If the legends are to be believed, those film directors lucky enough to be crowned auteurs hold every element of the success of their movies in their profoundly artistic minds. And now, in our media-addled age of the indie-auteur, artistic creation is not only a function of a director’s unassailable vision; it sprouts full-blown out of his or her pre-existing taste preferences, so that movies increasingly seem to double as infomercials for a particular director’s consumption patterns.
Nowhere is this trend plainer than in the strange miniaturization of the movie soundtrack, which has quietly turned film directors into d.j.’s, calibrating a given moment on screen to an off-the-rack snatch of commentary from the pop or indie rock canon. Now, strangely enough, directors are as preoccupied with choosing the proper mood-evoking Elton John song as they are with composing a shot in a sequence, or settling on a particular quality of film stock.
A pivotal case in point is Wes Anderson’s 1998 film Rushmore, which owes much of its success to its British invasion soundtrack, Bill Murray, and a then-refreshingly funny Owen Wilson, who co-authored the screenplay. Rushmore recounts the unlikely rise and fall of a friendship between Murray’s character, a depressive manufacturing mogul named Mr. Blume, and a 15-year-old prep school student possessed of wild ambitions named Max Fischer (played by Jason Schwartzman)—an alliance that unravels into an escalating, and quite funny, revenge battle when both characters come under the spell of a fetching British teacher (Olivia Williams).
The movie is funny, but it curiously outsources most of its pathos, its emotional complexity, onto its soundtrack. Precious few moments in the performances by the movie’s quite talented cast approach, for instance, the longing conveyed in director Wes Anderon’s strategic use of the Who’s mini-pop operetta, “A Quick One, While He’s Away.” There, John Entwistle’s falsetto (perfectly echoed by his harmonizing bandmates) in the song’s simple, climactic chorus pleads for, and wins, an emotional generosity that the film’s action and characters largely deny: “You are forgiven.” By contrast, Fischer and Blume—and for that matter Schwartzman and Murray—are nothing more than big kids, desperately in need of Ray Davies (and the obscure Kinks chestnut “Nothin’ in the World Can Stop Me Worryin’ ’Bout That Girl”) if we are to believe they are capable of romantic love.
Anderson also enjoys an outsize influence on the audioscapes of young filmgoers because Rushmore happened to strike at the cusp of a strange moment, a moment which seems to have occurred coincidentally the year after Rushmore’s soundtrack met with wild critical acclaim. In 2000 the Grammys—which it may be hard to recall at this late date, mightily influenced the movement of product in a still robust recording industry—adjusted their format, creating a second soundtrack category for “Best Compilation Soundtrack Album.” The floodgates opened. By 2005 emo-dorable Zach Braff, who garnered what might be called the bricoleur Grammy for Garden State’s compilation soundtrack, remarked, with all the requisite flourishes of irony, that he won the best mix-tape award.
Since the Sixties, filmmakers have used music less as defining elements of the movies themselves and more to advertise their own set of taste preferences.
That uniquely deflating moment marks as good a cultural reference point as any to ponder what’s become of the musical side of the cinematic experience. In the era of the Hollywood studio system (roughly the Twenties through the early Sixties) the dominant approach to matching music with the moving image was either via a composed film score or a genre of its own—the musical, which would incorporate (with varying degrees of success) new and old popular songs as elements of the plot. Although it doesn’t seem so long ago, it’s exceedingly difficult to conjure up the aesthetic impact of the studio system’s soundtrack complex—a standalone Hollywood industry in its own right. The closest latter-day approximation comes, perhaps, from the phenomenally successful Dick Wolf TV franchise, Law & Order. When the series theme—quite literally a siren song—hits its establishing opening notes (da-da-da-da-dun), it’s an aural synonym for Law & Order. Regardless of how quickly an episode’s script was torn from the headlines or how inhumanly righteous Sam Waterston is, that spare bit of quasi-funk is cognate, in the popular imagination, with the experience of seeing the show. In other words, Mike Post’s iconic theme music is something different from a good song. It is music that cannot be separated from whatever Law & Order is.
The explosion of the rock aesthetic reshaped the logic of using music in the movies, just as it changed so much else in the culture at large. Since the Sixties, filmmakers have used music less as defining elements of the movies themselves and more to advertise their own set of taste preferences—producing an embarrassingly hamstrung sort of cinematic storytelling and an increasingly insular use of pop music’s cultural resonance. At the formal level of things, that has simply meant a sprawling corpus of film scores composed of songs that were not created for the movie—songs that exist, robustly, outside of the movie. There is often a carelessness about this approach, as if a good song were a ketchup-like condiment, which when spread liberally enough would improve whatever accompanies it.
Certain movies of the late Sixties epitomized this trend. Mike Nichols blazed the trail for Rushmore 31 years earlier by incorporating “The Sound of Silence” into The Graduate three times—guaranteeing it would strike a chord of recognition in viewers, since Simon and Garfunkel had had a huge hit with it almost exactly two years before. And, similar to Wes Anderson’s obsession with the British Invasion, all Nichols seems to have cared about was that the music was Simon and Garfunkel—because although he uses it expertly, it has nothing to do with The Graduate or the larger issues of coming of age as a matriculated adult, or (what amounts to the same thing in LA) having an Emma Bovary-style liaison with the mother of the woman you later realize you love.
Even so, the musical sins of The Graduate are more of omission than commission—as is also the case with another montage-happy example of a film from just a year later with an outsized, nay swelling, music score, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Both those films suffer from a certain arrogance and laziness arising from their instinctive trust in their own ostensible power to make the soundtrack music their own—which means, in practical terms, distrusting a composer to do the movie justice with an original score. In Kubrick’s case, that reflex produced an absurd conviction that may only have been possible to sustain in the late Sixties: that images of a model spaceship can brand, hold and harness the music of Beethoven. (Indeed they did for a fleeting bit—but the paradox of science fiction is that it ages quickly.)
This laziness and arrogance are the typical bad habits of good directors—but in the wake of the Sixties they bulked into an aesthetic trend unto themselves. Easy Rider, two years after The Graduate, is—cue the Steppenwolf track and the mock horror—not so counterculture after all. George Lucas’s hymn to a populist, conservative rock era, American Graffiti (1973), is a textbook example of a subgenre intent on repurposing pop’s past. The movie drips with nostalgia—and of course its soundtrack was a monster bestseller—but instead of wrapping that longing in bold, bracing, performative kitsch, it pretends that George Lucas’s vision of rock liberation (the standard set piece of jocks, greasers and cheerleader ingénues battling for social and erotic advantage) was how the pre-New Frontier Fifties actually were. From such wish-fulfillment accounts of pop history, it’s a short, but none too lovely, step down into the mystical vision of Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill (1983), where we encounter an exotic, unheralded brand of Boomer white suburban college grad who adopted Motown hits, rather than the Beatles or the Beach Boys, as its generational soundtrack.
Still, American Grafitti and The Big Chill might have been written off as regrettable sonic monuments of auteur-branded taste, if two skilled directors in the Nineties hadn’t elevated the rock-appropriated soundtrack into an art of collage and appropriation. Quentin Tarantino’s maiden turn as auteur, Reservoir Dogs (1992), was in all senses a pageant of derivativeness—the video-clerk-turned-director famously cribbed much of its plot from Ringo Lam’s 1987 Hong Kong crime opus City on Fire. But when it came to music, Tarantino was a true innovator, even if he was still trafficking in much the same reverently handled schlock nostalgic content that he used to overstuff the movie’s action and characters. As a running motif through the movie’s failed capers, Tarantino has the fictional K-Billy radio show, “Super Sounds of the Seventies,” serve as an omnipresent background soundtrack. The device was, typically, a perfect delivery system for Tarantino to advertise his own pop culture taste—and in turn figures prominently in the movie’s most infamous scene, where Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen) cuts the ear off a captive police officer in a warehouse while dancing to the soft-rock Stealers Wheel tune “Stuck in the Middle with You.” Unlike The Graduate or 2001, where the music typically comes out of nowhere, Reservoir Dogs draws attention to its functionality: Mr. Blonde saunters over to the radio to turn it on and pauses to ask his gagged hostage if he’s ever listened to K-Billy. When Mr. Blonde leaves the warehouse to retrieve the gas from his car for some more mayhem, the song fades away until the camera, involved in an elaborate, teasing tracking shot, follows him back inside.
Critics hail the Reservoir Dogs torture scene as a landmark moment in the depiction of violence on screen in the early Nineties. The legacy of that single scene has, by most measures of such things, been crucial to the expansion of realistic violence into such divergent movies as Saving Private Ryan and City of God. And indeed, Tarantino’s breakout film was in many ways a welcome alternative to the big-budget action film that just blew shit up, but like other flourishes of stylized musical irony on screen, it came at a price.
Today the appropriation of music in Reservoir Dogs is a frustrating example of nothing—or, rather, of nothing other than virtuosity-for-virtuosity’s sake. It is neither convincing realism nor fulfilling escape. “Stuck in the Middle with You” was the spoonful of sugar to help us stomach the gruesome torture of the bound police officer. It’s now painfully clear, when you consider it from the perspective of the eternally knowing-and-winking corpus of Tarantino films, that the creation of K-Billy’s Super Sounds of the Seventies was simply a way for the director to have his cake and eat it, too—to be entertaining and coy as well as brutal and visceral. Although the song could arguably be part of an otherwise realistically unhinged torture sequence, we know it isn’t. It’s the cinematic equivalent of an audio-tour, designed to let us fully savor Tarantino’s pastiche of disjointed styles. It is there to ease us into a scene that at one time pushed the envelope of Hollywood’s approach to realistic violence but now is just a confused, weird artifact of early Nineties movies culture that is devoid of meaning, but seems to need it. Indeed, Tarantino himself has largely ignored the convention-defying precedent he set, retreating more and more into a stylized aesthetic of violence that allows him more room for playful and over-the-top cinematic brutality.
In addition to the shadow cast by Ringo Lam’s Hong Kong cinema, it’s hard not to see Martin Scorsese’s influence looming over Tarantino’s feature debut. Goodfellas, produced two years before Reservoir Dogs, is a masterful example of Scorsese’s use of music. The film is peppered with popular music from the period in which the action is set, as if Henry Hill, the narrating mobster played by Ray Liotta, were constantly walking through a glamorous, hyper-violent music video, rather than decades of his own life. This is a central narrative choice for Scorsese—some of the attraction of being mobbed up in Goodfellas is plainly the glamour of the mob life. Perhaps the best musical evocation of this Janus-faced appeal is the sequence where a tiny and very angry Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) is shown beating to death a gangster named Billy Batts (Frank Vincent). As with the Reservoir Dogs torture sequence, the music is allegedly rooted within the scene: The jukebox at the bar is playing “He’s Sure the Boy I Love” by The Crystals.
That song choice in the hands of a director like Tarantino would produce an ironic payoff that could be cut with a knife—or beaten to death, as the case may be: Batts, it’s brutally clear, is very much not the boy DeVito loves. But Scorcese wisely shuns such literalism. Indeed, the scene as it unfolds suggests that the music is something more than just a song or two emanating from the bar’s jukebox. We hear the music first (and loud and clear) during an establishing shot of the outside of the bar—and from there, the music proceeds to modulate in rhythm with the melee that takes shape in the bar. During the verbal altercation the sound swells as if the song is evoking the anger between Batts and DeVito. And when DeVito later returns to beat a drunken Vincent to death, the jukebox is playing “Atlantis” by Donovan, another song, like “He’s Sure the Boy I Love,” that starts with a recitation from the singer—perhaps a sly means of underling how the jukebox is narrating the action of the scene. Indeed, “Atlantis” continues to swell and build to its own aural climax, as if Donovan himself is joining the fight—or at least covering for DeVito and mobster Jimmy Conway (Robert DeNiro) while Hill rushes to lock the bar. Neither Donovan nor The Crystals adds a layer of comforting pop-culture recognition to the shocking realism of the violence. Rather, the scene is a convoluted, yet marvelous mixture of realistic violence, glamour and cinematic dexterity.
Virtuosity isn’t a technique itself; it’s a practice.
In these treatments of music, Scorsese and Tarantino managed to transform the slapped-together soundtrack work of the rock era into something new. To be sure, the Goodfellas and Reservoir Dogs soundtracks aren’t as totemic as the Law & Order theme, but they both brought music out from the sonic background of movies and made it something of a character in its own right. And for Tarantino especially, music became a crucial ingredient in the creation of his trademark pastiche visions of pop culture and washed-out urban menace.
But the not-at-all-Tarantino-esque irony of all this is that the use of pop music to smuggle in realistic violence faded away in the following years. Within the context of on-screen violence, Scorsese’s more deft and nuanced way with music hasn’t aged much better than Tarantino’s self-distancing irony-infused soundtracks have. The sequence in Goodfellas still communicates quite strongly on the visual level, but it now looks defensive and almost apologetic for trying to root the music in the scene—and for eliding, via a series of discrete pans, several opportunities to make the audience confront the look of violence. When more novelistic TV fare such as The Wire acquired its own realistic soundtrack aesthetics, producers would strictly tie the music they employed to each and every setting and sequence. The idea was to err on the side of naturalism: Music used in an exterior scene would typically be muffled and in the distance or moving across your television set as if it were actually coming from a nearby car radio or a boom box left out on a stoop.
However, most latter-day directors haven’t heeded the arduous work Tarantino and Scorsese did to turn radio and jukebox fare into the stuff of collage and appropriative art. Aspiring directors in today’s film school instead view Tarantino and Scorsese’s virtuosity as nothing more than one ready-made technique among many: the technique of using pop music. But virtuosity isn’t a technique itself; it’s a practice.
So as a result, just a few years later—which in movie years is pretty much immediately—the musical palette of the virtuosos makes directors who aren’t really that good seem good to us. They’re able to use music as a crutch, a substitute for a lack of emotional depth. At best, this aural legacy just gets you Rushmore: a funny movie with a great soundtrack and a confused director who is surprised to find himself at a creative dead end. And yet because Tarantino and Scorsese executed it with such virtuosity—and because the gimmick appears easy to bring off (just add your favorite songs) it continues to influence droves of young, up-and-coming filmmakers.
And that’s a loss for movies and music alike. As more indie product continues streaming its way out of film schools, the thin characters and creaky plots suffer badly in comparison with the often standout soundtrack music used in the films. We can expect more of the undigested indie tweeness you find in pseudo-musicals like Juno (which won a Grammy for “Best Compilation Soundtrack”) and the laziness-unto-idiocy rehashings of the pop canon like Watchmen’s use of “The Sound of Silence.”
This isn’t to condemn all uses of pop music that fall short of virtuosity. There are still plenty of movies (well, some anyway) that don’t just carelessly ransack the pop songbook to create the appearance of high synergistic filmmaking on the cheap. Sometimes, for instance, a pop-savvy film will perform a song in a new context, rather than simply co-opt it. That’s why, for instance, the scene near the end of High Fidelity when Jack Black sings “Sexual Healing,” is only half bad—even though it effectively grinds the movie’s plot to a halt as we are encouraged to admire the crooning skills of the schlumpy-but-tuxedoed Black. It isn’t a sampling of Marvin Gaye so much as an ode to him. Still, the culture-synergy payoff of the moment was, for all functional purposes, identical to that of Rushmore and other specimens of sonic hipster bricolage: There the track was, on the successful High Fidelity soundtrack CD, so that Jack Black was doing double duty for the movie’s fans as performer and connoisseur of the pop canon.
Similarly, the part in Almost Famous—the 2000 auto-mythologizing rock movie made by rock-journalist-turned director Cameron Crowe—where everyone on a Seventies tour bus starts singing along to “Tiny Dancer” doesn’t grate, because, let’s face it, there are plenty of other reasons to hate Cameron Crowe that don’t involve Elton John sing-a-longs. (For that matter, there are also plenty of other Crowe-abetted soundtrack moments that are far more egregious, such as, well, the entirety of his 1996 effort Jerry Maguire, with a freshly cashiered Tom Cruise pumping his fist to Tom Petty’s “Free Falling” and pitching artless woo with Renée Zellweger as Bob Dylan’s “Shelter from the Storm” plays didactically in the background.) Recent musicals from Moulin Rouge! (2001) to Dancer in the Dark (2000) are above this type of criticism, since they straightforwardly employ music as an escape from reality and not a technique to create it. Although in Dancer in the Dark, for instance, that opposition is used to emphasize the crushing weight of reality as its blind female protagonist escapes further and further into song as her world is maliciously taken apart by those around her.
Clearly, the Tarantino-and-Scorsese brand of virtuosity for virtuosity’s sake has proven good for those directors, but its effect on the long-term health of movies is uncertain. It’s especially bad for all the poor directors who have confused making a mix-tape with directing—and therefore displaying their own taste preferences with establishing a cinematic style. I’m just grateful that great television—the closest thing to the old Hollywood studio system we have today—errs on the side of naturalism, mainly relegating pop music to the end of episodes or seasons. The best way to avoid the aesthetic of the mix-tape, it seems, is to craft soundtracks that are made up of music instead of directorial statements. It’s easier that way for grown-ups to get on with the movie-making.