Great music, great movies — like beer and pizza, they’re an accidental combination that, when brought together, not only complement each other but actually heighten the overall experience and make the other better as a result.
There are moments in movies that, due to the director’s choice in music, become all the more memorable. An indelible connection — every time I hear a song connected to a great movie moment, I can’t help but recall the scene. Conversely, if a particular movie moment comes up in conversation, it’s the song that first comes to mind, forever tied to the movie scene.
To start this list (in no particular order), it seems appropriate to mention “Misirlou” by Dick Dale and the Del Tones. Following the opening robbery scene in “Pulp Fiction” and blasting over the credits, the song jolts the audience and, with its middle-eastern structure (the song is actually a whacked-out surf cover of a 1940s Turkish pop hit), announces what’s about to unfold on the screen. If you’ve ever surfed, you know riding a wave involves the kind of crazy switchbacks and turns that director Quentin Tarantino employs in the structure of his film.
Another Tarantino scene that will forever be tied to a song, involves the notorious ear scene in “Reservoir Dogs.” As Mr. Blonde slices the ear off a captive cop and douses his victim with gasoline, “Stuck in the Middle,” by Stealers Wheel, plays in the background. Now, I can’t hear the song without wincing a bit and touching my ear.
As incredible as Tarantino is at selecting music for his soundtracks (his taste in music appears to be as obscure and offbeat as his taste in movies), director Martin Scorsese is positively the master. From the use of Mott the Hoople’s “All the Way From Memphis” in “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” to “I’m Shipping Up to Boston” by The Dropkick Murphys at the opening of “The Departed,” Scorsese not only exhibits an amazing eclecticism in his taste in music but, in the use of his use of that music, shows himself as one of the greatest directors of all time.
However, two (among so many) moments stand out for me in his films. During the bachelor party scene in “Mean Streets,” a drunken Charlie (Harvey Keitel) stumbles through the bar to the discombobulated strains of “Rubber Biscuit” by The Chips. Scorsese’s use of the song along with the reeling, careening hand-held camera perfectly captures Charlie’s unsteady gait and booze-clouded mind.
Likewise, as a cocaine-addled Henry (Ray Liotta) allows his paranoia and greed to rule him in the final third of “GoodFellas,” Harry Nilsson’s “Jump Into the Fire” pounds out on the soundtrack. Structurally brilliant, Scorsese intensifies that portion of the film, perfectly capturing the frantic pace of a coke binge, while the chaotic rhythm of Nilsson’s song illustrates the confused and neurotic state of Henry’s mind.
Director Jonathan Demme also has an uncanny knack for picking the perfect song for his movies. Notable though “Something Wild,” “Philadelphia” and “Rachel Getting Married” are for their soundtracks, the one scene that is forever tied to a song is when, in “Silence of the Lambs,” the crazed villain Buffalo Bill primps and poses before a mirror, dancing to “Goodbye Horses,” by Q Lazzarus. Now a goth classic, the song held no particular notoriety until its inclusion in one of the creepiest movies ever made — and now, forever tied to the gyrations of a psycho killer — giving it creepy connotations.
No less scary is the most memorable “Trainspotting” heroin-shooting scene when Renton (Ewan McGregor) injects the drug and then literally sinks deeply into the carpet. Suddenly snatched back from an overdose by hospital staff, the spot-on selection Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” not only captures Renton’s unwavering devotion to heroin but also the utter hopelessness of addiction. With lyrics such as, “You made me forget myself/I thought I was/someone else, someone good,” and the refrain of, “You just keep me hanging on,” Reed’s lyrics manage to convey the bliss of the high and the slavery to the substance.
After Edward Norton and Brad Pitt connect as the movie “Fight Club” gets rolling, “Goin’ Out West” by Tom Waits blasts out on the soundtrack and hits us like a full fist in the face. A paean to pathetic and pathological puffed up machismo, the song screams with the kind of poisonous rage that leads boys to curl up their fists in bars and beat up on one another.
Apparently, the power of the moment on film is partially what makes the song memorable. The scarier or more intense, the more it ties the accompanying song to the scene. Nonetheless, whimsey is not immune to making a great movie moment. The dinner scene in “Beetlejuice” is a perfect example, as various guests are manipulated into performing Harry Belafonte’s “Banana Boat” (aka “Day-O”) to hilarious results. The vision of those dinner guests being danced like marionettes is inescapable any time I hear “Day-O!”.
Memorable on its own, “Louie, Louie” by the Kingsmen will nonetheless be forever connected to a drunken John Belushi staggering and slurring lyrics during the toga party scene in “Animal House.” The movie (which unfortunately spawned a slew of horrendous copycats) led to a resurgence of popularity for the song, a garage rock classic — a very good thing.
Finally, “The End” by The Doors will always bring to mind the crescendo that marks the final scene of Francis Ford Coppola’s classic, “Apocalypse Now.” Eleven minutes of psychotic rambling, the song unwaveringly paints an impressionistic picture of the insanity of war (through calling on the Oedipus myth), a perfect summation of Coppola’s take on Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.”