Epiphanies Through Pop Music In Movies: A Top 5

Those of us afflicted by the disease of Cinephilia stay behind. Littered sparsely across auditoria we sit with our eyes glued to the screen until the last frame runs past our eyes. We do not feel the sighs of impatient ushers on our necks as they wait to go about removing spilled popcorn from the aisles. We watch the credits.

We have our own reasons. Mine is songs. I am doubly afflicted as a Cinephile and an Audiophile. It goes back to a time before the Internet when the only real way to find out which songs were played in a movie was the end credits. Film soundtracks were still mostly curios, only gaining mainstream traction in the waves of Tsunami Tarantino, which I surfed. So I watched the credits. I watched avidly whilst in my head I recalled whereabouts in the movie the musical moment was, so I knew whereabouts in the song credit list it would appear. As I watched the names roll up I had to recall where in the movie the song had appeared, in relation to a song I already knew, so I wouldn’t miss it, in case the title wasn’t obvious. I was looking for the song I didn’t know. One that from the moment I heard it, I needed to have.

Anyone who has seen a film since the form left the fairground and entered the nickelodeon has experienced movies as a marriage of sound and image. So much of the music that matters to me came to me with an image attached and it is the pairing, not simply the component parts, that is burned into my memory bank. It’s most often pop music though, not score, that has this effect. There are very few scores I listen to separately from watching the films they complement. The ones I do are almost wholly scores written and performed by musicians from pop realms. Two favourites are RZA’s score for Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: Way Of The Samurai and Aimee Mann’s collection of songs for Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia. I could never, still can’t, understand how people could listen to, for example, Howard Shore’s Lord Of The Rings scores as they drive to the gym or cook dinner.

When I see hear songs in their solo context that I first experienced in cinematic contexts it is profound and comforting. I see the person I am, as well as the person I was in that place, geographically and emotionally, where I first had the epiphany. There’s only one rational way I can really approach talking about this and that’s by compiling a Top 5. That’s what would happen in High Fidelity.  To homage: do I love lists because I love High Fidelity, or do I love High Fidelity because I love lists? This is a journey through my life via my Top 5 pop music moments in movies.

1. Jumping Jack Flash by The Rolling Stones

It could have been anything from this film in truth. Be My Baby by The Ronettes, Rubber Biscuits by The Chips or Mickey’s Monkey by The Miracles all seared their arrows into my heart along with the images they scored. I remember it so clearly. 17 and at college, I was making lifelong friends to an Oasis fuelled soundtrack and for the first time in my life I had people and music that I felt were truly mine, and understood me. I had the cinema bug in a big way and organised a Scorsese night at my house for some friends. On the menu were Goodfellas, Casino, Taxi Driver, which I had recently seen and loved, and Mean Streets, which I had never seen. Looking back it’s a weird marathon to invite new friends round your house to enjoy but most of the attendees are still friends and this is still my idea of a good time.

We started with Mean Streets. I can’t remember what we watched next. All I remember is my life changing forever over the course of 112 glorious minutes. I had heard Jumping Jack Flash before, of course I had, but this time it was different. This time the screen was drenched in red and this figure was floating in slow motion through this bar, women on his arm, shit eating grin on his face, towards someone who loved him but couldn’t stand him. I was a mess. I didn’t know what I was seeing but I had Goosebumps and I knew what I was going to do with the rest of my life. Mean Streets is still my favourite film and the song still gives me Goosebumps both when I watch the film or hear the song on its own. I am taken to that majestic scene and my old living room, when I was 17, the fragments of my first screenplay on a floppy disk nestled at the bottom of my bag.

2. Dry The Rain by The Beta Band

Being a Cinephile and Audiophile can come with an unbearable level of snobbery that is hard to shift. Moving through my 30s has mellowed me a tad. I have moved beyond the High Fidelity adage ‘it’s what you like, not what you are like that matters’. The truth, however, is that the snobbery doesn’t disappear even if it can be controlled. Part of me wants to write a Top 20 here to display my full range of taste and knowledge like a Silverback in a jungle beating his chest. I want you to know how important and meaningful being introduced to Elliott Smith and having my whole world turned upside down by Good Will Hunting was. Or how Wes Anderson using Paul Simon’s Me & Julio Down By The Schoolyard so perfectly in The Royal Tenenbaums blew my tiny mind. Or how hearing Leftfield’s opening, title track for Shallow Grave made me feel elated or how woozy I was when Air’s Playground Love for The Virgin Suicides washed over me. How pumped Public Enemy’s He Got Game got me, how nostalgic I became for a time I never knew experiencing The Band’s The Weight in Easy Rider or how I cried at PT Anderson dusting off Shelley Duvall and Harry Nilsson’s He Needs Me for Punch Drunk Love. I know just told you. Forgive me. Some things don’t change with age. My girlfriend read this and called it masturbatory, using a different vocabulary, and she is right.

There is also the wonderful and slightly elitist sensation of something you know being used in a movie and thinking those sharing the experience with you are not as ‘cool’ as you, because unlike them you know the song in its original purely aural form. Like hearing Baz Luhrmann use Radiohead’s Talk Show Host, a B-side on Street Spirit (Fade Out) no less, to devastating effect in his Romeo & Juliet, my teenage self reveling in smugness. Not just in movies either. Reading the book of High Fidelity I felt a giddy rush at the mere mention of my beloved Spiritualized. And it is a mere mention. These are the ugly realities that often accompany people with my affliction but I’ve outgrown them to a degree. I hope. I have grasped the positives and realised just how much amazing music I have been introduced to in movies. High Fidelity taught me that the Velvet Underground were not just an amazing Art Rock band but an incredible straight Rock & Roll band and it also brought the Beta Band into my life in the same way it was brought into the lives of the looked down upon in the film. John Cusack says he will “now sell 5 copies of The Three EPs by The Beta Band”. Well he sold at least 6. The song, Dry The Rain sits comfortably in my top 5 songs of all time.

3. Hate It Here by Wilco

Thinking about it makes me cry. This is actually hard to type. My hands are shaking and my heart is racing. I have never been happier in my life and that’s a hard thing to say because I’ve been very happy in the past and I fear saying that hurts other people. However my life now is very different to how it was a couple of years back. I didn’t see this life coming. I didn’t see where and how I live and whom I love, and who loves me now, coming. I adore Boyhood for so many reasons but mostly for that moment where Ethan Hawke plays his son Hate It Here by Wilco and discusses the lyrics with him. Wilco are one of my favourite bands and I have fond memories of the Sky Blue Sky album having seen the band live for the first time as they toured it. The song though, wasn’t high on my list of favourites, until that moment in the dark with a person who has impacted my life in the most beautiful way; beyond any level I ever dreamed possible. Now it’s in my Top 5. It’s a sad song that is poignant given that so much of the time my love and I are apart - ‘What am I gonna do, if you never come home, tell me, what am I gonna do?’ When I hear it now, and I play it a lot, I am transported to that beautiful night of a wondrous summer and I can see the film ahead of me, reminding me of the beauty and fragility of life and I can feel, to the side of me, hand in mine, the most exquisite reminder of the joy of loving and being loved.

4. Sea Of Teeth by Sparklehorse

Some films have got me into certain songs. Whole Wide World by Wreckless Eric being played by Will Ferrell in Stranger Than Fiction stands out. Some films have got me into artists. Rushmore got me into The Creation thanks to Wes Anderson sound-tracking a badass slo-mo Bill Murray to the strains of Making Time. One film though got me into a band that would become one of my all time favourites. I loved George Washington so was excited to hear that David Gordon Green had a new film coming out. The soundtrack had the familiar strains of Will Oldham and Mogwai on, but it also had this strange, ethereal, melancholic and devastating song on it. It was a song that haunted me and does to this day. I had recently gone through a break up so seeing All The Real Girls in that state had a profoundly decimating effect on me and during the film I heard Sparklehorse for the first time. It wasn’t depressing even though it chimed with depressive tones. It was a warm, comforting, encompassing feeling. It told me that it would be okay, but it didn’t know when. It is a song that sonically encapsulates the themes of the film. It is a song that recalls the frequently transient nature of love and how we feel destroyed by it when we should be celebrating that we have the capacity to experience it at all. I left the cinema into a warm late summer night and devoured everything Mark Linkous had done. Life changed. Again.

 5. The Man In Me by Bob Dylan

There are instances where films use music so perfectly that you cannot hear a song in any other context ever again. You are shouting Tarantino at me and sure, that’s a good example, no film does it quite like The Big Lebowski. Every single piece of music in the film is perfect. It could not be any other piece of music in any scene in the film. Okay, stop shouting at me. I know you are saying that this is the case for most films because once you’ve heard the song that goes with the image the context is forever changed. However, The Big Lebowski is one of the few films, and certainly atop the list of mine, when there is a conscious moment where you say to yourself, out loud in my case, that the music choices are perfect and could not have been any other way. 99% of the time the thought washes over you unconsciously or subconsciously if at all. Kenny Rogers, Gipsy Kings, Captain Beefheart, Nina Simone, Townes Van Zandt, Credence, Dylan. It’s the Dylan that gets me though. It’s the Dylan that destroys me. It’s a perfect song, perfectly used. It carries you into the movie and into that world that only the Coen Brothers know how to sculpt. It carries you along on a wave of bliss. It feels like the film. When people ask me why I love The Big Lebowski, the film sits in my top 10 so I do get asked, I usually just say because of The Man In Me over the opening credits. It’s the greatest moment, for me, in one of the greatest films. It’s a beautiful song and it soundtracks a montage of dudes and dudettes bowling as if bowling is the most important act in the world. It’s an honest and breezy song. It’s full of love and a gentle Californian swagger with some of the best La La La’s ever recorded. It elevates the simple art of bowling to something profound and because of the music choice it’s never cruel. It doesn’t mock. It celebrates. The music removes any ironic distance and says this is a film about love and bowling and you’re going to have to deal with that. It’s no coincidence that the first character we see post credits is the sympathetic and tragic heart of the movie, Donny. Donny who loved bowling.