Licensed Songs in Film and Why That’s Awesome


Photo courtesy of the Guardian and Weinstein/Everett/Rex

The world of film scoring is densely packed with clichés, skewed cultures, and the souls of John Williams’ ghostwriters. For every beautiful, moving moment there is a film with a score that tugs on no heart strings, inspires no real memory, and just sort of gets taken for granted. An effective film is usually regarded as one that totally immerses the audience in the story and the aesthetic and the characters, but an effective score, to me at least, is one that draws our own character back out- familiarity in the music hits us much harder. A great score, like Williams’ for Return of the Jedi, brings motifs back from much earlier in the film, and adds a theme for specific recurring images. This actually temporarily removes us from the moment and reminds us of something else. This is pretty subtle though, and mostly goes unnoticed except subconsciously. What some composers, directors, and music supervisors have used to really smack us in the face with our own emotion is to license a popular track by a recording artist and lay it over a scene. This breaks down a wall between us and the character on screen, because our own memory of this song is then projected toward whatever scene they’ve created. Or sometimes they just want a badass song in their movie.


Cat People in Inglourious Basterds

Quentin Tarantino is all about badass songs. He’s also about making most of the decisions in his movies. This choice of Bowie’s gloom-groove track sort of shocks us out of the time period, but in a really effective way. This was the first time I’d heard this particular Bowie song, but it still drew me back briefly to the Man Who Fell to Earth and everything had a slight sci-fi vibe.


Timshel in Hell On Wheels

Technically a television show, but still an incredible passage of storytelling. Using the lyrics of the song to imbue their own meaning over the images makes this an extremely heartbreaking scene. The first time I heard this song was driving passed the Bull Run battlefield in Manassas, Virginia, which has a strange and coincidental connection to the plot of Hell On Wheels, the civil war having just ended.


Rhapsody In Blue in Manhattan

Woody Allen’s placement of this performance by the New York Philharmonic is so perfect. This actually works kind of in reverse to the other examples I’ve listed, it, along with the images, takes you to a very specific place- early 20th century New York. The juxtaposition is that the film is actually based much later than the initial introduction. Allen also being a talented clarinet player gives a little insight to why he loves this piece so much.

Sort of related: Woody Allen’s first dramatic film Interiors features no score at all, except for a brief few minutes of a jazz record being played on set in a dance scene. It works really well.

Needle In the Hay in The Royal Tenenbaums

This is pretty much the most effective use of imbuing an unrelated song’s lyrics in a scene that I can think of. I first heard this track on vinyl in a cold basement, and hearing it here with Richie, I felt pretty alone. I don’t like the idea that he tried to kill himself over unrequited love, but Elliott Smith could convince me of anything.

Panama in Superbad

This is too perfect to leave out. Out of the entire decade of the 80s, and all that ridiculous hair, all those screeching, bombastic, horrifying guitar solos- instead of Dokken, or Tesla, or even Guns N Roses– Panama was the final decision. That is amazing to me and so, so beautiful.

There are so many amazing composers today, and so many absolutely beautiful original scores. It is, however, always intriguing to see the creative team behind a film let someone else’s art in, to lend to the interpretation.

Honourable mentions: The Departed, Snatch, Heavy Metal



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