Music in Film
The soundtrack can make or break a movie. On the surface, this can appear superficial, as all of the acting, filming and directing means nothing unless the right piece of audio is played over the top of it.
When you watch a film, you take in what you see, and you take in what you hear. The audio makes a huge difference to a scene, which is how some directors have become renowned for their use of music in their films.
Martin Scorsese, particularly in his masterpiece Goodfellas, uses songs to set each and every one of his scenes. He will play a piece of music that fulfils two purposes. It must fit the era and the lyrics must have some relevance to the scene.
Take the iconic tracking shot, where Henry and Karen walk through the Copacabana. “And Then He Kissed Me” is the backing song, and it was clearly chosen for its happy melody and lyrics that summarise the couple’s relationship so far. The scene doesn’t show the pair kiss, it isn’t too on the nose, but it is the perfect selection for the scene, and has gone down as one of the most artistic moments in Scorsese’s career.
Compare this, then, to when “London Calling” is played in Atomic Blonde, Die Another Day, Friends or Get Him to the Greek. What does this achieve? What is original, iconic or innovative about the use of this song in these films? More importantly, what do the scenes in which London Calling is played have in common in each film?
The main character has gone to London. The song, a very good song, has become a cliché in cinema. Much like characters looking away pensively after someone got angry with them, some movies use music that doesn’t so much as set the scene, but shoves the scene down the audience’ face, leaving no room for intrigue or interest.
There are some songs that, if played, damages the movie’s status as an artistic endeavour. This isn’t to say that films like Atomic Blonde or Die Another Day are bad, more that the director and creators are relying on the creativity of The Clash, rather than their own ingenuity to inform the audience that the characters are in London.
This was one of the major complaints levelled at Suicide Squad, as the DC disappointment over relied on pop songs and great music to give the audience a good time, rather than through the use of character development and writing.
As the movie moves towards Alabama, “Sweet Home Alabama” is the tune. Why? This does very little for the progression of the movie, but will undoubtedly have fans tapping their feet and enjoying the scene, because of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s memorable guitar intro.
This is the biggest audio crime committed in movies. Using a popular song to introduce a scene, that has little to no impact on the movie itself, but using the reputation of the song to keep the fans happy.
You wouldn’t steal a song…
The other major crime is movies using a song, that has been used by another film for a similar scene. Take Platoon. A classic Vietnam war movie, in which Charlie Sheen wrestles his way through war, occasionally dabbling in drugs and other mischief.
In these Vietnam drug scenes, the excellent “White Rabbit” is the backing music, the perfect track to describe a young man’s introduction to drugs, falling down the “rabbit hole”, describing the lack of control that those young men in Vietnam had in the 60s and 70s.
Contrast that to the use of “White Rabbit” in the 2017 movie, Kong: Skull Island. Here, as the main characters rustle together a crew to go to Skull Island, they meet Tom Hiddleston in a bar in Vietnam. And, shock of shocks, the background music is “White Rabbit”.
This inclusion adds little to the scene, but it is clear that it was chosen based on its similarity to (the vastly superior) Platoon. Using the song invokes memories of the 1986 movie, making people feel more emotionally connecting to an excruciatingly one-dimensional scene in Kong.
Music is crucial for the success of a movie. But films that use a modern-day pop song, a timeless classic or music shamelessly nabbed from a (better) movie, it should set off alarm bells, that it might not be as creative, and original, as you might think.
Oh, and if a trailer uses a song that you love, don’t go and watch the film. You will be disappointed.