For all the soul-crushingly bland Top 40 tunes chosen to underscore montages and action sequences, for every vapid singer-songwriter cover song that leaps straight from your local Starbucks into that pivotal tear-jerking scene in the latest rom-com, there is the rare phenomenon of the truly magical marriage of music to image.
Jerry Maguire singing "Free Fallin'" at the top of his lungs. Mr. Blonde doing a shuffle to "Stuck in the Middle with You," straight razor in hand. Few directors have the knack for choosing pre-existing songs to further and enhance the narrative and mood rather than just reflecting an overall theme (recent example: the jarringly contemporary tune by indie pop band Owl City that disrupts the sense of time and place in Zack Snyder's Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole), a shame given the transcending potential that a perfectly-chosen piece of music can bring to the cinematic experience.
So enough with the lazily chosen tracks and wannabe hit singles that drive most mainstream soundtracks these days! Unless it's that 3D concert film of his, the magical mop-topped Munchkin Justin Bieber has no place providing musical accompaniment to any film. Come up with something other than singer-songwriter-y drivel to score your faux-empowerment chick flicks, Hollywood. And stop using that Taken by Trees cover of "Sweet Child o' Mine," people! (Especially since the ironic use of it in the trailer for 2009's Last House on the Left utterly ruined it for every other filmmaker to come.)
Need help? Here are five contemporary filmmakers who weave pre-existing music (songs, not scores) into their films to stirring, evocative, and provocative effect:
Few living filmmakers involve themselves as personally in music as Oscar-winner Martin Scorsese. His films reflect his New York-bred sensibilities, and the songs he uses in turn evoke strong, specific feelings of time and place, subtly immersing the viewer in the world of his characters. Using the right piece of music in a scene, Scorsese has stated, adds "an extra dimension, a sense of mystery, of life beyond the frame, that it would not have had otherwise."
Scorsese's innovative use of doo-wop, rock, and pop tunes in lieu of traditional score to enhance specific scenes can be traced back to his breakthrough film, 1973's Mean Streets. Is there any cooler "walking into a room" moment than the scene in which Robert De Niro strolls into the bar in slow motion to the deliciously destructive sounds of the Rolling Stone's "Jumpin' Jack Flash?" Could any other song have given Jimmy's systematic elimination of the gang in Goodfellas as grandiose and period-specific a feel as the piano coda from "Layla?" Even in his most recent contemporary-set pic, 2006's The Departed, Scorsese employed his signature sounds -- rock, Italian opera, the oft-used Rolling Stones -- but set the tone for his dual protagonists with the Dropkick Murphy's "I'm Shipping Up to Boston," effectively evoking a specific place, a sense of duty, and a certain timelessness in lyrics originally penned by Woodie Guthrie.
Like Scorsese, Tarantino has an ear for great pop tunes, though he varies his use of them from film to film. In Reservoir Dogs' famous torture scene, Stealers Wheel's breezy 1972 single "Stuck in the Middle With You" gives a perfectly perverse counterpoint to the events unfolding on screen. It's a brilliant idea to use such a mindlessly entertaining '70s AM radio song -- the kind that provokes an almost compulsive meaningless pleasure response -- to set up the viewer for the shock to come. Michael Madsen's sadistic Mr. Blonde dances around his captured prey, as Tarantino toys with his audience, before slicing poor Marvin's ear off in an inspired stroke that magnifies the visceral impact of the scene.
Also see: The entire landmark Pulp Fiction soundtrack, The Delfonics' "Didn't I (Blow Your Mind This Time)" as love theme in Jackie Brown, the bluesy-retro-rockabilly songs of Death Proof, Meiko Kaji's Lady Snowblood theme, "Flower of Carnage," in Kill Bill Vol. 1, David Bowie's "Cat People (Putting Out Fire)" in Inglourious Basterds.
The films of Wes Anderson don't just share a visual aesthetic; they're also very much bound by musical inclinations that equally inform his oeuvre. And when it comes to matching music to film, Anderson excels in creating moments that stick in the mind, forever associated with their accompanying songs. Take the Brit-dominated soundtrack to Rushmore, with tracks by the Rolling Stones, The Who, and The Kinks reflecting Jason Schwartzman and Bill Murray's respective emotional torment, pettiness, and ennui. Or the fade to silence before Nico's "These Days" plays over Luke Wilson and Gwyneth Paltrow's slo-mo reunion in The Royal Tenenbaums. Anderson reportedly films his scenes with specific songs in mind, controlling the musical element with as much meticulous attention to detail as he pours into his imagery, resulting in exquisitely sublime cinematic moments.
Also see: Bill Murray's Stooges-themed assault on a pirate ship in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, the Satyajit Ray tracks in The Darjeeling Limited, the use of the Rolling Stones' "Street Fighting Man" in Fantastic Mr. Fox.
Paul Thomas Anderson
Though he works as much with unconventional composers (Jon Brion/Punch-Drunk Love, Jonny Greenwood/There Will Be Blood) as he does with more traditional song-based soundtracks, Paul Thomas Anderson uses music to build his filmic worlds, often fleshing out characters through the music they listen to. He does this best, perhaps, in Boogie Nights, a film so effectively punctuated with songs of the disco '70s that it spawned not one, but two soundtrack albums.
For all the disco fabulousness on display in Boogie Nights, it's an iconic song of the '80s that's put to unusually effective use: Rick Springfield's "Jessie's Girl." Alfred Molina's coked out drug dealer Rahad plays it for Dirk and Co. as they nervously sit, trapped and on edge, in his den; they know they're about to pull a dangerous scam that could cost their lives, and Rahad's firecracker-happy house boy isn't helping them calm down. The driving pop riffs of "Jessie's Girl" create an atmosphere of terror for these desperate heroes, already increasingly lost in the brave new world of the '80s -- and, of course, it will only get worse before it gets better.
Also see: Shelley Duvall's "He Needs Me" punctuating Jon Brion's harmonium score for Punch-Drunk Love, Aimee Mann's Oscar-nominated songs in Magnolia.
Warning: adult language
Rolling Stone kid journo-turned-filmmaker Cameron Crowe made his directorial debut with Say Anything …, giving an entire decade its most iconic image of romantic declaration: Jon Cusack standing under a window holding a stereo above his head, blasting Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes" to the girl he loves.
Keeping with his rock background, Crowe's maintained that musical through line in his subsequent films. There was Singles, a film that embodied the grunge movement of the early '90s. Jerry Maguire, about a sports agent who memorably lets loose by himself in a car, singing along to Tom Petty's "Free Fallin'" in a moment of catharsis. The autobiographical ode to groupies that was Almost Famous gave audiences their most intimate peek into Crowe's musical life, benefiting from Crowe's intimacy with the story and to the music of its time and place: Led Zeppelin, Steely Dan, the Beach Boys. In terms of memorable movie musical moments, Almost Famous stands out especially in its "Tiny Dancer" moment, when a quiet moment on the road turns into a collective moment of reflection, celebration, and togetherness as an entire bus of musicians, groupies, hangers-on, and Patrick Fugit's teenage protagonist break out into Elton John's 1971 ballad.