Dude, That Song Really Tied the Film Together: Songs That Make Movies

THE Big Lebowski’s Dude wisely said that a rug can really tie a room together. Well I believe the same applies to music and films. In other words, a great song – or piece of music – can really tie a film together.

Today (August 11) A Ghost Story drifts into cinemas with its poignant ponderings, breath-taking imagery and absorbing performances from Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara. Yet, at the centre of this unique cinematic experience  is one of the beautiful ‘rugs’ I have come across – Dark Room’s song I Get Overwhelmed.

Contemplative and affecting, I Get Overwhelmed perfectly fits A Ghost Story’s tone and appears in different incarnations throughout the film. The impact of the song got me thinking about my own favourites in films. The type of tunes that, if removed or substituted out, would leave a noticeable void and – possibly even – knock the entire film off-kilter.

The first film I thought of – still fresh in my mind from multiple viewings – is La La Land (2016). With its odes to old school Hollywood musicals such as Singin’ in the Rain (a film that would not be out of place on this list), music is at the heart of director Damien Chazelle’s vibrant and dazzling film. But it is the song City of Stars that acts as the film’s beating pulse.

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We first hear the faint sounds of City of Stars when Mia (Emma Stone) and Seb (Ryan Gosling) are walking through the movie studio lot together. As the two connect, we can hear their love song beginning to formulate, perhaps in Seb’s head.  This is, after all, a film about love inspiring art.

Once their ‘date’ is over, Seb walks out on the pier and under romantic purple moonlight sings City of Stars for the first time. The song appears throughout the film whether it is to signal cohesion and love (as Seb and Mia sit at the piano and sing it together) or tension– as a sped up version faintly plays during the dinner argument scene. The music comes to an jolting end with some cruel words from Seb.

Speaking of Chazelle, his relentless and fierce 2014 film Whiplash is driven by Don Ellis’ jazz tune of the same name. The sharp sounds and up-tempo nature of Whiplash – the song – create the ideal atmosphere for creatively foul-mouthed jazz instructor Terence Fletcher (JK Simmons) to torture his students in rehearsal.

Rocky Balboa puts his body through torture in preparation for fights with Apollo Creed. Those iconic Rocky training montages, which I am sure have motivated many of us to finally get up and go for a run,  are fuelled by the building trumpets of Bill Conti’s Gonna Fly Now. Conti’s inspirational piece of music plays as Rocky runs through the streets of Philadelphia and, to triumphantly complete the uphill struggle, up the stairs of the Museum of Art.

Big money franchises – such as Rocky –are often accompanied by a signifying piece of music. The one that still strikes a chord with me, multiple movies later, is Star Wars’ Binary Sunset by the great John Williams.

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Whenever I hear Binary Sunset – in whatever manifestation – it brings me back to that mythic image of Luke Skywalker looking out at the horizon of double suns in A New Hope. This Star Wars theme carries Luke’s image of wonder, hope and endless opportunity across the entire franchise.

Denis Villeneuve’s enchanting and genre-defying alien invasion film Arrival (2016) is bookended by one of the most moving songs I have experienced in a cinema. Max Richter’s soul-piercing song On Nature of Daylight drives home the emotional depth of the film, particularly when those beautiful violins come in at the two minute mark.

In a film about the power of language and human achievement, it feels fitting that such a powerful – and wordless – piece of music ties together the film’s circular narrative.

I view On Nature of Daylight on a level to that of  Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra which opens Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: Space Odyssey (1968). Strauss matches the awe-inspiring and timeless visuals of Kubrick in a way that few could.

From Kubrick’s spectacular visuals to the crude animation of South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut (1999). Creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone cheekily start the movie with an innocent sounding song about small town America, which parodies Belle’s Song from the opening of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Mountain Town, with its playful lines, is a great entry point to South Park’s clever commentary before the swear words start flooding in.

On a more romantic note, I always welcome being swept away by the delicate sounds of Moon River in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961). The film opens with the song as Holly (Audrey Hepburn), dressed in classy clothes and pastry in hand, peers at jewellery through the Tiffany’s window.

This contrasts with later on when Holly sits out on the window ledge with a guitar and sings Moon River in full. We – and George (Paul Varjak) who is watching from above – witness this charming, intimate and natural scene with dreamer Holly who has a more stripped back appearance than the opening scene.

Moon River also appears in the final scene of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. When Holly finds her cat in the pouring rain the sad strings playing suddenly transform into Moon River.  It is a euphoric moment mirrored by the surging music which culminates in Holly and George embracing in a passionate kiss.

Perhaps my favourite is the simplest. Just like City of Stars in La La Land, Hans Zimmer’s You’re So Cool gives a recognisable sound to leading couple Clarence (Christian Slater) and Alabama (Patricia Arquette) in True Romance (1999).

You’re So Cool, with its soothing wooden xylophone sounds, seamlessly speaks to the innocence and clarity of Clarence and Alabama’s love, amid the violence and chaos surrounding them.

My list could be longer but maybe I will leave the rest for a sequel.

Be sure to check out A Ghost Story and Dark Room’s wondrous song this weekend or in the next few days. Sublime.

What is your favourite irreplaceable movie song? Do let us know in the comments.

Also read: ‘Meaningful, Surreal and Ethereal’ – Director David Lowery Talks A Ghost Story

Arresting and Transfixing Cinema – A Discussion of Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals

Lost In Headphones: Many A Movie Moment

9 thoughts on “Dude, That Song Really Tied the Film Together: Songs That Make Movies”

  1. I once saw the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra play the score for 2001 while they showed the movie on a big screen at the Hollywood Bowl. To hear Also Sprach Zarathustra played by an orchestra while watching the movie’s dreamy space shots under the stars st an outdoor venue was amazing.

    Liked by 1 person

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