Watching a good film is truly a wonderful experience, a festival of colour and emotion, sound and beauty. Film are huge projects that require the skilled input of numerous professionals, however, and whilst much of this hard work goes unnoticed by the general public there are elements that all can appreciate.
One of these elements is the music that runs alongside cinematic features, whether that be by a famous artist, a custom written score, or the background music for video that is often used in more economically produced features. The use of the right music is crucial to demonstrating the artistry and entertainment value of any film, yet there are times when the right song is paired with the right moment to create an undeniable magic.
The following ten examples are examples of such moments, where the stars align and we can no longer think of the music without the scene, nor the scene without the music.
1. Apocalypse Now (1979)
Richard Wagner – Ride of the Valkyries
A mind-bending retelling of Heart of Darkness for the baby boomer generation, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now has already had enough ink spilled over it to fill several encyclopaedias. It was released in 1979 after a gruelling production process, swiftly proving itself as one of the greatest films ever made before firmly lodging itself in popular consciousness. Most discussions of music in the film will focus on ‘The End’ by The Doors, a haunting song that only feels more powerful as the years pass and the legend of Jim Morrison grows.
With its whining organ, sitar-esque guitar passages and percussion that feels more ritualistic than rhythmic, the song is indeed perfect for the blend of exoticism and insanity the next three hours hold.
It is Wagner’s irreverent addition, however, that reminds you that the Heart of Darkness lives on, just waiting for an opportunity to reveal itself.
2. Fight Club (1999)
The Pixies – Where is My Mind
The Pixies may have already come and gone by 1999 when Fight Club was released, leaving behind a cult following and steadily increasing vinyl prices, but their inclusion in the credits here must have earned them a whole new generation of fans. Fight Club is a film for those inclined to feel bitterness towards the hollow falseness of this modern age, and The Pixies represent the perfect antidote to this – weird and unclean, imperfect and undeniably real.
Yet if The Pixies still seem an odd choice of band to include in the film’s soundtrack then you’d be right. The Dust Brothers provided the majority of the music, giving the film much of its cold sterility, yet as the final scene begins to set it is that song that begins playing.
As buildings begin to explode one by one, the earworm chord progression of Frank Black’s acoustic is joined by Joey Santiago’s ringing electric guitar melodies to create one of the most memorable scenes in cinema. It comes out of nowhere, you’ve probably never even heard it before, but at that moment the gravity of the film and the life of the song merge for an ending you will never forget.
3. Oldboy (2003)
Jo Yeong-Wook - The Last Waltz
Films that are known for their extremity are rarely also known for their lasting quality. After all, unflinching violence and the brazen breaking of taboos rarely make for a tasteful experience. Look hard enough, however, and you will start to find such films, cinematic works that manage to use extremity as a tool rather than a cheap trick. Park Chan Wook’s Oldboy, released in 2003, is one such example.
The film is about a man who is kidnapped for no clear reason and held in solitary captivity for 15 years, only to then be released with nothing but new clothes, a mobile phone, and a lot of questions. As the plot progresses we see violence of the physical, mental and sexual kinds, with an end plot twist that will stay in the memory of everyone who saw the film through to its bitter conclusion.
This is all accompanied by a soundtrack that is designed to artfully emphasise the many twists the plot takes, even pairing Vivaldi with a protracted and intentionally awkward single-shot fight scene. The musical highlight of Oldboy, however, lies with a track called ‘The Last Waltz’, a rather simple ¾ piece that is carried by the emotional weight of its central theme. A sad reed melody sings alone for a measure before an orchestral accompaniment gracefully enters and carries the rest of the song.
The piece is almost a commentary on the core of the film itself, and despite the torture, hatred and incest we witness, we ultimately recognise that this is a film about pain and absolute sadness. This is a truly memorable piece, and highlights how background music for video can not only enhance a feature, but indeed reveal its true identity.
4. Stalker (1979)
Edward Artemiev – Meditation
Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker is widely recognised as being one of the greatest films ever made, a sombre and taciturn masterpiece that is unmistakeably Russian in origin. Tarkovsky may have been no big fan of the stifling dystopian governments that emerged to the east of the Iron Curtain, but it was this paradigm that infected his work with the stone-faced sincerity it is known for. Beneath this was a deeply introspective spirit, a Dostoyevski-channelling philosophy that asks the kind of questions one hopes never to have answered.
These questions are key to Stalker, however, and its sparse and beautiful soundtrack reflects this. Artemiev’s piece titled ‘Meditation’ is the highlight of this brief collection, most notably accompanying the river dream sequence. In this scene a single sepia-shot take scans slowly over a small and dirty stream of water, moving as patiently as the cosmos whilst ‘Meditation’ plays. This scene lasts about three minutes, which in the hands of a less accomplished director would feel like a lifetime.
Yet thanks to the brilliance of Tarkovsky and Artemiev this scene is as captivating, serene and profound as the meditation after which it is named.
5. The Matrix (1999)
Propellerheads – Spybreak
The Wachowski Brothers’ second film has not aged well. The Matrix came out in 1999 to immediately enter the cultural landscape with a bang, cementing itself in our memories in a straight-faced explosion of leather clothing, questionable eyewear, and ‘bullet time’ slo-mo fight sequences. Yet as the film approaches its second decade in existence it cannot be viewed without a few smirks. Keanu Reeves’ deadpan performance, the seriousness with which the ridiculous plot is handled and the two terrible sequels have ensured the franchise will never be entering Roger Ebert’s top films list.
Yet despite all this the first entry in The Matrix series is downright fun. Maybe the film does now look like the directors exclusively consulted 13 year old boys on what they thought was ‘cool’, but view it with the appropriate mind-set and it remains a very entertaining film. A key part of this is its soundtrack, which features such industrial-tinged 90’s monsters as Rob Zombie and Ministry, but also includes the then-popular big beat sounds of The Prodigy and Propellerheads.
The latter artists have their track, Spybreak, accompanying the infamous lobby scene where Neo and Trinity take on heavily armed security in an orgy of gunfire and combat choreography. The song actually only starts around half way through, leaving silence and semi-automatics to initially set the scene. But it is when that Chemical Brothers-sounding bass riff starts that the fun really begins, showing just how powerful background music for video can be.
6. Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
Maurice Jarre and the London Philharmonic Orchestra – Original Soundtrack
Much like Apocalypse Now, the inclusion of Lawrence of Arabia in any such list seems somewhat futile. What more could be said about such a titanic presence in cinematic history? The desolate, vast and beautiful dunes, the unforgettable performance by Peter O’Toole, and the deeply questionable historical accuracy have all cemented its legend.
A big part of its appeal to modern eyes is its reflection of the time in which it was made. Britain in 1962 was a very different place when compared to today; attitudes to cultural sensitivity were more lax and the full strength of the empire was in living memory. This comes through in many aspects of the film, and the soundtrack is no exception. As sweeping and grand as the sun-baked desert vastness in which the film is set, this powerful orchestral score is firmly European yet was consciously composed to bring a touch of the middle east too.
This eastern-inflection-though-European-tradition element of the music may sound dated now, but it fits the sights, sounds and atmosphere of the film perfectly.
7. Trainspotting (1996)
Iggy Pop – Lust For Life
The introduction to Trainspotting remains one of the most iconic in cinema history. Opening mid-chase sequence, Renton and Spud run from security after a spate of petty shoplifting. Spud wears an expression of concern while Renton looks like he’s found his life’s calling. The infamous monologue, ‘Choose life, choose a job, choose a career…’, is set to ‘Lust For Life’ by Iggy Pop to make one of the finest uses of background music for video ever.
Whilst the drugs and grime of the film may receive the public’s focus, the themes on offer are far more nuanced and persuasive. Do you truly want to ‘choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing spirit-crushing game shows’ or will you escape on a rollercoaster ride of ups and downs?
This lust for life can make you shine as bright as a star, or it can leave you in the gutter, and director Danny Boyle asks this poignantly in a simple two minutes with a little help from Renton and Iggy Pop.
8. Platoon (1986)
Samuel Barber – Adagio for Strings
The second Vietnam War feature on the list, Platoon is one of those films looked at three decades on with some bemusement. The legend that a young Charlie Sheen went on to make for himself and witnessing Willem Dafoe playing the warm character of Sgt. Elias gives Platoon an almost humorous edge to modern eyes.
Yet take the film on its own merits, stripped of the celebrity and typecasting of Hollywood, and what remains is an outstanding film of emotional gravity and pain. The Vietnam War marked the start of this modern era of conflict, where ethics, ideologies and violence were twisted into a morally ambiguous mess of atrocity and trauma.
Melodramatic yet undeniably powerful, Samuel Barber’s ‘Adagio for Strings’ simply sounds like pain and grief, the kind that marks the lowest depths of a person’s existence, the kind only felt when the blood from such a horror is on your hands. If the point of the film was to demonstrate how there are no winners in war then ‘Adagio for Strings’ serves its purpose wonderfully.
9. Blade Runner (1982)
Vangelis – Blade Runner Blues
Among certain circles this film is known for its soundtrack as much as the cinematic experience itself. The composer, Vangelis, made a name for himself during his time with Greek prog outfit Aphrodite’s Child, and well-trained ears can hear that strain of shared DNA that runs through the band’s final album, 666, and the Blade Runner OST.
More importantly, however, Vangelis’ soundtrack fits the film like a glove, his 80’s synths and sequencers matching the neon lights and dark skies of 2019 Los Angeles perfectly.
The film noir elements are on show as synthetic blue notes pitch bend with as much emotion as any legato saxophone line. Trebly pentatonic scales jump out too, reflecting the fear the US had of Eastern influence at that time in an archetypically sci-fi fashion. Lonely, dark, yet eminently listenable, it is perhaps ‘Blade Runner Blues’ that sums up the feel of the film and identity of the soundtrack best.
10. Pulp Fiction (1994)
The Revels – Comanche
Quentin Tarantino has plenty of great musical moments to choose from, whether that be Michael Madsen dancing to ‘Stuck in the Middle With You’ in Reservoir Dogs, or Nancy Sinatra’s maudlin singing in Kill Bill. Perhaps the most striking and extreme, however, is the ‘Gimp’ scene in Pulp Fiction which is paired with the filthy instrumental track ‘Comanche’ by The Revels. Here, Bruce Willis and Ving Rhames are bound and restrained before Rhames is taken to another room for some seriously unpleasant treatment by his captors.
As ‘The Gimp’ is brought out in full leather to keep watch over Willis and the door closes, the dirty opening bars of ‘Comanche’ begin. Willis proceeds to escape under the loving eye of The Gimp, finding a samurai sword as the saxophone roars like a drunken sailor singing his heart out. The following minutes are some of Tarantino’s most violent and entertaining, a mixture of humorous and horrifying, and throughout all this we have The Revels providing us with their mocking serenade.
Without a word in the whole song, the mere feel of the track demonstrates how well background music for video can be used.
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