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Friday 13 March 2009

The Magic Of Music

The power of music in films is probably nothing new to you. Certainly, anyone who's ever been in an editing room has seen the difference a piece of music can make - turning a rather average scene into something full of energy, or full of emotion. Famously, Quentin Tarantino uses music to pull in the opposite direction of what you're seeing. 'Son Of A Preacher Man' in Pulp Fiction springs to mind.

On those rare occasions that I find a film that has truly become one of my all time favourites; it's usually a piece of music that clinches the deal. I remember seeing 'Juno' for the first time; and I absolutely loved it. But the real clincher was that last scene, as Juno peddled her way to Bleekers house. As they sat on the wall and sang 'Anyone Else But You' together - that was when I knew it was one of my favourite films.

I guess that's the most powerful point for a song, right at the ending. In a second you can change the meaning or feeling of a film, with the audience leaving the cinema a lot different to how they expected. One of the most powerful ways I've seen music end a film was with 'Harold And Maude,' a movie that I actually didn't love that much - but the last ten minutes were subtly touching and beautiful. For those of you that haven't seen it or don't remember; the last five minutes or so see Harold losing Maude to the tune of Cat Stevens' 'Trouble'. It's truly heartbreaking. The scenes of her passing away and Harold in the waiting room struggling to comprehend it are juxtaposed with him speeding away in his car. It ends with his car flying off a cliff and crashing to the ground. Up until this point it is a very sad yet very moving end to the film. But then the camera tilts up to reveal him on the edge of the cliff, Banjo in hand. What happens next is truly sublime.

He begins plucking away at his Banjo. And he picks out a bit of 'If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out' -- and then the real version by Cat Stevens plays - Harold walks away from the camera, dancing about on the hillside whilst playing his Banjo as the credits begin to roll. Not only is it very moving, but strangely inspiring and uplifting - a complete reversal of the scenes before it. It's a true piece of movie magic.

Similarly, the film 'Rushmore' has an inspired ending. The film ends with the song 'Ooh La La' by The Faces, and it seems to inform the whole movie; it adds a different flavour to the film, right at the very end.

What fascinates me about these great examples is how they're not just great cinema or good choices, they transcend that.. they're examples that have stuck with me long after I saw them, there's something a little magic about them. Can filmmakers do this on purpose; can they KNOW how perfect a Cat Stevens song can fit, or can they only hope?. I always found Cameron Crowe to be incredible at hitting the right tone with music in his movies. Who can forget Paul McCartney's 'Singalong Junk' in Jerry Maguire when Jerry is fixing Dorothy's strap on the front porch, or perhaps more famously -- the band-in-the-bus sing-along of 'Tiny Dancer' in 'Almost Famous' or the elegant score of Nancy Wilson when William runs back to his Mother's car after agreeing to go to Morocco with Penny Lane.

But then Crowe made 'Elizabethtown'.

In interviews everywhere he kept talking about the importance of music in his movies, he even had a podcast explaining his music in the film. He flaunted this great skill he had everywhere -- take a look at this documentary, where he has that smug look on his face, - feeling very proud of his work - but the problem is, it doesn't work. I mean, sure, it works. The scenes have the effect he wants as a Director. But they don't reach the viewer in the way Springsteen's 'Secret Garden' did in 'Jerry Maguire' - they're simply functional. It was too much of a conscious effort by Crowe, and it just seems self-indulgent.

So I guess it only really works when it's by accident, or at least not as carefully executed as with the previous example. And I guess it's a really personal thing as well. Maybe the ending to Rushmore isn't all that great, it's just that 'Ooh La La' by The Faces happens to be one of my all time favourite songs. But sometimes things just fit - like all the 80's music in The Wrestler. The writer put those in the script, they were intended - apart from 'Sweet Child Of Mine' which Mickey Rourke wanted to use. And funnily enough, when you hear that tune in the film it is incredibly apt and moving-- more so than was probably expected.

Anyways, I'm going to carry on watching movies in the hopes that a piece of music moves me when I least expect it - because on those rare occasions that it happens, it's more powerful than any piece of dialogue. I leave you with a clip of my all time favourite scene with my favourite piece of film music. The film is Dito Montiel's 'A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints' - a film that throws its energy and ideas in a million different places (I mean this in a good way) -- but it's not until this scene that you realise what the film means to you. The beautiful piano music is unlike anything in the film up to that point, and along with the deceptively simple Directing and the astonishingly pitch-perfect acting performances; it's a scene that has always struck me as being perfect.

1 comment:

  1. This is fantastic. Robert Downey, Jr is one of my all time favorites. I loved his role in "Heart and Souls." A small movie made in 1993 directed by Ron Underwood. I have watched it a million times over and his character's revelation at the end of the movie with Kyra Sedgwick has always made me cry. (I won't tell anymore in case you haven't yet seen it.) Their use of "Walk like a man" and . . .oh what am I saying. You all should watch it!! I love when you walk out a film whistling a tune that was played in the movie.