With Reservoir Dogs, The Wicker Man and Lost In Translation, Getintothis’ Del Pike takes a look at ten magic moments – when a song pops up and turns the whole damn movie around.
You know that moment. You are in the middle of a film (we are talking non-musicals here). You think you have a handle on it, then all of a sudden the band strikes up and a character that you thought you could trust suddenly starts singing; or maybe they turn a radio on and start a dance routine. Great, isn’t it? It doesn’t happen too often, but when it does it changes the mood of the movie and takes you out of the narrative, often for a welcome break.
Directors such as Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese are absolute masters in the art of placing existing music into their films, often with it becoming more effective than an original score. Tarantino’s cult classics and Scorsese’s classic American girl groups and Italian crooners played out over often grisly scenes make for moments of pure genius. The Brit Pop soundtrack to Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting was as essential as the movie itself, just as the Saturday Night Fever album was two decades earlier.
The moments of true inspiration come when songs don’t just play in the background but become part of the narrative. Examples such as Ryan Gosling’s goofy ukelele performance in Blue Valentine prove that perfect vocals don’t matter, it’s the moment that cuts it. Characters don’t even have to sing themselves, Michael Madsen’s dance routine as he mutilates Marvin in Reservoir Dogs is unusually special because he turns on the radio and chooses the channel rather than it just playing away merrily un-connected.
The list we have offered here is in no way definitive and neither is it a ranking Top Ten as these, like all movie moments, are personal things. Everyone will have their own examples and will remember being brought to tears of either hilarity or grief – only you know. Hopefully we will get you re-visiting some classic films and some top tunes.
- Stealers Wheel – Stuck In The Middle With You from Reservoir Dogs (1992)
The soundtrack to Quentin Tarantino’s debut feature was a game changer. Similar to The Who‘s third album Sell out, it took the form of a pretend radio station. Presented by deadpan comedian Steve Wright, this was just over thirty minutes of K-Billy’s Super Sounds of the 70s. Within the film, K-Billy breaks up the narrative and adds to the incredibly laid back performances of the stellar cast, providing juxtaposition to the extreme interludes of violence. Arguably the most memorable scene in the film sees Michael Madsen’s Mr Blonde slicing off the ear of a rookie copper to the sound of Stuck In The Middle With You by Stealer’s Wheel.
It’s a perfect piece of filmmaking as so many cinemagoers came away thinking they had seen the ear severed brutally from the head, when in fact what they actually saw was the palms of their hands. Those brave enough to keep them peepers open will have witnessed the camera cut away to the wall, just leaving the screams of Officer Marvin Nash to fill in the rest. It was primarily this scene that helped to delay the VHS release of the movie in light of a second wave of video nasty scaredom, but looking back it is the black humour of the scene that remains, particularly Madsen’s soft shoe shuffle. Tarantino continues to use popular music in counterpoint to the violence in his films, and he does so better than anyone else.
- Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters – Tonight You Belong To Me from The Jerk (1979)
Back in the late 70s and early 80s when stand-up comedian turned film funny man Steve Martin could do no wrong, this film became a cult favourite, particularly on the home video circuit alongside Animal House, Porky’s and The Blues Brothers. All of these movies utilised retro music to set the scene and raise the spirits. Carl Reiner’s The Jerk, a hilarious tale of a challenged white male born into a poor black family, uses a typically bluesy score by Jack Elliot to support Nathan Johnson’s rags to riches tale, but the most memorable tune in the movie comes from Martin and Peters themselves.
Martin’s sexually hopeless character has fallen in love with Peters’ dippy Marie; they find themselves on a moonlit beach. He attempts to woo her with a version of Billy Rose and Lee David’s Tonight You Belong To Me. Covered by those as diverse as Alvin and the Chipmunks, Patience and Prudence, Fiona Apple and The Trashcan Sinatras, this is possibly the sweetest song imaginable. Martin strums along on the ukulele and Peters, unpredictably, joins in on a trumpet. This really is just one of those truly magical movie moments.
- This Mortal Coil – Song to the Siren from Lost Highway (1997)
Sex scenes are always awkward affairs and are often unnecessary, but in the hands of David Lynch they can become a legitimate piece of art. Lost Highway, a film that is unfairly overshadowed by Lynch’s own Mulholland Drive, similarly features a narrative that jumps ship half way through. In this scene Pete (Balthazar Getty), a character who started off as Bill Pullman and woke the next day as a completely new guy, finally gets to grips with Alice, a gangster’s Moll played with majestic mystery by Patricia Arquette.
In a desert setting that is uncannily reminiscent of Betty Blue, Pete turns on the radio of his typically Lynchian convertible, fires up the headlamps and gets down to doing the do with Alice. The fact that we really have no clue who these characters are, where they fit in and how dangerous they are adds to the tension; the bleached out figures writhing in the headlights do not offer eroticism as much as a mesmeric grotesque. Absolutely the perfect choice of song here, Tim Buckley‘s Song To The Siren, covered by This Mortal Coil of the 4AD Label.
This Mortal Coil was a collective of label artists but this track was recorded by Robin Guthrie and Elizabeth Fraser of The Cocteau Twins. It remains one of the most eerily beautiful recordings imaginable, certainly the best version of Buckley’s song. When the Song To The Siren finally ebbs into Angelo Badalamenti’s brooding score it is almost a relief.
- Ryan Gosling – You Always Hurt The One You Love from Blue Valentine (2010)
Amongst the grime and misery of the broken relationship between Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams comes a sparkle of light in this sweeter-than-sugar flashback to the happier times when they first met. Not a million miles away from the clip from The Jerk at #9, this is no great performance from Gosling but the sentiment is what makes the impact as Michelle Williams dances along in a shop doorway and melts the hearts of all.
- Jim James and Calexico – Goin’ to Acapulco from I’m Not There (2007)
Bordering on a musical but certainly an unconventional one, Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There chronicled the many faces of Bob Dylan by having him played by a host of different actors including Heath Ledger, Ben Whishaw and a gob-smacking Cate Blanchett. This scene is from the Richard Gere sequence and sees Jim James and Calexico covering a Dylan track in a Deep South town inhabited by rurals, carnies and a giraffe. Sharing the stage with a dead child adds to the overall spookiness of the sequence, but again it is the performance that makes it so special. An inspired sequence that manages to chill every single time.
- Denis Lavant and friends – Let My Baby Ride from Holy Motors (2012)
French surrealist Leos Carax has always enjoyed melding popular music into his films, placing them in such a context as to drag the audience away from the film’s narrative in the form of an old fashioned interlude. Denis Lavant can be seen dancing and stumbling through the streets of Paris to Bowie’s Modern Love in Mauvais Sang (Bad Blood, 1986) and similarly strolling listening to Bowie’s When I Live My Dream in Carax’s 1984 debut Boy Meets Girl.
After a long break Carax returned in 2012 with Holy Rollers, a startling portmanteau that sees Lavant taking on a gallery of roles from the back of his limousine to fulfil client’s fantasies. Ranging from the grotesque to the stunningly beautiful, each episode becomes more and more intriguing. Bang in the middle, an interlude is announced and Lavant and a group of raggle taggle musicians break into an explosion of accordions marching around an old cathedral. It is rare that an interlude jars the audience as much as this. There is tension even in the jubilant accordion song; a version of R.L Burnside’s Let My Baby Ride, as Lavant breaks the pressure with a single exclamation of “Shit!” Uplifting, surreal and unique.
- Laurel and Hardy – At The Ball, That’s All from Way Out West (1937)
One of Stan and Ollie’s most celebrated longer features, Way Out West sees the pair taking a title deed to a lowly barmaid in a Wild West Saloon and running into their usual brand of trouble. The film is famous for The Trail Of The Lonesome Pine sequence; a song which managed to reach number two in the UK charts thanks to John Peel’s championing it. Better still however is the scene where Stan and Ollie come across a posse of singing cowboys and decide to dance along. For serious fans of the duo the scene is more moving than amusing and it is impossible to get tire of re-watching it. Enjoy.
- Bill Murray – More Than This from Lost In Translation (2003)
Bill Murray, once known for his deadpan comic delivery in perennial favourites like Ghostbusters, Stripes and Groundhog Day turned things around mid-career by mixing in a few serious roles. With Lost in Translation, Sofia Coppola’s surprise indie hit, he struck gold. The pairing of Murray and Scarlett Johansson was inspired, as was the neon setting of Tokyo, providing the perfect backdrop for this almost love story. The karaoke scene where Murray sings Roxy Music’s More Than This has become the stuff of indie movie legend. It’s a pretty awful rendition as it goes but it is Bill Murray, doing his slightly awkward thing that he does so well; in a strange way, it just works.
- Paul Giovanni – Willow’s Song from The Wicker Man (1973)
Many have labelled Robin Hardy’s cult classic British horror as a musical, and they may have a point. It certainly has more songs than your average chiller and they are integral to the plot, but it is, essentially, a horror. Originally put out as a double bill with the equally mesmeric Don’t Look Now, The Wicker Man has gained more of a following over the last twenty years becoming the subject of books, documentaries and events. It also rejuvenated the career of Christopher Lee, packing his final years with roles in both the Star Wars and Lord of the Rings franchises.
The creepy tale of The Wicker Man sees a Christian copper (Edward Woodward) enticed to a mysterious Scottish Island in search of a lost child, only to enter a world of twisted paganism and deadly rituals. Staying with the sinister Alder McGregor in his public house full of beardy weirdy locals, Woodward’s Detective Howie is visited in the dead of night by Willow, the landlord’s daughter who attempts to seduce the innocent victim by performing a fertility dance and issuing the most wonderful of songs. The song is certainly a high point in the film and has since been covered admirably by the Sneaker Pimps (renamed How Do) and sampled by none other than Pulp for their epic track Wickerman on their We Love Life album. The naked Willow, played by Britt Ekland, famously needed a stunt bum for long shots as she was noticeably pregnant at this point.
- Peter Ivers – In Heaven from Eraserhead (1977)
Eraserhead is the ultimate cult movie and cemented David Lynch as a true master of American alternative cinema, a role which he has retained to this day. To not have experienced Eraserhead is a crime. Shot over an unspecified time that covered several years as Lynch took breaks in production to raise money doing odd jobs, the film is presented in grainy black and white with a soundtrack to kill for.
The film tells the story of Henry Spencer (Jack Nance) who is left holding the baby when his wife, Mary X flees in despair. The baby is a cross between E.T. and the alien that burst from John Hurt’s chest in Alien. Henry’s only respite is his fantasies that revolve around a puffy cheeked lady (Laurel Near) who appears to live behind his radiator.
To say any more would be unfair, but the song that the girl in the radiator sings is unlike anything else. In Heaven has been covered by amongst others, The Pixies, Devo, Faith No More and Bauhaus. It needs to be heard in the context of the film, sat alongside the industrial screeching and pounding that almost drowns out the tinkling echo-chamber piano of Fats Waller. The soundtrack album alone is an experience. This is perhaps the perfect example of how an unexpected song in a non-musical film can be an absolute game-changer.