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


Favourite rock biopics


(c) Momentum Pictures


Following my previous post about the film Bohemian Rhapsody (2018), which tells the story of the 1970s / 1980s rock band Queen and which I had very mixed feelings about, I thought I’d write about the rock biopics I like best.


The first one that springs to mind is Control (2007), directed by Dutch photographer Anton Corbijn.  This focuses on Ian Curtis, frontman with the legendary and pioneering post-punk band Joy Division, who committed suicide in 1980.  It has an appealing cast: Sam Riley as Curtis and Samantha Morton as his wife Deborah, plus Joe Anderson as Peter Hook, James Anthony Pearson as Bernard Summer and Harry Treadaway as Stephen Morris, Curtis’s fellow-bandmembers who after his death would regroup as New Order.  But what makes Control special for me is how Corbijn blends the tragedy of Curtis’s life-story, the drabness of 1970s Macclesfield (Curtis’s hometown), the spare, pulsating and somehow beautiful bleakness of Joy Division’s music, and the romanticism that inspired and drove Curtis, and manages to create something that despite the final outcome is actually uplifting.  Corbijn’s decision to film Control in colour but then convert the film-stock into moody black and white helps.


There’s also humour, a factor that, given the absurdities and excesses of the music industry, needs to be present in every good rock biopic.  This comes largely courtesy of band manager Rob Gretton, played by Toby Kebbell.  “It could be worse,” he tells Curtis in the aftermath of one of his devastating epileptic seizures.  “At least you’re not the lead singer of the Fall.”  Look out too for Salford performance-poet John Cooper Clarke, playing himself as a support act at a Joy Division gig.  Only the enviably pencil-thin Clarke could get away with playing himself when he was thirty years younger.


(c) PolyGram Filmed Entertainment / Gramercy Pictures


I’m not a Beatles fan but I really enjoyed Backbeat (1994), the Iain Softley-directed film about the band’s pre-stardom period at the beginning of the 1960s when they spent time in Hamburg performing early rock ‘n’ roll standards.  The Beatles of this era consisted of five members: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, bassist Stuart Sutcliffe and drummer Pete Best, played in Backbeat by Ian Hart, Gary Bakewell, Chris O’Neill, Stephen Dorff and Scot Williams respectively.  The main acting duties fall on Hart – who, incidentally, has also played Lennon in the 1991 movie The Hours and Times and the 2013 Playhouse Presents TV production Snodgrass – and Dorff because the movie focuses on the friendship between Lennon and Sutcliffe.  The latter would die of a cerebral haemorrhage in 1962.


What sets the film alight is its music.  To recreate the sound of the nascent Beatles kicking ass on stage, the filmmakers smartly gathered together musicians from 1994’s hottest rock bands – Dave Pirner from Soul Asylum, Greg Dulli from the Afghan Whigs, Thurston Moore from Sonic Youth, Don Fleming from Gumball, Mike Mills from REM and Dave Grohl from Nirvana – and got them to knock out renditions of the likes of Long Tall Sally and Good Golly Miss Molly.  Even the muscular Henry Rollins (originally from punk outfit Black Flag but in 1994 doing rather well with his own Rollins Band) got in on in the act, providing the vocals for a sequence when Sutcliffe tries and fails to croon Love Me Tender.  In fact, the film’s only duff note is a brief scene where it gratuitously and unconvincingly grafts Ringo Starr onto the narrative.


(c) Palace Pictures / The Samuel Goldwyn Company


The bleakest film on my list is surely Sid and Nancy, Alex Cox’s 1986 re-enactment of the doomed romance between the Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious and American groupie Nancy Spungen.  Telling a love story that begins with boy meeting girl against a background of severe heroin abuse, continues with boy and girl in the grip of severe heroin abuse, and ends with boy stabbing girl to death thanks to severe heroin abuse, Sid and Nancy is a grim and at times difficult watch.  But it has the saving grace of humour, even if it’s humour of the cringeworthy variety, such as when Sid is introduced to Nancy’s respectable, middle-class, all-American family and attempts to entertain them with a display of his ‘musicianship’.  The lead actors are good too: Gary Oldman as Vicious and Chloe Webb as Spungen, although these days it’s weird to see David Hayman, regarded in Scotland now as a national treasure, in the role of Malcolm McLaren.  Famously, Courtney Love lobbied hard, but unsuccessfully, to win the role of Nancy Spungen.  A little too hard, some would say, considering what happened subsequently.


One person who’s not a fan of Sid and Nancy is John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten, Vicious’ friend and fellow Sex Pistol.  Lydon hated the way he was portrayed in the film by actor Andrew Schofield, who isn’t a Londoner like Lydon but is from Kirby, north of Liverpool.  And he detested the film generally and Alex Cox in particular, dismissing it as a fantasy put together by ‘some Oxford graduate who missed the punk rock era’.


Next up is Oliver Stone’s 1991 dramatisation of the story of late 1960s / early 1970s psychedelic-blues-rock band the Doors, simply called The Doors, which in many ways is a warped mirror image of Bohemian Rhapsody.  Like the Queen biopic, it often veers away from the truth.  Unlike that later film, however, it isn’t afraid to present a warts-and-all picture of its subjects, especially of the band’s frontman Jim Morrison, who’s played by Val Kilmer.  So well does Kilmer do in the role, incidentally, that at times you forget it’s him you’re watching onscreen and not Morrison himself. 


(c) Bill Graham Films / Tri-Star Pictures


Stone’s unflattering portrayal of Morrison, during his decline from gorgeous, long-haired, rock-music Dionysus to beastly, babbling, booze-befuddled sociopath and finally to bearded, beer-bellied, bathtub cadaver, greatly upset fellow band-members Ray Manzarek, John Densmore and Robbie Krieger (played in the film by Kyle MacLachlan, Kevin Dillon and Frank Whalley) and his lover Patricia Kennealy (played by Kathleen Quinlan).  Indeed, I suspect Kennealy, who married Morrison in a Celtic pagan ceremony and is a pagan high priestess herself, may have eschewed Celtic paganism’s usual benevolence and fired a few spells in Stone’s direction after she saw the film.


Well, The Doors probably tells a few porkies but I have to say I really enjoyed it.  It’s over-the-top and out-of-control and Stone goes too far by mixing in some guff about Native American shamanism, but its bacchanalian and hallucinogenic excesses feel exhilaratingly true of the era, if not wholly true of the band.  And taken in the right spirit, the film is very funny.  Comic highlights include Kennealy giving Morrison carnal encouragement with, “Come on, rock god.  F**k me, f**k me good!”  Or John Densmore expressing his reluctance  to take acid and Morrison reassuring him, “Relax – it’s peyote.”  Or Andy Warhol (Crispin Glover) offering Morrison a golden telephone with which to ‘talk to God.’ Andy can’t use it himself because, it transpires, he doesn’t ‘have anything to say.’ 


Finally, my last pick on this list of rock biopics returns to the era of Joy Division, but isn’t about a band or musician.  It’s about a record executive, Tony Wilson of Factory Records, the independent Manchester-based record label, who signed Joy Division in the late 1970s and struck gold again a decade later when he signed the Happy Mondays.  This is 24 Hour Party People (2002), directed by Michael Winterbottom and starring Steve Coogan as Tony Wilson.  This time Joy Division are played by Sean Harris (Curtis), John Simm (Summer), Ralf Little (Hook) and Tim Horrocks (Morris), while the Happy Mondays are represented by Danny Cunningham and Paul Popplewell as Shaun and Paul Ryder and Chris Coghill as the band’s freaky-dancin’, maracas-shaking figurehead, Bez


(c) Film 4 / Pathé / United Artists


Before his musical successes, Wilson was best-known as a TV reporter for Granada Television and with Coogan in the role, it’s impossible not to be reminded of Coogan’s famous alter-ego, Alan Partridge.  This is especially so at the film’s beginning when we see Wilson filming a report where he attempts to go hang-gliding:  “Is it a bird?  Is it a plane?  No, it’s the latest craze sweeping the Pennines.  I’ve got to be honest with you.  Right now, I’d rather be sweeping the Pennines.” 


24 Hour Party People cleverly subverts the issue of factual accuracy in music biopics with much post-modernism and breaking of the 4th wall – for example, when we see the fictional Howard Devoto of the Buzzcocks, played by Martin Hancock, do something and then the real Howard Devoto appears in the frame and tells us that he doesn’t remember this happening back then.  There’s a great supporting cast of character actors, comic performers and comedians, including Shirley Henderson, Andy Serkis, Rob Brydon, Dave Gorman, Peter Kay, Simon Pegg and Christopher Eccleston, while several real-life musicians make cameos including, in addition to Devoto, Mark E. Smith, Clint Boon and the Stone Roses’ Gary ‘Mani’ Mounfield.  And the film has many good lines, my favourite being when Wilson introduces the Ryders to Bez with the comment, “Every band needs its own chemistry.  And Bez is a very good chemist.”


Finally, which band would I like to see a biopic of in the future?  The answer to that question has got to be Hawkwind, the venerable ‘space rock’ band who’ve been slogging away since 1969 and whose ranks have included over the years such personalities, eccentrics and oddballs as Lemmy, ‘manic depressive hypo-maniac’ poet Robert Calvert, statuesque topless dancer Stacia, Ginger Baker, Arthur Brown, sci-fi / fantasy author Michael Moorcock and Dik Mik, operator of the ‘audio generator’ that provided the band with its distinctive whooshing noises.  Properly done, you could end up with a hilarious comedy-drama that does for the characters of alternative English psychedelic rock music what Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994) did for the characters of low budget 1950s Californian movie-making.  So what do you think?  Anton Corbijn?  Michael Winterbottom?  Oliver Stone, even?  Anyone interested?




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: