Moving Pictures
Mar 09, 2023, 06:28AM

Dun Dun, Dun Dun, Dun Dun

Music in film, from good (The Life Aquatic), bad (Tootsie), to brilliant (Manhunter).

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Whenever I watch the film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, I skip past the sequence where Butch (Paul Newman) takes Etta Place (Katharine Ross) for a ride on his rickety bicycle. The scene is important since it shows the affection between Etta and the two outlaws. But I hate it. That’s because the song “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head” is playing in the background. It drives me crazy. The music is completely at odds with the film’s classic western tone.

I’m not alone. Robert Redford, who played Sundance said, “When the film was released, I was highly critical: How did the song fit with the film? There was no rain. At the time, it seemed like a dumb idea. How wrong I was, as it turned out to be a giant hit.” He wasn’t wrong. The “Raindrops” sequence mars what would otherwise be a perfect movie.

Music has a resonance that compliments or detracts from a film’s visual power. When Steven Spielberg first heard John Williams’ ominous two-chord theme for Jaws, he thought the composer was playing a prank. “I expected to hear something kind of weird and melodic, something tonal, but eerie; something of another world, almost like outer space under the water,” Spielberg said. “What he played me instead, with two fingers on the lower keys, was ‘dun dun, dun dun, dun dun.’ I thought he was putting me on.” The Jaws theme became legendary and Spielberg later admitted, “I think the score was responsible for half of the success of that movie.”

The late-1960s brought a new generation of filmmakers willing to break the rules of movie music. Instead of hiring classical or jazz composers to write original scores, young directors opted for contemporary rock songs. Mike Nichols used the music of Simon & Garfunkel in The Graduate to indicate the existential crisis of the main character. Hal Ashby utilized Cat Stevens ballads in Harold and Maude providing a glimmer of hope for the main character’s bleak journey.

A poorly-chosen song will damage a film or cause it to feel dated. Tootsie (1982) is a classic farce that eviscerates gender stereotypes. The story of a male actor masquerading as an actress to aid his career is a masterpiece of intelligent comedy. But the film’s soundtrack is awful. The theme song “It Might Be You” sung by Stephen Bishop is sappy. The main soundtrack written by Dave Grusin is so horrendous it makes the film hard to watch.

A similar case can be made for the 1981 comedy Arthur. The movie about a drunken millionaire rebelling against an arranged marriage was a box office success for Dudley Moore. The theme song “Best That You Can Do,” sung by Christopher Cross, won an Academy Award for Best Original Song. But the tune’s heinous. The real culprit is Burt Bacharach who was also the writer of “Raindrops.” For this reason, I refer to Bacharach as the “classic movie killer.”

When Spike Lee made Do the Right Thing he needed a song to coalesce the film’s message about racial conflict. Lee met with Chuck D of Public Enemy and said, “I’ve got this movie based on all this tension going on in the New York area… and I’m looking for an anthem.” Lee wanted to record a hip-hop version of the spiritual hymn “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” Chuck D disagreed. He wanted to record music that reflected the emerging rap genre heard on the street. Inspired by the Isley Brothers classic “Fight the Power,” he wrote a version that became a rallying cry for inclusion and representation in the black community. The song propelled the film into the public consciousness and helped spawn the emerging hip-hop scene.

Francis Ford Coppola needed music for Apocalypse Now. Specifically, he needed a song for the helicopter attack scene that struck fear into the minds of the enemy. Coppola chose Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries, a melody that evoked gods flying into battle. The scene was a triumph of cinema providing ironic commentary on the United States’ involvement in Vietnam.

When songs and movies coalesce, they change the association of a piece of music. It’s impossible to hear Richard Strauss’ symphony “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” without visualizing 2001: A Space Odyssey. The Bee Gees’ “Staying Alive” is synonymous with Saturday Night Fever while Steppenwolf’s “Born To Be Wild” evokes Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper riding motorcycles in Easy Rider. “Everybody’s Talkin’” by Harry Nilsson helped propel Midnight Cowboy to a 1970 Best Picture Oscar. Casablanca (1942) wouldn’t be a romantic classic without Sam playing “As Time Goes By.”

Some songs are so iconic they inspired the naming of a film. “9 to 5” and “The Rose” are two examples as are “American Pie,” “Pretty Woman,” “Stand By Me,” “Dazed and Confused” and “Valley Girl.” John Cusack holding a boom box over his head to play Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” in Say Anything (1989) is an enduring romantic film image. “Bohemian Rhapsody” was used for comic effect in Wayne’s World (1992) while Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock and Roll” in Risky Business (1983) helped Tom Cruise become a star.

Most modern directors rely on music supervisors though a few have become music taste-making masters. Quentin Tarantino’s choices are stellar. From the ear-slicing scene in Reservoir Dogs paired with the song “Stuck in the Middle of You” to Dick Dale’s guitar theme “Misirlou” over the opening credits in Pulp Fiction, Tarantino spends hundreds of hours searching for the perfect tune.

Tarantino shared his process for selecting movie music. “One of the things I do when I’m writing a movie or when I have an idea for a film is I go through my record collection and just start playing songs, trying to find the personality of the movie, find the spirit of the movie… then, ‘boom,’ eventually I’ll hit one, two or three songs, or one song in particular, ‘Oh, this will be a great opening credit song.’”

Wes Anderson’s melancholy comedies rely on ballads by musical depressives like Elliott Smith, Nico, Nick Drake or Emitt Rhodes. In The Life Aquatic, Anderson cast Brazilian singer Seu Jorge as a boat crewmember who sings David Bowie covers in Portuguese. The scenes are bizarre and beautiful leading viewers to say, “That’s so Wes Anderson.”

Director Michael Mann loves picking music for his movies though his choices are often over the top. His use of Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” in the serial killer film Manhunter is so conspicuous, it’s laughable.  Another blatant selection is James Cameron’s use of the track “Bad to the Bone” to introduce Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator 2. The song is so corny, it destroys any menace the scene was meant to convey.


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