Music meets film. Two of my very favorite things and the intersection where they meet. For this cinephile, the importance of music in film cannot be overstated. Often, the perfect pop song or breathtaking original score can elicit the appropriate emotional response from the audience – sometimes more than what’s being said or how the camera moves. Below are my favorite moments in film highlighted by the music utilized. The list is in no particular order.
The Fatal Shower: Bernard Herrmann’s original score
I thought it best to start this list with perhaps one of the most obvious choices. It’s difficult to divorce this famous scene (and the entire film for that matter) from the horrifying music that accompanies it. Everyone from your children who have seen Finding Nemo to your grandparents who watched in horror as Janet Leigh’s character died mid-film is familiar with the anxiety-producing repetition of echoing, but brief strings screeching in terror. Though Hitchcock is rightly considered the master of suspense, much of that credit is owed to film composer Bernard Herrmann. He brilliantly (though also somewhat pragmatically) employed only a string section to achieve that urgent icy sound that soundtracked one of the most infamous deaths in film history. Cinematic history wouldn’t be the same without Hitchcock’s Psycho, and Psycho wouldn’t be the same without that shower scene, and that shower scene wouldn’t be the same without Herrmann’s most spectacular contribution.
In the Mood for Love
Dinner for Two, Alone: “Yumeji’s Theme” by Shigeru Umebayashi /
The Secret: “Angkor Wat Theme” by Michael Galasso
As always, I tend to break my own rules. This spot actually consists of two moments from the same film. The juxtaposition of the scenes is breathtakingly beautiful. For the better part of In the Mood for Love we repeatedly hear Shigeru Umebayashi’s piece entitled “Yumeji’s Theme” (originally composed for the Japanese film Yumeji). It beautifully soundtracks the mundane actions of the two forlorn protagonists. In the beginning, it represents their distance as strangers. Toward the end, it becomes the mournful theme of forbidden love. Brief bursts of strings are interwoven with a more complex solo string part. The effect of this piece is most poignant in an early scene where Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan separately go out for noodles at a nearby stand. They come alone and leave to dine alone, but that heartbreaking theme (and that brilliant slow motion camera) tie them together in an unmistakable way.
At the very end of the film, then, there is a significant shift in story and in music. Alas, the lovers have given up any hope of ever being together, and Mr. Chow unexpectedly travels to Cambodia to whisper the secret of his undying love for Mrs. Chan into a hole in a temple wall where it will stay hidden forever. The brief bursts of strings from “Yumeji’s Theme” have been replaced by a repeated deep one-string pick interwoven now with several string instruments mourning the unforgotten lost love. The pace of Michael Galasso’s “Angkor Wat Theme” is much slower than Umebayashi’s, subverting the sensuality of that abandoned love. There was always a bit of hope for Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan while “Yumeji’s Theme” soundtracked their love; Galasso’s piece signifies that that era has passed, there is no hope left for that story. Paired together, these two pieces effectively tell the magnificent story of In the Mood for Love. Wong Kar-wai always brilliantly employs music in his films, and his magnum opus is no exception.
There Will Be Blood
An Ocean of Oil: “Convergence” by Jonny Greenwood
For a film that dazzles with its jaw-dropping mise-en-scène, director Paul Thomas Anderson did have one impeccable scene that stood out amongst the rest. Determined Daniel Plainview has already ravaged the small town of Little Boston on his quest for capital domination, but his hard work finally pays off (and completes his transformation into deranged madman) when his primary oil derrick bursts into flames after releasing a glimpse of the potential held underground. The scene is expertly executed on its visual merits alone, but the addition of Jonny Greenwood’s composition “Convergence” quadruples the intensity. Made up of not much more than a rhythmic progression of percussion, “Convergence” (originally composed for the film Bodysong) terrorizes our anxiety as it builds. It’s unrelenting even after H.W. has been rescued from the wreckage and after the sun rises. Greenwood’s score for the film as a whole is impressive, but nothing touches the emotional wallop of wisely using his existing piece from Bodysong.
The New World
Two Worlds Collide: “Das Rheingold: Vorspiel” by Richard Wagner
Instead of choosing to introduce his characters separately, director Terrence Malick brilliantly throws us into the midst of one of American history’s most significant meetings. To soundtrack this momentous collision of cultures, Malick employs Richard Wagner’s famous “Vorspiel” from his opera “Das Rheingold.” The quiet buildup of that gentle hum of muffled horns serves to build our anxious expectation as it’s eventually punctured by a beautiful, sweeping string arrangement. Both sides hardly know what to expect as those great ships sail into harbor. The natives could never have anticipated that the docking of those ships would lead to the end of their way of life as they knew it. And, the foreigners could never have expected the hardships to follow as they attempted to conquer an unfamiliar land. Malick is concerned with none of this during his exquisitely shot opening. Instead, he aims (as per usual) for a deep sense of wonder. That wonder and awe (magnificently achieved) is only enhanced by the prelude to one of Wagner’s most famous operas. The piece is utilized twice more over the course of the film: once while John Smith begins to see the world through the eyes of Pocahontas, and finally as Pocahontas (now Rebecca) begins to the see the world through the eyes of her English husband (again, utilized to signify wonder). This final moment is possibly the most poignant/beautiful use of Wagner’s “Vorspiel,” but the placement of the composition at the film’s introduction is the most powerful.
2001: A Space Odyssey
The Cosmic Waltz: “The Blue Danube” by Johann Strauss
Though the various uses of Richard Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra” throughout Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi masterpiece (particularly that opening shot of the earth eclipsing the sun) are more easily recognizable today, a different Strauss’ famous composition is employed perfectly in another memorable scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey. After the film makes the jump from prehistoric earth to the future of an inhabited outer space, one of the first images we see is of a spinning space station orbiting the planet. It is a grandiose image, but Kubrick isn’t interested in the audience’s awe. Instead of employing bombastic horns to highlight the epic nature of the universe (as countless filmmakers since have chosen to do), Kubrick utilizes Johann Strauss’ classic waltz “The Blue Danube” to complement his image. As the space station elegantly twirls away from the camera, a small spaceship slowly floats into the shot presumably headed toward the station. Shortly thereafter, it’s apparent that these two vessels are engaged in a graceful, cosmic dance. As the ship prepares to dock, the waltz reaches its climax, but nothing out of the ordinary has happened. Humankind has mastered navigating that final frontier (or so we think until the film’s second half), and docking spaceships on moving stations has become commonplace for space travel just as Strauss’ piece has become standard for the waltz. It’s a remarkable scene and one that boasts of Kubrick’s supremely unique vision. The director’s lengthy film is short on words, heavy on visual appeal, and its most visually striking scenes are inextricably tied to the music he chose to accompany them.
The Royal Tenenbaums
Margot Meets Richie: “These Days” by Nico
Director Wes Anderson has been known for masterfully utilizing music in his films. Nowhere is this best represented than in his magnum opus The Royal Tenenbaums. That film is full of spectacular music moments from the instrumental “Hey Jude” intro to the grandfather/grandsons antics set to Paul Simon’s “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” to the poignant use of Elliott Smith’s “Needle in the Hay” as one character attempts suicide. But, nowhere is his knack for musical genius more evident than when he uses Nico’s cover of “These Days” as Margot gets off the bus to meet her brother Richie who’s been away for over a year. The effect is magnificent. Margot walks in slow motion to the lovely strum of the song’s intro. An elated smile (something we’ve yet to see from her character) appears as Nico’s distinctly deep voice begins to sing. The camera stays on Margot as her hair blows wistfully in the wind. It cuts to Richie waiting expressionless hidden behind a bushy beard and large sunglasses. The song speaks for the unspoken feelings the “siblings” share. It’s emotional, cleverly shot, and Anderson’s most effective use of music in film.
Lost in Translation
The Whisper: “Just Like Honey” by The Jesus and Mary Chain
Not only is “Just Like Honey” one of my absolute favorite songs, it also soundtracks one of the most unforgettable scenes from an equally memorable film. Sophia Coppola’s poignant film chronicles the pangs of physical and emotional isolation of two individuals stationed in the great city of Tokyo for differing reasons. Over the course of the film, Bob and Charlotte become unlikely companions bonding over their shared perpetual state of being (insert any adverb) lost. At film’s end, Bob knows that he must return home to his family. He has already tested the limits of their unexpected bond by sleeping with the hotel’s lounge singer, and now it seems he’s set to break Charlotte’s heart again by leaving. They share an awkward goodbye at the hotel, and Bob dutifully gets into the taxi that will take him to the airport. En route, he somewhat serendipitously (given the size of Tokyo) sees her again amidst the throng of passers-by. He stops the cab and runs to her. They embrace once more, and he comforts her first with a paternal pat on the head and then whispers something into her ear. We’re never privy to what he whispers. Is it a promise? An apology? An encouragement? Tears fill Charlotte’s eyes, but she pulls away just the same. After they kiss, Bob walks away toward his taxi as the famous drum roll of “Just Like Honey” begins. He turns to face her while walking backwards maintaining a smile the whole time. She smiles back. Bob reenters the cab with a much more confident expression – there’s closure. The taxi pulls away, and we are treated to several tracking shots of Tokyo’s urban sprawl that came to represent the pair’s loneliness all backed by the lovely, echoey reverb of the Jesus and Mary Chain’s most famous song. The track boasts of a beautiful wall of sound that perfectly soundtracks the unique affection the protagonists share as well as the distance that will keep them apart. Bob and Charlotte were never lovers, but they discovered that once-in-a-lifetime soul connection with each other on their paths toward finding themselves.
La vie de banlieue: “Nique la Police” by DJ Cut Killer
Mathieu Kassovitz’s masterful film La haine is full of stark, yet powerful imagery. In one particular scene, an impeccable shot is paired with some fairly unexpected, but perfectly complementary music. After Hubert gets high by himself in his room, he hears the familiar shouts of his friends below. He peers out his window and witnesses a noisy crowd as Paris’ streetwise youth congregate in a deteriorating neighborhood. The camera tilts upward to reveal a DJ (an appearance by actual DJ Cut Killer) fidgeting with a large speaker through an apartment window. We are then taken inside the DJ’s room as he begins to spin a couple turntables presumably as a warm-up. He cracks his fingers and wipes his face with his hands in preparation. Controlled by his swift finger strokes, the speakers blast an expertly realized mash-up of discordant hip hop songs including KRS-One’s “Sound of da Police,” Biggie’s “Machine Gun Funk,” and N.W.A’s “Fuck tha Police.” It’s the perfect blend of rebellious songs for a film that paints the police in an unfavorable light. The camera soon leaves the DJ’s apartment, and we witness an aerial view of the neighborhood square below. After a few seconds, something unexpected hits our ears. The DJ has mixed Édith Piaf’s “Non je ne regrette rien” into his mash-up. The classic French singer’s raspy lament punctures the forceful ruckus of the DJ’s mix. The camera continues to pan the area until the expanse of the entire banlieue is in view. It’s a brilliant collision of sounds: the authority-bashing beats indicative of the forgotten streets of Paris versus the refined quality of Piaf’s staple, symbolic of a romanticized (yet standard) version of that famous city. It encapsulates the film’s overall theme in one brief, impressive scene.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
The Standoff: “The Ecstasy of Gold” by Ennio Morricone
Ennio Morricone is Europe’s John Williams. He’s contributed original compositions to seemingly countless films, and while each one is distinct, each also has a unique Morricone sound to it. His most famous contribution to the world of cinema remains that unconventional yodeling theme he wrote for Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. After several collaborations with Leone, it seems Morricone was tailor-made to soundtrack westerns. In his most accomplished piece written for that film (not the famous theme), “The Ecstasy of Gold,” he manages to capture the essence of the romanticized American West. Accompanying the visual of Tuco greedily searching the cemetery for buried treasure leading up to the much-anticipated standoff between the good, the bad, and the ugly, his piece is the sound of notorious evildoers, vigilante justice, and the adventurous untamed west. A chorus of frantic singers wails as a percussive march and triumphant strings lead toward the film’s climactic showdown. The camera races around in circles blurring the image of the desolate cemetery until Tuco (and the camera) land on that sought after grave. Morricone’s composition brought our favorite trio together and helped ratchet up anticipation for the film’s most memorable scene.
Opening Credits: “Pather Panchali Theme” by Ravi Shankar
Though there is nothing truly significant about the opening title cards to Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali, it boasts of exquisite music from one of the world’s greatest musicians. Ravi Shankar had been recording traditional ragas for some time before the release of Ray’s film in 1955, but his original score for Pather Panchali was one of his first ventures into film and to this day his finest. Nothing could have set the stage for that perfect coming-of-age tale better than Shankar’s buoyant sitar playing. Wisely, Shankar moved away from the sprawling complexities of traditional ragas and opted for lighter fare, no less accomplished and several times more emotionally effective. The impact of his score can be felt throughout the entire film, but during the opening credits, his music is center stage and the perfect introduction to the beautiful, heartbreaking film that follows.
Welcome to Earth: “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” by Michael Crawford
Several of Pixar’s films feature fantastic original scores (most notably those composed by either Thomas Newman or Michael Giacchino). Andrew Stanton’s WALL*E is no exception. Newman’s score is beautiful and fittingly atmospheric. However, the repeated use of two mid-century pop songs (Louis Armstrong’s version of Édith Piaf’s “La Vie en rose” and “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” from the musical Hello Dolly! sung by Michael Crawford) represent the best uses of music in that delightful film. In fact, Stanton wisely chooses to begin WALL*E with the latter song. The audience is thrust into outer space as Crawford begins singing, “Out there, there’s a world outside of Yonkers…” as we are treated to several still shots of the infinite expanse. It’s a welcome, yet unusual choice for a film set far into the future. But, the irony sets in as the camera lingers on a brown-tinted earth before rapidly zooming in to reveal an atmosphere polluted with useless satellites. Once the atmosphere’s been breached, we see silhouettes of enormous towers in precise rows through the smog. Upon closer inspection, we find that they are made of cubes of trash. A few more shots of these towering trash heaps, as well as yet-to-be-organized mounds, reveal the ugly state of our planet and no trace of human or plant life in sight before “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” fades into Newman’s score. The scene is nothing short of brilliant. And, the effect is crucial: as citizens of this planet, we pine for the glorious nightlife bathed in romantic starlight that Crawford sings about. In this wasteland, the beauty we’re used to is nowhere to be found. It’s a hefty, but narratively important, introduction to a film that gently rebukes mankind’s irresponsibility with regards to care-taking this world.
In a Galaxy Far, Far Away: “Star Wars (Main Theme)” by John Williams
I thought it only fitting to end this list with another obvious, yet no less important choice. John Williams remains the undisputed master of film scores. The man has built a career on memorable musical motifs that often transcend the films that they accompany – every adventure conjures the theme to Raiders of the Lost Ark, reading the Harry Potter series makes anyone whistle the tune of “Hedwig’s Theme,” and every ocean swim is tainted by the official sound of a menacing shark. But, Williams’ grandest and most accomplished moment didn’t soundtrack a startling climax – instead, it marked the most famous prologue in film history. Before Vader infamously hijacked Princess Leia’s spaceship, the world was introduced to George Lucas’ Star Wars via unconventional crawling text that brought viewers up to speed on the galaxy’s current events. The decision may have been rather uninspired if Lucas had not chosen to soundtrack that now-legendary crawl with Williams’ magnificent theme. From that first burst of horns from a full orchestra as the title “Star Wars” filled the entire screen to the open-ended ellipsis, that expertly soundtracked title sequence had one purpose: to heighten adrenaline as one of cinema’s most famous fantasies began. It set the pace for the intergalactic epic that followed and went on to define the fruitful career of one of Hollywood’s premier composers. It stands as one of the finest moments of that beautiful intersection of music and film.