Music and movies have always had a connection , even in the early years of cinema. The very first movies were silent but had music as a soundtrack. Some films, when shown in the theater, were accompanied by musicians playing live. Directors recognized even then that music could be used as an instrument to create atmosphere and evoke emotion. Many of our greatest films can be identified by only a few bars played from their musical score.
Filmmakers in the last 50 years or so have increasingly used music in their films that was not specifically written for that purpose. In essence, these filmmakers have become curators pulling together sometimes disparate songs with the overall goal of creating atmosphere, setting the mood and even advancing the plot.The tone of the movie Trainspotting was undeniably set with it’s iconic opening scene of three Scottish hoodlums running through the streets to Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life”.
While not one of my favorite movies, I can’t deny that the opening scene of Saturday night fever and the song “Staying Alive” were made for each other. The soundtrack of Saturday Night Fever was produced with the movie in mind but it was also a stand alone album that could’ve been released on his own without the existence of the movie.
Many movies over the years have made extensive use of popular music with varying degrees of success. The best ones have managed to choose songs that complemented the action taking place on screen without distracting from it.
Two of my personal favorites are “Almost Famous“ and “High Fidelity”.
Almost Famous is a semi- autobiographical, part fact, part fiction retelling of young Cameron Crowe’s experience as a 15-year-old who manages to get an assignment from Rolling Stone magazine to tour with and write a profile on a young up-and-coming rock ‘n’ roll band. What results is a chronicle of a rock tour and a coming of age story in the early 1970’s world of rock ‘n’ roll excess. The movie is filled with music from that era without using the most obvious choices. One of the most memorable scenes takes place on the tour bus after a night of hard partying by the lead guitarist jeopardizes the tour. The film muses artists including the Who, Led Zeppelin, Elton John, Todd Rundgren, the Beach boys, Simon & Garfunkel, David Bowie covering Lou Reed and even Thunderclap Newman.
High Fidelity tells the story, adapted from the book written by Nick Hornby, of the owner of a store called Championship Vinyl, played by John Cusack. It’s the story of his journey from a string of failed romances to an actual grown-up relationship told in the format of “my top five break ups”. Every music nerd has engaged in the discussion of “my top five albums”, “my top five songs”, etc. This movie uses that device extensively. The music often takes center stage but does it without crowding out the story or the characters. It varies from classic Stevie Wonder to more obscure modern rock and punk; Dylan,The Kinks, Velvet Underground, Stereolab, the Beta band, Aretha Franklin, Elvis Costello and the Attractions and the Jam to name a few.
As an added bonus, there’s even a brief cameo by Bruce Springsteen. It also doesn’t hurt that Jack Black is hilarious.
What these two movies have in common, aside from both being among my top five all-time favorite films, is that the creators of these films happen to obviously love music. The music in both of them is practically a supporting actor
Another movie worth mentioning is Empire records from 1995. It’s the story of a day in the life of an independent record store staffed by a bunch of misfits and oddballs. I mention it not because it’s a good movie, far from it. It’s actually a terrible movie. It has plot holes you can drive a semi through, exposition that appears out of nowhere and then disappears without further exploration, and moments of high drama that have no place in a movie this lightweight. So naturally, I’ve seen it at least five times. Why? Because the soundtrack is actually half decent. It’s got some Dire Straits, AC/DC, some more obscure but interesting music and a surreal performance of a punk pop song called “Sugar High” by a very young Renee Zellweger at the climax of the movie. Music is truly the glue that holds this rambling wreck of a movie together. Oh, Liv Tyler is also in it and for me that always increases the odds of a repeat viewing.
Of course, there are many movies that have fantastic soundtracks; Apocalypse now, Forrest Gump, Good Morning Vietnam and Pulp Fiction, to name a few. Tom Hanks, as producer of the movie “That Thing You Do”, actually pulled off an amazing feat. He told the story of a fictional one hit wonder band in the early 1960s touring with a bunch of other artists of that era. He managed to do it with almost all original music made by fictional singers that sounded like it was written in 1962. This movie also has the distinction of being one of only a few movies I can put on at my house when no one can agree on what to watch and everyone will be happy.
(Liv Tyler is in this one too)
Music and TV shows have also been a good match. Many shows have used music to their advantage and done it well. The West Wing and the Newsroom, both created by Aaron Sorkin, have memorable episodes which included music from a number of different artists. In the second season of The West Wing, the season finale climaxed with the Dire Straits song, “Brothers in Arms”. That episode remains one of the creative peaks of a show with many creative high points.
The Newsroom used the Coldplay song “Fix You” early in the first season at a pivotal moment in the arc of that first season’s story line. (It’s a 7 minute clip but worth the time)
The Who’s “Baba O’Riley”Provided the soundtrack to the most important segment of the season finale.
Actor and director Zach Braff takes enormous interest in the music in his projects. The show Scrubs used music extensively to the point that two albums worth of music from the soundtrack were release. In his first movie that he starred and directed in, “Garden State”, also incorporated music extensively and resulted in an album soundtrack.
A good soundtrack in a movie or TV show almost always gets my attention. At its best the music makes a good story even better. I’ll even put up with the flaws of a bad movie if the music is good. Only the combination of bad movie, saddled with bad music, will send me running for the exits or changing the channel.
Or, you can just make the movie about Johnny Cash.