They don’t make them like they used to…that’s why modern movies are always turning to classic rock to bring music to their pictures. Here’s 10 great examples…
10. Dirty Love – Frank Zappa (The Ice Storm, Ang Lee, 1997)
Admittedly this one is a tad self-indulgent as I’m a pretty big Zappa fan. Nonetheless, it was the first time I had ever heard a FZ song – aside from in his own movies (namely 1971’s 200 Motels and 1979’s Baby Snakes) – used in a film. That in itself is kind of interesting given (at least according to Captain Beefheart biographer Mike Barnes) he originally moved to Los Angeles as an 18 year-old circa 1959 to establish himself as “a writer of film soundtracks” and did in fact churn out two of them (1962’s The World’s Greatest Sinner and 1965’s Run Home Slow … plus he and his band, The Mothers of Invention, appeared in the documentary Mondo Hollywood, which was also made in 1965). His stuff later appeared in some of the early episodes of the mid-1990s animated US TV cartoon Duckman, as did the voice of his eldest son Dweezil. Not sure what happened, but there was no FZ music in the latter series – a pity because it worked really well. Dirty Love, which came off the 1973 album Over-Nite Sensation, is an apt choice by Lee given The Ice Storm partly concerns itself with a group of middle class friends in Connecticut who experiment with wife swapping and find the experience, errrr … dirty.
9. Deacon Blues – Steely Dan (Zodiac, David Fincher, 2007)
Like Martin Scorsese (see below), Fincher is another American film maker who knows how to shape a great soundtrack with the help of popular music. Although some may say the use of Donovan’s Hurdy Gurdy Man at both the start of the film (when the first murder takes place) and during the end credits (when the narrative has pretty much has reached its conclusion regarding the killer’s identity) deserves the mention here, the use of Deacon Blues (in which Donald Fagan and Walter Becker’s melancholic and somewhat nostalgic lyrics celebrate being a loser) is quite effective and subtle, coming at a time when the audience sees the terminally ill and defibrillator-reliant journalist Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jnr) quietly drinking and smoking himself to death in bar as he watches his former newspaper colleague at The San Francisco Chronicle, Robert Graysmith (Jake Glyllenhaal), appearing on TV to boast cracking a code that the investigative reporter should have solved himself. This song originally appeared on Steely Dan’s 1977 album Aja.
8. Voodoo Chile – The Jimi Hendrix Experience (Withnail & I, Bruce Robinson, 1987)
While this electric guitar opus has been employed in a number of films – including Ridley Scott’s 2001 war opus Black Hawke Down (where the cover version by Stevie Ray Vaughn is employed) – it’s the scene when Withnail and Marwood (Richard E Grant and Paul McGann) are returning from their dismal country trip to London along a motorway in which it resonates the most. Aside from being a hilarious screen moment (Withnail is pulled over by the police for being drunk behind the wheel; he then unsuccessfully tries to pass a urine test by using baby’s pee) the song is one of the 1960s most iconic musical rock and roll moments, and thus becomes a fitting choice given the movie partly ends up being about the end of this sometimes fondly remembered era. Voodoo Chile first appeared on 1968’s Electric Ladyland and has since been on just about every (if not all) live recording issued by the Hendrix family trust over the past 20 years.
7. The House of the Rising Sun – The Animals (Casino, Martin Scorsese, 1995)
A difficult choice given Scorsese penchant for filling his soundtracks with an array of rock songs. Nevertheless, it does somehow fit in perfectly with the final moments of the drug addicted/alcoholic Ginger McKenna (Sharon Stone), the erstwhile trophy bride of casino boss Sam Rothstein (Robert De Niro) who has been ostracized by her family, deserted by her sleazy boyfriend Lester (James Woods) and bled dry by her crim mates. Alone and completely obliterated, she staggers to her death in the corridor of a Los Angeles hotel, her star literally extinguished in a house where there is no rising sun. The song originally appeared on The Animal’s 1964 debut album.
6. Young Americans – David Bowie (Dogville, Lars von Trier, 2003)
After dragging his audience through this lengthy and heavy handed morality tale about mean spirited opportunism, ruthless exploitation and violent retribution in rural USA, Von Trier’s closing credits include a photo montage depicting domestic poverty, violence, racial discrimination and incarceration in the US since the 1930s as this Bowie song blares over the soundtrack. Brilliant in its execution and delightfully unexpected, this audiovisual essay merely reiterates the broader themes of the film, further exposing the underbelly of a nation that is truly divided by class and motivated by greed. Young Americans was initially released on Bowie’s same name album in 1975.
5. Living for the City – Stevie Wonder (Jungle Fever, Spike Lee, 1991)
When Flipper Purify (Wesley Snipes) goes looking for his crack addicted brother (Samuel L Jackson) and girlfriend (Halle Berry) in what looks like a rundown part of Harlem or Brooklyn, he is exposed to the poverty-stricken dregs of New York’s African-American community – loony street ranters, self-destructive drug fiends, down and out beggars and self-pitying losers. This is arguably one of Snipes’ best screen moments as he stumbles through this derelict landscape. Interestingly, Lee chooses to use the longer version of the song (which came from the 1973 album Inversions) rather than the three minute:41 second one that was originally played on AM radio all those years ago.
4. Jump into the Fire – Harry Nilsson (Goodfellas, Martin Scorsese, 1990)
Although it’s been reported that Scorsese used some 46 pieces songs/tracks in this film, the opening of this Nilsson song – with its distinctive punchy bass line (played by Herbie Flowers) and wailing lyrics – is arguably the stand out, particularly as it marks the beginning of the movie’s final act wherein, during 1980, Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) gets nabbed for selling cocaine, squeals like a pig to the authorities and enters the FBI’s witness protection program. Of course there will be some who disagree with this choice – and for good reason. After all, other musical highlights include the use of Derek and the Dominos’ Layla piano exit when the executed bodies of Jimmy Conway’s (Robert De Niro) gang start turning up, as well as the playing of Donovan’s gentle Atlantis just as Conway and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) stomp Billy Batts (Frank Vincent) to death in a bar (an act that also results in some serious repercussions). Jump into the Fire was one of three hits that emanated from Nilsson’s 1971 album Nilsson Schmilsson – another being Coconuts, which played over the final credits of Quentin Tarantino’s breakthrough 1992 movie Reservoir Dogs.
3. Baba O’Riley – The Who (Summer of Sam, Spike Lee, 1999)
Summer of Sam is a strangely problematic film for a number of reasons. Aside from its overt racism (director Lee doesn’t seem too fond of Italian-Americans) and its somewhat surreal portrayal of Son of Sam killer David Berkowitz (Michael Badalucco), the story kind of doesn’t make sense given Ritchie (Adrien Brody) returns to New York from London as a punk convertee in the middle of 1977, but is more a fan of The Who than The Sex Pistols (who, if my memory is correct, don’t get a mention in the movie at all). Nevertheless, the musical montage break in the second half – which is built around Pete Townsend and Roger Daltrey’s anthem for a teenage wasteland – probably wouldn’t have worked had Lee tried using something by Johnny Rotten and the Pistols. It’s so good that even the sound of the stylus being placed on the vinyl LP at the start is completely authentic. Baba O’Riley first appeared on The Who’s 1971 Who’s Next LP, an album that also featured Won’t Get Fooled Again, which Lee uses at the end of Summer of Sam when Berkowitz is caught just as Ritchie is being beaten to a pulp by his mates, who mistakenly think (because they are so stoned) he is the killer. Again a good choice of music, but one that is not necessarily reflective of the period in which it is set.
2. The End – The Doors (Apocalypse Now, Francis Coppola, 1979)
An interesting question is: What would Apocalypse Now have been like without the inclusion of this track? Maybe not a lot different, but it wouldn’t have been quite the same either, which is entering interesting territory when one is dealing with a true masterwork. Played during the film’s hypnotic opening and again over the climatic killing of Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), the song essentially marks the start and finish of Captain Willard’s (Martin Sheen) mission – a journey in which he sets off as a restless Vietnam War assassin, only to end up being a battle weary ghost who disappears into his own heart of darkness. Taken from The Doors 1966 self titled debut album, The End was again used by Oliver Stone in his 1991 biopic about the band. Interestingly, its inclusion in the latter work also marked a transitional moment, that being when Jim Morrison (Val Kilmer) truly arrives as a performer.
1. Memo From Turner – Mick Jagger (Performance, Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg, 1970)
A ground breaking cinematic moment which could easily lay claim to being one of the true precursors to the MTV music video revolution a decade later, this song (which was co-written by Keith Richards) signifies the moment when the identities of the elusive rock star (Mick Jagger) and the thuggish gangster from the homosexual London underworld (James Fox) merge after they ingest magic mushrooms. The fellow behind the soundtrack – the late, great Jack Nitzsche – used back-up musicians other than the Rolling Stones, including Ry Cooder on slide guitar, Randy Newman on piano, Russ Titelman on guitar, Jerry Scheff on bass and Gene Parsons on drums, and the results are pretty stunning; so much so that’s it’s a pity Warner Brothers didn’t record a few albums using this combination while it had them all together (although it’s unlikely Jagger, even if he wanted to, could have easily broken his contract with Decca without loads of money being involved; plus it probably would have seen the end of The Rolling Stones as we know it). Given the respective backgrounds of co-directors Cammel and cinematographer Nicholas Roeg, it’s likely the former was pretty much responsible for this one. While Memo From Turner has appeared on at least one of The Rolling Stones’ many compilation albums, my advice for anyone interested in procuring a copy of this track is to look in the second-hand record bins for the original soundtrack.