May has been, in a lot of ways, kind of a frustrating month. Summer blockbuster season is pretty much in full swing now, meaning there will be a lot of massive action set-pieces accompanied by orchestral scores that can be hard to tell apart from one film to the next. The truly inspired pop-song moments will diminish. This is understandable: A lot of times there’s a certain capital-E Epic tone to these blockbusters that just seems to want those big scores, not a clever music montage. (Even within that framework, there’ve been some missed opportunities — if that brief moment of Elvis Presley’s “You’re The Devil In Disguise” in the Godzilla’s Las Vegas sequence lasted a little longer it could’ve been hilarious and great.) On the other side of things are a bunch of indies that don’t seem to be playing anywhere. As far as TV goes, May is the zone in which a lot of shows are finishing up, but few are starting new seasons. It’s a bit of a transitional period in that sense, before June becomes crowded with AMC’s new Halt And Catch Fire (which is set in the ’80s, so you just know it’ll appear in this column), HBO’s new The Leftovers, the return of Orange Is The New Black, and the surprisingly reinvigorated True Blood’s last run. I’m excited to see what those shows do with music next month. As for May, I wound up turning to some places I normally wouldn’t look for good soundtracks, and wound up finding some surprises.
When it comes to music, Filth has a particular shadow to escape — it’s based on a novel by Irvine Welsh, like Trainspotting, which has one of the best soundtracks ever. Now, that probably isn’t fair. These are movies from different eras, by different directors, with different subject matter. Nevertheless, Filth comes out of the same lineage of down-and-out Scottish working class stories that Welsh favors, and it winds up carving out its own bizarre corner thematically and musically. Flitting between soul music, Christmas songs, and ’60s girl group relics like the Shirelle’s “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” Filth is crammed with music that’s deployed to further underline the depravity and deliriousness of every scene.
For a while earlier on in the film, this stuff is great — the pop cues are wickedly tongue-in-cheek, positioning old school songs as a discordantly innocent soundtrack to Bruce Robertson’s (James McAvoy’s protagonist) craven behavior. As the movie spirals out, it gets darker and more disturbing, and its choice of music becomes more unsettling. Where Christmas songs might’ve played for laughs in the movie’s early scenes, it’s haunting when “Little Drummer Boy” accompanies Bruce alone in his room, when we first see his hallucinations. Later, things take a turn for the surreal — like the ghostly interlude where Carole gets into a cab and everyone begins singing along to David Soul’s “Silver Lady.” It’s a bizarre sequence, but knowing the context of the movie it’s also one of the more arresting I’ve come across this year. It might’ve been around that point where I started to get a sense of how messed up this movie was about to become. Of course, even after that tragic and unsettling “Creep” cover in the movie’s final moments, there’s one more soul song just as the movie’s name pops up on a blood red screen, and quickly segues to a deluded children’s cartoon for credits. Filth needed to slap you across the face just once more.
4. X-Men: Days Of Future Past — Jim Croce, “Time In A Bottle”
The newest X-Men iteration has its share of impressive moments. There is, of course, Magneto floating above D.C. and just carrying a stadium along with him in midair. But, on a smaller scale, there’s the Quicksilver scene in the Pentagon, which has rightfully been singled out as a showstopper in Days Of Future Past. It’s technically stunning on a visual level when we get to see the world as Quicksilver does, and the quiet song they choose to sum up Quicksilver’s solitude is…Jim Croce’s “Time In A Bottle.” The whole thing fittingly plays out with the sort of prankster sly grin Quicksilver is always wearing on his face. There’s a certain cheekiness to being like, “Yeah, out of all the ’70s songs we could choose, we’re going to put in Jim Croce.” It represents the kind of sarcasm and jocularity that makes the better X-Men movies fun. Given the dire post-apocalyptic scenery and the foreboding “Kashmir”-quoting orchestration featured in trailers for Days Of Future Past, it came as some surprise when it turned out the newest X-Men movie’s version of the ’70s can be boiled down to the playful incorporation of — I don’t know, would you call this “soft-folk?” This, coupled with a nice Robert Flack moment when Wolverine first arrives in 1973, emphasizes how the ’60s-set X-Men: First Class and Days Of Future Past’s similar period focus humanizes the X-Men story in a way. The period movies have an appealing down to earth quality to them. Things will probably get into high stakes/global extinction territory in the next installment, X-Men: Apocalypse, but since that one will supposedly take place in the ’80s, I hope the period-set reboots don’t lose that grounded quality.
Chef’s soundtrack is something of an anomaly for this column. It’s practically giddy with stuffing a ton of music in, but since it throws Latin jazz, New Orleans jazz, and blues all up in the air together, it covers a lot of territory I don’t typically stumble across when looking at soundtracks every month. (It probably deserves inclusion this month for the sole reason that I haven’t been able to get Joe Cuba’s “Bang Bang” out of my head since last weekend.) The movie hooked me with two extended sequences early on. When Jon Favreau’s Carl is perhaps at his lowest point in the movie’s early scenes, he fixates on a man using a skeleton puppet on the street to mime to Al Green’s “Tired Of Being Alone,” and it comes across as both emotive and very funny. There’s another sequence not too much later set to Liquid Liquid’s “Cavern” — starting with Carl cooking one of the many incredible looking meals of the movie, and ending with him charging into his old restaurant to dress down the food critic who recently trashed him. Liquid Liquid’s constricted rhythms and ghostly vocals are exciting and propulsive at first as you’re watching Carl rediscover some of his lost inspiration and passion in the kitchen, but they slowly become unnerving as Carl gets angrier and decides to leave and confront the critic. It’s one of the primary moments of drama in a movie that’s mostly about feel-good laughs and shots lingering lovingly over barbecue in Austin and Cuban sandwiches in Miami. (I ate a bag of popcorn during this movie and still left starving.) Most of the music, accordingly, is a great time — lively Afro-Cuban rhythms and giddy brass bands and Gary Clark, Jr.’s blues licks serve as markers for the food truck’s three stops of Miami, New Orleans, and Austin, lining up nicely with how each city’s cuisine is represented specifically. Collectively, the whole movie has an air of celebration about it for America’s various inherited sounds and tastes, and it’s not a bad way to spend an afternoon.
2. The Americans, S02E13 (“Echo”) — Golden Earring, “Twilight Zone”
The Americans dispensed its big music moments carefully and sparingly this season. There was the stunning “Here Comes the Flood” outro I talked about in March, and a specially commissioned Pete Townshend song for a montage of Elizabeth murdering a Pakistani agent in a pool while Annelise sleeps with another at Philip’s behest. Without too many pop songs this season, the ones the show did use really stood out (in addition to giving Nathan Barr’s anxiety-producing score plenty of real estate). So in the season finale, something striking happens when a frantic car ride for Philip and Elizabeth is intercut with Paige’s no nukes protest, all soundtracked by none other than Golden Earring’s “Twilight Zone.”
This show has a way of taking ’80s songs that aren’t necessarily un-hip, but also aren’t the sort of ’80s songs other shows would revive, and using them brilliantly. There’s no New Order on The Americans. There’s Quarterflash, and old Pete Townshend songs, and so far two exceptional Peter Gabriel moments. It’s stuff that holds up and is mostly still critically respected, but still feels just the right amount of foreign and truly old by virtue of the fact that they’re not the sort of bands you’re likely to see name-checked by a twentysomething indie band. So, all of that is to say: I still don’t really know where “Twilight Zone” fits into all this. I don’t find it to be cheesy, but it does strike me as the sort of ’80s song that might make you smirk if it came onto a jukebox more so than it’d make you perk up and be like “Well, never noticed how awesome this song actually was.” That chase scene, though — who knew “Twilight Zone” could so effectively convey the feeling of something unraveling around you? Given the foreboding nature of the revelations at the end of the episode, it’s somewhat fitting that there wasn’t another pop song to close out the season, like Peter Gabriel’s “Games Without Frontiers” last year. That makes “Twilight Zone” the last prominent pop song for the show’s second season, and it’s a gloriously strange and counter-intuitive one at that — the song plays for a whole two minutes, ending right before the credits come in more than eight minutes into the episode. I’m looking forward to more moments like this next year.
1. Mad Men, S07E06 (“The Strategy”) — Frank Sinatra, “My Way”
The seven episode run that comprised the first half of Mad Men’s final season was a hell of a thing. I liked the sixth season more than some people seemed to, but I’ll concede it was uneven. Following that, the show came roaring back in peak form. In terms of music, it started off with that awesomely dense “I’m A Man” introduction of Don in the first episode, a moment that topped last month’s Trackspotting. In the tantalizingly short half-season that followed, the show maintained at least one good music cue per episode, but none were on the level of Don and Peggy dancing to Frank Sinatra’s “My Way.” Actually — few Mad Men scenes, period, were on this level.
There is simply so much going on in this episode, in this sequence. Of course, we have the reconciliation between Peggy and Don since his return from his leave of absence, and we have it in a way that echoes series highlight “The Suitcase,” that season four episode where the two of them wind up drunk in the office overnight. The image of the two slowly dancing together is so powerful because all it carries with it from everything that has happened between them on this show. It comes not long after one of Don’s most brutally honest moments, where he admits he fears that he’s never done anything and that he doesn’t have anyone — fears that are at the core of Mad Men. For a moment, there, the two have come to terms with who they are, the choices they’ve made, and that they need this work — and the fact that the two of them are inextricably the same because of these qualities. There’s a conflicted triumph to the scene. “My Way” was something of a comeback hit for Sinatra in 1969, and a self-aware reckoning as he arrived at middle age, middle-career, and irrelevance. The refrain of “I did it my way” applies to both Peggy and Don here, but it’s also particularly telling for Don’s arc this season. He’s done everything his way, and he’s only recently started to acknowledge the wreckage alongside the victories. Revisit some clips from the first season of the show; Don’s almost unrecognizable. When you see him dance with Peggy, you’re seeing a legend in his field, but one who’s battered and, inescapably, past his prime.
The legions of people who recap Mad Men every week have already noted how there was a perfection to this sequence that would’ve been worthy of ending the series. (Though I’d argue there’s been a whole slew of these across the show, this particular one just would’ve felt like more of an actual resolution.) I don’t disagree, and as we’re at this halfway point of the ending of Mad Men, it will likely live on as one of the lasting final images of the show. Of course, there’s seven more of these things, so we’ll see what happens. Even as poetic as this might’ve been as an ending, I’m still looking forward to what else Mad Men has left to say if it continues to speak as eloquently as it has here.