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

 

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.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k6WEatV1oEc

 

(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.