My Favourite Film Scores: Pop Songs

In this second instalment of a series to coincide with BBC4 series ‘The Sound of Cinema,’ counts down his favourite uses of pop songs in cinema

reservoirdogsPop songs do some strange things on film. They can be funny, frightening, and bring a whole load of meaning to a scene that might otherwise fall flat. Here are some of my favourite.

1. Enya, “Orinoco Flow” – The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

This one is just twisted, but I love it. As (*SPOILERS!*) Daniel Craig finds himself in something of a pickle, hanging by the throat at the murderous hands of Stellan Skaarsgard, something amazing happens. The villain goes over to the stereo, and puts on Enya. What follows is an eye-watering scene, as the boppy, New Age synth plays out over some pretty grim knife action. According to director David Fincher, the choice of song was made in rehearsal. Stuck for ideas, Daniel Craig trawled his iPod and hit this gem. So there you have it: on his days off, James Bond listens to Enya.

2. The Rolling Stones, “Gimme Shelter” – The Departed

“I don’t wanna’ be a product of my environment. I want my environment to be a product of me.” So goes Big Jack’s opening monologue to Martin Scorcese’s Oscar-winner, accompanied by the coolest of guitar riffs. He had actually used the song before, in Goodfellas. There, it bordered on throwaway. Not so here, with the combination of Jack’s gravelly tones and Mick Jagger’s hellish screams of “Rape…Murder…It’s just a shot away…” proving positively hair-raising.

3. Julio Iglasias, “La Mer” – The Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

The first time you watch this film, this song’s appearance comes as something of a shock. After two hours of muted colours and muter conversations, Tomas Alfredson pulls this on us: a closing montage set to a 1970s disco cover of a Charles Trenet classic. Director Tomas Alfredson is quoted as having said that he chose the song because it is “everything that the world of MI6 isn’t”, and he’s right. It’s more than that though. The fact that the drab world of these middle-aged men can be plucked up by the corniest of disco tunes is a sad, yet strangely comforting, thought. Could have done with John Hurt wearing a ‘fro, just to finish it off.

4. Stealers’ Wheel, “Stuck in the middle with you” – Reservoir Dogs

A can of petrol. A flick knife. Some poor policeman’s ear. And then that guitar. Arguably setting the mould for the “really happy song + really horrible act = fingernail-biting tension” model that Dragon Tattoo picks up, Tarantino’s music choice here is one of his best. What makes it worse is that (hopefully this isn’t just me), you still can’t help but kind of want to dance along with Michael Madsen.

5. Gary Jules, “Mad World” – Donnie Darko

The third montage piece on this list – don’t worry, “Eye of the Tiger” wasn’t even close – is a moving affair. It may well be overplayed now (and it’s a shame that it was released as a Christmas hit) but Gary Jules’ tender cover of Tears for Fears is undoubtedly at its most powerful in the film. The title, too, is apt, as that haunting vocal cries out over shots of every character in the film, each realising, if just for a moment, that they may have experienced something far bigger than they will ever comprehend. Most goose-pimply of all is the sight of a guilt ridden Patrick Swayze, weeping in his bed.

Honorable Mentions

Vera Lynn, “We’ll Meet Again” – Dr Strangelove.
Hall & Oates, “You Make My Dreams” – 500 Days of Summer
Mike Oldfield, “Tubular Bells” – The Exorcist
Bob Dylan, “The times they are a changin’ – Watchmen

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