Top of the Pops: the Movie Playlist
If Mamma Mia! is a smash hit no one in Europe will be surprised. But in the US it’s far from a foregone conclusion. Yes, the musical was a Broadway sensation, just as it was everywhere else in the world (they say more than 30 million theatergoers have seen the show), and yes, Meryl Streep could conceivably notch up another Oscar nomination for her performance as Donna, mother of the bride… but – and it’s a big but – ABBA never conquered North America. “Dancing Queen” was the Swedish super group’s only US number one.
Outside cosmopolitan circles you won’t find audiences in the US joining in with their favourite songs – they probably won’t know the words. No doubt that’s why Mamma Mia! has been stuck with the unhappy release date of July 18th over there – up against box office juggernaut The Dark Knight.
None of which is to say Mamma Mia! won’t find its audience. There isn’t a glut of irresistible feel good entertainment aimed at women, and it doesn’t take repeat plays for ABBA songs to get their hooks into you.
The history of musicals inspired by pre-existing pop records isn’t all good by any means – Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band remains the all-time low– but the movies have also given us Tina Turner’s rendition of Acid Queen (in Tommy), Charlotte Gainsbourg’s Just Like a Woman (I’m Not There), Jim Broadbent’s Like a Virgin (Moulin Rouge!) and, uh, Eddie Izzard’s For the Benefit of Mr Kite (Across The Universe).
Okay, those may not be the best examples of the magical synthesis of a pop song with moving images. Ever since Martin Scorsese cut Harvey Keitel’s head hitting the pillow to the strains of the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” in Mean Streets, American movies have embraced the energy and impact of rock music, an idiom that has transformed the way films are edited, how they look and feel.
What follows is a kind of DVD jukebox of indelible pop music/movie moments. It’s by no means comprehensive or definitive, this article would have to run several thousand pages simply to cover the myriad contributions to the form made by the Andersons, Wes and PT. Hopefully it will trigger fond memories and new discoveries…
ABBA interludes in the movies are plentiful, especially in Australian movies for some reason (The Adventures Of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert; Muriel’s Wedding). Still our favourite example comes (appropriately enough) from a Swedish film, the climax of Lukas Moodysson’s comedy Together, when the members of a sometimes strained collective unite for a game of footie in the snow, and Moodysson cements the sense of good fellowship with the band’s “SOS”.
The Fab Four made a couple of terrific movies themselves, of course: A Hard Day’s Night inspired one George Lucas to make movies. Help! Is a favourite of Steven Soderbergh. Yellow Submarine probably has some fans too. (I can’t say too much about Magical Mystery Tour.) The obvious picks here have to be the singalongalong “All You Need Is Love” from either Love, Actually or Across the Universe, or perhaps Ferris Bueller leading Chicago into “Twist and Shout” – but we’re going to be more purist and pick the Beatles’ recording of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” in Withnail & I (licensed to the film by its own producer, George Harrison).
Hats off to Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou for the best Bowie covers movie (DB performed the honours himself for the end credits’ “Queen Bitch”). But the sucker punch of “Young Americans” at the end of Lars von Triers’ Dogville takes some beating – in fact von Trier realised he couldn’t top it and ended Manderlay the exact same way.
Yusuf Islam’s filmography includes Thumbsucker, Kingpin and We Are Marshall, but the great rock n roll director Hal Ashby dedicated a whole movie to him in 1971’s cult favourite Harold And Maude, which features no less than seven of his songs. The standout must be the hippie mantra “If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out”, which Bud Cort strums on a banjo. It was reprised recently by Anton Yelchin and Kat Dennings in Charlie Bartlett, but in this case the original version is the one to savour.
Derek and the Dominos
Apparently Martin Scorsese waited years to find the right moment to use “Layla” in a movie. That movie was GoodFellas, and the use of the piano coda as things start to go from bad to worse for Jimmy, Tommy and Henry is unforgettable.
You can hear Hurdy Gurdy Man in Dumb and Dumber if you have a mind to, but the effect is very different in the spectral opening sequence to David Fincher’s Zodiac, the slow 4th of July tracking shot on a hot night in suburban California, with firecrackers exploding noiselessly in the sky. The hippie troubadour had a brief brush with movie stardom, playing the title role in Jacques Demy’s The Pied Piper.
Dylan is a movie fan and has given the go-ahead to filmmakers on a regular basis – he also won an Oscar for the song “Things Have Changed”, which he wrote for Wonder Boys. “The Man in Me” in The Big Lebowski is one of the more imaginative cinematic conceptions, but our favourite has to be the rueful “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” that plays over the death of Slim Pickens in Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid. Dylan played a taciturn cowboy by the name of Alias in the film and wrote the beautiful score.
Bryan Ferry has the better voice, it’s true, but Bill Murray’s croaky rendition of a karoake “More Than This” to Scarlett Johansson in Lost in Translation is Roxy Music’s finest two minutes on celluloid. In a similar vein, we’re ceding Pink Floyd’s “Hey You” to the more poignant if less polished fraudulent version perpetrated by Jesse Eisenberg in The Squid and the Whale.
GG’s defiant “I Will Survive” is the common link between Thank God It’s Friday, Bitter Moon and The Replacements. But the song was never more far-reaching than in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, when cross-dressing trio Hugo Weaving, Guy Pearce and Terence Stamp (all dolled up to the max) put on a show for an audience of aborigines in the desert.
Errol Brown’s “You Sexy Thing” crops up all over the place, in Legally Blonde, Dude, Where’s My Car, Rat Race, Deuce Bigalow and Boogie Nights. But who can forget the brilliant toe-tapping scene in the dole office in The Full Monty?
Jerry Lee Lewis
Director Jim McBride made a very unsuccessful Jerry Lee Lewis movie, Great Balls Of Fire, with Dennis Quaid. But he also made a very underrated remake of French new wave classic Breathless, starring Richard Gere as a Jerry Lee Lewis nut. The ending is fabulous, a shoot out scored to JLL’s biggest hit.
Rosie Perez fights the power in the punchy title sequence to Spike Lee’s masterpiece, Do the Right Thing. Even better, it was written for the movie.
The Rolling Stones
“You Can’t Always Get What You Want”, played at the funeral that opens The Big Chill (“I saw you today at the reception…”) is a very good rock n roll joke, and establishes the knowing, nostalgic tone of the film. Scorsese has used “Gimme Shelter” at least three times, always in his mob movies. But the water skiing scored to “Satisfaction” in Apocalypse Now nails the insane culture clash of American troops in Vietnam better than any thousand words.
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