Free Film School #36: Why Soundtracks Matter

The surprisingly short history of pop music in the movies, and how hit tunes make or break a scene.

Witney Seiboldby Witney Seibold

Sit down, younglings. Stop talking. Calm your stirring souls and, as best as you can muster, silence your ever turbulent thoughts. Open your mind to the possibilities of the universe. It's time to delve deep into another chapter of CraveOnline's Free Film School, a school that will not only take care of all your base, venal desires, but will build your mind into a higher energy, and put you on the path to spiritual oneness and intellectual enlightenment. Guaranteed. If you are not existing on a higher plane within three or four weeks of this course, you will receive quadruple your money back.

This week, we'll be discussing something that seems to be, as of this writing, in a strange state of flux. We're going to be talking about the state of pop music, and how pop songs are used in film. Yes, we'll be delving into the vast and varied career of the Music Supervisor, and examining how pop music and feature films often marry.

The Music Supervisor, a credit you may have noticed, is the person selected to choose the exact pop songs that go into a film's soundtrack. They don't compose the score, mind you. They're the ones who are scouring record stores, making mix tapes, and proposing various already-recorded pop tunes to tie in with the film. The director is rarely the one to select a pop song for a particular moment. Occasionally a particular song will be written into a screenplay, but, for the most part, pop songs are selected by a music-savvy audiophile who knows pop music well and knows what moods can be conveyed by certain hits. Anyone who has ever made a mix tape for a sweetheart or a friend knows the delicate balance involved. You can't include too many tracks by a single artist, for one. Songs that sound similar shouldn't be too closely put together. If it's a mix tape for a prospective lover, you don't want to put all the love songs right up front. The Music Supervisor has probably made several mix tapes in their lives, and have now put that skill to good use assembling film soundtracks.

Some directors are the savvy ones who get to select the songs themselves, and, indeed, will insist on certain pop songs. Cameron Crowe is notorious for his good taste in music, and how he uses pop songs to shape the drama. Martin Scorsese knows how to use period rock to accentuate the history of a scene (how many times has he used The Rolling Stones' “Gimme Shelter” in a film?). A good music supervisor will see a film, recognize how the characters are hearing the world around them, and try to extrapolate what kind of pop hits might reflect what they're feeling. But not too obviously. If a character is looking in a mirror, thinking about how they want to change the world, and Michael Jackson's “Man in the Mirror” comes on the soundtrack… well, that's way too on the nose. Many people criticized the much-anticipated-and-now-rarely-talked-about Watchmen for having some really obvious and recognizable hits on the soundtrack. I, for one, would like to call a moratorium on use of Leonard Cohen's “Hallelujah” in any film for any reason. Same with Etta James' “At Last.” And, after The Big Chill, pretty much any mildly recognizable Motown hit is now out.

Anyone who grew up during the 1990s remembers the time when the motion picture soundtrack album was a hugely dominant force in the commercial world. A film could often count on recouping much of its finances through sales of the soundtrack record. Movies seemed a bit savvier about tapping into the cultural zeitgeist using rock 'n' roll and hip-hop of the day. Remember that the 1990s were a hugely diverse time for popular music. We saw the meteoric rise of hip hop and rap. There was hard rock. There was the growing tide of grunge rock. Electronica and house music began to appear in earnest. MTV was actually culturally relevant, and moved a lot of little-known pop bands into the foreground. Goth clubs started to open. It seemed like there was an egalitarian approach to both the mainstream and the underground. But there was still room for ultra-hip boy band bubblegum, and sexed-up teen idols. Heck, even swing music had a brief moment in the sun. Remember when you could turn on a pop station and hear Big Bad Voodoo Daddy? I remember those days with fondness.

It was during this time that the motion picture soundtrack record reigned supreme. Some '90s films had great soundtracks which everyone in my peer group owned. Pulp Fiction was well circulated. Wayne's World helped to revive Queen. Scream stirred up horror movies, and sold a bunch of records. Do the Right Thing made sure that white people listened to at least a little Public Enemy. The soundtracks to Lost Highway and Natural Born Killers, indeed, were elaborate expressionistic footnotes to the films themselves, and served to make the films more complex. Some films had such grand soundtrack records that they were released in several volumes. Hackers, Trainspotting, and Boogie Nights come to mind. Even lesser films had popular soundtracks. Films like The Crow: City of Angels, Godzilla, Dangerous Minds, and Sunset Park are only notable for their great music. Indeed, the soundtrack record had become to ubiquitous, a lot of cynicism began to arise on the matter; people felt that a film became an elaborate way to market a record. In some cases, I think they may have been right.

The '90s weren't the only time for hit soundtracks, though. Some movies had a great influence on the world of cinema, but had an even greater influence on the landscape of music. 1977 saw the release of Saturday Night Fever, a kind of dark movie about a cocky Guido trying to find his way in the world, and only experiencing relief and joy on the dance floors of local nightclubs. Thanks to this movie, and thanks to its soundtrack, the dance craze in the U.S. experienced a boom, and disco became – however briefly – a dominant musical form. This was before, mind you, the disco backlash of the 1980s. 1972 saw the release of the blaxploitation classic Superfly. Few people remember the film itself very well, but almost anyone can hum a few bars of “Pusherman.” Indeed, the Superfly soundtrack had more to do with the transfer of the black experience onto the screen than the actual film did.

To be fair, though, the songs in Superfly, by Curtis Mayfield, were composed originally for the film. I was trying to cleave closer to films that used extant pop hits for cinematic purposes. One of the better ones: 1984's Repo Man. Punk and odd and amazing.

Here's a good film school term: Diegesis. Diegesis is an ancient term that refers to the actual telling of a story (as  opposed to mimesis, which is the showing of a story). Diegesis is the world in which the drama takes place. Of the fiction. Hence, diegetic music would be music that takes place naturally within the drama, i.e.; what the characters are listening to on the radio within a scene. Non-diegetic music would be the film's score, or other soundtrack elements that exist only for the audience. The thing that the characters cannot hear. Whip out the word diegesis in front of a date, and they will begin making out with you immediately. If you use it in a debate, for or against anything, you win.

In more recent times, the soundtrack record has sort of fallen out of favor. Sure, you'll occasionally find a surprisingly thoughtful compilation, like in the Twilight movies, but few seem to buy soundtracks anymore. Indeed, few teenagers seem to actually buy records anymore. Pop music is, it could be argued, in kind of a slump right now. Record stores have been closing, pop music has moved online, and kids just aren't using music to define themselves anymore. The money that once when into building a record collection is now going into video games and consumer electronics. In a state such as this, I think, the music supervisor has an even more important job. They are not only using their musical savvy to define a certain film, but they could be the only ones keeping people abreast of what's available. The job has become a cultural fight.


But let's get back to actual song selection. I will ask you this, my students: How important is it to have pop music in a film? Well, certainly a film can get by without having any pop hits. War Horse didn't have any pop music in it (although a soulful version of “Wild Horses” would have been cool). But a single piece of music can say so much about what you're seeing. It can establish a time frame, a mood, a tone, and even thematic elements in a few seconds. Watch the first scene of The Departed. Scorsese is using “Gimme Shelter” again, yes, but the desperate wailing, the year it was written, and the single shot of Boston in the 1960s say exactly where we are and what we're feeling. This is a time of turbulence, and violent social revolution has crept into the white suburbs of lower-class Boston. This is where change will take place. This is where, perhaps, crimes will be committed.

Watch the sweet twenty-something romance Adventureland. This is a film that seems to know how people talk about music, and how pop music can serve a function in our everyday emotional development. These people talk about music they way real people talk about music. This is a film that doesn't use a Hüsker Dü t-shirt as a mere costume, but seems to intuit its significance. Same with Cameron Crowe's similarly themed Singles. That film follows several people living in Seattle in the 1990s. They are in the crux of most of the hip grunge music, and react accordingly. They will listen to music, and sort of allow the general mood of the music of the time to aid in their direction. In a film like Singles, the pop tunes don't just dictate the mood of the scene, but seem to be subtly enforcing the characters' actions and personalities.

Here are people who realize that what they listen to can reflect on their character. Indeed, that sort of dynamic is used all the time in films. Think of some sort of badass action movie. Let's look at last year's Drive Angry. When we see Nicolas Cage, he's driving a muscle car, but, more importantly, he's listening to noisy AC/DC-like gutbucket metal. What does that music say about him? That he's a leather-wearing badass. The music invokes a whole person in our minds. Ditto with The Expendables. These are guys whose film contains songs by bands like Mountain, and other 1970s hard rock anthem-writers. The noisy, energetic music encourages us to think about the people in a certain way. And it usually works.

How do you know when characters fall in love? Look at Wayne's World. I assume you've seen it, but I could just be dating myself. In the film, Wayne (Michael Myers) falls in love with Cassandra (Tia Carrere) at first sight, when she's wailing on stage, playing a cover of Jimi Hendrix's “Fire.” But it's not “fire” that defines the love. We cut to Wayne's POV, and, in his head, he actually hears Gary Wright's 1975 love ballad “Dream Weaver.” The song is a bit cheesy, and most certainly counter to what the character listens to, but we hear that he's falling in love. Look at Lost Highway. When Pete (Balthazar Getty) first sees Alice (Patricia Arquette), we see her emerging from a car in slow motion. On the soundtrack, however, we hear a loud version of Lou Reed covering The Drifters' “This Magic Moment.” It's hard-edged and sexy. This is a love-at-first-sight moment for the ages.

Think about how a pop song can be used. If I were to film an establishing shot of the Hollywood sign, but had no soundtrack, it would only establish the location. If I were to play Nine Inch Nails' “Closer” over the image, you may begin to sense that I was filming a dark satire of the Hollywood system. I may be making a commentary on the way show business can feel hard-edged and screwed up. If I were to play a romantic rock song, like the aforementioned “Dream Weaver,” you'd think this was a fluffy love story set in Hollywood, CA. If I were to put in something jumpy and recognizable, like, say, The Go Go's “We Got the Beat,” you might think this was a playful kids' film. In the case of establishing shots, the pop tune on the soundtrack can say more than the visuals.

Sometimes the use can be ironic. Reservoir Dogs famously has a scene where a police officer has his ear severed to the strains of “Stuck in the Middle with You.” A sweet and energetic song is used to accentuate the violence by playing the opposite of what you're seeing. More recently, in the remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the killer threatens to murder the hero, all while listening to Enya's famed menses rock hit “Orinoco Flow.” The greatest example of this ironic use of hit music to accentuate violence has to be the way Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) quoted Huey Lewis trivia in order to work himself into a murderous frenzy in American Psycho. It's hip to be square.

Pop music didn't really start to play a role in mainstream feature films until the 1970s, really. Up to that point, the music world and the film world seemed pretty separate. In 1964, an experimental filmmaker named Kenneth Anger (who will warrant his own Free Film School lesson someday) made a short called Scorpio Rising. Rather than have any dialogue, he told mood and action through just the songs, using famous pop tunes of the day, including Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, and The Shangri-La's famous “Leader of the Pack.” Anger's film may be considered “underground,” but it was seen by the aesthetes and rising filmmakers of the New York art world. Indeed, Scorpio Rising was so influential to a generation of filmmakers that pop tunes started being used in films all the time. Scorsese undoubtedly saw Scorpio Rising. John Waters definitely did. It was also the first time that the music video began to appear in earnest. But that's another essay for another time.

Before this, films typically had their own original songs and scores. Watch an older film from the 1940s. Heck, take a look at Casablanca. There is a central love song in Casablanca (“As time Goes By”) that serves a s a sweet romantic cue, but also a bitter reminder of Rick's romantic pain. “As Time Goes By,” though, was composed for the film specifically. It may sound like an old standard, but it's actually its own entity. There were plenty of musicals from the '40s to the '60s as well, both adapted and original. There was a time when composing a song for a film was a regular practice, and songs from films would both regularly win Oscars, and also sell millions of records. It may be a sad thing to consider that this year's Academy Awards only feature two (2) nominees for Best Original Song. My wife has composed a thoughtful look at this issue on her own 'blog, and proposes, perhaps rightly, that if we're going to give such short shrift to original music, perhaps the category should be retired. 

So, yes, a writer writes the dialogue, and the director chooses how the story will be told, and the actors interpret the characters, and editors determine the pacing. But the best shortcut to a film's tone is a simple, perhaps recognizable pop tune on the soundtrack. With a single song, you can determine how people will feel about scene. The music supervisor, if working closely enough with the filmmakers, can make or break a film.


Homework for the Week:


Watch any silent film on home video. Turn down your TV all the way, and put on a pop hit. How does the music change the way you look at the film? Does it make the content better or worse? Watch the credits of the next film you see. How many pop songs are listed? How many did you actually recognize throughout the film? Buy a soundtrack CD to a film you haven't seen and listen to it. What kind of film is being described to you through the soundtrack? Since everyone seems to have camera phones, try shooting a short film yourself with no sound. Play it back with various of your favorite pop songs. Which one depicts the best mood? How do different pop songs change the mood?