by Matthew Waldron
It's not as nuclear as Gwyneth and J.Lo wearing the same dress to the Golden Globes, but when I'm watching a film and a piece of music comes along that is otherwise immediately indicative of some other film it really can ruin my day. If nothing else, you will definitely catch me rolling my eyes. Vicious shit.
Tarantino said something one time to the effect of: when a piece of music is used in a film, distinctly and/or memorably, that song can then be considered "christened.” By said film. Consider the potentially-absurd scenario of some erstwhile, bobblehead hack-filmmaker deciding to use "Little Green Bag" or "Misirlou" in their film and you may agree – certain songs have been laid claim to.
It's a thin line between mediocrity and shamelessly ripping someone off though. And unless you're a dick those distinctions should matter. Further complicating things is the sad fact many filmmakers don't seem to have even a basic grasp of how music corresponds to cinema. And so perhaps we can forgive them, because they seem to know not what they do. But we can't forget either these are the individuals responsible for putting "Born to Be Wild" over road trip-montages. And "California Dreamin’” whenever it's time for a 60's-flashback.
From Robert Zemeckis though I expect more. Yeah, “Forrest Gump.” But “Who Framed Roger Rabbit!” Yeah, “Forrest Gump.” But “Back to the Future!” And people shit on them sometimes but I always defend "Castaway" and "Contact" particularly as fine examples of bloated, big-budget star-driven cinema at its sincere best.
Zemeckis could've aimed higher though on the soundtrack for “Flight.” It's not a great film in the first place. But not a bad film. It has its reality-warping, treacly moments powered by a slightly-too-Hollywood script held up by some unholy, "three-act"-scaffolding. More than anything I think it's an unexpectedly ballsy subversion of Washington's star-status and I kinda like it. But still, I can't help but think it could've been more of a film if the soundtrack choices hadn't been so cookie-cutter and evocative of other films.
"Flight" begins with Joe Cocker's instantly recognizable “Feelin' Alright,” no stranger to countless films. Eventually we also get "Gimme Shelter" by the Rolling Stones. Admittedly a great song used brilliantly by Scorsese in no less than three separate films. Which should be intimidating enough for anyone, even Oscar-winners, to avoid approach. Apparently – unfortunately – not. And before it's over we get another frequently-used Rolling Stones song, “Sympathy for the Devil.” And by that point I'm over it. Which is a real shame.
The late Ted Demme's "Blow" is a few notches above mediocre in the direction of interesting. Unfortunately though I'm always immediately taken aback by the opening credit sequence, over which plays yet another Stones song, "Can't You Hear Me Knocking?,” which has been used better, yet again, by Scorsese (and on other occasions, by lesser individuals, at least half-a-dozen times).
An anomaly does occur sometimes when a piece of music atomically-bound to a certain film is used – successfully – in a later one, sometimes even transcending the original. Logic-defying as it is, "Singin' in the Rain" does equally for "A Clockwork Orange" what it did for the eponymous film itself. Likewise, 31 years after "2001: A Space Odyssey", Kubrick had his work co-opted when Paul Thomas Anderson used "Also sprach Zarathustra" in "Magnolia.” Both these instances work, and it might be because each filmmaker-in-question, instead of desperately trying to duplicate the work of his predecessor, was actually winking back in full awareness of the homage.
As opposed to insulting our intelligence.
What made Tarantino's use of music so electrifying when he burst on the scene in the '90's wasn't that he was trying to be "ironic", as certain commentators claimed. Instead, quite simply, he was willing to use whatever music worked, according to his own whims, taste, and understanding of cinema. Like all the hacks, he was aware of what soundtrack choices worked for others...but had no interest in simply emulating them. He had ideas of his own.
Does another rom-com really need Sixpence None the Richer's "Kiss Me" helping a mid-film date-montage limp along? Awesome as they may be does AC/DC really need any of the same songs from their catalog ever played in another action movie?
I believe Tarantino is right, and "Christening" is the correct term. The Catholics believe (full disclosure, I'm a practicing Catholic, forgive me) during baptism a soul is transformed and a communion takes place (but who knows if we know what the hell we're talking about). A similar effect happens when "Layla" comes onto the soundtrack during Scorsese's "Goodfellas" (yes, I think Scorsese is maybe the best filmmaker when it comes to utilizing music). A palpable synergy occurs between the music and the cinema, and the result is an amazing sequence no one forgets.
Just like Elton John's "Amoreena" at the beginning of “Dog Day Afternoon.” And Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" at the beginning of “Do the Right Thing.” Or INXS’ "Never Tear Us Apart" in “Donnie Darko” (btw – is Richard Kelly's unjust penance for "Southland Tales" over yet? Is everybody still mad at him or can he go back to doing what he clearly does really well?) (and I gladly add "All These Things That I've Done" to this list from "Southland Tales" because it's fucking awesome).
Endless musicians making endless genres of music. Every day. All around the world. An ocean of songs going on for perpetuity. How exciting to consider a cinematic landscape where filmmakers turn to that resource for inspiration...instead of other films.