Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Music at the Movies

I haven't yet written much about my Top 13 list of movies over there in the margin. Each of them deserves its own post, but as I was thinking about one of my favorite scenes from Junebug tonight, I began to realize that almost all these films have moments where music plays a memorable role - not just as soundtrack, but as part of the story. (Yes, that's true of a lot of movies.) In fact, although I've resisted the temptation to rank the 13 in order, I think these 9 with pivotal musical contributions are easily my Top 9. In brief:
  • Big Night - lots of great tunes, but the dance to Louie Prima's "Buono Sera" stands out.
  • Junebug - George's soft and tender performance of "Softly and Tenderly Jesus is Calling," set in a disarmingly realistic fellowship hall scene, almost made me rethink all my misgivings about that kind of hymn. And there are so many subtle interpersonal revelations in that scene. When I ask myself if Junebug belongs on this list, this scene is the answer. (Also the performances of Celia Weston and Scott Wilson; Amy Adams is charming, but the parents are two of the most convincing and affectingly portrayed roles I've ever seen.)
  • Kolya - music is prominent throughout, but Kolya's rendition of the Dvorak 23rd Psalm over the closing credits kills me every time. Yes, it's sappy and manipulative. So what.
  • Magnolia - maybe the best use of music in any movie. Paul Thomas Anderson's affinity for Aimee Mann's songs is one thing that makes this whole big mess work. The "Wise Up" scene, a bold and potentially embarrassing idea, is stunning.
  • A Mighty Wind - just as I'd never have expected to be so moved by Aimee Mann, who would've thought I'd become so attached to faux folk music? I've listened to this soundtrack countless times. Somehow these performers found the perfect balance between being believable and hysterical. The music is funny in all sorts of ways, but also sweet and genuine, nowhere more so than in A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow.
  • Moonstruck - let's just say that "O soave fanciulla" from La bohème is playing on Ronny's record player.
  • The Purple Rose of Cairo - a heartbroken Cecilia is left to watch Fred Astaire twirl Ginger Rogers "Cheek to Cheek" across the screen.
  • A Room with a View - Puccini, Puccini, Puccini. Dame Kiri sings Doretta's song from La Rondine to set the stage for an outing in the Italian countryside - of course George ends up kissing Lucy. Oh, and I think O mio babbino caro shows up as well.
  • The Shawshank Redemption - Andy sneaks the letter duet from The Marriage of Figaro into the inmates' playlist. Red says, "I have no idea to this day what them two Italian ladies were singin' about. Truth is, I don't want to know. Some things are best left unsaid.."

The four Top 13 movies that failed this challenge?

  • Barcelona - Yes, there's a lot of good jazz and the unforgettable image of Ted's Bible-dancing. ("You're far weirder than someone merely into S & M. At least they have a tradition.") Still, I don't honestly remember what music was playing.
  • A Fish Called Wanda - all I remember is a lot of bad 80's style music. This might be the most marginal member of my Top 13, but it's got Kevin Kline at his genius best.
  • The Princess Bride - worst ever soundtrack for a good movie. It sounds like it was produced in someone's basement on a couple of Casios.
  • Unbreakable - When I think of this movie, I think of silence as much as anything. I seem to remember an effective soundtrack, but one that is subtle and doesn't draw attention to itself. I need to watch this again.

UPDATE: When I wrote this post, Chariots of Fire wasn't on this list, although I've since put it there. I have mixed feelings about the Vangelis soundtrack, but there's little question that the Gilbert and Sullivan excerpts are crucial components of the movie; there's also a wonderful Presbyterian hymn that sets up a scene and, of course, the use of Jerusalem. All in all, a pretty musical movie.

UPDATE (9/4/22): I recently re-watched The Graduate for at least the seventh or eighth time and it made me wonder if I'd put that movie on this list - turns out I hadn't. As much as I love The Graduate, it has a few flaws that maybe would put it...well, right about at #15 on my list behind the ones listed above. However, from a music point of view, the role of Simon & Garfunkel's songs is as crucial as in most of the movies listed above. Most specifically, the framing role of The Sounds of Silence which opens, closes, and accompanies a memorable mid-film sequence, but also [SPOILER ALERT] the way the rhythmic guitar riff from Mrs. Robinson accompanies Ben's desperate search for Elaine's wedding. I always especially enjoyed the way the guitar runs out of gas around 1:25 into this scene.

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