A lot of movies use music as sonic wallpaper - just background sound to fill silence and fit the genre - but bold, memorable films tend to have equally strong and unforgettable music at the forefront. Great filmmakers have a way of merging images and narrative with the visceral power of sound. It happens a lot in art-house films, like those you can watch on the new Criterion Channel. I’ve been perusing their catalog lately, and lots of titles have come to mind.
Music can tie a film to a time and place: Punk Rock is what sets Repo Man in 1980’s L.A.; Black Orpheus uses Bossa Nova to put us in Brazil in 1959.
But more than just establishing setting, film music can be like a color scheme, putting everything into harmony. Wes Anderson’s choice of music is as painstaking and obsessive as his set design. It must have cost a fortune to use the Beatles’ “Hey Jude” for the opening montage of The Royal Tenenbaums, but it’s the perfect song for looking on the members of the Tenenbaum family with sympathy as we hear the many, many ways they failed to live up to their potential. The music is essential to the story.
The Red Shoes (1948)
Brian Easdale, The Red Shoes (1948) - Ballet Sequence
One of the most highly rated and most profitable British films, originally not successful. The first to take ballet seriously, predating “An American in Paris.”
The Third Man (1949)
Anton Karas, “Harry Lime Theme,” The Third Man (Soundtrack) (1949)
The Harder They Come (1972)
is said to have "brought reggae to the world"
Jimmy Cliff, “The Harder They Come,” (1972)
Repo Man (1984)
Iggy Pop, “Repo Man,” Repo Man Soundtrack (1984)
The inventor of punk writes the main title song
Ary Barroso, “Brazil,” Brazil Soundtrack (1985)
“Geoff Muldaur performed a version of Ary Barroso's most famous 1939 song "Aquarela do Brasil" ("Watercolor of Brazil", often simply called "Brazil" in English). The song is a musical ode to the Brazilian motherland. Geoff Muldaur uses the song as a leitmotif in the film”
The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
Mutato Muzika Orchestra “Hey Jude,” The Royal Tenenbaums Soundtrack (2001)
Mark Mothersbaugh’s production company; did most of Wes Anderson’s films.
Anderson has a special relationship with music. Here the arrangement of “Hey Jude” is a way to show the characters’ having to come to terms with the past. Securing the music must have taken a fortune.