When songs and films collide


There are many reasons why I hate those Richard Curtis / Working Title romantic-comedy movies that over the past two decades have blighted British culture.  Four Weddings and a Funeral?  Bleeeuuurgh!  Notting Hill?  Double-bleeeuuurgh!  Love Actually?  Multi-bleeeuuurgh!  But one of my main reasons for hating them is their musical soundtracks.  More precisely, the calculating, predictable and sterile nature of their soundtracks – music that’s not been chosen with any artistic desire to complement the varying moods of the scenes onscreen, but chosen because it can also go on a lucrative aimed-at-the-lowest-common-denominator soundtrack / compilation album to tie in with the movie’s release.


For example, I can imagine Curtis and fellow writers Helen Fielding and Andrew Davies, director Sharon Maguire, producers Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner and Jonathan Cavendish, etc., sitting around discussing the music that they were going to bung onto the soundtrack of Bridget Jones’s Diary back in 2002.  “Okay, so this is about a woman called Bridget Jones.  Jones…  Miss Jones…  Hey, wait a minute!  Why don’t we use that old Frank Sinatra number Have You Met Miss Jones?  But hold on.  Frank Sinatra.  He’s a bit old… and dead.  He’d never appeal to the kids.  So let’s get someone young and cool and vital whom the kids really dig to record a new version of the song.  Someone cutting-edge.  Like…  Yes, Robbie Williams!”


And then: “So Bridget Jones is desperate to get hitched but she can’t find Mr Right.  She must wish it was raining men…  Hey, wait a minute!  Why don’t we use that old Weather Girls number It’s Raining Men?  But hold on.  The Weather Girls.  They’re a bit fat… and black.  They’d never appeal to the kids.  So let’s get someone young and cool and vital whom the kids really dig to do a new version of the song.  Someone cutting-edge.  Like…  Yes, Geri Halliwell!”


Cue £-signs pinging up inside Richard Curtis and company’s eyeballs.


On the other hand, and as somebody who loves both music and films, it’s a pleasure when I watch a movie and suddenly hear a song on the soundtrack that I didn’t expect.  The song isn’t there because it slotted neatly into a money-spinning soundtrack album to be released on the back of the film.  It’s there because someone involved in the film thought that it enhanced – however weirdly – what was happening in the film itself.  The result is a memorable musical / cinematic frisson.  (It helps if the song and the film are good, but occasionally I’ve heard a song I didn’t like turn up in the middle of a film I didn’t like either – and somehow the resulting juxtaposition has been hard to forget too.)


Here, then, are seven of my favourite instances when songs and films have collided unexpectedly and strangely – in a manner that’s simply beyond the range of Richard Curtis’s thought processes.


From medberths.com

(c) Colombia Pictures 


Duran Duran / The Layer Cake (2004)

“Ten years!” screams George Harris’s Morty character during the infamous café scene in the British gangster movie The Layer Cake.  Meanwhile, the strains of Duran Duran’s 1993 opus Ordinary World waft from a radio behind the café-counter.


Harris – who’s better known for playing Kingsley Shacklebolt in the Harry Potter movies – is not, as you might think, screaming about the fact that Duran Duran ushered in the New Romantic movement and ruined popular music in Britain for about ten years, i.e. the 1980s.  No, he’s screaming at sleazebag Freddie (Ivan Kaye) who’s just appeared and highlighted the fact that, thanks to him, Morty spent ten years in prison.  Morty proceeds to kick Freddie to a pulp on the café floor before emptying an industrial-sized pot of scalding tea over his head; while, all the time, Simon Le Bon warbles in the background about how he won’t cry for yesterday, about how he has to try to make his way to the ordinary wooo-ooo-ooorld.


No wonder the unnamed character played by Daniel Craig can only stand and watch from the side-lines, stunned.


Just as Stealer Wheel’s Stuck in the Middle with You has never sounded the same since Quentin Tarantino used it to accompany the ear-slicing scene in Reservoir Dogs in 1993, so the soppy, dreamy vibe of Duran Duran’s last big hit will be ruined forever if you watch The Layer Cake.  Instead of seeming soppy and dreamy, Ordinary World will become synonymous in your mind with excruciating violence, pain and rage.  Here’s the scene on Youtube, but be warned.  It might put you off your food – and your tea.




(c) Probe Plus

(c) Blueprint Pictures / Film4 / BFI


Half Man Half Biscuit / Seven Psychopaths (2012)

Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths is a black comedy set in and around Los Angeles.  It’s a phantasmagorical affair, populated by aspiring Hollywood scriptwriters, dog-kidnappers, gangsters, henchmen, molls and, yes, psychopaths.  It takes place against a backdrop of blue skies, wide boulevards, palm trees, swimming pools and – when the action moves out to the Joshua Tree National Park – looming rock formations and vast scrubby plains.


So it’s a surprise, in the midst of these sun-drenched Californian cityscapes and landscapes, to hear the chords of 1985’s Trumpton Riots – the first single off the debut album Back in the DHSS by Half Man Half Biscuit, the durable indie band from Birkenhead.  Since the 1980s the Biscuits have sung relentlessly surreal and sarcastic songs about the crapness of British popular culture and the crapness of British life generally.


Trumpton Riots tells a tale of violent insurrection in Trumpton, the cosy English village depicted in the much-loved 1967 BBC animated kids’ programme of the same name: “Someone get a message through to Captain Snort / That they’d better start assembling the boys from the Fort / And keep Mrs Honeyman out of sight / ‘Cos there’s going to be a riot down in Trumpton tonight.”  Which is as far away from LA swimming pools and the Joshua Tree National Park as you can get.


From gunshyassassin.com

(c) Warner Brothers


Cannibal Corpse / Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994)

Adam Sandler may be the modern bête noir when it comes to irritating screen presences.  But even Sandler at his worst is small beer compared to the wincing painfulness that was Jim Carrey in his early movie career – he was immensely annoying in supposed comedies like Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, The Mask and Dumber and Dumber (all 1994).  Mind you, he did get better later on, in the likes of The Truman Show (1998) and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004).


The grimly unfunny (and transphobic) Ace Ventura would have left my consciousness a nanosecond after it’d entered my consciousness if it wasn’t for one curious scene where Carrey / Ventura blunders into a live concert – and the band onstage is none other than the legendary American death metal band Cannibal Corpse, who’re performing a song with the memorable title Hammer Smashed Face.  Carrey, wearing a multi-coloured shirt that’s louder than anything coming from the speakers, goofs around and behaves like a dick for a minute.  Then he gets flung off the premises.  Good.


From www.blogs.houstonpress.com

(c) United Artists


Sisters of Mercy / Showgirls (1995)

Directed by Paul Verhoeven, written by Joe Eszterhas and regarded as one of the worst films of the 1990s, the tits-crazy Showgirls is, actually, a fitting movie for the city in which most of its action takes place, Las Vegas.  Like Vegas, it’s flashy, shallow, dumb, vulgar, materialistic and soulless.


I’m sure that Andrew Eldritch, who depending on your point of view is either the creative genius or the arrogant git in charge of the seminal, operatic and grandiose 1980s / 1990s goth band the Sisters of Mercy, would not care to have the adjectives flashy, shallow, dumb, vulgar, materialistic or soulless applied to his music.  So I often wonder if Andrew ever strolled into his local multiplex in 1995 and settled down in the front row with a bucket of popcorn to watch Showgirls.  And, if he did, how he felt when he discovered that his record company had given United Artists permission to use the 1990 Sisters of Mercy song Vision Thing during Showgirls’ opening scenes, when heroine Elizabeth Berkley is shown hitchhiking to Las Vegas.


I’ll bet he wasn’t chuffed.


(c) Acid Jazz

(c) DNA Films


Matt Berry / Dredd (2012)

The Pete Travis-directed, Alex Garland-scripted Dredd, based on the Judge Dredd strip in the British comic 2000AD, is not a movie you’d take your granny to – unless your granny has a penchant for hyper-violent, grimy, monosyllabic, sleazebag-populated, fascistic, dystopian-future bloodbaths where civilians are blasted apart with cannons and villains burst messily after being dropped off a very high skyscraper.  But what should pop up in the middle of Dredd’s mayhem but the theme song for the short-lived BBC comedy series Snuff Box, sung by the congenial folk / progressive / pop-rock singer (and comic actor) Matt Berry?


A jaunty little number, with synthesisers chugging pleasantly in the background, the Snuff Box theme is what big-bad-villainess Lena Headey’s techie henchman (played by Domhnall Gleason) is listening to in her HQ at the top of the skyscraper.  This contrast between the musically winsome and the cinematically brutal is jarring – it’s like having The Clangers make an appearance in the middle of Alien (1979).  But it’s also rather sweet.


From www.freeradio.co.uk

(c) BFI / Film4


Deacon Blue / Under the Skin (2014)

It may not be fashionable to say so now, but once upon a time I liked the poppy Glaswegian soul band Deacon Blue.  At least, I liked their debut album, 1986’s Raintown.  Unfortunately, it was a song off their less-good second album in 1989, one called Real Gone Kid, that became the template for their sound – i.e. clodhopping keyboards and vocalist Lorraine McIntosh going “Whooh-whooh-whooh!” like a stuttering factory whistle.  That Boots-the-Chemist has used Real Gone Kid as the jingle for its ubiquitous TV adverts over the past year or so hasn’t helped Deacon Blue’s reputation, either.


And last year, Real Gone Kid was heard on the soundtrack of the dark, unsettling, Scottish-set science fiction thriller Under the Skin, starring Scarlet Johansson.  This is especially weird considering that the rest of the film’s soundtrack consists of the flesh-crawling work of Mica Levi, with violin-strings squirming and seething like a pit full of snakes and scorpions.


Even more weirdly, the film suggests that exposure to Real Gone Kid helps Johansson’s character – a murderous alien who’s beginning to rebel against her programming – become a little more human.  When she hears the song on a radio, it kindles homo-sapiens emotions in her and she starts tapping her fingers in time to it in a homo-sapiens way.  To be honest, that part of Under the Skin seemed less like science fiction and more like fantasy.


From thequietus.com

(c) Studiocanal / Film4 / Rook Pictures


Frankie Goes to Hollywood / Sightseers (2012)

After dominating the British charts in 1984 with Relax – spending five weeks at number one after the BBC refused to give it airplay – and Two Tribes – a whopping nine weeks at number one – Frankie Goes to Hollywood blew everything by releasing saccharine ballad The Power of Love at Christmas-time.  It reached number one again, briefly, but it wrecked the band’s credibility.  Particularly problematic was the accompanying video, which consisted of Nativity scenes.  These scenes had zero to do with the lyrics and was obviously designed to sell it as a ‘festive’ song.


Having always regarded The Power of Love as crass and clunking, then, I was surprised when it turned up at the end of Ben Wheatley’s 2012 black comedy Sightseers – an eccentric and beguiling film that’s best described as a cross between Alan Bennett and Natural Born Killers (1994).  Shorn of the nonsensical Christmas-y imagery and transposed into a very different context, The Power of Love is actually affecting.  It even inspires a lump in the throat while it plays out over the fate of the film’s hero and heroine, played by Steve Oram and Alice Lowe, two north-of-England oddballs in love with caravanning, hillwalking, dog-walking, wearing woolly hats, visiting National Trust properties and serial killing.


California screaming: film review / Seven Psychopaths


(c) Film4

Martin McDonagh’s most recent movie is called Seven Psychopaths because there are allegedly seven psychopaths in it.  This number could be disputed, however.  One of the psychopaths doesn’t do any psychopathic killing, but merely stands around and looks scary – so he might not qualify as a psychopath at all.  Two more of the psychopaths prove to be the same character, while another is played in different parts of the film by two different actors.  Early on, there’s a brief appearance by an additional psychopath who isn’t one of the official seven, a psychopath who finds religion and gives up killing.  And later, the film has cameos by three more surplus psychopaths, including the real-life Zodiac Killer who terrorised northern California in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  Therefore, Seven Psychopaths could as easily have been called Five, Six, Eight, Eleven or Twelve Psychopaths.  Just saying.


McDonagh’s previous film was 2008’s In Bruges, the story of two hit-men who hole up in the titular Belgian city after a botched job and endure boredom, uncertainty, guilt, existentialist angst, annoying American (and Canadian) tourists, a debauched dwarf and a vengeful gangster boss, and it was an unheralded but absolute cinematic joy.  Seven Psychopaths begins by deconstructing its predecessor.  It shows two more hit-men, not dissimilar to the ones played by Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleason in In Bruges, waiting to carry out a job by the Hollywood Reservoir above Los Angeles and killing time by discussing the logistics of shooting people through their eyeballs.  Once McDonagh gets those hit-men out of the way, however, he zooms in on an Irish writer called Marty, played by Farrell, who’s attempting, fruitlessly, to write a screenplay for a Hollywood studio.  The gimmick of Marty’s script is that it contains – you guessed it – seven psychopaths.


Trying to help Marty with his script is his friend Billy (Sam Rockwell), an aspiring actor who’s blessed with boundless enthusiasm but zero common sense.  Later, Billy’s business partner Hans (Christopher Walken) contributes some ideas too.  Billy and Hans, it transpires, are actually partners in crime because they do a profitable line in kidnapping dogs.  After the distraught owners have stuck up missing-posters and offered money, they return the dogs and claim the rewards.  Then, unwittingly, they kidnap a Shih Tzu called Bonnie, who’s the beloved pet of murderous gang-boss Charlie (Woody Harrelson).  And suddenly, thanks to his two associates, Marty finds himself in more intimate contact with a real-life psychopath than he’d ever bargained for.


Just to make things a little bit worse, Billy also tries to aid Marty with the research for his screenplay by putting an advert in a newspaper asking any psychopaths living in the Los Angeles area to get in touch.  As a result, while the situation with Charlie gets seriously out of hand, they receive a visit from a mysterious character called Zachariah, cradling a white rabbit and played by Tom Waits, who has some macabre tales to tell them.


So far, so Quentin Tarantino-esque.  However, what makes Seven Psychopaths extra-special is that its main narrative is peppered with stories-within-a-story, whereby Hans and Billy’s suggestions for the script, and Marty’s own ideas for it, are dramatized on screen.  This allows McDonagh to poke fun at the not-very-high standards of the typical Hollywood product these days.  A sequence showing the climax of the script as Billy envisions it is bloodily, stupidly and hilariously over-the-top, though to be honest it’s probably how a normal Hollywood studio would climax a film about seven psychopaths.


This self-reflexive approach also allows McDonagh to deflect possible criticisms of his film by making those criticisms of it himself, first.  For example, when Walken chides Farrell for writing his female characters so poorly, McDonagh is surely acknowledging the fact that the film’s two leading actresses, Abbie Cornish and Quantum of Solace’s Olga Kurylenko, have little to do besides provide some pleasing eye-candy.


Seven Psychopaths isn’t quite the film that In Bruges was.  Despite the Beckettian ennui that pervaded it, In Bruges had a relentless narrative drive.  Gleason and Farrell arrived in Bruges, pottered around, encountered key characters and locations and then halfway through things kicked into life when their volcanically-tempered and thoroughly pissed-off boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes) arrived in town too – thereafter, like the jaws of a mantrap closing, the various characters and locations meshed together to create the film’s long, exciting, funny and bloody finale.  Seven Psychopaths lacks that plot momentum and if anything it turns the narrative-shape of In Bruges back-to-front.  Early on there are characters and incidents all over the place.  Later, however, things slow down and a stillness descends over the film.


An additional advantage that In Bruges had over Seven Psychopaths was the city of Bruges itself, which gave the film such a gorgeous and distinctive backdrop that, in a story full of memorable characters, it seemed almost the most memorable character of all.  Los Angeles doesn’t achieve the same effect in Seven Psychopaths, although a Californian friend who watched the movie with me did comment that McDonagh had managed to make L.A. look “nicer than it really is.”


Nonetheless, by its own terms, Seven Psychopaths is very good.  Even during scenes where things could have dragged a little, the entertainment value remains high thanks to the laugh-out-loud qualities of McDonagh’s dialogue and the engaging eccentricities of his characters.  The writing is reinforced by the performances.  Harrelson and Waits aren’t really called upon to do much other than appear menacing and grizzled respectively – which both of them do capably.  Farrell, whom I’d never really rated as an actor before I saw In Bruges, gives another excellent performance here.  He’s as mouthy and as harassed-seeming as he was in the earlier film although his Marty character is much more grown-up.  The man-child qualities that made Farrell so funny in In Bruges are here transferred to Rockwell’s Billy.  Rockwell has to balance being loveable with being strangle-able, a feat that he pulls off with aplomb.   We can understand why, despite the exasperation he causes Marty (and he causes him a lot), Marty still regards him fondly.


Perhaps the best performance, however, comes from Walken as the gentle and God-fearing Hans (although his religiosity doesn’t stop him dog-napping, which I assume is a sin).  He’s almost Job-like in the punishment that McDonagh’s script visits upon him and he bears it with a melancholy calmness and stoicism that’s truly endearing.


Incidentally, it says a lot about the film’s unpredictability that although Christopher Walken is in it, and although it’s choc-a-bloc with psychopaths, Walken is actually the nicest character by far on screen.  If Seven Psychopaths was the sort of Hollywood movie that it spends its time satirising, Walken would no doubt be doing more conventionally Walken things – strutting around, for instance, and shooting people point-blank in the head.