The 10 Greatest Uses of Music in a Stanley Kubrick Film


I have seen thousands of films and I can honestly say, compared to his peers and most contemporaries, no one used music like Stanley Kubrick.

Very unique for this era, Kubrick preferred the use of musical extracts that were often “contrapuntal” – music segments that are contradictory to the emotional or visual value of a scene. For an audience conditioned to scored-through, symphonic music written by a single composer, this opened a whole range of responses atypical to convention.

Kubrick started this habit – incrementally at first – almost from the beginning. But by “Dr. Strangelove” he was all in and would never return to a traditional score. (“Spartacus” was the last.) Of mainstream filmmakers today, only Woody Allen, Marty Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, and Wes Anderson continue this trend with any kind of regularity.

The current public preference for ‘franchise’ films – the lifeblood of a studio and affectionately referred to as ‘tentpoles’ for the amount of money they tend to generate – requires a full score, preferably a recognizable hero’s theme, and an individual of considerable talent to compose it, something Msrs. Williams, Horner (sadly killed recently in a solo airplane crash), Goldsmith, Elfman, Shore, Morricone, or Zimmer were more than happy to do.

Kubrick, more than anything, wanted to shake things up. He often criticized the three-act play structure of a typical film but he knew more than anyone that classical structure works – the Greeks knew what they were doing – and films like 2001 are rare and come along only once a generation. But that doesn’t mean you can’t shake things up a bit. Kubrick serviced his ‘brand’ quite differently once he achieved autonomy from studio meddling.

By primarily going with the likes of Berthold Brecht and his confrontational theories of theater, Sergei Eisenstein and his groundbreaking theories of film editing and juxtaposition, Friedrich Nietzsche and the morality of the superman for the character arcs of his “heroes,” and Sigmund Freud (later Bruno Bettelheim) for defining Id, ego, and dream states, – does anyone detect a pattern here? – he, more than any modern director working, was significantly influenced by German thinkers.

Music was one aspect of filmmaking ripe for a rethink and Kubrick, like Richard Wagner (another German), was fully active in developing his Gesamtkunstwerk – a German word meaning ‘total work of art’ – that sought to synthesize visual, dramatic, and musical forms away from conventional into something more akin to cinematic semiotics. This explains the largely unreal, over-the-top aspects of most of his films. They never appear to take place in a real world but an internal vista of twisted imagination.

While I deplore the modern way of over-thinking everything and misappropriating sometimes random happenstances in film production as premeditated gospel (most people would be surprised how much creative randomness occurs on a film set), Kubrick was more careful than most and ruled over all aspects of production with a careful, obsessional, perspicacious eye.

When it comes to music, scored-through films scores did not fit well with his concepts of Brechtian distancing devices. Full symphonic scores had a way of lulling the audience into complacency and dictating every emotion. Kubrick wanted more – or less! – depending on how you look at it. He wanted his music to be familiar but assaultive like a quick-strike Navy Seal team. He wanted to comment on the screen action in deliberately ironic ways that defied pigeon-holding. Above all, he wanted his films to be different and memorable.

So, without further ado, here are the top ten uses of contrapuntal and segmented music in his films:


1. Discovery super-lietmotif in “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968)

“Sunrise” from “Thus Spake Zarathustra,” Op. 30 by Richard Strauss

2001 space

“Thus Spake Zarathustra” is a musical tone poem comprised of nine parts. Each part addresses a specific emotion like longing, joy, death, or learning, to name a few. Kubrick uses only the first and most sonic part – “Einleitung, oder Sonnenaufgang” (Introduction, or Sunrise).

Most filmgoers not classically inclined have probably not heard the rest of the work beyond its very famous first section. This is a shame for it is a very powerful piece and evokes a whole range of emotions and responses. Strauss is always good that way. His orchestras are massively oversize and sound it. “Thus Spake Zarathustra” has been part of the classical repertory since its first performance – it is that good. I would encourage anyone to listen to the full composition.

It should be noted, Richard Strauss bears no relation to Johann Strauss, composer of the “Blue Danube,” also used in the film. His music is passionate, tempestuous, and full of musical chromatics. After “Thus Spake Zarathustra,” “Salome” – an opera – is his most famous and scandalous (but not his most complex), and features a full striptease near the end for all the wrong reasons. Strauss is part of the German Romanticism period that followed closely on the heels of Richard Wager, the greatest opera composer who ever lived.

Kubrick has used Strauss only twice in his career – in “2001: a space odyssey,” and later in “A.I. Artificial Intelligence.” In his notes following his death, he specified a particular excerpt from the opera “Der Rosencavalier” (The Knight of the Red Rose, or The Rose Bearer) when David and Gigolo Joe cross the bridge and into the mouth of the woman gatekeeper on their way to Rouge City.

I have seen AI many times, and I still can’t reconcile this piece! Framed within Spielberg’s glossy context, it makes no sense. Kubrick, of this one can be certain, had different ideas that may have been lost in translation. The luscious harmonics of the excerpt could have acted in contrapuntal fashion to how Kubrick had envisioned Rouge City. One suspects that Rouge City would have been far more explicitly and exotically X-rated. It’s a shame Kubrick died right at the dawn of CGI filmmaking. I would have like to see his imagination wander in that universe.

Strauss’ “Thus Spake Zarathustra” is based on the eponymous, philosophical masterpiece written by Friedrich Nietzsche in the 19th century. There are several recurring themes, the most important being the concept of ‘the superman’ (Übermensch, literally translated as ‘overman’), a self-mastered individual who has achieved his full power. Man is merely a bridge between animals and this higher expression.

The second theme is that of the ‘eternal recurrence.’ Eternal recurrence is the possibility that all events in one’s life will repeat infinitely. The embrace of such is the defining characteristic of the superman.

The third major theme is the ‘will to power’ as a fundamental component of our essentially flawed human nature. Who we are as individuals is expressed by our relationship to our will and desire and our willingness to express our lives full through its continuous application.

It has always been my assertion, that Kubrick films have always exhibited extensions of Nietzschean philosophies that go back to the beginning of his career. It is no accident Kubrick’s first film was titled “Fear & Desire,” and, however inexpertly produced (Kubrick considered his nascent offering nothing more than a bad student film), exhibited metaphysical and existentialist themes liberally borrowed from Nietzsche.

Strauss’ piece, as well as all the others chosen for the film fit so perfectly within 2001’s framework that it is actually surprising Kubrick even hired Alex North to compose a conventional score. Perhaps he did so to placate studio suits? Perhaps Kubrick fully intended to use a scored-through music track? What is clear, at some point – perhaps very late in the game – Kubrick had an epiphany and many conventional elements that were written or filmed or scored were jettisoned in post-production. The film was more than merely edited – a Stygian scythe had gone mad on the Steenbeck! Gone was the narration.

Gone were the aliens. Gone was the scored-through score. Gone was most of the dialog. What remained was transcendental music, exquisite imagery, and 45-minutes of dialog and in a 2 ½ hour film that became, essentially, a non-verbal, visual tone poem to one of the great literary masterpieces of philosophical thought in the 20th century that questioned the very methodologies of our existence.

Millions of words have been written about 2001 and its meaning. Honestly, one really doesn’t have to stray much further than the source work to find the real truth.


2. Dancing Christ in “A Clockwork Orange” (1971)

“Symphony No. 9, second movement” by Ludwig von Beethoven

dancing christ

Beethoven’s 9th symphony is one of the most titanic symphonies ever written by one of the most titanic composers the world has ever known. I do not have to waste words defending him or the symphony’s place in the pantheon of classical music.

“A Clockwork Orange” is one of the most controversial, violent films ever made and considered a masterpiece of dystopian angst told in the style of a nightmarish fairytale. I do not have to waste words defending its position in the pantheon of filmmaking.

Kubrick did not originate the idea of combining the two, unusual pairings (Anthony Burgess, the author of the adapted novel, had already done that), but it was Kubrick who took the cue from Burgess and dramatically expanded the visual and aural dichotomy to a degree that was wholly original and bonded hyperventilating aspects of the book into a cinematic tour-de-force. For good or for bad, it is impossible not to have a strong opinion about this film.

Alex loved life and few things could substitute from getting high at the Korova Milkbar, creating mischief on the city streets, and listening to Beethoven – preferably all three at the same time. Beethoven is laced through this movie like DNA strands – his face, his music, his take-no-prisoners attitude. Music is a catalyst that pushes Alex over the edge. It encompasses every fiber of his being.

Taken as a whole, the music of “A Clockwork Orange” is an exciting amalgam of classical, atonal, synthesizer, and show/folk tunes. It’s rich in texture and counterpoint, augmenting and commenting on the action in ways very unusual for a mainstream film, especially for 1971. It shocked. It awed. It trumpeted its mastery with arrogance and pride. Never was Kubrick more freeform and associative. Never again would he allow his artistry flow unbridled from his percussive imagination. The after effects of the controversy lived on for years and most likely affected, even subconsciously, some aspects of his filmmaking for the rest of his life.

For audacity and shock value in a film full of it, the Dancing Christ wins the battle. It incensed many, and religious groups were quick to condemn. It occurs after his gang raped a woman and beat a homeless person almost to death, engaged in a turf war with a rival gangs and drove other cars off the road on small country streets in a midnight run with a fast car. Frantically edited in time to the music, combined with multi-angle, extreme close-ups of a quad-Christ sculpture, it appears to dance – or at least do the jig – and joyously celebrate in Alex’s mayhem of the evening.

If that is not enough, narration accompanies the Dancing Christ sequence, as the 2nd movement of Beethoven’s 9th symphony plays on:
Alex: Oh bliss! Bliss and heaven! Oh, it was gorgeousness and gorgeousity made flesh. It was like a bird of rarest-spun heaven metal or like silvery wine flowing in a spaceship, gravity all nonsense now. As I slooshied, I knew such lovely pictures!

The camera pans down from a large, live snake to the Christ sculpture (Christ is nude and his genitalia is fully exposed). As frantic cross-cutting ensues, we also see images of a women being hanged, Dracula and his bloody fanged teeth, various explosions, cavemen crushed under an avalanche of rock, and topped off by Alex with a strange gaze…who appears to be in the midst of an orgasm.

This sequence – only one of many – freaked people out.

The film was immediately rated ‘X,’ which limited its audience considerably. At the time, before porn co-opted the ‘X’ rating for its own nefarious purposes, it stood for mature audiences who had a brain and could think through challenging material like “A Clockwork Orange” intelligently. Just the year before, Midnight Cowboy was the first X-rated film to be nominated for an Academy Award, so this was not a throwaway rating.

Still, the rage, the libidinous action, the violence, the excessive nudity and sex all done to pretty music added up and “A Clockwork Orange” could not recover from so much bad press. The final straw was the banning of the film in the UK for fear of copycat gangs. The film disappeared from public view, revived later in midnight screenings and the 16mm college circuit.