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For as many pop songs as get shoveled into movies nowadays, music supervision is still an elusive and tricky sub-artform in film. When the two media come together in the right way at the right moment, it’s as if Fred Astaire danced into our arms, even if it’s Tom Jones on the soundtrack. Here are 10 exceptional uses of music in the movies that made our hearts sing in 2013.
“Please Mr. Kennedy” by Justin Timberlake
“Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” by Oscar Isaac
“The Death of Queen Jane” by Oscar Isaac
We still haven’t gotten over “Please Mr. Kennedy” not being eligible for a Best Song Oscar, since it’s very loosely based on a couple of existing ‘60s folk-pop tunes. At least it’s won in our eyes. As producer/co-writer T Bone Burnett pointed out to THR recently, that tune is an anomaly in this faux folk biopic, and not just because it’s the only comedic number. “That’s a rock & roll song, right?” said Burnett. “That’s like a Coasters song or something. Justin wrote that Coasters vibe about it.” The rest of the music in InsideLlewyn Davis was no laughing matter. Right at the outset, the Coen brothers set a very sober tone as the protagonist sings “Hang Me” straight through, with no cuts or chuckles. But much later, when he sings “Queen Jane” at a pivotal make-or-break audition moment, there IS something slightly comical about how the title character has such integrity that he thinks singing an ancient ballad about a dead baby is the thing that’s going to get him over in his career.
“Everytime” by Britney Spears
The four-girl crime wave at the heart of Harmony Korin’s bacchanal established themselves early in the film as Britney Spears fans, with a parking lot group-sing of “Baby One More Time.” So when would-be mentor James Franco sits down at the piano for a sensitive version of Spears’ “Everytime,” the thug draws the bikini-clad gals one step further into his world of violence and gives the scene an eerie creepiness, especially when the girls don’t take their pink ski masks off as they sing along to the ballad. A simple pop number then becomes a lurid clarion call before moving on to Britney’s own studio version as the backdrop for a violent crime montage, complete with hog-tied and pistol-whipped victims. It’s likely not as flattering as Spears might have imagined when she licensed the track, but it’s the moment in the movie that best makes the case for how short a distance it is from not-that-innocent to totally debauched.
“Let It Go” by Idina Menzel
“In Summer” by Josh Gad
“Let It Go” is the Best Song front-runner, in spite of, not because of, the lame Demi Lovato radio version that runs over the end credits. The real version comes fairly early (arguably too early) in the film as Menzel — voicing a snow princess who’s warmly embracing her inner iciness — delivers an empowerment ballad that pretty effectively has Wicked’s “Defying Gravity” as its model. Not wanting to split the vote, Disney submitted this to the Oscars as the movie’s sole song candidate. But songwriters Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez brought out their Broadway chops just as effectively for the film’s comedic highlight, a snowman’s ebulliently naïve ode to that which would destroy him.
4. The Broken Circle Breakdown
“If I Needed You” by Veerle Baetensand Johan Heldenbergh
Belgium’s foreign-language Oscar contender, Broken Circle Breakdown, is the best bluegrass movie since O Brother, Where Art Thou? And, okay, maybe the only bluegrass movie since then. But it might be the most emotionally wrenching movie of the year from any nation. The two star-crossed leads perform a lot of English-language country and Americana songs throughout the film. The most riveting on-screen musical performance we’ve seen in ages is a pivotal sequence near the end, when the separated marrieds perform a Townes Van Zandt classic on stage, and we wait to see whether the man’s anxious, desperate glances will be returned by his estranged wife, as a presumably clueless concert audience looks on. You couldn’t ask for a better example of a musical number actually advancing a narrative… heartbreakingly.
5. Frances Ha
“Modern Love” by David Bowie
“Every 1’s a Winner” by Hot Chocolate
The Bowie perennial gives Greta Gerwig a chance to do a madcap dance around Manhattan, establishing just how charming a free spirit her character can be. Over the course of the film, though, we see just how grating that frothy charisma can be on the people around her. By the time the Hot Chocolate soul oldie comes on, “Every 1’s a Winner” is being used ironically, since we’ve had time to learn that, her joie de vivre notwithstanding, Frances is in desperate danger of becoming one of life’s perennial losers.
“Jeep’s Blues” by Duke Ellington
“Delilah” by Tom Jones
“Live and Let Die” by Wings
At the outset of American Hustle, the establishing shot of Christian Bale’s belly makes it seem like the movie might be patronizing toward its not entirely healthy or brilliant characters. But by having Bale and Amy Adams bond over their love for Duke Ellington, director David O. Russell is establishing that striving hustlers have real humanity, too. That’s an instrumental, but the movie gives us a couple of memorable sing-alongs, first with a grifters’ group-sing of “Delilah,” then with the movie’s real Delilah, Jennifer Lawrence, wishing serious ill upon her estranged hubby as she mutters along to “Live and Let Die.”
“The Moon Song” by Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson
Just your typical winsome duet between a boy and his female operating system, whose artificial intelligence extends to songwriting prowess. The end-credits version has co-writer Karen O. singing the female part of this duet, but the version in the film that has Johansson and Phoenix wooing each other from across the mortal/digital divide is far sweeter than it has any logical right to be.
“Dust My Broom” by Elmore James
“Smokestack Lightning” by Howlin’ Wolf
“Sloop John B” by Me First and the Gimme Gimmes
The blues are all about sorrow and misery, right? Maybe in the modern understanding, but Martin Scorsese remembers that they used to be the soundtrack for raunch, too. So much of the movie’s establishing debauchery is scored to blues that came out decades before the movie’s ‘80s/’90s setting. Eventually Scorsese starts using a lot more new wave-era material, like Devo’s “Uncontrollable Urge.” But the use of a punk-rock cover of “Sloop John B” is particularly inspired. Often lost in the fun of the Beach Boys’ popularization of the tune is the key line: “This is the worst trip I’ve ever been on.” A punk version of the song really brings home the kind of moral seasickness that might make you want to vomit and pogo at the same time.
9. Despicable Me 2
“Happy” by Pharrell Williams
A truly happy song that doesn’t make you want to jab needles in your ears is possibly the hardest kind of song to write. Williams pulled it off with a song titled — none too obviously — “Happy,” setting the scene for just how joyful the anti-hero has become since his misdeeds in the first movie, and guaranteeing as much of an animated spring in your step as in Gru’s.
“Liberace Boogie” by the BTC Orchestra featuring Michael Douglas
Not much of HBO’s Liberace biopic was about him as a musician per se, so it was crucial to have a moment where the filmmakers established how he ever became a star in the first place. “I’ve been playing this boogie woogie at eight beats to the bar,” Michael Douglas brags to the audience. “I’d like to try it now at 16 beats a bar.” And, briefly, as he takes on this stunt, all that glitters really does sound gold.
Anchorman: The Legend Continues
“Dobie” by Will Ferrell
Possibly even funnier than the song Ron Burgundy sings to a shark he’s bottle-feeding back to health: the fact that it’s seriously being pushed for a Best Song Oscar. But just try to name a better human-to-inappropriate-pet ballad since Michael Jackson serenaded “Ben.”
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