Monday, August 9, 2010

The M&M Match Game

As a self-proclaimed lover of music, its probably not surprising to hear that I also tend to prefer Hollywood productions that come with an excellent accompanying score or soundtrack. Therefore, in the spirit of the list-maker in "High Fidelity" I thought to record for posterity a few of my favorite flicks based on the ability of the music contained within them to lift the quality of the on-screen action. Ironically, "High Fidelity" does not actually make my squad. Nick Hornsby would probably also be disappointed that I was unable to limit my choices to a mere five. Hopefully you will indulge me.
So what is the criteria? I tried to only use one movie per director or musician. I chose to highlight the director in cases when soundtracks are involved and the composer when the music is more of a classical score. Don't look for "Sound of Music" or "West Side Story" here. Since pretty much all musicals stink like the rancid sulfur of Hades, none were able to make the cut.

1. "Pulp Fiction" and Quentin Tarantino: Almost all of Tarantino's productions could qualify here, with "Reservoir Dogs" and "Kill Bill" getting a lot of consideration. There was only one soundtrack, however, that played at almost every party I attended in college and that was "Pulp Fiction." Tarantino interlaces key dialogue from the movie in between songs that are easily identified with various scenes. Any time I hear Urge Overkill's "Girl You'll Be a Woman Soon" I think about how much it would suck to overdose on heroin and take an adrenaline shot in the belly while some crazy bitch with seventeen piercings cackles like a lobotomized loon. Even artists like Kool and the Gang, Dick Dale, the Statler Brothers, and Chuck Barry, whose genres I would normally never listen to on my own, fit like a glove, adding memorability to the action (or opening credits in the case of Kool and the Gang's "Jungle Boogie") they accompany. A+ on all accounts, fifteen years later this soundtrack still finds its way into my CD player with regularity. I probably give the film an additional viewing on a yearly basis as well.
Suggestion for further reading: My friend Kevin makes a great argument for "Jackie Brown" in the comments section.
2. "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou" and the Coen brothers: Although Tarantino was able to get me to listen to hip-hop, surf rock, and 1950s rock, he was unable to match the Coen brothers in one area. Their accomplishment is the soundtrack to "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou," which made me entirely reconsider my feelings toward bluegrass. Previously, I had viewed the genre as redneck mountain music unworthy of my attention. Because of "OBWAT," my eyes have been opened to the glorious sounds being made in them there hills. Rarely have I been as enamored with a voice as the first time I heard Gillian Welch singing the sirens' song to the escaped convicts as they lay along the river's edge. Ralph Stanley's "Oh, Death" also sent chills up my spine, showing the inexplicable beauty a voice can have even in old age. I could mention many more, but we'll just say that bluegrass owes the Coen brothers a debt of gratitude for bringing their songs into the consciousness of many who would have never considered listening to it before. When I am tuned into "This Old Porch" on WNCW on a Sunday afternoon, I know exactly who to thank.
3. "Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels" and Guy Ritchie: Outside of deciding to marry the succubus that is Madonna, Guy Ritchie has made few mistakes since his directorial debut only two decades ago. "Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels" can certainly be listed at the forefront of his successes. A brilliant gangster flick interweaving the stories of several hapless groups of London felons, Ritchie's masterpiece uses a variety of music sublimely in an effort to underline the emotions of the characters. For the heroes of the piece, these run the gamut from extreme sadness to uncontrolled glee. Stretch's "Why Did You Do It" describes perfectly the crew's desperation after a hideous gambling loss incurs impossible debts with a local thug, while "Zorba's Dance" illustrates the mounting excitement of the group as they appear to have dug themselves out of their dilemma. It doesn't stop there though, the film is a constant thrill ride of twists and turns and the music matches the action like the perfect tango partner, in-step with the beat every second of the way.
4. "Almost Famous" and Cameron Crowe: Very few directors are better suited than Cameron Crowe to design the soundtrack to a movie. As a young man Crowe was a writer for "Rolling Stone" magazine, a story told in the semi-autobiographical account, "Almost Famous." I could have easily picked the "Singles" soundtrack for Crowe's entry, as the music contained within helped jump-start the grunge movement and the careers of bands like the Smashing Pumpkins, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, and Alice-in-Chains. "Almost Famous," however, is just a much better movie and a lot of the credit for that goes to the musical choices Crowe made. I had always been a fan of the Elton John song "Tiny Dancer," but the tune had never made me cry like it does during the bus scene in "Almost Famous." Much of the music in this movie is familiar, as the film is describing an important era in classic rock history. Despite this familiarity, I never feel jaundiced or bored with the music here, as every song seems as fresh and new as a Summer's Eve douche when placed in the context of "Almost Famous"'s metaphorical vagina.
5. John Williams. Please forgive me for being wishy-washy on this one, as John Williams is without a doubt worthy of his own special rules. The composer of the scores to the "Star Wars" movies, "Jaws", and "Raiders of the Lost Ark" is clearly worthy of different treatment. My heart still races as if I was nine years old when the "Raiders" theme plays on ITunes. As a result, I have chickened out and refused to pick a single movie. Let's just leave it at this: his work has taken good cinema and advanced it into the realm of the great. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas are among the many who owe this great musician an unpayable debt. Fans of music and film will just have to get in line behind them to give Williams the plaudits he richly deserves.
6. "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly" and Ennio Morricone/Sergio Leone. There is no more famous whistle in the history of mankind up to this point than the one that starts the theme to "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly." Most of the score riffs off of this original bit of music, with instrumentation changing to represent each of the three main characters. The movie is the third in a series of so-called "spaghetti westerns" by the Italian director Sergio Leone. Composer Ennio Morricone designed the score, using a complex array of instruments and sounds like gunfire, yodeling, and the aforementioned whistling. Morricone's music deepens the emotional connection the audience has with the actors, but adds a unique aspect of humor, as the score is often used to laugh at the foibles of the fumbling character Tuco. Congratulations to Ennio Morricone and Sergio Leone for creating a unique Western unlikely ever to be matched.
7. "The Graduate" and Simon and Garfunkel: One of the greatest pop music duos of all time was united with a young Dustin Hoffman to make 1967's "The Graduate." Director Mike Nichols also probably deserves a lot of credit, but this isn't an Oscar speech so we'll try to keep it brief.
There aren't many movies in the romance/drama category that I can manage to avoid sleeping through. Its possible I may be a situational narcoleptic - when boring crap comes onto the screen I just seem to start snoring. "The Graduate" never seems to trigger my ailment, however, and that is due to the great work of Simon and Garfunkel, whose soundtrack includes some of the best songs ever written. Everyone knows "Mrs. Robinson" (and her domineering character played ineffably by Anne Bancroft) and "Scarborough Fair", but for me the key moment of the film comes when "The Sounds of Silence" plays. No line in all of music symbolizes to me the pain of the possible loss of a relationship better than "...silence like a cancer grows." So beautiful and so terrible at the same time, but worry not - there may be redemption for "The Graduate" yet if he can just make the ceremony or get into the field of plastics.... I always forget which one.....
8. "Fight Club" and the Dust Brothers/Pixies: A dark movie with an equally dark soundtrack, "Fight Club" satirizes the American way of life in a manner that only Chuck Palahniuk, the author of the book upon which the film is based, could pull off successfully. The Dust Brothers provide the majority of the sonic sensations throughout, using their upbeat electronica to help drive the mayhem towards a successful finish. At the climax of the cinematic experience, the Pixies show up with "Where is My Mind?," a perfect concluding piece for the main character (played by Edward Norton), who appears to be literally and figuratively losing his mind due to a combination of his insanity and the force of cold lead. Yet, much like Norton's character in "25th Hour" this guy refuses to die and the buildings his crew has demolished fall like dominoes as the Pixies' song plays....chaos yes, but still a strange beauty pervades throughout the madness of the moment.
Honorable Mentions: "Last of the Mohicans" and Joel McNeely. "The Matrix" and the Wachowski Brothers. "The Crow" and Alex Proyas (thanks Kevin!). Also, the Corey suggests that even if you don't enjoy the idea of watching a McCandless (hits too close to home for me) slowly starve to death in the desolation of Alaska you should at least check out the soundtrack to "Into the Wild."

Did this ass hole make any glaring omissions? Please contact the author at the comments section below to rip him a new one for his ignorance.


Anonymous said...

An excellent list bro and I agree with most every choice. As I told you before, I know it goes against your rules for selections, but I would still have included the 'Singles' soundtrack as one of my top choices even though the movie itself was pretty terrible. It's such an era-defining soundtrack for me that the feelings of nostalgia it evokes trump the sub-par movie in which it finds itself. I also think "The Last of the Mohicans" deserves a top spot and not an honorable mention. That soundtrack complements that movie so well, fits seamlessly into the action and perfectly parallels the roller coaster of emotions the main characters go through.
Also, even though there is not much variation in the music, I think in the horror movie genre the music of John Carpenter's "Halloween," merits an honorable mention. That eerie piano playing enhances and heightens the suspenseful scenes in the movie and complements the "psycho on a murderous rampage," theme so well.

On a side note your line "every song seems as fresh and new as a Summer's Eve douche when placed in the context of "Almost Famous'" metaphorical vagina" had me in stitches. Very clever bro.



Alastair McCandless said...

The Last of the Mohicans thing was a bit of a cop out on my part I'll admit. It belongs, and probably ahead of a couple of the choices, but I just didn't have a good feel for what to write about it at the time. The Halloween thing is great, but the lack of variation you mention keeps it from these great heights - sticking with horror movies, the Exorcist theme, "Tubular Bells" is also fantastic. As far as Singles, if I had done two for a director I would have given Singles that spot for sure.

Unknown said...

Great entry sir. As a hardcore Tarantino fan I had a hell of a time deciding on my favorite QT film soundtrack. When the dust settled Pulp Fiction still came out on top, but ever so slightly over the mostly forgotten Jackie Brown.

It was the use of 'Son of a Preacher Man' than made the final difference, but I'd have to say as a whole, Jackie Brown's tunes pack one tight, funky punch and fit the look and feel of the film better than any other of his soundtracks. While it certainly helps to have lead actors who were in their heyday when a lot of the songs were released, I can't see Pam Grier strutting around to anything other than tunes like Bobby Womack's 'Across 110th Street' or Randy Crawford's 'Street Life'. And what's really cool is how everything from the music to the talent screams 1970's, the film seamlessly exists in a modern time.

It also probably helps that I am a huge fan of funk, soul and early R&B (probably from growing up in Motown). A sweet bassline instantly draws me in, and JB features some groovy low-end rumbles like The Brothers Johnson's 'Strawberry Letter 23'. There is also the reoccuring 'Didn't I (Blow Your Mind this Time)' by The Delfonics that perfectly compliments Pam Grier's staggering physical hold over Robert Forster. We're also treated to some Bill Withers, Kansas City's Bloodstone and even Pam Grier herself. Definitely not for everyone, but pretty special in itself.

I don't know if it really defined a generation like the Singles soundtrack did, but The Crow soundtrack has been something I've owned since my early teens and something I still listen to very much. It's accessible enough for the casual alt rock/industrial/metal fan (The Cure, Violent Femmes, STP, NIN, Pantera), but also provides some nice cuts for those seeking to dig deeper into that type of music (Machines of Loving Grace, Helmet, Jesus & Mary Chain, Thrill Kill Kult). And who can forget Rage's DARKNESS?

Oh, and Ennio's 'The Ecstasy of Gold' may be my favorite piece of movie music ever.

Great job yo,

Alastair McCandless said...

Great argument for Jackie Brown, Kevin. I would have to say I'm not in your league as a Motown fan, but I do love 110th Street for sure and your right, as usual with QT, the music is perfectly appropriate to every scene. I can't believe I forgot the Crow Soundtrack, I'll stick that in with the HMs.

mustapha kemal said...

I agree with Colin about "Mohicans." I would definitely add "Lawrence of Arabia" to the list, which shows my age, I guess. I was enthralled by that at age 16. But maybe not. You list the Graduate, which is almost as old, and deserves to be in the top group. So does "Brother" for sure.The latter was the first soundtrack I bought since Lawrence I think, though I have S&G cds and Clannad's with Mohican theme on it.

Alastair McCandless said...

I have never seen "Brother" and have seen only bits and pieces of "Lawrence of Arabia." Thanks for the advice Mustapha, I will check those out, age doesn't matter, only quality.

Anonymous said...

Did you just state that LL Cool J performed Jungle Boogie on the Pulp Fiction soundtrack???


Jungle Boogie is a Kool and the Gang joint!!

Alastair McCandless said...

Whoops! Fixed.

R. Mera Velásquez said...

Wise choices. I concur with Almost famous. A recent viewing made me feel like I should have done journalism. John WIlliams is the man. Besides my personal fave (Star Wars), I still remember the first time I saw Jurassic Park and the music that came along with it. Nothing like revealing a Brachiosaur to a beautiful ballad.
Another soundtrack I like is "Donnie Darko". Nothing like "Mad World" as the various characters are revisited in their moments of weakness.

Alastair McCandless said...

Great choice with "Donnie Darko" that one came to mind the other day when I heard "Under the Milky Way," another great track from that under-appreciated movie.