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@)
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.
Each year, local governments spend nearly $100 billion to move headquarters and factories between states. It’s a wasteful exercise that requires a national solution.
The Amazon HQ2 saga had all the hallmarks of the gaudiest reality TV. It was an absurd spectacle, concluding with a plot twist, which revealed a deep and dark truth about the modern world.
Fourteen months ago, Amazon announced a national beauty contest, in which North American cities could apply to win the honor of landing the retailer’s second headquarters. The prize: 50,000 employees and the glory of housing an international tech giant. The cost? Just several billion dollars in tax incentives and a potential face-lift to the host city. Then last week, in a classic late-episode shock, several news outlets reported that Amazon would split its second headquarters between Crystal City, a suburban neighborhood near Washington, D.C., and Long Island City, in Queens, New York.
It is best not to diagnose the president from afar, which is why the federal government needs a system to evaluate him up close.
President Donald Trump’s decision to brag in a tweet about the size of his “nuclear button” compared with North Korea’s was widely condemned as bellicose and reckless. The comments are also part of a larger pattern of odd and often alarming behavior for a person in the nation’s highest office.
Trump’s grandiosity and impulsivity have made him a constant subject of speculation among those concerned with his mental health. But after more than a year of talking to doctors and researchers about whether and how the cognitive sciences could offer a lens to explain Trump’s behavior, I’ve come to believe there should be a role for professional evaluation beyond speculating from afar.
I’m not alone. Viewers of Trump’s recent speeches have begun noticing minor abnormalities in his movements. In November, he used his free hand to steady a small Fiji bottle as he brought it to his mouth. Onlookers described the movement as “awkward” and made jokes about hand size. Some called out Trump for doing the exact thing he had mocked Senator Marco Rubio for during the presidential primary—conspicuously drinking water during a speech.
“The fire, to me—it’s like an ocean. It’s so strong that we don’t really stand a chance of doing much to it.”
Seven years ago, Park Williams took an hour-long drive with a couple friends to see a wildfire. He remembers it now as a revelation.
At the time, Williams was researching the scraggly pine forests that dot the southwestern United States. He worked at a national laboratory that overlooks more than a million acres of protected desert forest. On June 26, 2011, the wind knocked down an aspen somewhere in that national forest, toppling it into a power line and igniting a small flame. The landscape was parched, the winds were unruly, and soon that flame had become the largest wildfire in New Mexico’s history.
Williams couldn’t go to work—his lab had been evacuated—so he and his friends drove around town, hoping to catch a glimpse of the blaze. Eventually they came to a spot just below the mountains. He remembers the air outside the car reeking like an ancient brick fireplace. The fire stood a mile off. “It looked like a skyline of buildings,” he told me. “You could see it in the mountains above you.”
When I was elected to the House of Representatives two years ago, I found the problems weren’t as bad as I’d expected—they were worse.
If you are among the 11 percent of Americans who believe that everything in Congress is going swimmingly, then save some time and stop reading right now. (But first, please share whatever experimental drugs you are on.) But if you are among the 87 percent of people who are concerned about what is going on in Congress, then I have an important message for you: It’s much worse than you think.
On Tuesday, Congress reconvenes after a month of campaigning. Lame-duck legislation will likely get the most attention, but a more important debate will occur among surviving incumbents and new members in each caucus about how to organize for the next Congress. This debate about rules and process, more than any Russia-related investigation or wall-funding-fueled shutdown, will determine whether Congress can avoid two years of dysfunction or whether it will continue its slide into irrelevance.
The Harry Potter author is pouring a wealth of ideas about her wizarding world into a mold that doesn’t have the space for it.
There came a certain point in George Lucas’s career, as he began writing prequels to his Star Wars films and tinkering with reedited “special editions” of the originals, when he finally lost all grasp on narrative momentum and became a glorified encyclopedia editor. Story took a backseat to explanation, and characters seemed to exist only to be related to future characters in some way. With the release of Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, it’s safe to say that the Harry Potter author J. K. Rowling is swerving dangerously close to George Lucas territory.
This is a film that exists primarily to answer questions nobody would have ever thought to ask about a series of books that already told a very complete story. It’s been dressed up as a sequel in the Fantastic Beasts series, starring the squirrelly and introverted Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) and set in the 1920s. But that subtitle, The Crimes of Grindelwald, has all the sizzle of an appendix entry and says everything one might need to know going in. Directed by David Yates, the movie is less a fantasy epic and more a data download, giving out just enough background information to keep fans sated until the next Fantastic Beasts drops in 2020.
Trump’s acting attorney general can’t legally hold the office—and that’s a problem for everyone.
President Donald Trump appointed Matthew Whitaker as acting attorney general last week, despite the fact that he cannot legally hold the office. While the president could fix his mistake with any lesser official and in any normal time, the attorney general is no lesser official and this is no normal time. Whitaker takes office during a time of extreme constitutional conflict involving investigations of the president, claims of abuse of law-enforcement and national-security powers, and combat between the executive and legislative branches. In order to prevent a breakdown of federal law enforcement, the White House should hurry to select a permanent attorney general before any more damage is done.
In today’s economy, well-off people live in big cities, while everyone else gets pushed out. Bringing new Amazon offices to Virginia and New York could hasten the process.
On the long list of things that New York City desperately needs—money for the subway, for affordable housing, for schools and public hospitals and universal pre-K—more high-paying, high-skilled jobs is not at the top of the list. It could be argued, in fact, that many of New York’s ills are caused by the explosion of high-paying jobs in a city where the construction of affordable housing and transit improvements has not kept up pace.
Yet New York and hundreds of other cities spent the past year trying to convince Amazon to bring 50,000 jobs to the city, a process that was rewarded on Tuesday when Amazon formally announced that it would set up new offices in Queens and in and the Crystal City area of Arlington, Virginia.
Clothing brands have been smuggling spandex onto the legs of unsuspecting men.
“I definitely didn’t explicitly understand what I was buying,” Austin Ray, a 36-year-old writer in Atlanta, told me. What he was buying were Gap Soft Wear Jeans in Straight Fit with GapFlex, which is a nine-word phrase to describe a two-word trend: stretch jeans. “Apparently I didn’t think too hard about what those words meant,” he said.
My friend David Covucci, a 34-year-old Brooklyn editor, also didn’t understand exactly what he was getting into when he picked a pair of Banana Republic Rapid Movement Denim jeans off a clearance rack, but the pants immediately felt different to him. “I knew something was up, but I didn’t Google until I got home,” he said.
The Woolsey Fire and the nearby Hill Fire have forced the evacuation of nearly 250,000 residents from their homes near the Pacific Coast in California’s Los Angeles and Ventura Counties.
Even as firefighters continue to battle the devastating Camp Fire in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains north of Sacramento, several other large wildfires are roaring through tinder-dry sections of California, including the Woolsey Fire, near Malibu. The Woolsey Fire and the nearby Hill Fire have forced the evacuation of nearly 250,000 residents from their homes near the Pacific Coast in Los Angeles and Ventura Counties. At least two deaths have been blamed on the fires, which have burned across more than 80,000 acres, destroying more than 150 homes in the past few days.