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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Your question about film work immediately made me think of a mother number from Harry Nilsson. Scorsese’s use of “Jump Into the Fire” in Goodfellas is one of my all-time favorite musical moments in a movie. The tension of Ray Liotta’s character Henry Hill tracking the helicopter and wondering whether it is real or just a vision along with the menace of that song. Nearly perfect.
The only version of that scene I could find on YouTube is a trippy mashup version that swaps out the helicopter with the parachuting elephant in Operation Dumbo Drop—which definitely works on its own level:
(Submit a song via hello@. Track of the Day archive here. Pre-Notes archive here.)
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: email@example.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.
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@)
Americans will soon grow tired of the former president, despite his efforts to stay in the limelight.
President Donald Trump has made one thing painfully clear: After he grudgingly leaves the White House, he will keep doing what he can to stay in the news. He will tweet insults and conspiracy theories. He may start his own television channel. And according to members of his inner circle, he may even run for president in 2024.
After half a decade under his spell, many pundits and political observers assume that Trump will succeed in keeping the nation’s attention. I can see why. A sizable minority of Americans believe that the election was stolen and remain deeply devoted to the outgoing president. Even now that Trump’s loss has liberated the GOP from its captor, elected Republicans seem to be suffering from a bad case of Stockholm syndrome. And the 45th president has proved, again and again, that he has a real talent for staying in the limelight.
Looking at the long views from the Hubble space telescope might be good for you.
In December of 1995, astronomers around the world were vying for a chance to use the hottest new tool in astronomy: the Hubble space telescope. Bob Williams didn’t have to worry about all that. As the director of the institution that managed Hubble, Williams could use the telescope to observe whatever he wanted. And he decided to point it at nothing in particular.
Williams’s colleagues told him, as politely as they could, that this was an awful idea. But Williams had a hunch that Hubble would see something worthwhile. The telescope had already captured the glow of faraway galaxies, and the longer Hubble gazed out in one direction, the more light it would detect.
So the Hubble telescope stared at the same bit of space, nonstop, for 10 days—precious time on a very expensive machine—snapping exposure after exposure as it circled Earth. The resulting image was astounding: Some 3,000 galaxies sparkled like gemstones in the darkness. The view stretched billions of years back in time, revealing other cosmic locales as they were when their light left them and began coasting across the universe.
The former mayor’s fevered efforts to overturn the election results may be about self-preservation more than anything else.
Updated on December 1, 2020, at 5:32 p.m. ET.
In his frenzied crusade to help President Donald Trump overturn the 2020 election result, Rudy Giuliani has displayed many of the characteristics that Trump has long demanded in his personal lawyers—albeit with more surreal and comedic elements.
Giuliani has shown unswerving loyalty, gleefully obfuscated facts, launched wild attacks on the media, hosted circus-style press conferences, and gone to court, all in a fruitless, evidence-free quest to persuade several states to block Joe Biden’s electoral victories.
But that might not be Giuliani’s only—or ultimate—goal.
The former New York mayor might just be trying to save himself, according to the Department of Justice veterans and legal experts I spoke with. Giuliani seems to be facing growing legal threats, and he may be angling for a presidential pardon, they told me in interviews over the past few weeks.
Minority rule is fast becoming the defining feature of the American republic. In 2000 and 2016, presidential candidates who received fewer votes than their opponents were nevertheless sent to the White House. Joe Biden’s 2020 victory came not because he won nearly 7 million more votes nationally than President Donald Trump, but rather because he won about 200,000 votes more in a handful of swing states. Congress has seen a similar dynamic: Though Republican senators make up the majority in the chamber, they represent more than 20 million fewer Americans than Democratic senators do. Such lopsided electoral calculus seems to fly in the face of both parties’ principles. It cannot last.
Only one top Biden adviser isn’t joining him in the White House—but she’ll still stay close.
When Julián Castro wasn’t given a speaking slot at the Democratic National Convention in August, he complained that Joe Biden’s campaign wasn’t showing proper respect to Latino voters. The real explanation for the snub is much simpler: The former housing secretary and presidential candidate had implied that Biden was senile in a primary debate and then didn’t endorse him until June, though the primary race had been over since April, when Bernie Sanders dropped out.
Anita Dunn, a senior adviser to the Biden campaign from the start, declined to comment on what happened with Castro. (An aide to Castro insisted he offered to endorse in April, but the Biden campaign sat on that, and an offer for advice on Latino outreach.) But keeping track of who crosses Biden—staff, reporters, politicians—is part of what she does. She watches. She listens. She remembers. She is completely comfortable with giving a firm no.
“When can we stop thinking about Trump every minute?” the New York Times columnists Gail Collins and Bret Stephens asked yesterday. As usual with such queries, the correct answer is “What do you mean ‘we’?” To a remarkable degree, people have already stopped paying attention to the 45th president.
The past few weeks have offered a preview of what Donald Trump’s post-presidency might look like: The president fulminates at length, playing pundit, but is a practical nonfactor in policy discussions. He can still command the affection of millions—and raise millions of dollars from them—but the balance of the country has already moved on and tuned out. Trump’s ability to command the news cycle has been eclipsed by the virus he couldn’t be bothered to stop and the rival candidate he couldn’t beat.
The movie and book don’t show the positive side of the area, because that wouldn’t serve the story’s purposes.
My Aunt Ruth won’t watch Hillbilly Elegy, the movie adaptation of J. D. Vance’s memoir about growing up in and eventually escaping Appalachia and a mother coping with addiction. Practically speaking, my aunt doesn’t have a Netflix account or any of the smart technology she’d need to stream it. But she also has no interest in watching a story of her community that doesn’t reflect what she sees and that she knows will be exploitative, harmful, and not helpful to moving her or her neighbors forward.
Hillbilly Elegy doesn’t show the positive side of Appalachia that my aunt and I know, because that wouldn’t serve the story’s purposes. The film and book need Appalachia to be poor, broken, and dirty, because they depend on us believing that the mountains are somewhere we want Vance to escape. They need to frame poverty as a moral failing of individuals—as opposed to systems—because they have to imply that something about Vance’s character allowed him to get away from his hillbilly roots. Hillbilly Elegy has to simplify the people and problems of Appalachia, because it has decided to tell the same old pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps narrative that so many of us reject.
Just because we know bad things about the 45th president, don’t assume that there’s nothing bad left to find out.
How well do we know Donald Trump? Pretty well, it would seem. Nobody has ever accused the outgoing president of possessing a complex personality. His behavior in office confirmed the common view, barely disputed even by his allies, that he is a shallow narcissist, blind or indifferent to common decencies, with poor impulse control and a vindictive streak. His futile attempt to litigate away electoral defeat may appall you, but it probably doesn’t surprise you.
Still, just because we know bad things about the 45th president, don’t assume that there’s nothing bad left to find out. Journalists like to pretend that we know everything about a president in real time, but our information is never close to complete. There’s always more to learn, and it’s seldom reassuring.
Pod means something different to everyone, and that’s a problem.
Americans’ social lifelines are beginning to fray. As the temperature drops and the gray twilight arrives earlier each day, comfortably mingling outside during the pandemic is getting more difficult across much of the country. For many people, it’s already impossible.
To combat the loneliness of winter, some of us might be tempted to turn to pods, otherwise known as bubbles. The basic idea is that people who don’t live together can still spend time together indoors, as long as their pod stays small and exclusive. And pods aren’t just for the winter: Since March, parents have formed child-care bubbles. Third graders have been assigned to learning pods. Some NBA teams were in a bubble for months. A July survey of 1,000 Americans found that 47 percent said they were in a bubble.
U.S. COVID-19 statistics are about to look better—even though the reality is almost certainly getting worse. It’s time to hibernate.
Here is what we know about the state of COVID-19 as we approach the winter holiday season.
On Thanksgiving Eve, more than 1 million passengers cleared airport security, the highest single-day volume since the coronavirus reshaped American life in March. While airplanes are not likely settings for super-spreader events, everything before and after people step on a plane is somewhat risky. This includes parents shouting at their misbehaving kids in security lines; individuals munching on Auntie Anne’s pretzels, masks dangling from their chins, in departure-terminal crowds; and, most importantly, extended families swapping sweet-potato pie and invisible pathogens over the dinner table in poorly ventilated homes. A holiday surge on top of the calamitous autumn surge could be coming soon.