Music in Movies

Ever since the advent of the ‘talkie’, sound in movies has been just as integral as the visuals. When music is employed in a movie, it is used in a variety of ways. You’ll see it used in the background to reassure you of what you’re seeing. For instance, If a character is in a saloon or honky-tonk like atmosphere, you’ll hear a jukebox playing an old country song.

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This way, if you missed the sawdust on the floor and drunken rednecks, you can hear conway twitty and smack yourself on the forehead and say, “Oh, its a country bar! I thought they were in a gynecologist’s office!”. Sometimes music will only exist in order to sell the soundtrack and thus make more profit. Think Bryan Adams and “When You Love a Woman”. Music is the most important part of a montage in a romantic comedy, because we wouldn’t be able to believe that this couple is falling in love unless we hear a romantic song play as we watch Sandra Bullock and Hugh Grant start to see something in one another. These are all rather hackneyed, but some directors actually use music to help enhance the story, creating a better product than what could have been accomplished with dialogue alone.

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Music is intended to create a certain feeling in your mind and body. When that is coupled with the action onscreen, you’ve now got multiple senses engaged. Using love songs to show us two people falling in love is hackneyed and kind of a cop-out, though. Some movies will flip this idea on its head, and use songs that generally are considered beautiful or happy and juxtapose them with incidents onscreen that are usually less than ideal. Take, for example, the movie “Miller’s Crossing”. An Irish mobster is listening to the enchanting “Danny Boy”. He hears men enter his house, attempting to kill them. An intensely bloody and savage gunfight takes place, all while this darling little ditty is playing. In Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, Stanley Kubrick ends his movie with the friendly song, “We’ll meet again”. Onscreen, however, all you see are the explosions of atom bombs, signalling an end to civilization. This jars the audience into paying attention, and keeps the film from becoming formulaic, until recently, when this sort of thing is getting just a little formulaic. Oh well.

A master of using music in movies is that bushy-browed, fast-talking sadist named Martin Scorcese. Many of his films have almost what can be called a continuous soundtrack. Goodfellas is a good example of this. There are very few instances in the movie where music is not playing, and since this movie takes place over four decades, we not only see time pass through the aging of the characters, we hear time pass as the music of the day changes. Scorcese has been known to actually write music notes along with his dialogue in his scripts.

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We all know that horror movie scores are intended to frighten us, and they usually don’t. The movies generally blow. Suspense scores are usually the same too. A bunch of brass and an underlying string instrument that tells you to stay on your toes. This obviously got old long ago, but every now and then a movie will surprise you with its music choice. Take Boogie Nights as an example. The scene where a maniacal Alfred Molina is listening to his mixtapes while high on drugs is one of the most intense scenes in modern movie history. We are aware on screen that one out of several characters is about to start shooting people, but the director holds us in suspense, with only the noise of a young chinese boy lighting firecrackers and a series of ’80s pop songs. This is the only movie that had me biting my nails while Rick Springfield’s “Jessie’s Girl” played in the background. That alone should have warranted an honorary Oscar.

It is clear that music in movies, if done right, can enhance the picture without bogging it down into the formulaic drivel that usually results when music and movies mix. There are some movies that have melded the action onscreen with the song so perfectly, that when you hear the song, you immediately think of that particular scene. A good example is in Reservoir Dogs, where Michael Madsen is torturing a tied up police officer. The song that is playing is “Stuck in the Middle with You”, which nearly everybody I talk to thinks is Bob Dylan but it is actually a group called Stealer’s Wheel.

As the song plays, the policeman is getting slashed with a razor, finally getting his ear cut off. Then Madsen exits the warehouse, and the song fades out until it is hardly visible, since it is being played on the radio inside. He goes to his car trunk for a gas can, and you hear children playing and dogs barking. Basically, you hear suburbia. Then he re-enters the warehouse and we’re back to “Stuck in the Middle with You”. Most people who have seen the movie and then hear the song will instantly equate it with that very famous scene.

Another example is Singing in the Rain. There are those who obviously will call to mind the actual movie of the same name, and Gene Kelly’s performance, but I’ll wager that more than half the people you ask who have seen A Clockwork Orange will have a different visual in mind. They’ll see a man being beaten and a woman being raped. Such is the power of music in movies, when harnessed by a mind that is able to look outside the box, beyond playing Sweet Home Alabama if their character is taking a road trip.

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