The 10 Best Uses of Popular Music in Modern Film

by Bill Gibron

19 June 2012


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#5: “Hold Tight”—Dave, Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick, and Titch, from Death Proof

Quentin Tarantino gets two entries here, and with good reason. Along with Martin Scorsese and Paul Thomas Anderson, he’s one of the few directors who ‘gets’ the use of popular music in post-modern cinema. Songs can function as both soundtrack and commentary, as this biting piece of British Invasion rock and roll suggests. While the lyric is all love song, the proto-punk guitar work and choral wailing forewarn of the devastating car crash to come. Even better, by having one of his characters explain the tune and the band who play it, we, the audience, become partners in the play date with death.

#4: “Like a Rolling Stone (Live Version)”—Bob Dylan, from New York Stories

Martin Scorsese has so many memorable music moments that to pick just one seems unfair. Yet we continuously go back to this tumultuous live take on the Dylan epic because of how magnificently it amplifies its material. All we really have here is an artist, frustrated both sexually and creatively, struggling to complete a canvas. As the song whips into a musical maelstrom, we see how emotions unleashed lead to great, even masterful art. As the tune winds up and the painter stands at his canvas, spent, we feel we’ve just experience the inner workings of a troubled, talented mind.

#3: “Festival”—Sigur Rós, from 127 Hours

After days spent trapped beneath a boulder in an isolated Utah cave, our hero has finally found the guts to sever his own arm and stumble toward civilization. Needing a piece that was both triumphant and cautionary, director Danny Boyle unleashed Sigur Rós’ lovely lament—and movie magic was born. The Icelandic band have seen their songs frequently featured in the trailers of important films—Children of Men, for example—but few filmmakers have found successful ways to incorporate their ambient dreamscapes into the narrative mix. Boyle understands, turning an already emotional moment into something sublime.

#2: “Across 110th Street”—Bobby Womack, from Jackie Brown

Tarantino again, and this time he is setting the stage for everything to come later. As a character and a film, Jackie Brown is a throwback to the days when drive-ins and urban theaters would feature ass-kicking characters of African American persuasion. These blaxploitation titles, popular because they spoke to a demographic wholly underserved, often had killer soundtracks and QT re-contextualizes this Womack wonder to fit his post-modern take on the material. The desperation and pain of the lyric and delivery uncover the hidden conceits about to be discovered in the storyline, while the ‘70s soul feel argues for the movie’s retro and revisionist elements.

#1: “Machine Gun”—The Commodores, from Boogie Nights

How do you celebrate a ‘70s porn star’s rise to the top? Even better, how do you find a way to bring all of your divergent characters together to illustrate the “one big happy family” feel that will guide the rest of your movie? Why, you get one of the greatest dance instrumentals of all time and place you actors in a line, Saturday Night Fever style, and let them strut their stuff. Sure, in this montage, the actors discuss the tools of the skin trade and the critical reaction to same, but the real selling point is their momentary move into choreography. As the spin and turn, jump and jive, we’re ready to follow these people anywhere—and director Paul Thomas Anderson delivers in devastating ways.

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