A Sight for Sounds: Moments in Movies Instantly Elevated by the Use of Music

When Guardians of the Galaxy was first released in 2014 for all its quirk and swagger the thing that really separated it from the rest of the Marvel pack was its use of music. Director James Gunn revealed that the film’s composer, Tyler Bates, had written large chunks of the score first so that they could film to the actual music. In many ways the film’s personality is its score, and with the release of the sequel Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 in cinemas this week audiences can expect more of the same.

Music is probably the most important thing in cinema for instantly establishing mood, tone and visual cues. From the menacing piano keys of John Williams’ memorable score in Jaws to the sheer elation of Alan Silvestri’s triumphant overture in Back to the Future, a film’s accompanying score is often as unforgettable as the movie itself. Scenes often become sculpted by a harmonious balance of visual vigour and an amalgamation of auditory ambience. With that in mind, I will now look at my top cinematic moments that are instantly elevated by this combination.

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly – The Final Duel

The moment Clint Eastwood places a stone with the name of a grave that holds $200,000 in gold coins scrawled on it in the centre a rocky arena prompting an electric guitar to fanatically chime in, you know you are about to witness something extraordinary. Ennio Morricone is a masterful producer having more than 70 award winning films, but perhaps his defining moment will be the combination of The Ecstasy of Gold followed by The Triple Duel,which accompanies this legendary Mexican standoff scene.

Many film critics consider this famous scene to be one of the most electrifying climaxes ever filmed and the score is an integral element of the drama. What is of particular note in this scene is that for the most part the actors in the scene are mostly static, which is of course vital to the build up in tension as to who will draw their weapon first. The film’s director, Sergio Leone, generates a sense of pace and movement through editing that consists of extreme close ups of the three central characters as the camera languishes on their expressions.

The score is used as much to construct the scene as the editing is, as the music takes us on an emotional journey more than anything else as it ebbs and flows before pulsating to the highest level of tension before the shootout concludes.

2001: A Space Odyssey – The Dawn of Man

There probably isn’t a more instantly recognisable sound in cinema than the thunderous booming of the timpani from Also Sprach Zarathusta by Richard Strauss in the much-referenced opening scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey. For something so synonymous with a work of art it seems surreal to think that it wasn’t originally going to be used at all.

Stanley Kubrick originally commissioned a soundtrack from the great Hollywood composer Alex North whom he had previously worked with on Dr. Strangelove and Spartacus. Kubrick chose to abandon North’s score in favour of Strauss, which he had previously used in an early show reel of footage for 2001. Despite North believing until his dying day that his score was better it’s hard to picture anything as pitch perfect as the now renowned orchestral swelling juxtaposed with the image of a sun slowly rising from the shadow of planet Earth before the film establishes The Dawn of Man sequence on prehistoric Earth.

The film doesn’t have any dialogue at this point as the audience observes our early ancestors fight for survival in a dangerous world. It is as hard not feel a sense of pure, raw primal emotion as one of the apes learns to use a tool for the first time. The thumping score is then played a second time, which perfectly encapsulates the sense of struggle in our evolutionary journey and the small but vital steps that led us to where we are today. It is a powerful scene that would lose some significant pathos without the accompanying music.

Trainspotting – Choose Life

While its sequel’s regurgitation of this revolutionary monologue fell flat on its head there can be no denying that this oft-quoted sequence will forever be embedded in pop culture folklore. The Iggy Pop – David Bowie collaboration took on a completely new meaning the moment Hunt Styles drumbeat fused with John Hodge’s dialogue as read by Ewan McGregor.

The poetic rhythm of the film’s lead, Renton, waxing lyrics when he exclaims, “Choose life. Choose a job…But why would I want to do a thing like that? I chose not to choose life. I chose something else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you’ve got heroin?” This dialogue recited over the chaotically tragic bohemian lifestyles of the characters in this sequence establishes the core theme, a darkly comedic tone as well as introducing us to all the central characters before the film has even got off the ground.

Reservoir Dogs – Stuck in the Middle with You

Quentin Tarantino is no stranger to crafting renowned movie moments built entirely around the use of a song. Who can forget the sight of Uma Thurman and John Travolta dancing to Chuck Berry’s You Can Never Tell, or the sheer understated sexy cool of Pam Grier introducing Robert Forster to The Delfonics. But nothing he has done since or probably will do in the future can come close to Michael Madsen’s grimly amusing portrayal of Mr.Blonde as he tortures a police officer.

The scene itself is choreographed around the song Stuck in The Middle With You by Stealers Wheel, which was a parody of Bob Dylan. What is particularly disturbing about the scene is the conflicting array of emotions that the scene elicits in the audience. For one thing the scene is amusing, we enjoy Michael Madsen’s dance, we enjoy him singing along to the lyrics and there is something inherently pleasurably in the way that the whole thing is choreographed.

When the torture takes place we are left with a shot of a door way and the muffled sound of the officer’s pain, while at the same time the tune we were enjoying so much a few minutes earlier continues to play. It is this conflicting set of feelings that is the film’s real genius and by the time Mr. Orange emerges with the officer’s ear in his hand, we are forced to reevaluate our whole perspective of the scene.

Boogie Nights – Jessie’s Girl

Many a director has used pop songs as an ironic counterpoint to a film’s action but seldom for such a successive stretch as this scene in Boogie Nights. The entire scene is built around an ill-conceived heist at a pivotal time in the emotional arch of Dirk Diggler played by Mark Wahlberg. It is quite an achievement to then make a succession of 80s megahits that score the action work in such a successful manner.

One of the factors that makes this scene, besides the use of Sister Christian, Jessie’s Girl and 99 Red Balloons, is the sheer commitment of Alfred Molina in maybe his best performance. It isn’t just the sheer uninhibited euphoria that Molina brings as he dances to the music, even when he is being robbed he still seems to be having an unforgettable time. All of which adds to the bizarre soundtrack that oddly compliments the heightened sense of anxiety that we see on Mark Wahlberg’s face as the camera fixates on him for 50 nerve-wracking seconds as Jessie’s Girl begins its second verse.

The music alters some of the dialogue in the scene as characters and the audience struggle to hear each conversations at times, as the music volume decreases and increases at various intervals. Do not underestimate just how difficult it is to harness all of these ingredients together in a scene of such magnitude and pull it off in the way Paul Thomas Anderson did, it is really something to behold.

Originally published on April 28, 2017 for HeyUGuys.

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