Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Top ten music moments -- the schlub list

Cameron Crowe gives us his top ten list of music moments in film (which I got by way of Christopher Orr in The New Republic).

And, I must admit, it's a pretty good list. (I'm assuming that Crowe is deliberately disqualifying musical song and dance numbers, because if he isn't, I'd have to reevaluate the thing. I also assume movie scores like "Gone With the Wind" and "Jaws" are verboten.) I was particularly impressed that one of his runners up was Loudon Wainwright's "Daughter" song from Knocked Up.

Sometimes Crowe has the right song, but the wrong movie. (I actually think that the use of "Where is My Mind?", for example, might have been even better in Observe and Report than it was in Fight Club.) Sometimes he has the right movie, but the wrong song ("Then he Kissed Me" was used to much better effect in Goodfellas than "Jump into the Fire.") But overall, his list is solid.

That shouldn't stop me from coming up with my own alternative list. (Credit where credit is due: a handful of these are gleaned from the commenters on the article.) So here goes:

"Colonel Bogey March" Bridge on the River Kwai - A tattered, ragged army of POWs marches into their Japanese prison camp. But, as they march in, they whistle this old World War I march, perfectly. And as dazed and defeated as they look, when the cheerful ditty comes whistling out of their mouths, they look suddenly stronger. More optimistic. Ready to fight, if given half the chance. But the best part is that when they have reached the camp but have not finished they march in place as they finish the last few bars. Anything else would have been downright un-British.

"Let's Get It On" High Fidelity - It's a rare and wonderous thing to end your movie on as high a note as High Fidelity ends. Jack Black plays the asshole music clerk who we spent the entire movie laughing off (and at). And just when we thought there was nothing more to this person, he suddenly belts out the old Marvin Gaye song beyond all expectation. For a gleaming, shining moment, he wins one for losers everywhere.

"I'm Through With Love" Some Like It Hot - It took a long time before I forgave Woody Allen for using the immortal "I'm Through With Love" in his clunker, Everyone Says I Love You. I do not believe in improving upon perfection and it was used perfectly in the old Billy Wilder screwball comedy. At this point in the movie, Marilyn Monroe has been broken up with by Tony Curtis and she is heartbroken. She takes the microphone and sings this heartbreaking song with such despair that Curtis can't bear it. In full drag (and being chased by gangsters) he gives her one of cinema's greatest kisses.

"Amoreena" Dog Day Afternoon - There's very little music in Sidney Lumet's masterpiece, Dog Day Afternoon. In fact, I'm not sure if a single bar of music is played after the opening credits. But I've always thought that the happy, innocent Elton John song "Amoreena" over the sweltering shots of New York City in heat was one of the great opening credit montages of all time. Few songs have been used to set a mood so well.

"I'm Easy" Nashville - There are a number of great songs in this movie (most notably Barbara Harris' finale "It Don't Worry Me") as well as a number of god awful ones, but my favorite was the tender and ironic love song, "I'm Easy." The movie's cad, Keith Carradine, plays it for the married Lily Tomlin to woo her into bed -- while several other women in the audience think he's singing to them -- and, man, does it work.

"Then He Kissed Me" Goodfellas - If any single sequence summed up the movie Goodfellas, it was this one. Henry Hill whisks his date into the Copacabana through the back way -- going past the cooks and the dishwashers and the bouncers -- to get a spot near the front of the stage. All the while, he is treated like a rockstar, and all the while The Crystals are blaring over the soundtrack. It is the moment in which one fully understands the attractiveness of a petty thug like Henry Hill. And -- given that this sequence is all done without a single cut -- it is a true marvel of filmmaking.

"La gazza larda" (aka "The Thieving Magpie") A Clockwork Orange - The song most associated with A Clockwork Orange might be "Singin' in the Rain" (a song I was never able to hear again without being extremely creeped out). But I think Kubrick's use of Rossini's "The Thieving Magpie" was much better. The piece runs through at least three scenes: Alex beating up his droogs in slow-motion; Alex taking his droogs out for a drink; Alex killing the catwoman. And the music never stops the whole while. But the truly amazing thing is that the emotional high points of "The Thieving Magpie" -- where the music swells -- coincides perfectly with some act of violence on screen. It's practically operatic. You gotta just sit there and wonder how Kubrick pulled it off.

"Stuck in the Middle With You" Reservoir Dogs - I'm somewhat ambivalent about Quentin Tarantino. Certainly, a talented man. Also, an unbearable shmuck. But nevertheless, the extended torture sequence in Reservoir Dogs, where Mr. Blond playfully dances to this song as he slices up the face of an unfortunate police officer, is one of the greatest scenes ever committed to film.

"Ride of the Valkyries" Apocalypse Now - I'm not 100 percent sure that Apocalypse Now is a great movie... but the attack on the Vietnamese village with the helicopters blaring Richard Wagner is, quite possibly, the greatest war scene ever made. And it's also downright surreal. To hear grand opera coming from the skies, as these modern warriors swoop down in their airborne chariots is as great a set piece as Coppola has ever produced. It might have even been too good: Nothing that comes after it in Apocalypse Now compares. Come to think of it, nothing in the rest of Coppola's career did, either.

"La Marseillasie" Casablanca - I don't think I've ever enjoyed a Nazi humiliation more than in this scene. The set up is this: A group of German officers commandeer the piano at Rick's Cafe one evening and start singing Die Wacht am Rhein, an old Prussian anthem. As they do so, the resistence fighter, Victor Laszlo, angrily goes over to the orchestra and instructs them to play the Marseillasie. Suddenly, everyone in the bar joins in. The Germans try to compete for a minute or two, but they are drowned out, and sit down with their tails between their legs. As the song ends, tears are in almost everybody's eyes. Viva la France!

Post script -- I declined to put more than one director per music sequence on this list, but several directors should have multiple entries. Kubrick has a really lovely sequence at the end of Paths of Glory in which a German POW (played, incidentally, by Kubrick's wife) sings "The Faithful Hussar" for a group of French soldiers, which moves them to tears. (I admit that I also wept the first time I saw it.) Almost all of Kubrick's usage of Johann and Richard Strauss in 2001 could rightfully claim a place. And I was really torn whether to put down "We'll Meet Again" during the end of the world in Dr. Strangelove. Likewise, Tarantino's use of "Son of a Preacherman" in Pulp Fiction would be on the list if "Stuck in the Middle With You" wasn't and his use of "Misirlou" in the opening credits was fabulous. Plus, the fight scene in Mean Streets set to "Stop, Wait a Minute Mr. Postman" is a Scorsese classic.