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

 

Recent British horror movies… 2

 

(c) Sterling Pictures

 

A while ago I posted an entry in which I gave my thoughts about some recent, or recent-ish, British horror films: Elfie Hopkins, Community, Sawney – Flesh of Man, Before Dawn and Tony.  Here are my thoughts about a few more.

 

I tuned into the movie Stalker late one evening on the Horror Channel, wondering if in a fit of eccentricity ‘the UK’s first channel dedicated to the dark side of cinema and television’ had decided to broadcast Andrei Tarkovsky’s sci-fi / art-house masterpiece from 1979.  Alas, this was a different Stalker – it was a British horror movie from 2011 directed by Martin Kemp.  Yes, that’s the Martin Kemp, who was a key member of Spandau Ballet, which in turn was a key band in the New Romantic movement that invaded the charts when I was in my mid-teens and nearly made me give up on music forever.  However, whilst reviewing this 2011 Stalker, I’ll refrain from making jokes about Martin Kemp having past form in generating horror.  Though I have to say that whenever I hear a few bars of True, my blood still turns to ice.

 

Stalker is pretty ho-hum.  It’s about a novelist suffering from writer’s block whose agent sends her on a retreat to a country mansion in an effort to get her creative juices flowing again.  The retreat package includes having a Personal Assistant to see to her every need.  But it transpires that this PA has writing ambitions of her own and also has a major screw loose – she imprisons the novelist, takes over the writing of her next book and murders anyone who interferes or distracts her.  There’s a twist to the tale that’ll only surprise somebody who’s never seen a horror film before.  Indeed, Kemp has such little faith in the twist that, rather than unveil it at the film’s climax, he has a secondary character give it away in conversation a few scenes before that climax arrives.

 

(c) Black & Blue Films 

 

Stalker is oddly old-fashioned.  It recalls those little psychological thrillers like Paranoiac and Fear in the Night that Hammer Films used to crank out when they weren’t making full-blown gothic monster movies, although Kemp predictably makes one concession to modernity, which is to up the amount of bloodletting.  But his cast is pleasant enough.  It includes Billy Murray from the TV police-soap opera The Bill, Colin Salmon from the Pierce Brosnan James Bond movies, and – yes! – Linda Hayden, who played the villainess in legendary British ‘folk horror’ movie Blood on Satan’s Claw back in 1970.

 

Most modern horror filmmakers seem to have little interest in characterisation, which is a pity because I think good characterisation is vital for the genre.  If you can identify with and root for the characters, the threats to their safety that inevitably arise in a horror film seem all the more visceral.  Last year’s The World’s End – third in the so-called ‘Cornetto Trilogy’ of movies directed by Edgar Wright, starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost and comprised too of 2004’s Shaun of the Dead and 2007’s Hot Fuzz – has as its main character a forty-something loser who dresses in black, obsesses about indie and Goth bands that were big a quarter-century earlier, likes nothing better than getting blasted out of his mind during massive pub crawls and embarrasses his old school friends who’ve moved on from such stuff and settled into respectable, middle-class jobs.  Plenty that I can identify with, in other words.

 

(c) Working Title 

 

This character, played by Simon Pegg, tracks down four old schoolmates and begs, goads and bullies them into returning to their hometown and restaging an epic pub crawl that they originally attempted as teenagers after their final day of school.  The crawl involves downing a pint in each of twelve local pubs, although their 18-year-old selves didn’t make it to the final pub on the itinerary, the appropriately-titled World’s End.  Pegg is determined to do all twelve this time around.  His bemused ex-schoolmates are played by Paddy Considine, Eddie Marson, Martin Freeman and the inevitable Nick Frost.

 

Whilst doing their 2013 pub crawl, they gradually realise that during the two decades since they left the town an alien invasion has been subtly underway, which has resulted in most of the town’s inhabitants being replaced by blue-blooded androids.  This discovery, however, doesn’t convince Pegg that abandoning the pub crawl is a good idea.

 

Actually, I wasn’t looking forward to the alien invasion and blue-blooded androids stuff because, during its first, non-fantastical half-hour, The World’s End is an amusing, if melancholic, meditation on how people and places change and on the folly of revisiting the past.  Bravely, Pegg shows the neurosis that underlies his character’s ridiculousness while Frost, Considine and Marson give engaging performances as his reluctant but good-hearted mates tagging along with him.  If Freeman is less successful, it’s because the script gives him the most two-dimensional character to work with.

 

But the revelation of the alien invasion, when it appears, fits in nicely with the themes already established in The World’s End.  Pegg and co. have discovered that their hometown has become a bland conglomeration of chain stores and fast food outlets, indistinguishable from any other town in Britain, while most of the twelve pubs have been bought up by a Wetherspoon-type franchise and have had all individuality sucked out of them.  The aliens are doing the same thing but on a bigger scale.  They’re an intergalactic operation who acquire planets and cleanse them of all their nasty, rough and unhygienic bits by replacing troublesome inhabitants with placid android replicas.  Well-intentioned though these aliens are, they usually end up replacing everyone.  (Their androids, like the café lattes you get in Starbucks, are a bit crap – so that when things kick off, even the mild-mannered Eddie Marson has no problem smashing their artificial faces in.)  Indeed, The World’s End hangs together better than its predecessor, Hot Fuzz, which was a sometimes-uncomfortable mixture of a serial-killer horror film and a spoof of American crime / cop blockbusters.

 

Another reason why I liked The World’s End was its musical soundtrack, which was obviously put together by someone with a love for the indie music scene of the late 1980s and early 1990s, the period when the movie’s characters were young.  It includes the Happy Mondays, Stone Roses, Charlatans, Suede, Sundays, Inspiral Carpets, Teenage Fanclub and the long-forgotten Soup Dragons.  The film’s climax makes clever use of Primal Scream’s Loaded and the Sisters of Mercy’s This Corrosion – both songs actually contribute something to the plot.

 

All in all, then, The World’s End is a film I’ll happily raise my pint glass to.

 

(c) Sterling Pictures

 

In its heyday between the 1950s and 1970s, the British horror industry occasionally produced an item that, while it had the exploitative elements of a typical horror film, also said some stark things about the state of the human soul and / or human society; and it was prepared to rub the audience’s faces in sordidness to make its points.  I’m thinking of Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General in 1968 or Pete Walker’s House of Whipcord in 1973.  You could also add to this group Sam Peckinpah’s notorious 1972 effort Straw Dogs, which was filmed in Britain and featured a mainly British cast.  This tradition continues in the 2013 movie The Seasoning House, directed by Paul Hyett, which uses as its setting the 1990s conflict in the Balkans.

 

The film tells the story of a deaf-mute girl called Angel, played by Rosie Day, who first sees her family murdered by a fascist militia led by Sean Pertwee.  She then falls into the clutches of a gangster, played by Kevin Howarth, who runs a brothel frequented by soldiers and low-life and staffed by female war-victims whom he keeps shot up on heroin and tied to their beds.  (Both Pertwee and Howarth are veterans of the New Wave of British Horror Movies that’s gone on since the 1990s.  Pertwee’s CV includes Event Horizon, Dog Soldiers, Wilderness, When Evil Calls and Doomsday while Howarth has appeared in Razorblade Smile, The Ghost of Greville Lodge, The Last Horror Movie and Cold and Dark.)  Showing a sliver of mercy towards Angel, Howarth doesn’t force her into prostitution but makes her his silent housekeeper.  Her duties include emptying slop-buckets and administering heroin to the brothel’s inmates.

 

Initially, Angel shuffles through her daily routine in a state of near-catatonia, but gradually her circumstances change and she becomes more proactive.  She discovers a system of shafts and crawlspaces in the building that allows her, secretly, to bypass its locked doors and move from room to room.  She befriends one of Howarth’s prisoners, a girl who knows sign language and can communicate with her.  And finally, Pertwee’s militia rolls up at the front door, looking for an evening’s diversion.  When Pertwee’s most brutish soldier kills her friend in a spasm of lust / violence, Angel grabs a knife and takes to the shafts and crawlspaces on a revenge mission and things get very bloody.

 

The Seasoning House is about war’s dehumanising effects and there’s barely anyone here who isn’t dehumanised.  Traumatised, broken and heroin-addled, the women who finish up in Howarth’s ghastly establishment are reduced to horizontal slabs of meat, while the men have become monsters for whom getting sexual pleasure and inflicting pain are indistinguishable.  Pertwee and Howarth’s characters possess some intelligence and refinement but have abandoned their moral compasses in order to profit from the horrors around them.  Only Angel retains her humanity.  Ironically, that’s because her deafness and muteness, and her reliance on sign language, seem to distance her from ordinary humanity and shield her from the insanity that’s engulfed it.

 

Like Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, The Seasoning House can be accused of making an exploitation movie out of a deadly-serious subject – in Tarantino’s case it’s slavery while in Hyett’s it’s the sexual exploitation of women during wartime.  But whereas Django Unchained is shot with Tarantino’s usual directorial flamboyance and suffused with his usual black humour, The Seasoning House is unshowily (though solidly) directed and is thoroughly grim.  If you’re going to use a topic as upsetting as this as raw material for what’s essentially a revenge melodrama, you might as well do it this way.

 

The Seasoning House offers no moral uplift or feeling of being entertained.  It only left me with an exhausted sense of achievement that I’d have felt if I’d made it to the end of a gruelling assault course.  But it is well-made (even if the final ten minutes unnecessarily casts up some wild coincidences that you get only in horror films).  And I’m sure it will remain in my memory long after crud like Stalker, Elfie Hopkins and Sawney – Flesh of Man have faded from it.

 

Expect yet another post about recent British horror movies shortly.