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Top 9 Filmic Uses of Existing Pop Songs

By The Staff | 22 November 2005

The two things that are dangerously close to giving my life all of its meaning, movies and music, when brought together in most righteous matrimony, pretty much flat-out slay me. The one thing that I always prided about when it came to my student films were the soundtracks, which employed everything from Aesop Rock to We Vs. The Shark to The Stooges to Charles Mingus. And as much as I love Bresson, he can just go ahead and sneer away at the cheapness of dirtying the purity of image with song; there is an art to it, dammit, and maybe this list will exemplify that art. The following selections were compiled by process of me throwing out a bunch of my favorites, replacing several of those with the suggestions of others, assigning blurbs to those who seemed best, and stubbornly ignoring The Graduate because no one really needs to see the novel that that would require.

-Chet Betz

*****

9. Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964)

“We’ll Meet Again” by Vera Lynn

Dr. Strangelove’s savage gloved hand, rising to strangle and salute the Russian ambassador, gliding discretely away to kneel and remove the Device, his fumbling fingers finding the right switch, Buck Turgidson assailing the President over the possibility of a mine shaft and gap, and then Strangelove rises inhumane and grotesque—“Mein fuehrer! I can walk!”

An impotent shuffle forward, and then this, Vera Lynn’s wartime ode to false hope, delivered with sparkling optimism, swooning strings and a host of ghostly backing vocals. Kubrick, meanwhile, batters the viewer with a series of blooming mushroom clouds, bursting forth in shady black-and-white like the births of a thousand solar systems. He edits them together rapturously, with a deplorable eye for the orgasmic nature of the burst, completing, perhaps, the phallic undertones of the opening credits. Thus his ninety-minute meditation on coitus and war is blissfully finished, and it’s Lynn’s song—a monument of the wartime lust for reassurance—that is the final echo, fading, ultimately, to bleak black, Lynn’s triumphant brass rising in new-morning ecstasy against a ringed sphere of decimation. It is, perhaps, the most indelible moment of Kubrick’s most indelible film, a sparkling song above abysmal images, a filmmaker at his trenchant worst. Probably a better idea than the pie fight, too.

-Clayton Purdom

*****

8. Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973)

“Jumpin’ Jack Flash” by the Rolling Stones

We couldn’t keep Scorsese off this list with a baseball bat, but then which Scorsese soundtrack stroke of inspiration should we highlight? I’d briefly run through the alternatives (I’m particularly partial to his music choices in Who’s That Knockin’ at My Door?), but that’s another ten paragraphs. Really, it’s just as well to shrug and say, “Okay, how about Johnny Boy and the Rolling Stones?”

There’s precisely one mis-step, one little flaw, in what might be the most thrilling character introduction (yes, I’m disregarding the exploding mailbox) in Scorsese’s oeuvre; that flaw is the shot of Tony laughing. The other shots are smooth and slow-motion, but perhaps a slow-motion Tony laugh just looked too ridiculous. And one can sense why the Tony laugh was needed. It’s counterpart to Charlie’s grim stare; it shows the kind of diverse responses that a character like Johnny Boy incites with his very presence. The kid’s a person to worry over, to hug and to hate and to hug again, because he’s too full of life to shoulder the sorts of cares that make other people boring and menial. He teeters on the precipice of a pit; for better or worse, he has everyone’s attention.

The Rolling Stones are a band of Johnny Boys, and “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” is a song about a Johnny Boy, and so nothing could be more natural in all the world than for that song to kick in as the rest of the sound kicks out, right after Charlie’s voice-over wags a finger at God and notes that here’s that penance in living form, speak of the devil, as Johnny strides forward with a dame on each arm, engulfed in deep red and smoke and shadows, like a man doing a tight-rope act in hell. Mean Streets has plenty of Catholic guilt, and with Johnny’s appearance, the viewer watches Scorsese quickly personify guilt’s amicable source in a character and foreshadow its ruin through his technique. All that almost goes unnoticed, though, because the rock and roll, just as it should, makes everything seem so fun, fun even while the lyrics speak, “I was crowned with a spike right through my head / But it’s all right now, in fact, it’s a gas! / But it’s all right, I’m Jumpin’ Jack Flash!”

Marty, you are a smart one.

-Chet Betz

*****

7. Wes Anderson’s Rushmore (1998)

“A Quick One While He’s Away” by The Who

Watch this sequence back to back with Johnny Boy’s arrival on Mean Streets, and the word “homage” might start floating around, if only because of the way the slow-motion tracking shot works with that classic rock oomph. It will make you think that every movie should have a slow-motion tracking shot with classic rock, just like when you saw Almost Famous and thought that every movie should have a scene where the characters sing along to “Tiny Dancer.” The lyrics of the songs even prophesy in similar fashion, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” shrugging at doom and “You are forgiven! / You are forgiven! / You are forgiven!” insisting on the reconciliation to come later between Max Fischer and Mr. Blume. In the meantime, what better way to accompany their hi-jinks of vengeance then with the bursting dam of rock to be found within “A Quick One While He’s Away”? Rushmore has an unforgettable moment in that image of the elevator doors opening, Max taking the gum from his mouth and sticking it to the wall. By adding those first few glorious, blaring chords beneath, Anderson made that moment instantly iconic.

-Chet Betz

*****

6. Hal Hartley’s Simple Men (1992)

>“Kool Thing” by Sonic Youth

“Kool Thing” features Kim Gordon at her most prickly and drippingly sarcastic. The song itself is pretty straightforward, actually of the Youth’s most conventional pop songs, at least until the bridge where Kim asks Chuck D, “I just wanna know…what are you gonna do for me? I mean, are you gonna liberate us girls from male white corporate oppression?” Chuck D doesn’t have much of a response, diffusing any political tension the song might have and making it seem a little goofy. Thankfully, early 90’s indie sweet-heart Hal Hartley realizes this and exploits the song brilliantly in Simple Men. The story is about two brothers with nowhere to go who’ve had their share of problems with women, who then meet two women with nowhere to go who’ve had their share of problems with men. For a brief second it seems like everything might be okay and these weirdo guys might have found their perfect weirdo girls. It all culminates in a night of drinking that leads to one of the most hilariously awkward dance numbers ever put on film, soundtracked by the appropriately awkward “Kool Thing.” The song fits perfectly for a number of reasons, but primarily because the brothers (played by Robert Burke and Bill Sage) are trying to appear as cool as possible when in reality they’re anything but. They’re exposed not only by their horrendous dancing but by Gordon’s icy, deadpan dismissal of Chuck D. It’s a quirky delight that lays bare Hartley’s Simple Men as the blundering fools they are with a wink and a sneer, which Gordon is more than happy to deliver.-Sean Ford

*****

5. Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971)

“The Stranger Song” by Leonard Cohen

Has Warren Beatty ever been mysterious? Not really, and no, he’s not all that mysterious in Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller, even though his own personal theme song seems to be Cohen’s “The Stranger Song.” Sure, in the beginning the man is the archetypal Western stranger who rides into town, the natives raising eyebrows and whispering and pointing and spitting and what have you, all a-curious and such. It doesn’t take too long, though, for Beatty’s McCabe to start to strongly resemble many of Beatty’s other characters, foibles like surly drunkenness immediately surfacing as attempts to hide that tenderness not so deep down.

Listening to “The Stranger Song” and watching Beatty’s character arc in the film are akin to doing the exact same thing, for Cohen and Altman both do such a thorough, patient job of taking that shadowy brim and steadily bringing more and more of the face beneath into the light. It doesn’t feel forced. It doesn’t even feel like intentional genre breaking. It simply comes off as creators wanting to make very real and human beings. The parallelism, the harmony that Altman achieves between this one song and his protagonist, deepens Beatty’s screen presence by double.

-Chet Betz

*****

4. Wong Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express (1994)

“California Dreamin’” by The Mamas & The Papas

While much of contemporary Eastern cinema endlessly recycles the stale period epic (the better half of which Miramax has on import order), the laughably elegiac martial arts ballet, the poorly scripted imitation-Ozu (someone please mention the words “story” and “editing” to Tsai Ming-Liang), Wong Kar-Wai has developed a style that, to paraphrase and expound on the words of Tarantino, brings the freshness and cinematic zeal of the French New Wave (particularly Godard) together with the energy of an HK action film and the typical Asian art-house excellence of aesthetic. I say “typical” where, in fact, I should stress that Wong Kar-Wai’s aesthetic sensibilities are virtually second-to-none, so powerful that his glorified BMW ad brought bloody tears to my eyes.

This all means that, in addition, of course, it’s a given, WKW’s great when it comes to using music in his movies. However, if you felt a bit bothered by the extent to which PTA used the Popeye song in Punch-Drunk Love (btw: PDL is PTA’s WKW film, and hooray for letters), then watch out. Chungking Express uses “California Dreamin’” 42 times. Seriously. Okay, not seriously, but you’d swear that’s what it feels like. Awesome.

Huh, awesome? Yes, entirely. It’s awesome on 42 levels, too, but let me just discuss a couple. First, to distinguish this song: the other uses of music in the film are great, just not as great. The first short story goes for more of a synth-tastic Vangelis vibe, and then the second, longer story takes over with the pop music, with double occurrences of the standard “What a Difference a Day Makes” and Faye Wong’s Cranberries cover. Seeing how WKW uses the former will eradicate any question of why that song’s not mentioned on this list with Run Lola Run; it’s not just how WKW uses it the first time in the let’s-play-airplane scene that Tony Leung has with his unfathomably hot stewardess —- it’s in how that then connects with the second time WKW uses it much later. Nevertheless, the song’s presence in the movie is somewhat slight. Like Faye Wong herself, the Cranberries cover is adorable, and I so enjoy watching Ms. Wong do adorable things on screen while the adorable song plays, but that’s essentially an adorable Faye Wong music video, right?

No, it’s “California Dreamin’” that comes out on top, and it isn’t just because that’s when Faye does her best dance moves (that little shimmy with the food tongs and then the thing she does with her hands in front of her forehead… come on, just too fucking cute). Much of WKW’s work comments on itself, and the fact that “California Dreamin’” plays on the soundtrack an absolutely absurd number of times is party to WKW working, as usual, through repetition. He does so masterfully, finding a way for every instance, every return to certain images or sounds, to catch like motifs in his non-linear thematic webs. Most of WKW’s films repeat songs, but I’m pretty sure “California Dreamin’” has the rest beat in terms of reps, and it’s his most self-expressive use of song in several other ways, too: “California Dreamin’” affirms WKW’s fondness for pieces of Western culture, it’s lyrically full of the sort of wistfulness that fills his own films, and, hey, the verse that appears ad infinitum in Chungking deals with the sort of spur-of-the-moment spirituality felt so poignantly at the end of In the Mood for Love. Thus, the use of “California Dreamin’” in Chungking Express is the most WKW-esque member of the WKW soundtrack club. It’s only fitting that the film ends with a shot of the stereo; the only reason the stereo plays the Cranberries cover for the credits is because it just finished playing “California Dreamin’” for the last, 42nd time.

-Chet Betz

*****

3. David Fincher’s Fight Club (1999)

“Where Is My Mind?” by The Pixies

Fight Club is a fucking great movie. Forget that Fred Durst is a fan, forget the endless aping of its twist, and please resist its reputation as fratboy quote-fest. The film is faultless, held together by a trio of fantastically dark comedic performances, Fincher’s crisp, invidious cinematographic eye, and the subterranean chill of the Dust Brothers’ smoothest beats. They bubble beneath the surface of the entire film, complementing the action onscreen without overpowering it.

Still, it’s the Pixies’ scabrous ode to paranoia that brings the film to its close, and its stark contrast to the rest of the film’s music makes it triply effective. The guitar line worms its way out as the cronies leave Tyler and Marla alone at the top of the building, and as Durden says, “Everything’s going to be fine,” two detonations illuminate his face before a cut back to the wide angle to catch the midnight-blue collapse of the world’s financial history. There’s something about Joey Santiago’s razorblade guitars and Frank Black’s obliquely hallucinatory lyrics that sound positively hopeful in this context; they add a reassuringly steady thud, a hint of mechanic stability. Fincher had already either won or lost the audience at this point, and so he threw caution to the wind—you either get the Pixies or you don’t, right, so why not give them the last word? All’s missing is one more shot of a big, fat cock —- oh, okay, there it is. And that’s a wrap, folks.

-Clayton Purdom

*****

2. Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights (1997)

“Jessie’s Girl” by Rick Springfield

Did Rick Springfield ever envision this? His biggest (albeit not only) hit will be eternally associated among hipsters with a half-naked Alfred Molina, coked to the gills and utterly insane. I could write a novel about the botched drug deal in Boogie Nights, a scene which I’d argue to be among the finest 15 minutes of cinema in the last decade. Supposedly based on John Holmes’s involvement in the Wonderland Avenue murders, P.T. Anderson wants you to know that Mark Wahlberg’s Dirk Diggler has hit rock bottom, and Alfred Molina’s coke-fiend really, really loves him some Rick Springfield. The latter completely rocks out to “Jesse’s Girl” between hits of freebase (“playing baseball” as he phrases it) and showing off his gold-plated pistol; aided on percussion by his Asian servant boy’s affinity for setting off firecrackers indoors. Anderson’s use of the 80’s cheese rock staple deftly captures the drug-riddled excesses of that stretch in time, and the man takes it to the next level when Molina’s “My Awesome Mixtape #2” flips over to reveal that he loves motorin’ to Night Ranger’s “Sister Christian” just as much.

-David Goldstein

*****

1. Stephen Frears’ High Fidelity (2000)

“Dry the Rain” by The Beta Band

“I am now going to sell five copies of The 3 EPs by the Beta Band.”

As if, Cusack. Because as the audience of every movie theater transatlantically filed out of their multicontinental movie theaters, the one thing on their mind wasn’t “Boy, he finally won her back!” or “That Black fellow sure was a hoot”—it was, “What was that fucking song with the horn line called again?” “Dry The Rain” is one of those songs with a pervasively “good” vibe—I can name thirty jam bands right now that have spent their entire careers trying to attain the infectious, head-nodding good-timey shuffle that this song positively oozes. The drums are phenomenal, simultaneously pounding and leisurely, and then that grand, descending horn line commences its stately stride, with group vocals matching it each step of the way, chanting a whole bunch of shit that no one really knows except for the crucial “I will be alright, I will be alright” part—which is actually “I will be your light,” but who gives a fuck, really? And the movie captures the song’s benevolent quality perfectly—Jack Black chills out, the sad bastard starts meekly nodding his head, customers hook up, cartoon birds fly out of the sky to perch upon their shoulders and sing along with the song (okay, maybe not). Cusack remains untouchable, peering pedantically around the store with a bemused grin. Five copies? Sheesh. Better break out a new box, kid.

P.S. This list and High Fidelity were made for each other. You knew it had to happen.

-Clayton Purdom