Songs and soundtracks

 

© Paramount Pictures / Touchstone Pictures

 

Looking at the Internet just now, it seems that everybody and their granny are writing feverishly – and ‘feverishly’ is an appropriate adverb – about the coronavirus, or to give it its more accurate and more Cronenberg-esque title, Covid-19.  Now that I’m facing a period of self-isolation / social distancing (not because I have the dreaded virus but because I live in Colombo and the Sri Lankan authorities have just declared a three-day public holiday, one where everybody is urged to stay indoors and which I suspect will last for longer than three days), I’ve decided to write a few things on this blog not about the coronavirus, but about all the stuff I’m really interested in.  So here, just for a change, is something about films… and music.

 

A pet hate of mine is a film whose soundtrack consists of some lazily selected popular songs.  I’m thinking of films where the filmmakers have just looked at the charts and grabbed a few songs to stick on the soundtrack to make their product seem hip; or, when the film is pitched at a more mature demographic, they’ve pilfered the charts of yesteryear for a few old songs that’ll give their audience a nostalgic glow while they watch the screen.  In both cases, this means they can also bung the songs onto a tie-in soundtrack album that will hopefully generate a few extra bucks after the film’s release.  However, no thought or effort has been taken to choose songs that actually enhance what’s happening onscreen, that create a musical / cinematic frisson whereby the song augments the film’s plot and visual imagery and vice versa.

 

I can think of some particularly painful instances.  For example, there’s Paul Feig’s generally pretty good comedy Bridesmaids (2011) which, after nearly two hours of raunchy, sometimes acerbic comedy about the ordeals that women have to put themselves through in order to achieve the ideal of a ‘perfect’ wedding, suddenly turns into a cringeworthy schmaltz-fest when the 1990 Wilson Phillips song Hold On starts caterwauling during the climactic wedding.  (To add insult to injury, the filmmakers actually wheel on Wilson Phillips to sing the song ‘live’ at the wedding reception, as if the bride, who’s already suffered a near-breakdown about the wedding’s expensiveness, could afford to hire Wilson Phillips for the evening.)  And this applies even to songs I really like.  I mean, I love the Beastie Boys’ Sabotage, but I found it irritatingly distracting when it turned up in the rebooted Star Trek movies (2009-16).

 

Happily, things sometimes work the other way.  I still remember the rush I got when, at the end of The Matrix (1999), Keanu Reeves, now fully cognisant of his powers, steps out of a telephone box and shoots Superman-like up into the sky whilst Rage Against The Machine’s Wake Up thunders in the background.  Or the bit early on in Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973) where Harvey Keitel’s pensive, sharp-suited Charlie watches the trilby-hatted, devil-may-care Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro) swagger towards him across a bar, arms draped over the shoulders of two ‘broads’, to the strains of the Rolling Stones’ Jumpin’ Jack Flash. You know immediately that Johnny Boy is bad news and, indeed, the scene serves as a mission statement for all the bad-news characters that De Niro would play later in his career.

 

Anyway, here are a few items that always spring to mind when I think of popular songs and film soundtracks – films that don’t just have one song smartly placed to enrich one scene, but that are choc-a-block with songs making a number of scenes extra-memorable.

 

I suppose I have to start with a film whose soundtrack may qualify for the title of my all-time favourite.  I’m talking about Oliver Stone’s 1994 bloodbath about lovers / serial killers on the run, Natural Born Killers.  For this, Stone hired Trent Reznor, the mastermind behind the mighty industrial / electronica / metal band Nine Inch Nails, to assemble a collage of music to complement the film’s often demented collage of visual styles.  You might have expected Reznor’s choices to form a continuous assault of brutal electronic noise, but what you actually get in Natural Born Killers is an eclectic delight.

 

© Warner Bros / Regency Enterprises

 

It’s brilliant from the start, when we see Woody Harrelson’s Mickey and Juliet Lewis’s Mallory sitting in an oppressive out-in-the-sticks diner populated by leering, gun-toting rednecks while on the jukebox Leonard Cohen forebodingly croons Waiting for the Miracle.  Then Cohen’s Miracle abruptly gives way to L7’s Shitlist and Mickey and Mallory slaughter the rednecks in a nightmarish burst of violence.

 

Other moments of wonder include the Cowboy Junkies’ version of Sweet Jane playing while Mickey and Mallory declare their love for one another (“The whole world’s coming to an end, Mal…” “I see angels, Mickey.  They’re coming down for us from heaven…”); Duane Eddy’s twangy The Trembler accompanying the approach of a tornado, which handily allows Mickey to escape from a prison hard-labour gang; Jane’s Addiction’s Sex is Violent segueing into Diamanda Galas singing I Put a Spell on You during a disturbing scene where Mallory seduces and murders a hapless gas-stand attendant (“Holy shit!  You’re Mallory Knox!”); and another thrilling deployment of Rage Against the Machine, this time their song Bombtrack, when Mickey grabs a shotgun and blasts his way free during a live TV interview he’s doing whilst incarcerated in Tommy Lee Jones’s high security jail.  And you get Patti Smith, Bob Dylan, Patsy Cline, Peter Gabriel and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Dr Dre, the Specials and, inevitably, Nine Inch Nails as well.

 

The accompanying soundtrack album doesn’t quite marshal together all the songs from the film – Rage Against the Machine and the Specials are conspicuous by their absence – but most of them are present, spliced together with memorable excerpts from the film’s dialogue.  It was definitely one of the best record releases of 1994.

 

I’ve already mentioned Martin Scorsese, with whose films a decent soundtrack is usually guaranteed.  I sometimes find them a little too retro, though – the characters depicted may start off in the 1960s, but they age during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, yet it’s often still 1960s music playing in the background.  For example, Ray Liotta’s character in Goodfellas (1990) has become a cocaine fiend by the early 1980s, though it’s the Rolling Stones’ 1969 epic Gimme Shelter we hear accompanying his binges.

 

This isn’t an issue with my favourite Scorsese soundtrack, which belongs to one of his less acclaimed films, 1999’s  Bringing Out the Dead.  This is the tale of a burnt-out paramedic played by Nicholas Cage patrolling the nocturnal streets of a particularly infernal version of New York.  He’s accompanied on different nights by different colleagues, played by Ving Rhames, John Goodman and an unhinged Tom Sizemore.

 

Bringing Out the Dead features a variety of songs that perfectly reflect its changing moods: Van Morrison’s wistful T.B. Sheets, REM’s jaunty What’s the Frequency, Kenneth? and the Clash’s hectic Janie Jones.  That last song accompanies a scene were the pill-popping Cage and Sizemore are fried out of their brains at the wheel of their ambulance – if you were lying ill on a sidewalk, you seriously wouldn’t want the pair of them showing up to administer first aid on you.  Elsewhere, the soundtrack includes the Who, Johnny Thunders and Martha and the Vandellas.  Even the one song that I normally consider a pudding, UB40’s version of Neil Diamond’s Red, Red Wine, sounds spooky when it plays over a sequence where Cage ventures into the bloodstained aftermath of a gangland shooting.

 

© Pandora Cinema / Newmarket Films / Flower Films

 

From its opening sequence I knew I was going to love Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko (2001).  It begins with an eerie quietude as Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal) lies prone in the middle of a mountainside road and thunder crackles faintly but menacingly in the distance.  Then Donnie smiles, hops onto his bike and rides down to his wholesome 1980s American suburb accompanied by Echo and the Bunnymen’s Killing Moon.  As well as being an exhilarating mixture of visuals and music, this sequence provides some tongue-in-cheek foreshadowing.  Things will soon turn weird and Donnie will soon be troubled by visions of a big, literal bunny-man called Frank.

 

The rest of the soundtrack is a mixture of bona-fide classics like Joy Division’s Love Will Tear Us Apart and The Church’s Under the Milky Way and cheese like Duran Duran’s Notorious.  But even Notorious becomes memorable when it’s used as the theme tune for Sparkle Motion, the ghastly school dance troupe of which Donnie’s little sister is a member.  And at the finale of course, when Gary Jules and Michael Andrews perform a melancholy, stripped-down version of it, the film does wonders for Tears for Fears’ Mad World.  This was previously a song I’d never given the time of day.

 

However, beware of the director’s cut of Donnie Darko, because in it Richard Kelly replaces Killing Moon as the opening song with INXS’s Never Tear Us Apart.  The bastard.

 

Inevitably, I’ve got to mention Lost in Translation (2003), Sophia Coppola’s intergenerational romance and fish-out-of-water cultural comedy, wherein a jaded, middle-aged Bill Murray and a radiant, young Scarlett Johansson are stuck at the same time in a luxurious Tokyo hotel.   Put together by Coppola’s frequent collaborator Brian Reitzell, the soundtrack features four songs by Kevin Shields and another, Sometimes, by Shields’s acclaimed experimental / shoegazer band My Bloody Valentine.  Neatly bookended by Death in Vegas’s Girls at the beginning and the Jesus and Mary Chain’s Just Like Honey at the end, these evoke the surreal, discombobulating vibe that Tokyo often gives foreigners seeing it for the first time.  At least, that was the vibe it gave me when I first arrived there in 1989.

 

© American Zoetrope / Focus Features

 

Meanwhile, the karaoke box sequence in the middle of the film is lovely.  A Japanese lad tackles the Sex Pistols’ God Save the Queen, Johansson warbles Brass in Pocket by the Pretenders, and Murray gives an impassioned rendition of Nick Lowe’s (What’s so Funny about) Peace, Love and Understanding and then a lovably wobbly one of Roxy Music’s More Than This.  The scene shows there are no cultural boundaries when it comes to enjoying decent music.

 

Lastly, I couldn’t finish without mentioning Edgar Wright, a movie director whose soundtracks are always furnished with the right songs.  His 2017 film Baby Driver won special praise for this, but I’d nominate an earlier Wright effort as my favourite – 2013’s comedy / sci-fi / horror film The World’s End.  This has a group of male friends in their early middle-age returning to their hometown in a new attempt to complete an epic pub crawl that they originally attempted but failed to complete when they were teenagers in 1990.  First, they’re dismayed to find that their old town has become a homogenised, identikit conglomeration of chain stores, fast-food franchises and bland Wetherspoon’s-type pubs that make it indistinguishable from every other town in Britain.  Then they’re horrified to find that it’s also been taken over by aliens who’ve replaced nearly everyone with blue-blooded robot replicants.

 

Predictably, Wright enjoys populating The World’s End’s soundtrack with stuff that his central characters would have listened to as youths in the late 1980s and early 1990s, namely indie, goth, the ‘Madchester’ rock-dance sound and the first Britpop offerings.  Thus, as the pub crawl / battle against aliens continues, you get to hear Saint Etienne, the Sundays, the Stone Roses, the Happy Mondays, Teenage Fanclub, Suede, Blur and Pulp.  You even hear the Inspiral Carpets and the Soup Dragons, so let it not be said that Wright leaves any stones unturned.

 

One song seems wildly out of synch with the characters’ timeframe, which is the Doors’ Alabama Song (Whiskey Bar) from 1967.  But it’s appropriate for the film’s boozy premise and it does accompany an amusing sequence just after the heroes have realised that something severely strange is going on.  And the climax of The World’s End provides a rare thing indeed – not one but two songs, Primal Scream’s Loaded and the Sisters of Mercy’s This Corrosion, which aren’t just there for show but actually contribute something to the plot itself.

 

© Working Title Films / StudioCanal

 

Lynch mob

 

© Lynch / Frost Productions

 

I’ve now spent a week trying to digest the third season of Twin Peaks, which ended its eighteen-episode run on September 3rd.

 

It would be an understatement to call this third season long-awaited.  Fans of Twin Peaks, the always oddball, sometimes barmy, occasionally confounding TV crime series (when it wasn’t being a soap opera, or comedy, or horror story, or science-fiction drama) have spent a quarter-century desperately waiting for it.  Twin Peaks originally aired in 1990 and 1991, created by David Lynch and Mark Frost and sporadically directed by Lynch.  For this 2017 revival, Lynch directed all the episodes himself.

 

One phrase that’s appeared in many reviews of Twin Peaks 3 has been “like nothing else on television.”  And for once I find myself in agreement with the critics.  This new season has been different from anything else you’ve seen on your TV or are likely to see on it – except, perhaps, when that TV is showing a movie by David Lynch.

 

Here is a list of reasons why Twin Peaks 3 has been so remarkable.  If you haven’t seen the show, I should warn you that many spoilers lie ahead.  Mind you, if you haven’t seen it, you also won’t understand a word I’m talking about.

 

© Lynch / Frost Productions

 

The Evolution of the Arm

Part of the weird flora and fauna of the Black Lodge – the Twin Peaks netherworld – the Evolution of the Arm is a tree that crackles with electricity, has a talking brain-like bulb at the top and barks unilluminating things like “253, time and time again!” and “Non-existent!” at Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan), who’s trapped in the Lodge.  Later, after Coop returns to the human world, the Arm sprouts up from a pavement to help him fight off diminutive assassin Ike the Spike (Christophe Zajac-Denek) and gives more coherent advice: “Squeeze his hand off!  Squeeze his hand off!”

 

The thing in the glass box

In an early indication that Twin Peaks 3 was going to be less cosy than the original TV series – and closer to the visceral tone of the movie-cum-prequel Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992) – the first two episodes feature a strange experiment involving a big glass box and a mass of surveillance equipment that eventually conjures up a phantom thing.  Unfortunately for the guy monitoring the experiment – who’s inopportunely chosen this moment to have it off with his girlfriend – the thing is apparently equipped with kitchen-blender fingers.  It proceeds to reduce their heads to bloody confetti.

 

© Lynch / Frost Productions

 

The giant tin can in space

Episode three sees Coop out of the Black Lodge and in pursuit of his evil doppelganger, Bad Coop, who’s back on earth.  But it begins with a phantasmagorical, dialogue-free twenty-minute sequence where he ends up in what appears to be a giant tin can floating through space.  Crewing the tin can is a strange Asian lady who doesn’t have any eyes; and later someone called the American Girl, played by Phoebe Augustine, who was Ronette Pulanski in the original series.  The Girl holds up her watch to show it’s 2:53, which sheds light – not a lot of light, admittedly – on that statement by the Evolution of the Arm.

 

Mr Jackpots

It transpires that there’s a third version of Coop on the go, Dougie Jones, who’s a replica created by Bad Coop (presumably as a decoy to throw people off his scent).  Good Coop replaces Dougie when he arrives back on earth and the replacement process is so traumatic that Coop / Dougie subsequently spends several episodes with his brain practically wiped clean.  The scene where he shambles into a casino and, thanks to some lingering Black Lodge voodoo, wins jackpot after jackpot on the fruit machines whilst shouting the one word of human language he’s retained – “Hellooo!” – is hilarious.

 

© Lynch / Frost Productions

 

Deputy Hawk and the Log Lady

In a season where most of the old Twin Peaks cast seem embittered, enfeebled or unhinged, the still wise and resolute Deputy Hawk (Michael Horse) is a reassuring presence.  It’s fitting that Lynch and Frost use him in the scenes featuring actress Catherine Coulson, who passed away early in the season’s production.  As the ailing Margaret Lanterman, aka the Log Lady, she phones him several times to relay some last messages from her trusty log.  Hawk’s words at the end of their final conversation – a simple “Goodbye, Margaret” – are quietly heart-breaking.

 

Dr Jacoby’s shovels

Dr Jacoby (Russ Tamblyn) is now a shock jock broadcasting nightly rants from his caravan to an audience of, well, two – crazy one-eyed Nadine Hurley (Wendy Robey) and permanently-stoned Jerry Horne (David Patrick Kelly).  When not ranting, Jacoby advertises gold-painted shovels which can be yours for $29.99 and are ideal for shovelling yourself “out of the shit and into the truth.”

 

© Lynch / Frost Productions

 

Janey-E

Janey-E is the wife of Dougie Jones.  Amusingly, when Good Coop replaces Dougie and becomes catatonic, Janey-E – played by the marvellous Naomi Watts – seems not to notice anything wrong with her husband.  Or she simply turns a blind to eye to it, since the almost-magical aura of goodness surrounding Coop and the powers of the Black Lodge cause money to pour into her household for the first time ever.  And unlike virtually everyone else, she gets closure at the end of Twin Peaks 3 because Good Coop thoughtfully makes another copy of himself and sends him to be Janey-E’s beau for good.

 

The Mitchum Brothers and Candie, Mandie and Sandie

Good Coop’s superhuman decency also manages to rub off on brutal / comical mobsters Bradley and Rodney Mitchum (Robert Knepper and Jim Belushi).  The casino-owning pair start off wanting to murder his ass – see ‘Mr Jackpots’ above – but end up totally enamoured with him, treating him like their long-lost third brother.  Further hilarity is provided by their trio of pink-clad molls Candie, Mandie and Sandie, who are always on hand – even after a holocaustic face-off between good and evil – to serve up platters of expensive finger-food.

 

© Lynch / Frost Productions

 

The Nine Inch Nails

As a diversion from the narrative weirdness, Lynch and Frost have the Roadhouse, the bar / concert venue in the town of Twin Peaks, host a musical act late in every episode.  Given its remote location, the place attracts some unfeasibly big names: Julee Cruise, the Cactus Blossoms, Rebekah Del Rio (who has Moby on guitar) and one Edward Louis Severson – Eddie Vedder to you and me.  Best of all is the performance in Episode 8 by fearsome electro-metal juggernaut Nine Inch Nails, who are introduced by the MC as the Nine Inch Nails, no less.

 

The puking zombie car-passenger

Deputy Bobby Briggs (Dana Ashbrook) tries to calm a hysterical woman at the wheel of a stalled car and a convulsing, vomiting zombie-like creature slowly rises out of the seat beside her.  This is never explained and never referred to again.  A perfect Lynchian moment in other words.

 

Harry Dean Stanton sings

Well, he does.

 

© Lynch / Frost Productions

 

David Bowie is now a teapot

Yes.  David Bowie is now a teapot.  Those are six words I never thought I’d find myself writing.

 

Wally Brando

Modelling himself on Marlon Brando in The Wild One (1953), the motorbiking, leather-clad and free-spirited Wally Brando (Michael Cera) is the offspring of lovable dolts Andy and Lucy Brennan (Harry Goaz and Kimmy Robertson).  Wally’s utterances about life on the road are not as profound as he thinks they are.  “My shadow is always with me.  Sometimes ahead.  Sometimes behind.  Sometimes to the left.  Sometimes to the right.  Except on cloudy days.  And at night.”

 

© Lynch / Frost Productions

 

Audrey’s dance

Once young and sultry, now middle-aged and deeply unhappy, Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn) is glimpsed in several episodes pleading with her strange husband to be taken to the Roadhouse.  When they finally get there, in Episode 16, there’s a sublimely eerie scene where the crowd clears from the floor, an orchestra break into the spooky Audrey’s Dance from the original series and Audrey, appropriately, starts dancing to it…  What happens next is, shall we say, mysterious.

 

Freddie versus Bob

Only in Twin Peaks could you see a cataclysmic battle between good and evil where a Cockney ragamuffin called Freddie (Jake Wardle), wearing a strength-enhancing green gardening glove, has a slugfest with a giant bubble containing the demonic spirit of Killer Bob (Frank Silva).  It’s not exactly Thor versus Loki or Superman versus General Zod.  But that’s probably the point.

 

© Lynch / Frost Productions

 

The long bits where nothing much happens

Whole minutes pass while Good Coop / Dougie does nothing but draw ladders and zigzags on a sheet of paper…  Or while a Roadhouse staff-member does nothing but sweep the floor…  Or while Dr Jacoby does nothing but spray-paint his shovels.  In this modern era where everything on film and TV has to move fast, where narratives have to be urgent, where audiences’ attention spans are assumed to be tiny, this seems like heresy.  But in fact, it feels oddly soothing.

 

The final episode

I had a suspicion that Twin Peaks 3 was going to end on a downer and, yip, Lynch and Frost rose – or descended – to the occasion.  I didn’t massively enjoy the way it finished, with Coop going back in time to right the original terrible wrong at the heart of the Twin Peaks universe and prevent the killing of Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), only to find himself trapped with an older, careworn and apparently murderous version of Laura in some chilly alternative universe where people aren’t who they’re supposed to be.  But with its air of existential sadness and clammy menace, I certainly won’t forget it for a long time.  Another result for David Lynch, then.

 

© Lynch / Frost Productions