January has a bad reputation. Over the years, the pattern in which studios distribute their films has ossified, so that we automatically expect most “serious” Oscar contenders to be crammed in together towards the end of the year. This leaves January as the assumed garbage dump, the month-long wasteland where studios offload the projects they know are duds. Well, that is still mostly true, except it isn’t entirely for everyone who doesn’t live in Los Angeles or New York. Those are the people for whom Inside Llewyn Davis and Her trickled out in the middle of January, and are effectively 2014 movies. I spent much of the holidays in my hometown in Pennsylvania, where these sort of movies only start to appear once the buzz surrounding the actual Oscar nominations bubbles up. The upside of that is you don’t totally feel that January film drought, because you’re still catching up on the Oscar contenders (or, in the case of Inside Llewyn Davis, an erstwhile contender that went woefully ignored). And, lucky for me and the way I watch movies, the leftovers of 2013 turn out to be works that made thoughtful and integral use of music. So the rules of this particular soundtrack round-up are a little lax. Since deadlines prohibited me from including Her, Inside Llewyn Davis, and The Wolf of Wall Street in my 2013 retrospective on soundtrack moments, all are represented here.
The other thing that isn’t so bad about January, as it turns out, is that the ever-changing and ever-richer landscape of TV means we don’t just have shows returning mid-season, but a whole host of premieres for new seasons and series alike. I mean, just look at Vulture’s list of January and February premieres. It’s stacked with stalwarts as well as intriguing newcomers. Littered throughout that list are shows a few years deep that have already established how cleverly they use music, and some new faces that are already making their mark soundtrack-wise, as well.
Here are my five favorite soundtrack moments of the year so far. As you can see from that list of premieres, the sheer magnitude of what’s out there right now makes it impossible for me to watch everything so, as always, let us know in the comments if you think we’ve missed something.
5. Girls, S03E03 (“She Said OK”)
The third season of Girls is off to a characteristically good start with its music selection. A few episodes deep, there’s already a handful of memorable moments piling up, but it will be hard to outdo this season’s third episode, “She Said OK.” My feelings on the first two seasons hold true here — the music direction of Girls really excels in how the show soundtracks all manners of New York social gatherings with a believable variety. With much of “She Said OK” taking place at a bar where Marnie has organized Hannah’s 25th birthday party, the episode has music playing almost constantly. New Order’s “Age of Consent” was the sort of well-executed cue that meant two totally different things (upbeat/tragic) as Adam and Hannah got on the dance floor and a forlorn Ray watched the party from afar before deciding to go outside and talk to Shoshanna. “Age of Consent” is a quintessential enough example of the sort of ’80s track you’d randomly hear when out in Brooklyn to make you wonder how the show hasn’t used it yet, while the Velvet Underground’s “Rock and Roll” was a bit more of a (welcome) surprise. (Subtract points, though, from this whole episode for the fact that they used Jacuzzi Boys’ cover of Big Audio Dynamite’s “E=MC²” instead of the original, which is a perfect song.)
This wouldn’t be Girls without some awkward social experiences, though, and almost all the cringeworthy moments in “She Said OK” revolve around music. The twin trainwrecks of Marnie bracket the episode — her embarrassment at her YouTube rendition of Edie Brickell’s “What I Am” and her insistence on a stilted performance of a Rent song with an unwilling Hannah. A lot of this episode is really about Ray, though, who’s steadily become one of the more relatable characters on the show. Fittingly, where Marnie and Hannah’s performance should’ve been the party’s climactic disaster, all of its impact (in the story itself, and for the viewer) is diminished by the much more bizarre, jarring, and sad sequence of Ray thrashing around alone to the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Today,” and then — when the song is cut off midway by David’s request for LMFAO’s “Sexy and I Know It” — getting angry and losing a fight to David. I mean, Ray’s totally right — the DJ turned off a great song for a terrible one. Hopefully the show will have plenty more of both through the rest of the season.
New Order – “Age Of Consent”
Marnie’s “What I Am” video
Smashing Pumpkins – “Today”
4. Her: Arcade Fire’s Score
It’s fitting that while they were at work on Reflektor, Arcade Fire were also writing a score for Spike Jonze’s Her. Besides the fact that both are the product of Arcade Fire, the projects are spiritual brothers. Both deal with issues of traversing our lives as new technology develops — ever more quickly — that has the potential to alter how we interact with one another or to make us question what the line between human and artificial is anymore anyway. And while each could easily devolve into technophobia — and, to be fair, there are parts of Reflektor that might — for the most part Her and Reflektor alike manage to walk a line. They acknowledge that the way we live our lives is changing, and that’s just a fact, but argue that there will always be something special and ineffable about the specific ephemerality of human existence, relationships, and all that.
So that can be pretty heavy stuff, and Jonze navigates it nimbly with a near-future, sorta-satire that’s equal parts clever and touching. Arcade Fire did it by half-committing to a “going dance” career left-turn. Their Her soundtrack, though, while it bears some of the same DNA as Reflektor, is pretty far from the “Arcade Fire — maintenant avec more bongos et synthetic funk!” tagline of that album. There’s piano and strings, but there’s also droning, near-ambient stuff. It’s often gorgeous, but it’s also often unassuming. It somehow manages to get at the sterility of Jonze’s squeaky clean, brightly colored Los Angeles while also being evocative enough to capture the nebulous qualities of human nature that the movie meditates upon. As for traces of Reflektor: though it’s credited as “Some Other Place” on the official soundtrack, the string swells during the scene where Twombly has phone sex with Samantha seem to echo the “I’m not over it” refrain at the end of “Porno,” and an instrumental “Supersymmetry” is featured somewhat prominently and jubilantly. Throughout, there’s a delicacy rarely heard in Arcade Fire’s music. As great as their four albums are, it might be interesting to hear them incorporate this side of their songwriting into their records a bit.
A trailer for Her with the finished version of “Supersymmetry”
3. The Wolf Of Wall Street: Umberto Tozzi’s “Gloria”
There’s no question Martin Scorsese is a master of soundtracking, with some of the most iconic uses of music in film to his name. At his best, Scorsese uses classic rock and pop songs in occasionally counter-intuitive ways that serve to deepen the meanings of the music and scene alike. After detours like the comparatively small-scale genre pic Shutter Island and childrens’ movie Hugo, The Wolf of Wall Street marks the return of full-on Marty, the man at his expletive-laden, masculinity-deconstructing best. So, naturally, this would mean a soundtrack as overwhelming and expansive as that of The Departed or Goodfellas, right? Well, The Wolf of Wall Street got about halfway there. True, it’s expansive, but besides one inspired use of “Smokestack Lightning” over an office orgy, the prevalence of blues music felt like a misstep. Some have praised the use of blues music as something less expected than Scorsese sticking more period-accurate the movie’s ’90s setting, but within the context of his other soundtracks using blues music just comes off as kind of safe for The Wolf of Wall Street’s full-bore insanity. I felt myself longing for material that was, I don’t know, more sensationalistic.
That’s not to suggest that The Wolf of Wall Street doesn’t have a mostly effective soundtrack, with a handful of brilliant cues. My personal favorite is when Jordan’s yacht, the Naomi, crashes off a rogue wave and the awesomely cheesy synths of Umberto Tozzi’s “Gloria” (his 1979 Italian original of the song Laura Branigan would make famous in America in 1982) immediately enter. As the ship sinks, they’re rescued by Italians, and you get a brief look of Naomi and Donnie’s wife dancing with sailors to “Gloria,” while Jordan looks out the window and watches the plane he’d called to come get them explode in mid-air. That’s the sort of counter-intuitive use Scorsese excels at — the sequence is the beginning of the real wreckage physically and financially in Jordan’s life, and “Gloria” gets at the deluded loopiness that runs through the film.
The “Gloria” scene
2. True Detective, S01E01 (“The Long Bright Dark”): The Black Angels’ “Young Men Dead”
As much as I gravitate towards a dark drama full of broken characters, I had started to feel myself agreeing with those who argued we had reached critical mass with the whole perpetual dread thing that had dominated the “‘Golden Age’ of TV/male anti-hero” era once shows like Low Winter Sun began to lumber in with an overwrought sense of grim importance. Well, part of me might be ready for some lighter, less self-serious shows mixed into my viewing schedule, but that part of me’s going to have to wait, because HBO’s new True Detective is some impressive stuff. At the moment I’m writing this, just two episodes of True Detective have aired, and its unrelenting bleakness, stark Louisiana setting, and philosophical overtones — all of which would come off as a prestige drama spoof in less-assured hands — are intoxicating.
If I had to point the moment where I was sold on committing to this show, it was the vision of Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cohle in the 2012 section of the story, as he’s interviewed by detectives reopening the case he and Marty (Woody Harrelson) had supposedly solved in the show’s main 1995 narrative. This is a guy who’s already in terrible shape when you see him in ’95. He’s lost a kid, done time at a psych ward and deep undercover, casually chats about the meaningless of human existence like it’s any other topic. What, exactly, has transpired to push him to where he is in 2012? Speaking through McConaughey’s believably ravaged face, Cohle demands they get him a six pack of cheap beer, which he chases with a shot from his flask, a cigarette always in his hand. And then there’s the end of the premiere: they ask him how a new murder could mirror that of the ’95 case when the culprit was supposedly apprehended. “I figured you’d be the one to know,” they say. “Then start asking the right fucking questions,” Cohle says, pushing the file back toward them, and the opening riff from the Black Angels’ “Young Men Dead” immediately enters. Pause a beat, cut to credits. It’s a wonder this song hasn’t been used ad nauseam in trailers, movies, TV, whatever — that indelible riff is equal parts foreboding and swaggering. And it has all the bottled intensity McConaughey offers the camera in that last shot. This is how you start a series.
The final moments of True Detective’s first episode
1. Inside Llewyn Davis: Really Everything, But Especially “Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song)”
Unless you missed the trailers that seemed to be playing throughout the entirety of last year, you’re probably aware that Inside Llewyn Davis is the only item on this list that’s actually about music. Naturally, it features a lot of it. As a piece of filmmaking, it avoids pretty much all of the potential pitfalls that can beset a movie about music. Part of this is because of Llewyn’s story — he is not destined for the stereotypical music-movie trajectory of us seeing him play empty clubs in the beginning and rising to superstardom, then falling, then having a comeback. Rather, it’s a quiet, intimate portrait of a struggling musician in Greenwich Village in 1961, the whole story taking place over the course of a few days.
In those few days, there are a lot of songs. This is the movie’s other strength — it features many performances, almost always letting you watch the actors sing the song in its entirety. Most of these performances were recorded on set, rather than in a studio and then played over the scenes, which gives the whole movie that sort of living/breathing quality. With music supervision by T Bone Burnett, Inside Llewyn Davis has impressive range. On one hand there’s the comical “Please Mr. Kennedy” with Justin Timberlake’s character at the helm. (This movie is worth the price of admission for the sight of Adam Driver singing “Outer. Space!” alone.) On the other, there’s a whole slew of plaintive, earnest songs performed by Llewyn throughout.
The most emotive is the recurring “Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song),” which serves as a sort of stand-in for opening credits when it plays during that first sequence of Llewyn taking the subway downtown with the cat on his shoulder. That version is the one recorded by Isaac and Marcus Mumford, meant to represent the version Llewyn recorded with his former partner, who committed suicide by jumping off the George Washington Bridge. Llewyn carries a lot around with him — physical baggage, but also whatever angst he seems to have against everyone and the world in general for the fact that he’s not one of the ones making it big. He carries this song along, too, attempting to sing it at a dinner party before abruptly stopping in anger. It’s the last song we hear him sing, and that last performance might be the gut-punch of the movie. Each time Isaac comes around to the chorus, it gets a little more raw, a little more strained, lines and veins casting severe shadows across his face and neck. “That’s what I got,” he says, and for all we know it could be the last time Llewyn performed.
“Please Mr. Kennedy” recording session
Llewyn’s final performance of “Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song)”