Three Chords and the Truth: Music in Film

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It was summer in 1974, in El Cajon, CA. The sun was boiling, as it always was in El Cajon at that time of the year. Entertainment options for your typical 10 year-old were pretty slim. The classic film “Casablanca” was on TV, and I did not want to have anything to do with going outside. So, I plopped in front of the television to watch the film. I was transfixed. By the time it was finished, it would be one of my favorite films. It still is to this day. It works on so many levels for so many reasons and holds up very well all these years later. One thing it did was show me was how a great piece of music, when put in the right place, can make a bad movie watchable, a watchable movie good, a good movie great, and a great movie a classic. In “Casablanca” it arrives when the Nazis have come into Rick’s Cafe American. The winds of war have started to blow and the Free French in Casablanca know time is running out. Underground leader Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) is in the club, too, and he is not going to tolerate the Germans blaring their music here. He leads the crowd in a stirring rendition of “Le Marseillaise.” If ever the national anthem of a defeated country has boiled down to “screw you, Nazis!” this is that time.

It’s not a new phenomenon: Al Jolson nailed the pairing of music and film in “The Jazz Singer,” and there have been plenty of awesome moments since. “These Boots Are Made For Walking” in “Full Metal Jacket” is near-perfectly ironic. “Blue Moon” in “An American Werewolf in London” is pure genius. Then there is the sequence of Slim Pickens, riding a nuclear warhead and ending civilization as we know it, to the strains of “We’ll Meet Again” at the end of  “Dr Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love The Bomb.”

Movies and music are powerful art forms. When used to their full extent, the two can fuse together into something truly amazing. Here are more than a few of my favorite moments of music in film that made both of them better.


A Clockwork Orange (1971)

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“Singin’ In The Rain”

Is it possible to not be sickened by Malcolm McDowell’s Alex as he sings and dances in his combat boots while raping and brutalizing a group of innocents? Alex’s demented crooning is an ironic counterpoint to the mindless ultra-violence he and the Droogs are metering out on the writer and his bride. Apparently, the scene was not scripted that way. Perfectionist Stanley Kubrick spent four days experimenting with this scene, finding it too conventional. After growing frustrated, he asked McDowell to try to dance. McDowell did the scene dancing and singing the only song he could remember. Reportedly, Kubrick was so satisfied with the end result he bought the rights to “Singing in the Rain” for $10,000.


 

Say Anything (1989)

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“In Your Eyes”

John Cusack nails heartbroken Lloyd Dobler like no other actor could. A solid movie with the predictable boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back plot line. As he loses all sense of shame and throws himself at Diane Court (Ione Skye), he stands on her lawn, boombox above his head, blaring Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” for the whole world to see. He stands there, emotionally naked and vulnerable and she turns him away. If your heart doesn’t melt at that moment, you have no soul.


Apocalypse Now (1979)

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“Ride of the Valkyries”

The sound of chopper blades piercing the morning silence. The sight of Hueys coming out of nowhere to reign destruction from the sky. The sound of Wagner’s powerful, sweeping opera blasting from the sky. It is an amazing piece of filmmaking and a powerful visualization of the might of the U.S. Air Force. It was also meant as an ironic comment on the Vietnam War. In the original Wagner magna opera “Der Ring des Nibelungen,” the Valkyries arrive at a point of apparent victory, only to suffer from hideous defeat. The torching of the village as the music plays would eventually be followed by the eventual defeat in the war.


Five Easy Pieces (1970)

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“Fantaisie in F minor”

It’s Jack Nicholson playing Frederic Chopin in a traffic jam on top of a flatbed truck with a piano. That is cool enough to sum it up without further explanation.


Pride (2014)

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“Bread and Roses”

At the height of Thatcher’s U.K., a miner’s strike in the face of pit closures lead a group of gays and lesbians to come to the miners aid. Collecting money, offering solidarity and standing up in the face of authority. Like most noble causes, this one looks certain to fail. The Welsh mining town of Onllwyn is all but penniless, the union members and their families are starving. It’s a bleak moment. Out of nowhere, one of the town’s women (Bronwen Lewis, with a voice that is too beautiful for words) stands up and begins to sing “Bread and Roses” a capella. Her voice pierces the doldrums. The path forward rings clear. It is her lone act of defiance. But she’s not alone for long. The song is connected to the “Bread and Roses” strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1912.The women in that strike faced down local authorities and got savagely beaten. Here, it’s a message from the women to the men of Onllwyn that the fight is not just theirs. Without a doubt, the best movie I saw last year.


Wayne’s World (1992)

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“Bohemian Rhapsody”

There is no shame in admitting you started to bang your head as you read the header here. A crappy car full of teenagers always ends up with them singing along and banging their heads. It is a perfect scene in a decent film from back when Mike Meyers was actually funny. My high school buddies, the Vandals, and I did the same thing with Foreigner’s “Dirty White Boy,” or the Knack’s “My Sharona”. I’m fairly sure, back in the 1950s, kids did so to Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues.”


Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid (1969)

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“Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head”

You’re folk heroes. Bank robbing folk heroes. Bank robbing folk heroes on the run. But you are entitled to a break in order to ride a bike with a pretty girl on the handle bars as “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” plays. Paul Newman and Katharine Ross appear to be having a great time, and the song breaks up the film nicely. A great film with Robert Redford and Newman as a pair of guys who find adventure, usually just after they find banks to rob.


Stealing Beauty (1996)

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“Rocket Boy”

Lucy Harmon (Liv Tyler) is a 19-year old American girl, the daughter of Sara Harmon, a poet who committed suicide. Lucy travels to Italy to visit a group of her Mom’s friends in an attempt to figure out the diary she left behind. There’s also the young Italian boy, Nicolo Donati, who she fell in love with. In her quest to figure out who her Dad is, what life all means, and a whole bunch of other deep thoughts, Lucy ends up jumping up and down on her bed to Liz Phair’s “Rocket Boy.”  In all of Tyler’s career, she’s never looked so gleeful and unguarded. Also, it’s a rockin’ tune.


Blackboard Jungle (1955)

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“Rock Around the Clock”

Signs of Armageddon were everywhere when this film came out in 1955 – simply by including this song as the theme. Apparently, riots broke out in Europe. Without the tune as its claim to fame, this is a pretty dull movie that has not dated well. It also boasts the film debut of Jamie Farr and… well, that’s about all.


Easy Rider (1969)

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“Born to be Wild”

A pair of outlaw biker hippies (Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper) head off onto the freeway and out across the desert  into an exploration of freedom and blah, blah, blah. Steppenwolf’s “Born To Be Wild” kicks into gear as the credits roll, and you know you’re in for a ride of rebellion, drugs, and a quest for God knows what.


Dan in Real Life (2007)

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“Let My Love Open The Door”

Steve Carell and Dane Cook are Dan and Mitch, a pair of brothers who have fallen for the same woman (Juliette Binoche as the lovely, yet damaged, Marie). Dan is a single dad whose life revolves around his daughters, Mitch is the fun-loving one. They come upon the wacky idea to sing “Let My Love Open The Door” in front of the family and Marie. Mitch tries to slide by on charm and falls hideously short, leaving Dan and his guitar to tackle the rest of song, emotions betraying him and hitting Marie squarely in the heart. Carell is known mostly for his comedy, but here he’s all honesty and earnestness. And it gets me every damn time I see this movie.


2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

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“Thus Spoke Zarathustra”

The fusion of sight and sound as the fade in comes and the music rises is pure genius. Light appears in the back of the screen as the Sun rises over the Moon and the Earth, the kettle drums kick in and Stanley Kubrick can sit back and tell the world how freaky he is and how much of a genius he is at crafting a film. “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” existed long before this film, but it fits perfectly. There’s also the whole “Dawn of Man” segment which just strikes me as abstract and silly, but that could just be me.


Shaun of the Dead (2004)

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“Don’t Stop Me Now”

Things have gotten ugly at the Winchester Pub. Zombies are breaking in and Queen comes up on the jukebox on random. Pool cues, fire extinguishers and darts are used in an attempt to dispatch the first of what will become many zombies. It’s comical how in-tune with the beat of “Don’t Stop Me Now” the beatings are. But, if the end of England is upon us all, Queen may as well be the soundtrack of armageddon. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are brilliant and supported by Kate Ashfield, Lucy Davis and a cast of the undead (made up mostly of fans of the show “Spaced,” which starred Pegg and Frost, as well as Jessica Hynes). This movie is fried gold.


Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973)

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“Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”

Sam Peckinpah knew how to make a movie. Here, he lets James Coburn and Kris Kristofferson carry this western on their shoulders. There’s the powerful moment after the gunfight (there’s always a gunfight) when the guitar kicks in and Bob Dylan’s voice starts to moan. Slim Pickens is shot, and he stands by the side of a filthy pond, dying. Katy Jurado has tears running down her face as she looks on, powerless. The two look at each other, knowing the day is not ending well. The most impactful moment in the film boils down to the song, two actors looking at each other and everyone watching knowing he is going to die.


Mars Attacks! (1996)

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“Indian Love Call”

Thank God for the yodelling master that is Slim Whitman. Without his “Indian Love Call,” we would all be speaking Martian. “Ack-Ack.”


Manhunter (1986)

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“In a Gadda da Vida”

Michael Mann was a fairly unknown director, William Peterson was pretty unknown too. Peterson played Will Graham in the first installment of the Silence of the Lambs films. Brian Cox turns in subtle work as Dr. Hannibal Lecktor (future films used the spelling Lecter) and Tom Noonan is solid as Francis Dollarhyde, the psycho-killer du juor in this installment. Plenty of the stylized filming and most of the soundtrack has dated badly. But the ending sequence is brilliantly done. Iron Butterfly’s “In a Gadda da Vida” pulsates through Dollarhydes house as his next victim, a terrified blind woman, tries to stay alive. Graham crashes through a window, Dollarhyde takes a shotgun to everything in sight and the acid rock classic chugs on. The “Good-bye Horses” sequence in The Silence of the Lambs may be creepier (it is), but this one came first.


Groundhog Day (1993)

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“I Got You, Babe”

Who wants to wake up to the same song everyday? Forever? Well, Bill Murray gets to enjoy the Sonny and Cher classic every morning as 5:59 changes to 6:00 a.m. in Punxsutawney, PA on Groundhog Day. Murray is Phil, living the same day over and over and over. Any film with Punxsutawney Phil and Bill Murray is an easy sell for me. The fact that it’s genuinely funny is a bonus.


Blow-Up (1966)

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“Train Kept A Rollin’”

Michelangelo Antonioni’s brilliant film about photographer in the midst of the Mod London scene. He seems to discover something very suspicious in the shots he has taken of a mysterious beauty in a desolate park. The use of the Yardbirds playing “Train Kept A Rollin’” as Jeff Beck destroys his guitar and Vox amp fits perfectly. Antonioni originally wanted the In Crowd who refused and then the Who, which probably explains the guitar smashing. Instead, the film captures Beck and Jimmy Page swapping licks and the London music scene at rare moment of musical awakening.


Reservoir Dogs (1992)

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“Stuck in the Middle with You”

A great heist film from Quentin Tarantino. Michael Madsen’s Mr. Blonde dances, sings and tortures Kirk Baltz’ Officer Marvin Nash. More than a little merciless, lots of blood and gore, it’s not a scene for the squeamish. But it is the perfect fusion of cruelty and humor. The film was made on a microscopic budget, but the results were amazing. Tarantino’s legacy is secure for that bit of film. Originally, he wanted to use “Ballroom Blitz” by the Sweet. It could not have possibly come off any more unsettling.

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Author: Barry Benintende

Barry has spent his entire adult life watching movies, listening to music and finding people gullible enough to pay him to do so. As the former Executive Editor of the La Jolla Light, Editor of the South County Mail, Managing Editor of D-Town, Founder and Editor of sQ Magazine, Managing Editor of Kulture Deluxe, and Music Critic for San Diego Newsline, you would figure his writing would not be so epically dull. He has also written for the San Diego Reader, the Daily Californian, the Marshfield Mail, Cinemanian and too many other papers and magazines that have been consigned to the dustbin of history. A happily-married father of two sons and a daughter, Barry has an unhealthy addiction to his hometown San Diego Padres and the devotion of his feisty Westie, Adie. Buy him a cup of coffee and he can spend an evening regaling you with worthless music or baseball trivia. Buy him two and you’ll never get rid of him.

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