After spending the first half of June on the festival beat, I’ve been watching TV and movies at a pretty ferocious pace these last two weeks, because there’s been a lot of good stuff going on. A whole bunch of shows returned or premiered this month, and in between some surprisingly clever and entertaining summer blockbusters, I finally had the chance to catch up on some intriguing smaller films that were out here in New York. Given, I watched about four different versions of the end of the world this month (or five, if you count music festivals as apocalyptic), so that kind of makes for an odd summer. In the midst of it all, I found myself drawn towards soundtrack moments both big and small this month, and June’s list is a bit different than past incarnations of this column. A lot of what’s here doesn’t revolve around very prominent cues — a lot of these are short and subtle, but left a mark.
5. Rectify, S02E02 (“Sleeping Giants”) — Sun Kil Moon, “That Bird Has A Broken Wing”
Rectify is a show that thrives on slow pacing, long conversations, and intense silences. I caught up on its six episode first season this year, and it’s quickly become one of my favorite shows currently on TV. It deserves more attention, but due to its nature, it’s probably never going to be the kind of show that’s buzzed about each week after it airs, and it’s also not the kind of show I’d go into expecting to have any big pop music moments. Surprisingly, Rectify did make pretty liberal (and very effective) use of music in its short first run — Mazzy Star’s “Into Dust” appeared (and briefly returned in last week’s “Sleeping Giants”), and the first season premiere closed with a montage set to Sharon Van Etten’s “We Are Fine.” I mean, that song is the sort of thing you play in a series finale, not a pilot — it just has too much power and emotional weight. But Rectify is able to pull that off again and again. The two episodes that have aired so far this season have both had stunning endings, one because it was a beautifully written dream sequence, the other because there was a cathartic family reunion of sorts. Each time, the episode faded to black and turned to a song for the credits, rather than continue on with score (which is also great in this show, by the way). In the second one, the song was Sun Kil Moon’s “That Bird Has A Broken Wing.” It’s brief, totaling maybe twenty-five seconds, but Mark Kozelek’s voice and music are perfect companions for the world of Rectify. It plays like a coda, one last little thought after the onrush that is the ending of “Sleeping Giants.” Like so many other small moments in Rectify, it packs a punch.
4. 22 Jump Street
22 Jump Street is, like its surprise-hit predecessor, one of those mainstream comedies that’s a lot better and a lot smarter than you’d expect. Musically, it primarily traffics in contemporary pop bangers — it starts with Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill doing faux-buddy cop poses to “Turn Down For What,” because of course it does. (There’s also a montage with M83’s “Midnight City,” which is a song I still love but I’m not sure if movies get bonus points for using M83 anymore, because we might be nearing over-saturation here.) That “Turn Down For What” sequence is, of course, played for laughs, and you don’t go to a movie like 22 Jump Street looking for cues that tease out some emotional resonance in the way that you would sit around waiting for on Mad Men. Accordingly, the best music moment in the movie is a bad trip gag — both Tatum’s and Hill’s characters accidentally get high on a new designer drug they’re investigating. Ice Cube at one point makes a shocked/angered face in this movie that is worth the price of admission alone, but a close second is the sight of Jonah Hill standing in a very fake looking Hell, with Creed’s “Higher” echoing out into the lava and darkness around him. Meanwhile, Channing Tatum is dancing on an island full of, I don’t know, dancing props from kids’ shows, while DJ Assault’s “Ass-N-Titties” plays. It’s absurd, and it’s great. Unfortunately, the scene isn’t on YouTube and though I can’t believe I’m about to embed a Creed song in this column, here it is in the event that you don’t remember the great contributions that band made to human existence.
3. The Rover
Normally, much of what was great about the music in The Rover wouldn’t be the sort of territory covered in this column. It takes several songs by Colin Stetson, the avant-garde saxophonist who wound up part of the indie-rock crowd, as well as excerpts from songs by Tortoise, and basically uses them as if they are score, not as soundtrack inclusions, per se (which makes sense considering the nature of Stetson’s music). Stetson’s music, particularly, feels like a recurring motif that helps flesh out the world of the movie. The Rover is spare and brutal, and Stetson’s ethereal compositions feel like the exact sound that would haunt the air above the arid, post-apocalyptic Australian Outback that serves as the film’s setting. There are some beautifully desolate shots in this film, of dirt-caked cars gliding down highways, and when Stetson’s music accompanies these moments it feels like a distant, skeletal cousin to the score of Taxi Driver rising up around Travis Bickle’s cab.
If Stetson’s music feels born of The Rover‘s world, some of the other music cues seem intent on disrupting it, or disrupting you by reminding you the brutal world has some connection to our own. One of the aforementioned Tortoise excerpts, this one from “Djed” (fast forward to the 10:30 mark in the video below), has a similarly abstract instrumental quality as the Stetson material, but it builds to a synthesizer and vibraphone outro as Robert Pattinson’s Ray leans his head against the window and watches a passing train. There are men sitting aboard it with assault rifles, and it’s hard to tell, surrounded by the sort of music that could be happy or sad but is hard to pin down, whether Ray is blasé about such occurrences by now or whether he’s haunted by memories of a world before this one. By far the most glaring of these disruptive moments is when Keri Hilson’s “Pretty Girl Rock” arrives very, very prominently over the image of Ray and Guy Pearce’s Eric walking slowly into the distance away from the camera. It seems nonsensical, and it’s certainly deployed cheekily, before it cuts to Ray sitting alone in the car at night singing along to it. Given where this movie winds up soon after, and given the pangs of discomfort that come from watching Pattinson’s committed portrayal of the slow-witted Ray, the “Pretty Girl Rock” sequence somehow became the saddest of all, perhaps for how it so explicitly underlined the gap between the world in which the song was written and recorded and the violent, lawless one The Rover inhabits.
2. The Leftovers, S01E01 (“Pilot”)
Back in April, I was impressed by what was an exceptionally well-executed first trailer for HBO’s new show The Leftovers. It was accompanied by James Blake’s “Retrograde,” which they edited to heighten the tension and drama just so. I’d been looking forward to the show’s pilot in hopes that it’d continue to display this sensibility, and though we’re only one episode in so far things are looking and sounding good. In one episode, The Leftovers has established a willingness to throw radically different artists into the mix, and displayed a range with how it uses them. When Patsy Cline plays on the radio early on in the episode, it feels tongue in cheek compared to the overwhelming grimness of the show’s universe. Same thing goes for Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together,” which is cued in early over what might be the episode’s darkest scene because two other characters are listening to it in the next one. And then there’s the unexpected, like a character advancing towards the screen, crying and shooting a gun, while a not entirely memorable blues guitar stomp starts up. Somehow, it’s really effective.
The Leftovers also doubled down on “Retrograde.” I’ve been somewhat obsessed with that song in the time since the trailer’s release, and it’s fascinating to see a show take a romantic song and make it feel like the end of the world is upon us. It plays over a montage at the beginning of a major parade around which much of the pilot revolves, and it’s allowed to play out loudly and almost in its entirety, not once disrupted by dialogue or environmental sounds. On the other hand, the show also knows how to find the right small moments in songs. As one character departs an impressively nihilistic high school party, some scuzzy guitars linger above. The song is “Darkest Eyes” by Colleen Green; it’s a kind of garage-y dream-pop thing, and Green’s vocals would’ve been almost sing-song-y compared to the tone of the scene. But just the right amount of the song’s intro is used, and it winds up being one of the episode’s most emotive moments. Fittingly for a show that so far is interested in the lives of normal people in the wake of such massive and unexplainable events as two percent of the Earth’s population vanishing into thin air, The Leftovers seems like it will be good at going both big and small with its music choices.
1. Halt And Catch Fire, Season 1
This was something of a shoe-in. Given my bias towards ’80s pop music, I have a feeling I would be watching this show even if I hadn’t been enjoying it as much as I have so far. It’s tough to make coding look exciting on TV — it’s the same as trying to make someone sitting at a keyboard and writing a novel look exciting, an effort that will probably result in something silly and overly effusive to compensate visually for what is inherently such an internal process. One of the ways Halt And Catch Fire moves its world along a little bit better is by being pretty liberal with music cues. The first episode, “I/O,” was stacked — between Gordon standing around forlorn listening to CCR on the stereo, to he and Joe’s frenetic weekend of working in the garage soundtracked by XTC’s “Complicated Game,” to Cameron’s arrival at Cardiff accompanied by The Clash’s “This Is Radio Clash.” (The Clash are an old favorite of mine, and it’s never unwelcome to hear them pop up somewhere.) So far Halt And Catch Fire has had more punk than synth-pop, and besides a personal preference for the latter, what doesn’t always quite work about the punk songs is they’re often playing in those moments where they try to make it look really intense and interesting when Cameron’s down in the basement coding. On the other end of things, there was an early moment in the third episode — we see each of the three central characters’ mornings, and Joe’s entails standing naked, Roger Sterling-style, surveying his apartment while a stereo blares Gary Numan’s “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” around him. There are moments like this now and then in Halt And Catch Fire, enigmatic and abstract. With several strong music selections under its belt already, the mix of punk and synth-pop would be a sensible way for the show to continue forward — angular rhythms give it some propulsion, where the more sensual melodies of New Wave could give it some seduction, two qualities it seems to be seeking to inject into its story of the early PC business.