Film

The 10 Best Uses of Popular Music in Modern Film

Movie and music are inseparable. Here are 10 examples of how the two can come together to create a classic moment of cine-magic.

Don't let the concept fool you: Hollywood has made a mint mining popular culture for music to squeeze into their productions. Even back in the days when actors frequently broke into song for no good reason, the latest selections on the hit parade were wedged in for some necessary commercial cross promotion. Many of the most memorable tunes from the past found their purchase in the cinema of the time, and up until the '50s, there was little change. Then directors hit upon a more intriguing idea. Instead of just using same as a marketing tool, why not give the material meaning? As a result, we've seen a steady increase in the use of popular songs and genres -- rock, country, soul -- as a viable motion picture backdrop. Some filmmakers have become so good at the concurrence of sight and sound that their reputation rests on it.

As a result, this is our list of the 10 Best Uses of Popular Music in Post Modern Cinema (yes, we are skipping several decades previous - there's just no time or space). First off, however, some ground rules. We have PURPOSEFULLY tried to avoid the obvious choices. You won't see "Layla" from Goodfellas, "In Dreams" from Blue Velvet, or "Sister Christian" from Boogie Nights (we have another, better selection for that film). In fact, many of the so called "most memorable" moments from the use of music in movies are AWOL here. Why? Well, it's far more fun to discuss new traditions that to trod down the paths previously proposed. Even better, songs and sounds are personal things. One individuals love of George Thorogood can lead to the widespread use (and abuse) of his "Bad to the Bone".

So we stick with what we like, what we feel fulfills the promise and needs of the scene, and how the overall movie and narrative is enhanced/highlighted by the tune selected. We may not have for favorites listed, but that's OK. Within this category there seems to be dozens of intriguing choices, starting with one from 2010's Best Film...

 
#10: "Baby, You're a Rich Man" -- The Beatles, from The Social Network

As the coda for the out of court case being waged against Mark Zuckerberg and those who would claim credit for creating that funny little muddle known as Facebook, David Fincher delivers a devastating blow. As a weary John Lennon sings over a simplistic piano-based beat, the combination of celebration and defeat is palpable. As the lyrics chide our characters, calling them out as "beautiful people", the ending insinuates unearned wealth and a battle over basic human dignity. When combined with what we had seen previously, it's makes the movie's message even more sharp and eviscerating.

 
#9: "Police on My Back" -- The Clash, from Knocked Up

It's a throwaway moment, a sequence where our E! News Producer lead and her married pal run through a pharmacy looking for home pregnancy tests. But the inference in director Judd Apatow's juxtaposition is easy to spot. Our heroine is being hounded by the poor choice she made weeks before, and the siren-like squeal of Mick Jones' guitar provides the urgent backdrop. The impact may just be part of hearing one of the greatest bands -- punk or otherwise -- celebrated in a mainstream movie. Yet there is a clear subtext here which both the song and Apatow's use explore with ease.

 
#8: "Holiday Road" -- Lindsay Buckingham, from National Lampoon's Vacation

Mostly made up of individual vignettes strung together by standard road movie conventions, John Hughes' first major Hollywood success (he wrote the script) needed something to tie these often uneven moments together. Enter Mr. Pop from Fleetwood Mac, an artist desperate to break free from the shackles of guiding one of the most successful acts of the '70s. Buckingham's bouncy tribute to the endless drudgery of the rat race may seem like a surreal choice, but director Harold Ramis uses it in several solid ways. As a reminder, a punchline, a cheerleading chant, and finally, as fuel forwarding the Griswald family toward their date with pseudo-Disney destiny.

 
#7: "Let's Get Together" -- The Youngbloods, from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

After Alex Cox was fired, director Terry Gilliam stepped in to this troubled adaptation of Hunter Thompson's classic and came up with a great idea -- why not let the author's words do all of the talking. Now, all he needed was the right musical backdrop to make one of the writer's most important passages -- the "wave" speech -- come to life. By picking this era appropriate classic, Gilliam gave us both a call to arms and a sad requiem for the optimism of the time. The perfect backdrop for a meditate on the promise of the '60s un-obtained.

 
#6: "Sixteen Reasons" -- Connie Stephens, from Mulholland Dr.

David Lynch loves to do this. The first example one can remember is the by now iconic moment when the cruel criminal Frank Booth asks his pal Ben to sing about a "candy colored clown." But for quite possibly his greatest cinematic achievement ever, the filmmaker found this surreal pop nugget and used it as a comment on the fakeness of Hollywood. As the '50s chanteuse sells the sappy, puppy love lyric, we slowly watch the movie magic around her disintegrate. Eventually, a level of menace arrives that neither the lyric nor the bubble production suggests. It's Lynch at his most daring, and delightful.

Next Page

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less
Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

Next Page
Related Articles Around the Web
Film

Subverting the Romcom: Mercedes Grower on Creating 'Brakes'

Noel Fielding (Daniel) and Mercedes Grower (Layla) (courtesy Bulldog Film Distribution)

Brakes plunges straight into the brutal and absurd endings of the relationships of nine couples before travelling back in time to discover the moments of those first sparks of love.

The improvised dark comedy Brakes (2017), a self-described "anti-romcom", is the debut feature of comedienne and writer, director and actress Mercedes Grower. Awarded production completion funding from the BFI Film Fund, Grower now finds herself looking to the future as she develops her second feature film, alongside working with Laura Michalchyshyn from Sundance TV and Wren Arthur from Olive productions on her sitcom, Sailor.

Keep reading... Show less

People aren't cheering Supergirl on here. They're not thanking her for her heroism, or even stopping to take a selfie.

It's rare for any hero who isn't Superman to gain the kind of credibility that grants them the implicitly, unflinching trust of the public. In fact, even Superman struggles to maintain that credibility and he's Superman. If the ultimate paragon of heroes struggles with maintaining the trust of the public, then what hope does any hero have?

Keep reading... Show less

The Paraguay-born, Brooklyn-based indie pop artist MAJO wraps brand new holiday music for us to enjoy in a bow.

It's that time of year yet again, and with Christmastime comes Christmas tunes. Amongst the countless new covers of holiday classics that will be flooding streaming apps throughout the season from some of our favorite artists, it's always especially heartening to see some original writing flowing in. Such is the gift that Paraguay-born, Brooklyn-based indie pop songwriter MAJO is bringing us this year.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image