The Celluloid Playlist

When music goes to the movies.
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Two Oscar nominees are certain to exit the Dolby Theater with statuettes in hand on Sunday. The first is Daniel Day-Lewis, whose virtuoso performance gave the breath of life to a national monument; his portrayal of Abraham Lincoln is sure to earn him his third Best Actor Academy Award (itself a first in Oscar history). The second sure-fire winner is Adele, whose pretty decent song played during the opening credits of a very good James Bond movie.

Hollywood, we have a problem.

I don’t begrudge Adele her inevitable Oscar for “Music (Original Song).” Given the lack of worthy original song contenders, her “Skyfall” is far and away the right choice to win the award. But I do blame the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for being so blinkered to how movies are actually enriched by music. Orchestral compositions aside (they rightfully have their own award category), the music that accompanies a particular scene is often a previously recorded (i.e., unoriginal) song. In the best cases, it has been carefully selected by the filmmaker to enhance the onscreen action. Both song and scene become all the more memorable. To be fair, the Academy doesn’t outright ignore this important facet of filmmaking – at least not when the ceremony’s producers need material to stuff into their many superfluous montages.

For your consideration: three examples from the past two decades in which music played the scene-stealing role, followed by that year’s corresponding winner for Best Song. You be the judge:

The iconic twist sequence between Uma Thurman and John Travolta set to “You Never Can Tell” from “Pulp Fiction.” Best Song (1994): “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” by Elton John from “The Lion King.”

The “Tiny Dancer” tour bus sing-along from “Almost Famous.” Best Song (2000): “Things Have Changed” by Bob Dylan from “Wonder Boys.”

Annette Bening’s heartbreaking a cappella rendition of “All I Want” from “The Kids are All Right.” Best Song (2010): “We Belong Together” by Randy Newman from “Toy Story 3.”

For the record, I adore “The Lion King,” Bob Dylan, and “Toy Story 3.” But the sad fact remains: a sentimental ballad sung by two cartoon felines was bestowed Oscar gold, while a dazzling dance sequence (maybe the greatest captured on film in recent memory) set against a killer Chuck Berry tune wasn’t even up for consideration. "C'est la vie," say the old folks in the Academy. It goes to show they never can tell.

Of course, bitching about the Oscars is a time-honored ritual nearly as old as the awards themselves. So I’ll take a page from the Independent Spirit Awards, turn my back to that sword-wielding tyrant, and give out my own damn awards. Without further ado, Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the Year in Movie Music that was 2012.

Worst Scene: “Argo”

It’s Tehran, 1980. Six Americans, having miraculously escaped the hostage crisis at their former workplace, the U.S. embassy, are refugees living in secret at the Canadian ambassador’s private residence. Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck), a C.I.A. hostage-rescuer, has concocted a bonkers plan to pluck them from the storm’s eye and return them home safe and sound—a plan  that may very well result in imprisonment, torture, and death for them all. The night before going through with Mendez’s rescue scheme, the refugees try to unwind over a few drinks. One of the Americans (played by Tate Donovan) approaches a turntable and puts the needle down on Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks.”

No one in the room seems to mind or even notice his blunder. But God knows what was going on inside Ben Affleck’s brain.

I don’t think I’m going too far out on a limb when I say “When the Levee Breaks” is one of Zeppelin’s towering achievements. On the surface, the song also works well in the scene – a little too well. Its menacing harmonica, thundering drums, and fatalistic lyrics (“Cryin' won't help you, prayin' won't do you no good”) clearly express the interior dread the characters must be feeling before their looming mission. The problem is, the characters are listening to the song right along with us. One of them chose to skip to the end of Led Zeppelin IV. (Now there’s a crime that should be punishable by public execution.) I don’t know about you, but if I were about to evade a bloodthirsty mob, I’d relax with music that wouldn’t further stoke my anxieties. Might I recommend a mix of girl group classics or a Springsteen anthem or two? The song is so on-the-nose and overthought that the scene ends up feeling phony.

Best Reason to Endure “The Master”: Phillip Seymour Hoffman

If “Argo” is an expertly executed popcorn movie, mildly hampered by a bad song choice, Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” is an opaque art film rescued by two remarkable songbook standards. For as much as I wanted to embrace “The Master” and its 70mm splendor, I was left cold by Anderson’s lack of narrative focus and Joaquin Phoenix’s bizarre, tic-heavy, portrayal of the film’s protagonist Freddie.

And yet Philip Seymour Hoffman, the film’s titular guru, twice justifies the price of admission. His rendition of “I’ll Go No More A-Rovin’” to a roomful of nude female accompanists and admirers, while Freddie drifts into an alcohol-induced stupor, is as surreal as it is remarkable, a scene that still lingers after all these months. (It doesn’t hurt that the sensational Amy Adams dominates the scene’s coda, literally with a single hand.) Phoenix likely clinched his Oscar nomination for his teary reaction to Hoffman’s second song, “Slow Boat to China,” a highly suggestive, emotionally fraught, a cappella fare-thee-well at the film’s end.

Most Spirited: “Pitch Perfect”

Speaking of a cappella, “Pitch Perfect” provided a buoyant respite to the existential heft of films like “The Master.” Naturally, musical performances are omnipresent in “Pitch Perfect”. The movie’s marvelous “Riff-Off” scene is the stand out, no doubt. Still, it’s only marginally superior to every other instance when the film interrupts its so-so narrative to allow the characters to belt out one effervescent cover version after another. No other film celebrated the act of singing so joyously last year.

Best Performance: Anne Hathaway

“Les Misérables” marched into theaters waving the banner of its polarizing soundtrack. Speaking as a fan of the stage show, it was only Anne Hathaway’s universally praised performance of “I Dreamed a Dream” that fully capitalized on the promise of a film adaptation. Director Tom Hooper’s self-congratulatory promotion notwithstanding, the live singing in “Les Miz,” along with the soundtrack’s tepid mix, drained all the bombast from a musical that works best when it sounds gargantuan. Hathaway’s rendition is notable for striking the right balance between acting and vocal performance. Vocally, it doesn’t approach what you’d hear on the myriad of “Les Miz” cast albums, just as Annette Bening’s “All I Want” from the “Kids Are All Right” doesn’t pose the slightest threat to Joni Mitchell’s original. But both women dramatize the words they sing so impressively – they’re actors, after all – that vocal failings are beside the point. Hathaway’s Fantine eulogizes her dashed hopes during that showstopper, but for four devastating minutes, my highest hopes for “Les Miz” are realized.

Most Anachronistic: “Django Unchained”

Quentin Tarantino is second to none when it comes to incorporating music into his films (see above). “Django Unchained” doesn’t have a single musical moment that can rival his earlier wonders (especially the soul magic of his forever underrated “Jackie Brown”). Still, Tarantino’s jarring, yet highly effective, use of Jim Croce and Rick Ross songs during his hero’s evolution from a slave into a total badass is a masterstroke. “I Got a Name” plays over what could be a sweet homage to “Brokeback Mountain,” with Django (Jamie Foxx) and Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) trotting alongside on horseback through snowy mountain vistas.  By the time “100 Black Coffins” jolts us upright, Django has fully transformed into an instrument of total vengeance and is on the road to rescue his wife (Kerry Washington) from the clutches of a villainous slave owner (Leonardo DiCaprio). Ross’ lyrics (“I need a hundred black coffins for a hundred bad men / A hundred black graves so I can lay they ass in”) pretty much sums up the cartoonish bloodbath awaiting almost every character once Django arrives at that plantation.

Biggest Surprise: “Searching for Sugar Man”

Not only did I not know who Rodriguez was before my screening of “Searching for Sugar Man,” I had no clue what the movie was even about. (It’s a documentary about a kidnapped candy magnate, right?). I wasn’t even planning on seeing it.  In a wonderful instance of serendipity, my showing of “Silver Linings Playbook” was oversold and “Searching for Sugar Man” was the only movie that hadn’t yet started (and still had empty seats in the theater). I won’t spoil this revelatory documentary for those who are still as ignorant as I was that night. But I do want to point out that it’s a small crime that Rodriguez’s music has been virtually unknown in America for so long. Thankfully, this true story has a classic Hollywood ending.

Best Trailer: “Zero Dark Thirty”

Yes, the haunting cover of Metallica’s “Nothing Really Matters” featured in the “Zero Dark Thirty” trailer is even more obvious than Ben Affleck’s aforementioned use of “When the Levee Breaks.” But “Nothing Really Matters” serves a dual purpose. Not only does it describe the historic manhunt for OBL, but also the singular obsession that drives the film’s hero Maya (Jessica Chastain). Hey, at least she isn’t jamming to it on her headphones while waterboarding a terrorist.

Worst Song: “Touch the Sky,” from “Brave”

Though “Brave” was unfairly maligned as “merely” another Disney Princess Movie (it was much, much more than that), a montage featuring this glop of treacle gave the film’s detractors some potent ammunition. What a wasted opportunity. Disney’s animated features have had no shortage of wonderful tunes. “Touch the Sky” is not one of them.

Best Scene: “Moonrise Kingdom”

“In order to show you how a big symphony orchestra is put together, Benjamin Britten has written a big piece of music,” says the child narrator on Leonard Bernstein’s recording of “The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra.” The classic Britten work frames the delightful opening to Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom,” which introduces us to the melancholic Bishop family and their home, room by meticulously constructed room, one tracking shot at a time. The boy’s instructional narration and Britten’s majestic composition foreshadow this storybook adventure’s exploration of adolescence and our earliest education on love and the rest of life’s harshest disappointments. The scene is prime fodder for Anderson’s haters (simply enter “Wes Anderson” and “twee” into a search engine), which is to say it’s designed to make his admirers swoon. Put me in the latter camp.

Best Overall: “Silver Linings Playbook”

Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amour” is at risk of being forever tarnished in my memory. Cameron Crowe used it in a disturbing scene from “Almost Famous,” where an OD’ing Penny Lane (Kate Hudson) forcibly has her stomach pumped. And now here’s David O. Russell, turning such a sweet song into a trigger for psychosis. The first time we hear the soul classic, it’s playing in a doctor’s office. Pat (Bradley Cooper) hears it too, though he’s unsure if it’s just in his head. He works himself up into full meltdown mode in no time, overturning a magazine rack and hollering conspiracy theories. His manic response to such a benign song is, of course, bizarre. That is, until we discover its dark relevance in flashback. An encounter with infidelity, which becomes disturbingly violent, is somehow made uglier by the prettiness of the song.

This is only one example of the many ways music is critical to the narrative of “Silver Linings Playbook.” That shouldn’t be a surprise, as Russell’s film is as much a dance movie as it is a romantic comedy (though you wouldn’t know it by its marketing). There’s so much to admire here that if I wanted to be exhaustive, I’d have to list every scene where a song is played. (OK, not really. But close.)

Russell assembles his film’s soundtrack with an equal degree of playfulness and smarts. If I had to choose, my favorite scenes would be another of Pat’s frantic episodes, which is paired with Zeppelin’s “What Is and What Should Never Be” (take that, Affleck!); a rehearsal sequence featuring the gorgeous Dylan/Cash duet “Girl from the North Country”; and, of course, the climactic scene at the dance competition, where we discover Stevie’s “Don’t You Worry ‘bout a Thing,” The White Stripes’ “Fell in Love with a Girl,” and Dave Brubeck’s instrumental version of “Maria” from “West Side Story” somehow come together brilliantly.

Who would have guessed this fractured paean to recovery would turn out to be the year’s best celebration of music? It goes to show you never can tell.

Artwork by Topher Edwards