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

 

Great unappreciated films: U-Turn

 

© Tri-Star Pictures

 

It’s hard to believe today, but there was a time in the late 1980s and early 1990s when Oliver Stone seemed to bestride American cinema like King Kong on the top of the Empire State Building.  Like it or not – and many critics and commentators did not, both conservative ones who didn’t approve of his shit-stirring, anti-establishment politics and sophisticated liberal ones who found his approach loud, crude and simplistic – he was everywhere.  He’d clobber you with one big sensationalist movie tackling some unsavoury aspect of America’s present or recent past.  And then, when you managed to withstand that, he’d pop up again and clobber you with another one.

 

US involvement in Central America?  Salvador (1986).  Vietnam?  Platoon (1986), Born on the Fourth of July (1989) and Heaven and Earth (1993).  The swinging sixties?  The Doors (1991).  Kennedy’s assassination?  JFK (1991).  The coarsening of the American news media?  Natural Born Killers (1994).  Watergate?  Nixon (1995).  Wall Street?  Er, Wall Street (1987).  For a while, it was almost like an episode of modern American history hadn’t properly happened until old Oliver had made a movie about it.

 

But times change.  Stone has continued making films into the 21st century, like Alexander (2004), World Trade Centre (2006), W. (2008) and Snowden (2016).  The reviews have been lukewarm, however, and the consensus seems to be that if he hasn’t entirely lost it, he certainly doesn’t have what he had 25 years ago.

 

I find this rather sad because, with a few exceptions, I enjoyed the movies Stone made in his heyday.  They might have been pompous and in-your-face but they were rarely dull.  And I liked the fact that Stone’s movies were both popular and questioning of the status quo, at a time when the Reagan-Bush administrations in Washington DC would doubtless have preferred Hollywood to keep churning out Rocky and Rambo films.

 

And though it was fashionable to deride Stone as a big, earnest movie mogul with no sense of humour, I found many of his films very funny.  During the likes of Salvador and The Doors and even the bloodbath that was Natural Born Killers, there were moments when I laughed out loud.  I couldn’t understand why when it came to Stone many critics didn’t get the joke.

 

For me, though, the Oliver Stone movie that ranks highest on the laugh-o-meter is one of his most neglected and forgotten ones – I suspect the reason why it’s neglected and forgotten is because it’s a very rare beast, a non-political Stone movie.  1997’s U-Turn is a crime thriller / black comedy based on a novel called Stray Dogs by John Ridley, who also wrote the script.  (In 2014, Ridley would win an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for 12 Years a Slave).  It’s about a drifter called Bobby (Sean Penn) fleeing from the mafia, to whom he owes money, whose car breaks down and leaves him stranded in a hick town called Superior in the middle of the Arizona Desert.

 

© Tri-Star Pictures

© Tri-Star Pictures

 

Whilst waiting impatiently for his car to be fixed so he can get out of town again – his pursuers will be turning up soon and, also, the place and its inhabitants are driving him crazy – Bobby gets caught in a web of intrigue involving crooked local bigshot Jake McKenna (Nick Nolte), Jake’s young, gorgeous and predictably duplicitous wife Grace (Jennifer Lopez) and the sullen and also-crooked town sheriff Virgil Potter (Powers Boothe).  As an interloper, Bobby is soon enlisted to murder one of the parties concerned.  And then that party enlists him to murder someone else…

 

The Nolte-Lopez-Boothe part of the plot gives U-Turn a twisty and poisonous crime noir  vibe – Stone described the scenario as a ‘scorpions-in-a-bucket’ one where every character is a predator who won’t stop stinging until he / she’s satisfied everyone else is dead.  But the film is also Kafka-esque in an amusing way.  Bobby loathes the hot, sweaty backwater he’s become stuck in.  “Is everyone in this town on drugs?” he rants at one point.  Yet through sheer bad luck his every effort to escape from Superior is thwarted and before long you’re wondering if he’ll ever escape from it.  Which is hellish for him but blackly funny for us, the audience.

 

It doesn’t help that Bobby has entrusted his broken-down car to the care of a local mechanic called Darrell, played by Billy Bob Thornton, who’s nearly unrecognisable in hideous fake teeth, taped-together glasses and a patina of engine grime.  His approach to car repair is as delicate as ISIS’s approach to historical conservation and the scenes where Bobby visits Darrell’s garage to find his car dismantled into ever-smaller pieces are comedy gold.  “Darrell,” laments Bobby, “40,000 people die every day.  How come you’re not one of ’em?”

 

© Tri-Star Pictures

© Tri-Star Pictures

 

Cranking Bobby’s blood-pressure level even higher are the occasional appearances of a blind half-Indian vagrant who pushes a shopping trolley containing a dead dog.  Played by Jon Voight, this blind vagrant has apparently made it his mission to wind Bobby up, uttering statements both gnomic and annoying: for example, “Your lies are old.  But you tell ’em pretty good.”

 

Can things get any worse for Bobby?  Yes, they can.  For he also has to endure the company of a delinquent called Toby N. Tucker, played by Joaquin Phoenix – “People round here call me TNT.  You know why?”  “Because they’re not very imaginative?” “Cause I’m just like dynamite, boy, and when I go off somebody gets hurt!” – and his girlfriend Jenny, played by Claire Danes.  Between them, TNT and Jenny don’t have two braincells to rub together.  Jenny keeps trying in her artless way to flirt with Bobby, who doesn’t want to touch her with a bargepole; and TNT keeps taking umbrage and threatening Bobby with violence.  The scenes with Penn, Phoenix and Danes are even funnier than the scenes with Penn and Thornton.  At one point in a diner, while Patsy Cline sings from the jukebox, Jenny muses: “I just love her.  I wonder how she don’t put out no more new records.”  To which a disgruntled Bobby retorts: “Because she’s dead.”  “Oh, that’s sad.  Don’t that make you sad?”  “I’ve had time to get over it.”

 

© Tri-Star Pictures

 

Later, there’s a hilarious and cathartic moment when TNT ambushes Bobby and destroys his last chance to get out of town – he snatches away the bus ticket Bobby has just bought with his last remaining money and eats it in front of him.  Bobby finally flips and beats the shit out him.

 

I can’t finish this entry without singing the praises of Jennifer Lopez.  As Grace, the movie’s supercharged femme fatale, she’s steamier than the surrounding Arizona landscapes and she possesses a gaze sizzling enough to fry a full-English breakfast in three minutes.  She was equally splendid in another crime thriller made the following year, the Steven Soderbergh-directed Out of Sight.  In fact, I feel it was a blow for the film world that soon after she reinvented herself as J-Lo and concentrated more on singing.  (To be honest, that was also a blow for the music world.)

 

© Tri-Star Pictures

 

U-Turn isn’t perfect.  At times, Stone’s frenetic camera-angles, point-of-view shots, editing and use of different film stocks – a hangover of the pyrotechnics he indulged in with Natural Born Killers – can be distracting.  But if you’re curious to see one of 1990s cinema’s big cheeses let his hair down and slum it a bit, if you enjoy cynical, amoral thrillers where each new character is even scummier than the last, if your mouth waters at the prospect of watching character actors like Nick Nolte, Billy Bob Thornton, Powers Boothe, Joaquin Phoenix and Jon Voight chew up the scenery, and if you fancy discovering the greatness of Jennifer Lopez before she devoted herself to a career of causing earache, then U-Turn is for you.

 

And as I say, parts of it are as funny as hell.

 

No more riding on the storm

 

One item I forgot to mention two days ago when I did my round-up of the past month’s news was the passing, on May 20th, of Ray Manzarek, co-founder of and keyboardist with 1960s rock legends The Doors.  In the decades since The Doors’ heyday, much of the attention given to the band has focused on their singer, would-be shaman and (depending on your point-of-view) decadent poetic genius or pretentious head-up-his-own-arse berk, Jim Morrison.  For my money, though, Manzarek’s keyboards were more responsible for The Doors’ distinctive sound than Morrison’s vocals, darkly soulful though Morrison was when he was on form.

 

Maybe I’m just biased.  I’ve always had a weakness for a band who weren’t afraid to push their keyboard-sound to the forefront, such as The Stranglers, those baroque old 1970s pub-rockers who finally sneaked into the British charts by pretending to be punks; or the Inspiral Carpets, third-place contenders – very distant third – for the title of Greatest Madchester Band in the late 1980s, after the Stone Roses and Happy Mondays.

 

When you listen to a Doors song like Riders on the Storm and ignore Morrison’s half-baked lyrics, you realise how much of its drive, atmosphere and all-round eeriness is derived from Manzarek’s keyboard-playing.  And it makes you realise that there’s a case to be made for the idea that The Doors were the world’s first Goth band – in fact, Riders on the Storm conjures up more genuine spookiness in a few minutes than any number of later, affirmed Goth bands (see Gene Loves Jezebel, Alien Sex Fiend et al) managed to do in their entire careers.

 

I’m too young, believe it or not, to remember The Doors when they were together.  I suspect like many people my age, I only became properly aware of them in 1991 when Oliver Stone released his much-hyped film about them.  Stone did his usual thing when telling the band’s story, i.e. he simplified, omitted, embroidered, exaggerated and at times downright lied.  He also added extra Red Indian shamans and – shudder! – Billy Idol.  Manzarek was particularly angry about Stone’s take on the band – not so much about the indignity of being portrayed in the film by Kyle MacLachlan in a big blonde wig, but about the unflattering light in which Morrison was presented: “It was not about Jim Morrison.  It was about Jimbo Morrison, the drunk.  God, where was the sensitive poet and the funny guy?”

 

Manzarek was no doubt right, and I can understand why Stone upset those people who’d actually been there at the time.  But as an interpretation of The Doors the legend, rather than The Doors the real-life band, I always thought Stone’s rumbustious, rollicking and way-over-the-top movie was pretty entertaining.  Val Kilmer is, of course, brilliant as Morrison, and – something that the critics seemed to miss – it’s also very funny.   No more so than when Morrison finds himself at a party with his long-suffering girlfriend Pamela Courson (Meg Ryan) and his rock-journalist piece on the side Patricia Kennealy (Kathleen Quinlan) and, hoping for the best, tries to introduce them.  Courson’s response (“My God, Jim, you actually stick your dick in this thing?”) indicates it isn’t going to work.

 

Maybe the reason why The Doors-the-movie is so divorced from reality is because Oliver Stone started listening to the band whilst serving amid the chaos and carnage of the Vietnam War – after that experience, he couldn’t give them a conventional biographical treatment.  Vietnam has been described as ‘the first rock ‘n’ roll war’ and the Doors, with their trippy on-the-edge sound and vaguely dangerous undercurrents were the perfect Vietnam-War band.  No wonder Francis Ford Coppola used The End, their paean to patricide and incest, for the brilliant seven-minute opening sequence of Apocalypse Now (1979).  Here it is: