Popular music has had a relatively short life in the history of cinema. Though rock and soul tunes became more common in film in the early 1960s, it wasn’t until the end of that decade and the following when directors began to eschew the standard film score in favor of a lineup of popular hits, most notably with Easy Rider and American Graffiti. Popular music tapped into certain moods, ideas (even ideologies), and the contemporary sensibilities that spoke to the young baby-boomer generation. In the decades since, popular music has become a cinematic device itself. The insertion of well-known music into scenes helps to establish tone and occasionally serve as an intellectual exercise. Part of the pleasure in watching movies is discerning a director’s cultural references and understanding the reasons behind their selection of songs. The following are a few memorable uses of popular music found in films released this year.
“No Games” by Serani (Tower)
“Is this the life you really want?” sings Serani, and though the lyric is directed at the girl who’d done the dancehall artist wrong, it’s a question worth asking of the protagonist in Kazik Radwanski’s first feature film, Tower. Derek (Derek Bogart), a thirty-four-year-old Canadian who lives with his parents, seems to have a somewhat limited, almost-child-like cognitive schema of life. Serani’s song, which pops up again and again in the film—the film’s anti-hero plays it in the car, hears it at the club, and awkwardly dances to it in his parents’ basement—is exactly the kind of generic number that someone like Derek, hopelessly clueless about music, would latch on to and listen to repeatedly. As a recurring musical motif, the bland, forgettable track signifies the loneliness of nightclubs and the emptiness apparent in Derek’s life as he tries to wrest the tiniest amount of control over his small life—a goal that culminates in the film’s glorious final scene, in which he tries to outsmart a raccoon.
“Cast Your Fate to the Wind” by Allen Toussaint (The Wolf of Wall Street)
In The Wolf of Wall Street, this cover of Vince Guaraldi’s award-winning song acts like a period replacing an exclamation point to tone down a hyperbolic sentence. The jazz number ends Martin Scorsese’s film in a scene that illustrates the relatively ascetic and acceptable profession Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) established for himself after defrauding Wall Street and doing jail time. At a seminar teaching the psychology of sales, Jordan, now a promotional speaker, walks up to the first row of attendees and asks each one to try selling him a pen. Toussaint’s snazzy cover cues the credits following an emotional rollercoaster ride of a film, and considering the debauchery and excess of the previous 180 minutes, there is some comfort provided by the sensible and ordinary timber in “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” as Jordan smiles at the crowd.
“Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites” by Skrillex (Spring Breakers)
One would be tempted to call the opening scene in Spring Breakers sexual if the images of inebriated semi-naked youngsters indulging in sand-encrusted bacchanalia wasn’t so downright pornographic. The scenery is so over-the-top and the spring breakers’ physical movements so clearly a performance, that one can’t help but get the sense that director Harmony Korine is trying to synthesize his own kaleidoscope version of satire, especially considering the accompanying track, the occasionally shriekish and abrasive Skrillex tune “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites.” The song keeps cutting between a carefree, melodic ambient synth (the nice sprites) and scary, bass-heavy distortion (the scary monsters), underscoring the grotesquery found in the film’s exhibitionistic displays of sexual energy.
“Modern Love” by David Bowie (Frances Ha)
While it’s a clear reference to a similar scene in Leo Carax’s Mauvais Sang, the long take of Frances (Greta Gerwig) run-dancing to Bowie’s catchy song is both a testament to director Noah Baumbach’s love for French cinema and a fitting emotional marker in the film’s structure. Frances is happy to have found a new apartment and roommates who never cease to entertain her (immediately after this scene they’re shown barging into Frances’ room to rowdily rouse her awake). The song and run-dancing also naturally fit the whims of its central character, who, as an apprentice dancer and underemployed artist, often turns to spontaneous dancing as a way to cheer herself up.
“Like Someone in Love” by Ella Fitzgerald (Like Someone in Love)
Abbas Kiarostami is not the first to name a work after the popular jazz standard “Like Someone in Love.” Ella Fitzgerald named her 1957 album after the song, as did Bing Crosby one decade earlier when he recorded a cover after it was written for the musical comedy/Western Belle of the Yukon (1945). The title’s catchiness and usefulness as an expression is something Kiarostami’s film subtly explores through its characters, most notably with Takashi (Tadashi Okuno). The old professor puts on Fitzgerald’s rendition some time after Akiko (Rin Takanashi) has arrived at his residence. Though Akiko is an escort, it’s clearly her companionship Takashi yearns for, and his preparation of a romantic dinner includes cuing up the vinyl record before pouring champagne and awaiting Akiko to return from the bathroom. The song, in turn, becomes a component in this social script as well as a warm and elegant backdrop.
For the complete list of year-end lists on Keyframe, go to The Year in Film: 2013.
For the complete index of the films on these lists, go to 2013 Year in Review: Indexed.