“Ah, music,” he said, wiping his eyes. “A magic beyond all we do here!”
-J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
“Music touches us emotionally, where words alone can’t.”
– Johnny Depp
“I like beautiful melodies telling me terrible things.”
It is undeniable the impact music has made in film since the art form’s inception over 100 years ago. When we reflect on great films we have seen, we frequently remember the music that was heard during key scenes that magnified the impact of the scene. Who is not able to recall in exact detail the five notes played as a form of communication in Close Encounters of the Third Kind? Or the shrieking and screeching of the hair of the violin bow across the strings during the iconic shower scene in Psycho?
It has become clear that it is practically impossible to separate the visual image from the soundtrack of a film; the one desperately needs the other, and the image on screen will most likely not be as memorable, or effective, without music which, when carefully selected, deepens the effect and serves to ultimately define the director’s vision. There are even some films (one will be discussed below) where the absence of music, or any sound, for that matter, leaves a deep and distinct impression on the scene, and the audience.
Some of the most memorable films have the most memorable soundtracks, and time and again it is the director who is also an auteur, assuming complete control of the production, who frequently make the best choice that will result in a film that will be remembered decades after its release. Some of the directors who immediately come to mind are Stanley Kubrick and Martin Scorsese, both of whom dealt mostly with music that was composed for its own sake, and not for film.
Yet it is amazing how so perfectly much of this pre-recorded music fits a scene. What follows below are examples of music in specific scenes, most of which was composed years before the film’s creation, where it not only magnified the events in the scene, but also, through a flash of creative brilliance, seemed to have been written for that scene.
1. Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese, 1990)
Helicopter Sightings Scene – Jump into the Fire
Composed by Harry Nilsson and released on the 1971 album, Nilsson Schmilsson is heard at the beginning of the penultimate scene in Goodfellas when Henry has to complete a dizzying amount of errands – Drop off used handguns to Jimmy Conway that he doesn’t want, take his wheelchair-bound brother to the hospital, hide the unwanted handguns in his mother-in-law’s garage, pick them up again, help prepare veal parmigiana dinner, and so on – before his babysitter flies to Pittsburgh in the evening.
During this odyssey he is snorting cocaine (having the effect of amphetamines as well as causing him to become paranoid), sweating profusely, and adding to the frenetic pace of the scene.
He spots helicopters in the air throughout the morning, and the camera uses a POV perspective, as if we are in the car, looking from the dashboard up into the air. Scorsese effectively places the audience in the car, riding with Henry, and in the background, rising and falling in volume, is Jump Into the Fire, whose first verse is sung, “You can climb a mountain/You could swim the sea, You can jump into the fire/But you’ll never be free.”
Nilsson’s voice sounds desperate, pleading, especially when he sings, “We could make each other happy.” The song, over 7 minutes in length, has a powerful hallucinatory quality, and seems to match perfectly Henry’s state of mind – drugged, paranoid, unhealthy, panicked, anxious. It is difficult to consider a better choice for this moment in the film, especially when the end comes in the dark of the evening when the barrel of a police service revolver is pressed against Henry’s temple.
2. Lost Highway (David Lynch , 1997)
Opening Credits – I’m Deranged
With a wonderful matching of titles and music, David Bowie and Brian Eno’s I’m Deranged, written for the 1995 album Outside, seems perfect for highway driving during a night so dark, the headlamps provide the only illumination. In myth and in works of art, nighttime is the time when hidden desires surface, and are acted upon. In the mind of David Lynch, night is not merely the end of the day, it is also the time when strong feelings of wanting to have something or wishing for something to happen, occurs.
The first line of lyric, “Funny how secrets travel,” suggest in its driving rhythm the feeling of movement, and in its tone, dark and enigmatic, suggests hidden mysteries. Lost Highway, like much of Lynch’s output after Blue Velvet, is shrouded in mystery, leaving the viewer with more questions than answers.
With the exception of The Straight Story, Lynch’s films are bleakly atmospheric, cryptic, and without exception populated with characters that are so outside of the mainstream they are utterly unforgettable, such as Frank Booth in Blue Velvet, and Bobby Peru in Wild at Heart.
What can be heard over a driving percussion in 4/4 time is a simple, yet menacing motif, or theme, consisting of only four notes. The chords that follow over this pulsing, driving rhythm has the effect of drawing the viewer into the very dark world of the film.
It almost reminds the viewer of the inscription seen when entering Dante’s Inferno: Abandon all hope ye who enter here. Lost Highway is indeed an experience not unlike a trip through a hellish underworld, showing us what lurks behind the curtain of monotonous daily living, a nightmare that is impossible to awaken from.
3. The Dark Knight Rises (Christopher Nolan, 2012)
The Bat Flies Out to Sea Scene – Rise
Try to recollect the events leading up to the ending of The Dark Knight Rises: The school bus is stranded on the bridge, John Blake and the schoolchildren have been forbidden to cross the bridge to safety under threat of death. Without one iota of hope left, the camera focuses on Blake’s face, resignation, concern, sadness.
Suddenly he hears a shout and looks up to the sky and sees the Bat fly over, heading out to sea. For the next 12 seconds, the audience is held in suspense, not knowing what will happen next. The camera moves from the exterior of the bridge, children and soldiers, to the interior of the copter, where the grim visage of Batman is seen.
The choral strain found in “Rise” written for the film by Hans Zimmer, is heard, and nothing else: the simple plaintive melody is sung in a slow tempo. This simple musical passage effectively slows the frenetic pace of the film at this point, the music seems to have the power to suspend the passage of time, enabling the audience to focus only on the solo craft flying toward the horizon, its solitary passenger counting down the last seconds of his life, and his last heroic act.
This wonderful suspension of time, so complete in its sense of finality, the music conveying the sense of a Requiem, is so apparently effective that the viewer is caught by surprise when Alfred spots Bruce Wayne outside of a Paris cafe in the final scene. The music was the device used to convey finality, a final ending, a Coda for the ending of the trilogy of Batman films. As it turns out, it was the final deception of perhaps the best superhero franchise ever filmed.
4. No Country for Old Men (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2007)
All But 16 Minutes of Film – Silence
Just as music, in its most obvious sense, can “manipulate” the audience into feeling specific emotions, and at its worst, dictating to the viewer how to react or how to feel about a character or a scene, in the case of No Country For Old Men, it is the absence of a musical guide which helps give meaning to the action of the film.
Considered a suspense thriller, the Coen Brothers’ film is a radical departure from the genre, which almost without exception utilizes a music soundtrack to create suspense, dread, and shock. No Country is an experimental film: Except for 16 minutes of film (and even then the music audio is not higher than 60 Hertz, only slightly above the 20 Hertz low threshold of perfect hearing), the film is absent of composed music.
However, its absence serves to amplify other non-musical sounds, which replaces the use of music in order to build suspense: sounds such as bells, the blip-blip-blip of a transponder, the squeak of the Texaco sign in the wind, the sound of the twisting candy wrapper inside the gas station, where Chigurh flips a coin to decide the fate of the attendant, and the final conversation between Wells (Woody Harrelson) and Chigurh.
It should be noted that Alfred Hitchcock was a proponent of pure cinema, which argues for the buildup of tension by purely cinematic means only.
This recalls the crop dusting scene in North by Northwest, which is entirely devoid of sound save for the airplane and the hail of bullets raining down on Roger Thornhill; from the moment Thornhill gets off the bus, to the crash of the crop duster into the gasoline truck, the entire scene is devoid of music, relying upon the camera angles, perspective, and action as the only components used for the buildup of suspense.
The Coen Brothers’ film likewise, with its lack of noise and sounds, have effectively captured the bleak and violent nature of Cormac McCarthy’s book.
5. The Birds (Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)
Schoolhouse Bird Attack Scene – Risseldy Rosseldy
One of the best biographies of Alfred Hitchcock is Donald Spoto’s The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock. In addition to discussing his infamous obsession with his female actors, the cruelty toward screenwriters and composers eager to work with him, as well as the evolution of his films which were simultaneously enormously popular and considered as art forms by film critics, the book discusses Hitchcock’s mischievous nature, such as some of the unbelievably sadistic pranks he played on his film crews.
The scene in The Birds (another example of pure cinema and lacking a musical score) in the minutes preceding the bird attack on the school, Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren), is sitting on a bench and smoking a cigarette outside the school, waiting to warn Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette) of the possibility of an imminent bird attack. While waiting, coming through the windows of the school is a song the children sing that is akin to a nursery rhyme.
With each repeat of the song’s refrain, the chorus of“Risseldy Rosseldy” gets longer and longer, and as its length increases, so does its ability to become unsettlingly annoying. The repetitive melody is juxtaposed with events occurring behind Melanie that she is as yet unaware: the birds, mostly black crows, are gathering behind her on the school yard’s climbing bars.
The viewer wishes to warn her of the birds flocking behind her, and are apparently unable to, and what causes further distraction is the unrelenting, monotonous and ultimately maddening tune being sung. This is a prime example of the often repeated fact that it is the audience, not the plot, which is being manipulated in Hitchcock’s films.
When Melanie finally becomes aware of the migrating crows, she hurriedly enters the classroom, disrupting the class, and ultimately for the audience, bringing about an end to the unrelenting cacophony of “Risseldy Rosseldy.”
6. Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968)
Rosemary Alone in The Apartment Scene – Fur Elise
Many film scores contain music that has been assigned to each individual character of a film, which serves as a “trademark” of that character for the audience. An example is Eric Clapton’s wailing guitar solo in Lethal Weapon, which is heard when Riggs (Mel Gibson) becomes unhinged, or the harmonica theme that accompanies Charles Bronson’s appearance in Once Upon A Time In The West.
In Rosemary’s Baby, the connection between Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” and the character Rosemary Woodhouse is much more subtle. A plot constructed in a similar manner to many Hitchcock’s films, Roman Polanski’s first American film clues the audience into the true nature of Rosemary and Guy’s neighbors, leaving Rosemary (Mia Farrow) utterly naive and unaware.
This famous Beethoven piano composition, a staple musical piece for any young piano student, is heard through the walls of the newlyweds’ apartment and, correlating with the sentiment of the piece, lends a plaintive and melancholy atmosphere, as if it is being played by a depressed child.
It is also heard at a much slower tempo, and is riddled with mistakes, wrong notes, and pauses. The performance of Fur Elise in the film is withdrawn and introspective, even vulnerable and, like Rosemary herself, artless and wistful.