The 10 Greatest Uses of Music in a Stanley Kubrick Film

3. The rape of writer F. Alexander’s wife in “A Clockwork Orange” (1971)

“Singing in the Rain” Written by Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown

A Clockwork Orange

If a dancing Christ was not enough, a rape to the tune of Singing in the Rain would surely put one over the edge.

Improvised on set during shooting, even after 45 years, the stark, extremely violent contrast between what is happening on screen – a brutal beating followed by an even more brutal rape – compared with the previous associations of the song as one of the most freeform happy moments ever created in film, couldn’t be more distant and continues to shock.

Frankly, that was the point. But somehow, a random choice became larger than the film itself and what was meant to be frighteningly real and disgusting sequence transcended time and place and vaulted the film out of the ordinary and into the realm of the extraordinary. Rated X, it offended everyone. Laced with lots of pretty music, its message seemed contradictory. Concept and execution stewed together in the willful cauldron of unintended consequence and immoral certainty, graced by rape, murder, and nudity, stamped with authority by no less than Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.”

Two years earlier, Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch” tried to demonstrate that slow-motion death would somehow make violence more horrific because of the artificially accentuated detail caused by slowing down the action. In fact, quite the opposite was true. Instead of repelling violence, it glorified it, turning blood spatter and bodies twisting in ballet-like pirouettes into a Jackson Pollack-like Grand Guignol canvas of directorial madness.

The message of “A Clockwork Orange” – a not terribly convincing indictment of Fascism – was lost on a hyperventilating society in transition from war, bad economy, and the 60s, and Kubrick’s Brechtian treatment glossed over the bleakness with nihilistic abandon.

Filmmaking’s newfound freedom of expression caused by the elimination of the Hayes Code was intoxicating and Kubrick led the charge, perhaps pushing the proverbial envelope too far. The audience was simply not ready. The contradictory messages, visuals, and music of this deeply complex film, in effect, said to the youth of the day – you can’t help yourselves…you have met the enemy and it is us. Do what thou wilt because we can’t stop you anyway!

Far from evincing moral outrage, the music seduced an audience willing to go along for the ride, and the bleak irony and black humor – however it was originally intended to shock and awe – made the unrelieved violence of the whole enterprise palatable, even funny. Never underestimate the effect of detached irony. Suddenly, everyone wanted to be a “droog” because they were so cool and trendy, and they liked Beethoven and Rossini too so how bad could that be! And how many of us tried to have sex to William Tell’s Overture or Beethoven’s 9th after seeing this film?

Filmgoers had finally lost their virginity and Kubrick led the charge.


4. Brian Patrick Lyndon’s death and funeral in “Barry Lyndon” (1975)

“Sarabande, 4th movement” Written by George Frideric Handel (as Georg Friedrich Händel)

From the Suite for Harpsichord in D-minor, HWV 437. Arranged for orchestra.

bryan funeral

Far from the controversy bestirred by “A Clockwork Orange”, Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon” couldn’t possibly be farther away in time and space from dystopian London than to the bucolic countryside of landed gentry and peerage. And while not exactly contrapuntal in nature, the music of “Barry Lyndon” is far from scored-through either. Scenes and sequences are augmented in perfect balance by a variety of musical compositions deeply rooted in a rich, classical mix of marches, symphonies, concertos, suites, and folk tunes near to or from that era.

Barry Lyndon was born from the failure to get a greenlight for Kubrick’s dream project, Napoleon. Not wanting to waste all the time and research material, he quickly adapted an 18th century novel from William Makepeace Thackeray in a streamlined manner, running along parallel story paths into the most beautiful period piece ever filmed. Kubrick courted no controversy, other than perhaps the casting of pretty boy American Ryan O’Neal in a distinctly roguish, Irish role.

Everything about this film is a work of genius and lovingly crafted and acted. Even Ryan O’Neal overcomes the viewer’s initial misgivings and totally sells his role. His character arc is a sad one, and he covers the wide range of emotions, as well as the extreme physicality of the part admirably and fearlessly.

But, O, the music.

The music is one of the two unseen “stars” of the film, along with Michael Hordern’s unreliable narrator. Together, these non-visual elements lend gravitas, irony, context, backstory, emotion, and passion to this consummate visual masterpiece. Far from being a biting a satirical counterpoint to the action, the music is in full support of the story but in unexpected ways.

The “Sarabande” in particular rises above the rest and is the overriding “theme” of the film. It is arranged in a number of variations from full orchestra to an almost minimalist piano. It is a sad, melancholy piece that is the 4th movement of an otherwise non-descript harpsichord suite by Handel, seemingly out of place in the original. In the film, though, it represents the weight of the world and blood tears from Christ. It is used most forcefully and movingly during the death and funeral of Barry’s son.

“Barry Lyndon” is a film without gimmicks, without directorial intrusion, without redaction, in a concerted, deliberate effort to present a story as naturally as possible within the artificial constraints of the medium, aided by a semi-contrapuntal soundtrack of elegant delicacy, which unfurls in long, languid set-pieces of incomparable beauty and stately countenance. A masterpiece in every respect.


5. Airplane sex, opening title sequence to “Dr. Strangelove” (1964)

“Try A Little Tenderness” Written by Jimmy Campbell, Reg Connelly and Harry M. Woods

Title design de Pablo Ferro (“Dr. Strangelove”, Stanley Kubrick, 1964).

dr strangelove opening

“Dr. Strangelove” is a film littered with implied sexual excess, libido, impudence, and non-too-subtle sexual references. What could be a more appropriate opening title sequence than airplanes having sex? And what more appropriate music is there than “Try A Little Tenderness” during coitus. Talk about overcoming the strictures of the Hayes Code! Of all of Kubrick’s genius opening sequences this is one of the best. Only “The Shining” is better.

The song is the purest definition of contrapuntal music there is – a perfect amalgam of concept, execution, and contradiction, setting the table for the black comedy to come as it unfurls with devastating wit and apocalypse for all. What we don’t realize at first is that the jets are kept in the air 24/7/365 and are first strike weapons of mass destruction – and this film is making fun of it!

So much for Mutual Assured Destruction!


6. B-52 attack on primary and secondary targets in “Dr. Strangelove” (1964)

“Johnny Comes Marching Home” Music by the Union Army bandmaster, Louis Lambert

Strangelove B52

Continuing in the same vein as the opening salvo, “Dr. Strangelove” ups the ante again and again, as the action moves from hope to despair to inevitability to utter loss. Kubrick increases the tension by cross-cutting between the War Room and the B-52 in a combined set-piece that lasts the last third of the film. He exploits a single piece of music to accomplish the bridge.

“Johnny Comes Marching Home” is a civil war-era tune that expresses a longing for the return of friends and relatives caught in the maelstrom of war. But in Kubrick’s hands, it is turned into a battle cry, an anthem, a march to freedom! The music is repeated and repeated again, it’s mad recapitulation in synch with fortunes of the hobbled B-52 intent on delivering its lethal package but out of synch with those in the War Room, who are hoping against hope the B-52 fails in its mission and are doing everything they can to accomplish this anti-goal.

Unable to open the bomb bay doors because of an electronic malfunction, Maj. Kong tries to manually fix the issue. He does, of course, at the last possible second. The doors open and the bomb falls with Kong on it, riding and yelling like the bronco-busting cowboy he is. The nuclear warhead explodes, which sets off a chain reaction that dooms most of mankind. The lucky few get to live underground and procreate incessantly to repopulate the species. In fact, it is only ‘because’ of this reason, suddenly deduced by the world’s leaders, that the political proletariat are okay with what just happened (just watch out for that “mineshaft gap!”)

As the end credits roll, Vera Lynn’s “We’ll meet again” plays over various exploding atom and hydrogen bombs. Mankind, if not totally annihilated, the ‘lucky’ few will survive like cockroaches and emerge 100 years later transfigured and transformed.

There are few films as perfect as “Dr. Strangelove or: how I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb.” And there are few films that have used such minimal amount of music to achieve so much.

Pay attention, film students, this is how it’s done.