How many people knew about Jesus & Mary Chain before the release of Lost in Translation? Not a lot. What made ‘Don’t You (forget about me)’ such a massive hit for Simple Minds: the song’s quality or its presence in The Breakfast Club? Posing the question is answering it. Sometimes the soundtrack of a movie is responsible for its popularity. Black Panther would never have been as popular without Kendrick Lamar’s soundtrack. More often it’s the other way around, and sometimes a movie just opens the door to new music.
Here are six movies that did something for me musically…
Platoon (1986) – Sgt. Elias death scene – Adagio for strings (Barber)
I could also have chosen Beethoven’s 9th symphony in Clockwork Orange (1971) or Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries in Apocalypse Now (1979). All movies that I first watched in the 80’s, during my teenage years. A watching experience that coincided with my transition from the big names in ’60’s and 70’s rock music to something more alternative. They sometimes say about (drafted) soldiers that they enter war as a child and come back a man. On micro-level that’s what happened to me during Platoon; I entered, got struck by lightning, cried my eyes out and came out transformed. Life was different afterwards. I saw patterns that I didn’t see before, heard sounds I didn’t hear before. And all the time Barber’s Adagio for Strings kept playing in my head. Over and over.
Magnolia (1999) – Breakdown scene – Wise up (Aimee Mann)
It didn’t make sense to me. How to relate this complicated tale of (un)happiness, failure, guilt, forgiveness and meaning to the quiet and beautiful music of Aimee Mann, a singer that I liked but never really adored. Still it did. In the end it was one of those rare occasions that I bought the soundtrack after watching the movie. It makes sense to me now, even though my sense making requires a bit of amateur psychology. Listening to Aimee Mann you hear that she never really lets you in, that behind her emotional stories there is another reality, one that is never really revealed, but shines through in every single syllable.
Fight Club (1999) – Closing scene – Where is my mind (The Pixies)
Or: the moment I finally cracked The Pixies. Let me explain. I didn’t immediately love The Pixies. My love came gradual, and for all their quirkiness, craziness and absurd sense of melody, there was still one item missing: emotion. I didn’t help that Frank Black in interviews said that all his lyrics were pure nonsense, words put together to accompany a tune. Here it finally clicked. In all its absurdity these scene is so over the top emotional and ‘Where is my Mind’ is probably the most emotional of all Pixies songs. After this, there was no way back anymore.
Almost famous (2000) – Bus scene – Tiny Dancer (Elton John)
I could also have chosen Gary Jules’s cover version of Mad World in Dannie Darko (2001). Classic case of re-purposing, or listening to a song in the right context, in the right emotional state. I never really liked Elton John. Rationally I knew that in particular his older work wasn’t too bad, but somehow I associated him too much with over the top clothing and ‘candle in the wind’ sentimentality. The sentimentality is also present in Tiny Dancer, but it is kept in check by controlled and precise singing and instrumentation that seems to dance around the singer. Elton John really seems to be the tiny dancer here.
The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) – Reunion scene – These Days (Nico)
I knew Nico from her short-lived career as singer in The Velvet Underground. I knew she also had a solo career, but I never thought it worthy of my attention. Thirteen years after her death in 1988 she returned magnificently with this song in The Royal Tenenbaums. I immediately knew it was her. The singing gave her away; too dark, too affected, with too much of a German accent.It is one of her first songs, written by Jackson Brown for her debut album (Chelsea Girl, 1967). It was one of those unexpected returns, like a relative who suddenly knocks on your door after disappearing 30 years ago.
Stranger than Kindness (2006) – Harold singing for Ana – Whole Wide World (Wreckless Eric)
In an evolving life only so much ends up in history. Not every scene can be remembered, and some can just lay around, lumbering, until a sudden event brings them back to life again. When I was 16, maybe 17, I discovered a lot of new music by going through the record collection of the older brother of a good friend. Elvis Costello, The Specials, Au Pairs, The Clash’s London Calling, I all heard it first in the attic room of my friend. I still remember what it looks like, and that we mostly listened in summer, because in my recollection it was always hot there, directly under the roof. We also listened to Wreckless Eric’s double LP Big Smash! (1980), and in particular to Whole Wide World. I forgot we did, until I watched Stranger than Fiction. It all came back in a flash.