There are certain moments when watching any kind of entertainment, whether it be on the big or small screen, that tend to make a permanent, moving imprint on the memory of its specific viewer. These kind of instances are often driven by the power of a song choice, coupled with the right images. Even if it’s a flash – sometimes a 10-15 second snippet – the right pairing can still manage to be a highly rewarding sequence when sound manages to form a union with the frames on screen. The following six songs are not any kind of definitive order, they are simply a handful of picks that came to the forefront of this viewer’s mind when pondering the past 6+ years of cinema and television intake.
2010 / Blue Valentine / “You and Me” by Penny & The Quarters
Derek Cianfrance’s debut feature was something like a true horror movie, because anyone who has ever been through a relationship that deteriorates right in front of their eyes, without hope of repair, can relate. When I saw it in theaters some six years ago, I knew I really liked it, but I wasn’t sure how much; simply because there was too much weight and darkness cast on its audience to make any kind of judgment after only one viewing. It’s a film that requires multiple watches, but years apart, because the experience deflates you in a way that not many films have. Watching the movie again just a few months ago, I found myself even more in awe of some of Blue Valentine’s positive, glowing moments, which all are all greatly enhanced by its creator’s music selection and placement. During one of the key flashback scenes, Dean (Ryan Gosling) gives Cindy (Michelle Williams) a CD while they are in bed together. He says he “found their song”. Dean begs her to play it right then and there, and for the next sixty seconds we hear “You and Me” by Penny & The Quarters reverberate throughout her room as they stare at each other like no one else in the world exists or really should exist. Just describing this kind of sequence seems like it could fall into dozens of different American-ized romantic cliches, but there’s a raw technique to the way Cianfrance handles his material. Then there’s that game changer: the song. It’s a decades-old tune lifted from the Numero Group’s Prix Label collection, and there’s no doubting its power when paired with the aforementioned images. It’s a beautiful moment in a film filled with equal parts sublime, ripe love and agonizing pain. The latter moment wouldn’t have been earned without us believing that they were truly inseparable at one time. Penny & The Quarters does more than convince us.
2012 / The Comedy / “Baby” by Donnie & Joe Emerson
Beneath the seemingly directionless plot and plain unruly behavior from nearly all of its characters, Rick Alverson’s “The Comedy” has a lot to say about the effect that an ultra-privileged, silver spoon upbringing can have on a psyche. The opening scene sets this very theme up in perfect fashion. Donnie & Joe Emerson’s “Baby”, one of the greatest late-night lounge sexual moodsetters ever, fades to slow motion images of grown men wrestling drunkenly in a spacious living room. They are inebriated to the point of no return, lathered in beer, and wearing nothing but their underwear. Meanwhile, the circle of friends filling out the rest of the room are screaming and yelling in promotion. There’s an unshakable, depressive sadness to these images – really in every moment of “The Comedy” – and hearing Donnie & Joe Emerson belt out perfect sensual vocals on a song that was made for spinning in the bedroom on a lucky evening, makes this scene a surprising stake in the ground for a polarizing work that unfolds from that point forward.
2013 / Frances Ha / “Modern Love” by David Bowie
Whether you are annoyed or head-over-heels in love with Greta Gerwig’s Frances, by the time she sprints and dances through the streets of New York City during a spontaneous moment in Noah Bambauch’s “Frances Ha”, you’d have to be crazy not to at least appreciate the flawless use of David Bowie’s “Modern Love”. In what is clearly Baumbach’s Manhattan, he also pays blatant homage to the French New Wave films of the 60s as his camera dances right along with Frances and Bowie as they take us all through one glorious, carefree trip through a several block stretch. It’s an iconic moment in recent film history.
2013 / Rectify (Season 1, Episode 4) / “I Hurt Too” by Katie Herzig
In one of the most touching moments of the inaugural season of Rectify (the best television show I have ever seen), Daniel Holden visits a high school friend at her salon late at night, and they share a moment of emotional release. Holden has been on death row for 19 years, but the new discovery of DNA has reopened the case, and suddenly he is walking through the streets of a town he has never seen as a legal adult. There’s a cavalcade of challenges ahead in every possible form for Daniel, but in this moment of solace, he can breathe and share a meaningful bit of intimacy with a woman that remembers him as he once was before horror and tragedy entered his life. I had never heard of Katie Herzig before seeing this incredible sequence in which her song, “I Hurt Too”, becomes the catalyst for one of the most overlooked moments in recent television history. This is the kind of stuff that raises hairs.
2015 / Mistress America / “Souvenir” by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark
I know, I must be a Noah Baumbach fan, right? Well, it’s hard not gush over everything he’s done since teaming with Greta Gerwig on the last three films. Their latest collaboration, the screenplay to “Mistress America”, takes an extremely modern approach to its characters but is also deeply rooted in New Age cinema and music of the 80s – in other words, they are extracting everything that the decade got right and leaving all of the negatives left behind. The score to the film, by husband-and-wife duo Dean Wareham & Britta Phillips, is easily my pick for the best anywhere in years, and the song selections play as perfect companions to the overall tone. Very early on in the movie, even before Gerwig’s prominent Brooke Cardinas emerges, there is an endearing segment revealing signs of a possible budding love between our protagonist, Tracy (Lola Kirke) and fellow student/aspiring writer, Tony (Matthew Shear). As Tracy skips and hums throughout the campus and is enjoying college for the first time since arriving, “Souvenir” by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark plays to the elation of an initial crush with a John Hughes-throwback grin.
2016 / Togetherness (Season 2, Episode 8) / “Downtown” by Majical Cloudz
It is a bittersweet experience to watch the satisfying final moments of a television show you adore, but to have that feeling of correct closure with characters you’ve spent considerable time with is rewarding. In the case of Jay & Mark Duplass’ Togetherness, the show was canceled during the second season’s original airing, so however it concluded with episode eight, that was it. I had great fear that there would be a massive cliffhanger similar to the one dropped at the end of the first season, but thankfully I was wrong. In a show that never received the traction it deserved, our main four characters are sent off to the sounds of “Downtown” by Majical Cloudz. All of this during a gratifying emotional interaction. We can paint a possible direction that their lives will take, and that very picture will continue on in our imaginations. The credits roll, and the song fleshes out the feeling with appropriate lyrics such as “…and if suddenly I die, I hope they will say that he was obsessed and it was okay”. In tasteful fashion, they let the song come to completion. It breathes in and out, and when it fades, so does the show itself. It’s one of the most under-appreciated shows HBO has ever produced.