It’s finally the time of year where there are more movies in theaters than I have time to see, especially in NYC with earlier premieres. That’s not a bad place to be, because a lot of them have been good and a lot of them have used music well. It was only once I’d finished putting this together that I realized that every selection in this month’s Trackspotting is either creepy and unnerving, or relatively sad and poignant. So, happy Halloween, I guess?
5. The Avengers: Age Of Ultron trailer — “I’ve Got No Strings”
This reminded me of when Blue Swede popped up in the Guardians Of The Galaxy trailer earlier this year. Back then, we were not yet aware of the Awesome Mix, Vol. 1 and how all these ’70s songs would actually factor into the movie’s narrative, so it just seemed like a bizarre choice that also happened to effectively establish the mood Marvel was going for with this one — quirky, irreverent, a nod to ’70s and ’80s space operas as much as (if not more than) it was a superhero film. Joss Whedon suggested quite a while ago that the second Avengers movie would go darker (as, inevitably, superhero trilogies seem to progress these days), and with the recent slew of Marvel announcements cluing us into forthcoming titles that could see the Avengers as we know them dissolving/potentially fighting against one another, the more ominous tone of Age Of Ultron makes sense. Like the Guardians Of The Galaxy trailer did with “Hooked On A Feeling,” the Age Of Ultron trailer combines a creepy rendition of the Pinocchio song “I’ve Got No Strings” with some storming trailer music. The whole thing gets the point across — Ultron’s likely, in some way, a creation of Tony Stark, and now he’s turned against him because, you know, he’s got no strings anymore. But what’s really effective is how this begins to lay the groundwork for what’s coming after this movie: the strings are cut loose, and there’s an unraveling on the horizon.
4. John Wick — Kaleida, “Think”
At this point, the idea of viciously soundtracking a dark scene with an incongruously light song has probably drifted into stereotype. Everyone wants to be the Steeler’s Wheel/torture scene in Reservoir Dogs. Even other ones I liked — such as the Enya-soundtracked torture scene in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo — have been criticized as also-rans. There’s another one of these kinds of things in John Wick, though it’s not quite as severe a departure from the tone of the movie as it might’ve been elsewhere. There are a lot of moments in John Wick where biting, uh, assassin culture humor is mixed with mesmerizingly choreographed, extremely violent action sequences. My favorite came when Wick stormed the secret bathhouses beneath a club while Kaleida’s “Think” played. It’s an almost lounge-y, meditative song, with a vulnerable and introspective melody that’s of course perfect for aestheticizing violence in the way John Wick does, blood spurts dancing across blue glass. The song persists even as Wick’s at first silent assault turns into a full-blown gunfight, and only switches when the combat moves to the club upstairs. The transition to house music is intentionally jarring, but the whole sequence moves so fluidly and impressively that it makes most of the later fight scenes feel anti-climactic.
3. St. Vincent — Bob Dylan, “Shelter From The Storm”
Let’s get this out of the way first: St. Vincent often falls back on clichés and sentimentality, and would probably be roundly ignored were it not for Bill Murray’s presence. The internet, of course, loves Bill Murray, which means we will pay attention to pretty much anything he does, even when the actual movies he makes are pretty hit and miss. (Vulture’s Jesse David Fox made the argument that Murray’s mixed run of movies in the last ten or fifteen years could/should be attributed to the fact that he really should get an agent.) Still, St. Vincent has its moments, and even if there are clichés to Murray’s character, there’s also a really poignant backstory to him, and, come on, it’s Bill Murray, so you automatically wind up loving this character. So, take this as a caveat: this musical moment works because it’s Bill Murray sitting there, and all of us viewers will understand that and bring all the baggage of all this hilarious and random stuff he does when we watch it. At the end of the movie, Murray’s character (Vincent McKenna), walks outside as the credits begin to roll. He sneaks a hidden cigarette from within his potted plant, and listens to Bob Dylan’s “Shelter From The Storm” on his old cassette player, talk-singing along through the whole thing. If St. Vincent were a great movie instead of a merely pretty good one, this had all the makings of an all-time classic music moment. Bill Murray, a character who has seen a lot of life, and a classic Dylan song — these are good ingredients, and who doesn’t want to see an aged Murray sing Dylan?
2. White Bird In A Blizzard
Well, this is another one of those ’80s-set shoe-ins where there’s just no way I was going to be able to help myself. The score to White Bird In A Blizzard was handled by Robin Guthrie, the guitarist of Cocteau Twins, AKA the man responsible for some of the most ethereal and beautiful guitar work out there. The opening credits are set to Cocteau Twins’ “Sea, Swallow Me,” and through the various dream sequences and flashbacks, there’s always Guthrie’s guitar, reliably doing what it’s always been so effective at: putting all those strange and ineffable elements of human experience and memory into an actual sound. The story of White Bird In A Blizzard focuses on one extreme thing (the disappearance of Eve (Eva Green), the mother of Shailene Woodley’s protagonist Kat), and one more normal thing (Kat’s coming of age/discovering sex/transiting out of adolescence). Because this is set in the late ’80s and a little bit in 1991, the soundtrack behind all these scenes is just stacked with classics. Psychedelic Fur’s “Heartbreak Beat” (secretly the best Psychedelic Furs song) plays in Kat’s room during one scene, as do many other hits flitting in and out of the background through the movie (here’s Tears For Fears in the background of a record store, there’s New Order playing a basement while teenagers pass a bottle of liquor around). Now and then, a song is allowed to linger a bit longer. There’s a sort of goth club with arcade games in one scene, where Kat and her soon-to-be boyfriend Phil dance to Depeche Mode. There is an insane and hilarious, yet haunting scene where Eve dances drunk in the basement to Echo & The Bunnymen’s “Bring On The Dancing Horses” while Kat and Phil look on in horror and confusion. A lot of the songs are woven into the fabric of the movie less so than big overwhelming music cues, but collectively it plays out as one of the best playlists I should have gotten around to making when I was first discovering all these bands.
1. Gone Girl
There are a lot of things I loved about The Social Network, the first movie Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross scored for David Fincher. One of them was how the music settled so well into the mood of the film and helped further articulate it, but also could be listened to as a soundtrack and still evoke its own emotional response. There were a lot of subtleties, a lot of melodies that wouldn’t let you go. Gone Girl’s soundtrack hangs back a bit more than that, relying on motifs rather than The Social Network’s ever-growing sense of anxiety. This is what makes this one powerful in its own way. When you see the flashbacks to Amy and Nick’s courtship, it’s told in a sort of storybook fashion fitting for the woman whose mother had made her the subject of an actual series of storybooks called Amazing Amy. Fincher seems to bathe these scenes in an artificial glow, and what’s most striking is how the dialog seems artificial, too, like it’s purposefully made to sound like it’s been piped in or something. In these sequences, the music is soft and floaty, some of the gentlest sounds Reznor’s probably ever been involved in. It’s a perfect counterpoint to the violence and horror of the score for the contemporary scenes. As more is revealed about Amy, that glossy flashback music seems to become eerier and eerier, the fake-out before all the nasty horror music comes in. The scene where she murders Desi has violent in-and-out cuts backed by animalistic, piercing noises. Gone Girl gets so under your skin because it’s such a hyperreal, exaggerated depiction of the murkiness and unknowability of people and relationships. Reznor and Ross obviously know what they’re doing working with Fincher now — their music leaps between the extremes as adeptly as Fincher does. Hopefully this is a partnership that continues on for some time to come.