Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Music and Movies: A Few Favourites

Combining the power of movies with the power of music can create some of the most memorable moments in film. One example should make my point. In the very sweet and critically underrated movie Princess Caraboo (1994), the princess, played by Phoebe Cates, is treated to her first experience of classical music, specifically a chamber performance of of the second movement of the Trio, Opus 99, by Franz Schubert. She is overwhelmed by the music. She rises from her seat, walks among the musicians, then cries. The concerned hostess tries to stop the music, but Caraboo will not allow it. Equally moved, the director of the orchestra rises to say that he is honoured to have such an appreciative listener.

Now dry your eyes and let's move on.

One way the music can be used is to unify a mosaic of scenes, giving them a common mood and meaning. A wonderful example is from The Lord of the Rings. In this scene, Lord Denethor has knowingly ordered a hopeless attack, weakening his city to guarantee the death of his son and the end of his own line. The visuals shift from Denethor to the attacking forces to the defending forces to Pippin, a hobbit, who sings a song from the perspective of eternity, that everything must "fade" and end.

The ultimate montage to music, though, is the second scene in the film The Watchmen (2009). It contains a sequence of images from May 1939 to some time in the 1980's, when the story itself is set. They show a world that is subtly altered from our own. For example, the plane that bombs Hiroshima is called the "Miss. Jupiter" instead of the Enola Gay; for example, the famous photograph of a sailor kissing a nurse on VJ Day has a superhero(ine) replacing the sailor; for example, the Zapruder film of John Kennedy's assassination now shows the identity of the assassin. The music that ties this together, reflecting the changes from our timeline, is, of course, Bob Dylan's "The Times They are A-Changin'."

I'd embed a clip of this, but these clips are being aggressively taken down from Youtube. Here is a link to it on Vimeo instead.

Another way to use the music is to match the mood of a wordless scene, as in the excellent movie Truly, Madly Deeply (1990). The story is of a woman whose husband has died, and she is not coping at all well. Her grief is intense and unrelenting, to the point that her husband returns to her from the dead as she plays a piece of music that they must have often played together, Bach's Sonata No. 3 for Cello (Viol de Gamba) & Piano.

When she's had time to adjust to his return, the two celebrate with wordplay, music, and remarkably eccentric dance.

The romantic comedy LA Story (1991) also has two musical highlights, both performed by Enya. The first is when the two main characters realize that they have fallen in love.

The next is when she is about to leave, and all the elements rise up to prevent her flight.

My last video in this post is from a fairly obscure movie called Iceman (1984), in which a neanderthal is brought back to life. The scientist and his subject have no language in common, of course. Any communication has to be emotional. For example, through Neil Young's music.

I could go on. These film clips are a selection of moments in film where music rolls up its sleeves and reveals its strength. If there are other moments that come to mind, let me know in the comments.


  1. Nice blog, Gareth! Okay, i could go on forever in this line. But I will begin with a mild castigation for your not including maybe the quintessential marriage of image and sound: and that is pretty much the entire movie Kill Bill Vol 1. I won't put up every scene, which I could easily do, but maybe the best fight scene (if not the best scene) ever filmed: Showdown at the House of Blue Leaves.

    1. Thanks for the comment and link, Guy. You shouldn't castigate me too much for not including "Kill Bill." I never saw that film.


    2. LoL! Okay, fair enough. But now I get to castigate you for not having seen it! If I had to choose between Kill Bill and The Watchman and Sin City combined, I think KB would win out. And what about Pulp Fiction? Again, for Tarantino the music is integral to the movie.

      And if you are concerned about the violence, it is truly cartoon violence: Tarantino has managed to create as pure a transcription to film of comic books as I've ever seen. And the filming is often times exquisitely beautiful! And some of the writing is brilliant. For example, after fighting off a small army of martial artists and killing O-Ren Ishi Beatrix Kiddo stands up and says to the room filled with the dead and maimed "Those of you lucky enough to have your lives, take them with you. However, leave the limbs you've lost. They belong to me now!"

      I'd love it if, if you see KB, you'd like to do a shared review discussion of the film. We've talked movies in the past, and I like how your mind works when reviewing them. This is a great film.