Music is one of the most crucial components of any movie. The soundtrack to a film helps set the tone of each scene, heightening the emotion portrayed on screen, or subtly contrasting the film’s content to bring new meanings to an ostensibly straight-forward event. Even “silent” films usually had a musical soundtrack, since the score can communicate just as much, if not more, than the dialogue of a movie.
The 4 Most Effective Uses Of Music In Movies:
Warning: Spoilers Ahead
1. “The Times They Are A-Changing'” – Watchmen, Opening Credits
Arguably the richest and most informative opening credits sequence in all of cinema, I could write an entire book on the first 5 minutes of Watchmen. The film opens with a quick overview of the 20+ years leading up to main time-period of the movie. We touch on the major historical events of the 40s-60s, as altered in this parallel universe populated by superheroes. Each frame not only details characters and historical events, but is replete with symbolism from other sources as diverse as Batman comic books, the iconic Kissing Sailor photograph, and Leonardo DaVinci’s Last Supper.
Bob Dylan’s song “The Times They Are A-Changing” is a perfect choice to play throughout, highlighting not only the vast political and cultural shifts of that era, but also the impact of superheroes in a normal world, and the corruption of the superhero culture from the heyday of WWll triumph to the divorce, abuse, retirement, incarceration, and death that plagues many of the seemingly untouchable men and women of steel. Because Bob Dylan’s song was politically charged to begin with, it is a strong accompaniment to scenes like the slaughter of peaceful protesters, and it humanizes the superheroes as the lyrics allow us to identify with the universal mortal discomfort with inevitable change.
2. “In The House, In A Heartbeat” – 28 Days Later, Jim’s Rampage
This song is one of the best examples of an audio-induced emotional build that climaxes with the action. It starts out very slow and soft, and gradually grows louder and more intense with its inexorable beat that peaks with the most furious parts of Jim’s rampage. For those who haven’t seen this movie in a while, mild-mannered delivery boy Jim (Cillian Murphy) wakes up in the middle of a zombie apocalypse. His companions, romantic interest Selena and underage Hannah, are captured by soldiers intent on gang rape. Jim escapes execution, and for a moment we think he might leave the girls to their fate, because what can one person do against a cavalcade of highly armed soldiers? Instead, Jim releases a zombie inside their compound and all hell breaks loose.
The music slow burns as the zombie begins attacking soldiers, and begins to peak as the formerly timid Jim stabs the cook right in the guts. We realize that Jim is not planning a subtle rescue, but rather a full berserker smash and grab. The beat pauses momentarily as a heavily drugged Hannah hides behind a mirror, inches away from a slavering zombie, then reaches its full crescendo as Jim brutally slaughters Selena’s would-be attacker. Selena, believing Jim’s rage to be zombie-induced, grabs a machete, and the final pounding beat climaxes as swings the blade at Jim’s throat. She said she would kill him in a heartbeat if he ever became infected. She stops and the music stops. She can’t kill him because she loves him. Jim says, “That was longer than a heartbeat.” Perfect emotional fulfillment of the viewer’s desire for revenge and the resolution of their relationship, all in one 5-minute music-driven masterstroke.
3. “Stuck In The Middle With You” – Reservoir Dogs, Ear-Cutting Scene
This scene is an example of what I was talking about above, where the music in a scene contrasts so painfully with the content that we’re forced to experience the action in a whole new way. In this particular part of the movie, Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen), a criminal in the midst of a jewel heist, has captured a police officer. Seeking information on a potential set-up, he ties up the officer and prepares to torture him. Mr. Blonde begins his interrogation by saying, “I don’t give a $&%* what you know or don’t know, I’m going to torture you anyway. It’s amusing to me to torture a cop. You can say anything you want, because I’ve heard it all before. All you can do is pray for a quick death, which you ain’t going to get.” Some of the most chilling words imaginable, but Mr. Blonde follows this up with the query, “You ever listen to K-Billy’s Super Sounds Of The 70s? It’s my personal favorite.” He flips through the radio stations, until he finds what he’s looking for: “Stuck in The Middle With You”, by Stealer’s Wheel.
The mellow, retro strains of the song fill the abandoned warehouse, and the torturer starts doing this grandpa-esque shuffle dance as he sings along to the song. He capers around, the music and the dancing in complete opposition to his sociopathic menace, then he grabs the police officer by the face, slashes his cheek, and cuts off his ear. The distinctive and jarring impact of the song made this the most iconic scene in Tarantino’s cult classic, and sparked renewed and lasting interest in the song that peaked at #6 on the billboards in 1973.
4. “Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone” – Notting Hill, Montage Of Seasonal Sorrow
In case you thought the only movies I enjoy are blood soaked and adrenaline-inducing, I submit my final entry, late 90’s rom-com Notting Hill. Romantic movies are famous for their falling in love montages, and only slightly less so for their montages of heartbroken sorrow. I believe that “Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone” is the accompaniment to the absolutely finest example of the latter. After being dumped by mega-superstar Anna Scott (Julia Roberts), Will Thacker (Hugh Grant) takes a stroll down iconic London street Portabello Road. Will walks through time and seasons, beginning in summer. He passes a pregnant lady and his sister’s new boyfriend, then strolls through autumn and winter, the depths of his despair simultaneous with the breaking point in his sister’s relationship. He passes the lovers final break-up as spring dawns. The pregnant lady is now a new mother with a child, and Will takes off his jacket and throws it over his shoulder. The sun is out and he is finally starting coming out of his tri-season depression.
The single continual shot is a nifty visual trick. The lyrics of Bill Wither’s “Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone” express both romantic sorrow and a nod to weather patterns that mirror Will’s moods. It’s a unique and creative take on the classic shots of the moping, unwashed dumpee, and the succinct stroll down the street shows Will’s return to his staid routine after the whirlwind of his celebrity courtship. The quality of the song and the cleanness of the scene make this the perfect rom-com montage.