly helped save Kanye West and Kim Kardashian’s home in Calabasas, TMZ reported this week. The successful defense of the $50 million mansion is the most prominent example of a trend that’s begun to receive national attention: for-hire firefighters protecting homes, usually on the payroll of an insurance company with a lot at risk.
The insurance companies AIG and Chubb have publicly talked about their private wildfire teams. AIG has its own “Wildfire Protection Unit,” while Chubb—and up to a dozen other insurers—contract with Wildfire Defense Systems, a Montana company that claims to have made 550 “wildfire responses on behalf of insurers,” including 255 in just the past two years. Right now in California, the company has 53 engines working to protect close to 1,000 homes.
The HBO adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s first Neapolitan novel is a strikingly faithful achievement.
When Lila Cerullo disappears at the beginning of Elena Ferrante’s first Neapolitan novel, My Brilliant Friend, it’s not a passive act but a violent one. Lila doesn’t vanish, she doesn’t evaporate; she erases herself, cutting her image out of family photographs as determinedly as she removes clothes from her closet. It isn’t enough for Lila to make herself disappear, Ferrante writes; she has to “eliminate the entire life that she had left behind.” But Lila’s ambition backfires—she’s more present in those butchered snapshots with their glaring voids than she was in photographic form.
Aggression and dominance saturate the Neapolitan novels as surely as alcohol suffuses limoncello, bitter and sharp. Elena, the narrator whose coming of age occupies the first book, emphasizes early on that her tales of growing up aren’t nostalgic, because her childhood “was full of violence.” Every relationship is portrayed as being a negotiation in power. Elena’s mother conveys to her daughter how “superfluous” she is; the girl’s father beats “Lenù,” as Elena is called, after being goaded by her mother, who insinuates that he’s not manly enough to hit his child. The central relationship in the novels, Lenù and Lila’s friendship, is defined by the fluctuating dynamic between the two, encapsulated in the twist at the end of the first book when the “brilliant friend” of the title turns out to be not Lila, as assumed all along, but Lenù.