Without a shadow of a doubt, music and film can sometimes go gloriously hand in hand. A good song, a good soundtrack or a good score can significantly enhance the power that a film can have on the viewer. I personally have a favourite song (Dylan’s ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door‘ in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid), a favourite soundtrack (Magnolia) and two favourite scores (Ennio Morricone – Once Upon a Time in the West and Philip Glass – The Thin Blue Line) as I am sure you do too. But here, I am sharing with you a few examples of when music unexpectedly gets used in films. This may mean an unexpected song, an unexpected use of a song or an unexpected scene involving a song. Comprende? I would welcome some more examples in the comments below.
Alice in the Cities (1973 Wim Wenders)
A subtle film without a substantial plot but Wim Wenders (say them with a V), who excelled in the German New Wave of the late 60s and 70s, always manages to create something human and touching. His approach to music always impresses me too (he made Buena Vista Social Club). Alice in the Cities is basically about an unmotivated guy who gets stuck with a girl abandoned by her mother and they drive around Germany looking for her. It forms part of Wenders’ road trilogy. Here, Canned Heat’s ‘On the Road Again’, with its glorious intro, just randomly sounds from a jukebox and a young kid starts humming it until its conclusion. Sums up the film really.
Napoleon Dynamite (2004 Jared Hess)
I could have done without bringing Jamiroquai into this but this scene is a classic of comic unexpectedness. His song, ‘Canned Heat’ (oh, look at him name-checking a band from the 70s), just happens to feature. A brilliant film that was of the moment and its type of comedy has been unsurpassed since.
A Knight’s Tale (2001 Brian Helgeland)
In honour of Bowie. A film that ticks all the feel-good boxes in a way that doesn’t make me want to puke everywhere. This scene is fairly generic and plain in its pitch but when the music changes from some innocuous medieval melody to David Bowie’s quirky ‘Golden Years’, you cannot help but be impressed. The quality of the video is pretty poor here though.
The Royal Tenenbaums (2001 Wes Anderson)
Wes Anderson knows how to work music into his film. That’s not all he knows, the guy is a genius – a ‘cinemagogue’ if you will. The thing about this scene though, where Margot Tenenbaum’s secret life is revealed to her husband, Raleigh St. Clair, and her step-brother, Richie, through a series of vignettes, is that it is unexpected for the viewer. The pumping Ramone’s song, ‘Judy is a Punk’, could not be more appropriate for what is essentially a brilliant scene in a flawless movie. Warning – nude alert!
Waltz With Bashir (2008 Ari Folman)
A difficult movie to watch but it is just spellbinding for its approach in storytelling. There isn’t much happiness floating around – it is essentially about an Israeli man’s repressed memories of war. However, this scene comes out of nowhere and is, I suppose, the only part that provides some relief to the depressing storyline. The animation provides important symbolic imagery but the song too, ‘Enola Gay’ by OMD, is a significant choice in that it has obvious connections to the horrors of war. Warning – animated nude alert!
To Have and Have Not (1944 Howard Hawks)
The moment Lauren Bacall saunters into Humphrey Bogart’s periphery, you know something special is happening. The chemistry between the two is fantastic and after listening to Karina Longworth’s excellent podcast on Bacall’s life with Bogart (after meeting on set, they were together for 12 years until his death), you can see why. In the film, it just so happens that the famous musician Hoagy Carmichael is propping up the piano at the hotel where both characters are staying and he dutifully provides a couple of catchy tunes for the clientele. I guess the interlude of ‘Hong Kong Blues’ is unexpected because the film’s storyline has noirish undertones and lyrics about racial stereotypes don’t really fit into it. But it certainly stands out as a highlight.
High Fidelity (2000 Stephen Frears)
This is a film that revolves around music for the most part – so how then is a musical interlude unexpected here, you may ask? Well, it is not so much the idea of unexpected music but more an unexpected musical turn from one of the characters. Remember, at the time Jack Black was not known for his musical talents as he is now. But it was quite a way to announce yourself on the world stage. His version of ‘Let’s Get It On’ is a stone-cold classic example of great music in movies. The face on John Cusack says it all.
Blue Velvet (1986 David Lynch)
Definitely one of the more disturbing and troubling Lynchian films out there but, along with Twin Peaks, it is widely regarded as his biggest stand-out creation nonetheless (I would argue The Elephant Man and The Straight Story are but…). This particular moment is one that you would not forget in a hurry. It effectively sums up the film as a whole – dark, weird and uncomfortable. The repulsively sadistic Dennis Hopper dictates that Dean Stockwell mouth the words to Roy Orbison’s ‘In Dreams’ (a song creepy enough as it is) and have everyone watch it before abruptly breaking in on it half way through. In the context of the film, you would be well-fastened to have expected it but the way in which the scene is constructed comes from nowhere and epitomises the weirdness and foreboding that pervades every part of the film.
Rio Bravo (1959 Howard Hawks)
Another Hawks movie and another unexpected musical interlude. There are many John Ford/Howard Hawks-John Wayne westerns that have examples of orchestrated music (in fact this song was based on a tune from Red River) but never before had a John Wayne character been involved in a scene that was principally set up as a stage for two prominent musicians to showcase their talents alongside the ‘Duke’ (they were good actors too in fairness). It has all the hallmarks of a special moment in cinematic history. Wayne wanders into the shot…Dean Martin sits comfortably and starts to croon about the sun setting in…Ricky Nelson starts to string a few chords together (where did he get that guitar?!)…Walter Brennan blows into his harmonica…and what you end up with is this…sheer magnificence!