Music is used in films to convey a sense of mood, and can usually make all the difference to how effective and powerful scenes can be. Music can also help create the sense of time and place if the film is set in a particular era, and even more meaning can be conveyed through the song’s lyrics.
However, sometimes songs from a completely different era are used from the music of the time the film was made. In some cases, even songs that did not exist in the film’s time period get used. Although many may consider this a huge anachronism, this is done to make a point and create a particular atmosphere, often to great effect.
10. Insidious (James Wan, 2010)
After the Lambert family moved out of their home when ghosts started trying to hurt them, they moved into a new house thinking they had left their problems behind. When wife Renai (Rose Byrne) goes to put the rubbish outside, the previously silent house is now blaring with ‘Tiptoe Through The Tulips’ by Tiny Tim, a whimsical tune from the 1920s.
Renai peeks into her lounge room to see a strange little boy dressed in 1920s clothing dancing to the song. Both the song and the boy’s clothes show how unnatural that a little boy from the 1920s is still a child in 2010, when the film is set, confirming poor Renai’s fear that the boy is indeed a ghost.
The song is used a second time when Josh Lambert (Patrick Wilson) goes into The Further (the ghost dimension) to find his son Dalton (Ty Simpkins), and the Lipstick-Face Demon (Joseph Bishara) is playing this song on its record player. The song suddenly stops once the demon realises the father is there to rescue his son. This innocent sounding song creates a creepy atmosphere and is used as a sign of evil lurking around the Lamberts.
9. Dogville (Lars von Trier, 2003)
To say Danish director Lars von Trier makes pessimistic films is a massive understatement. Dogville is set in a small town during the Great Depression where the locals inflict horrible acts of cruelty and violence towards a drifter named Grace (Nicole Kidman). Once mobsters come and kill everyone in town and take Grace home, the end credits begin.
After such a grim film and ending, the upbeat David Bowie hit ‘Young Americans’ plays over images of American people living in poverty. The song was made in 1975, although the film is set during the Great Depression, long before Bowie was even born, making it seem strange to be in this film.
The song is used sarcastically in that, although America is claimed to be the best country in the world, it has many problems, especially in how lower class people and minorities are treated. The song is an oddly light hearted tune to end such a dark film on.
8. Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino, 2012)
Django Unchained is set in the late 1850s, back when white Americans still used African-Americans as slaves. It was a cruel period of time, one that slave Django (Jamie Foxx) suffered through. After Django and his partner Dr. King Schultz’s (Christoph Waltz) plan to covertly rescue Django’s wife from the notoriously cruel slave owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo Di Caprio) has failed, a shootout ensues.
Once Candie’s men come to sort matters out, Django has to shoot them all by himself. As he manages to fight them off singlehandedly, ‘Unchained’ by James Brown and Tupac starts playing. It is a very empowering song sung by two African-American singers, displaying the power Django now has over these oppressive white men. It is also a contemporary song with an urban feel, as Quentin Tarantino envisioned the film as a western blaxpoitation film.
7. Blue Velvet (David Lynch, 1986)
Although Blue Velvet is set in the 1980s, many of the songs used in this film were made in the 1950s and early 1960s, which is considered a more innocent time in America’s history. The town of Lumberton where the film takes place is trying to depict itself as a family friendly and wholesome town with all-American ideals, but the reality is quite different. These songs are used ironically as the town of Lumberton is actually full of horrible actions and sinister criminals.
In the opening scene, ‘Blue Velvet’ by Bobby Darin plays as fireman on a truck goes past and is waving with a dog next to him, schoolchildren walking across the street, and Jeffery’s mother watching a 1950s-era black and white television, before this illusion is shattered once Jeffery’s father suffers a stroke while watering his beautiful garden with a white picket fence.
‘In Dreams’ by Roy Orbison is lip synched as Jeffery Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) is taken to vicious mobster Frank Booth’s (Dennis Hopper) place, where acts of horrible violence and sexual assault happen. The song also plays when Frank takes Jeffery to an empty lot and before bashing him, Frank quotes the song’s romantic lyrics to tell Jeffery that he is in control of him and the situation.
6. A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971)
Stanley Kubrick’s dark classic A Clockwork Orange is often cited as a masterpiece, and for good reason. The urban setting, the dystopian world, and the carnage made this film highly controversial upon its release. But despite being set in the future, one of the other major reasons it is such an effective film is its choice of music.
Protagonist Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell) is a young thug who bashes homeless people and rapes women for his own amusement, and he often sings the wholesome 1950s song ‘Singing In The Rain’ by Gene Kelly while doing so.
The song is from the 1950 musical of the same name, which is a very light hearted film, so it is quite a juxtaposition to have such a song used in this context. The song is used in the end credits as well once Alex is cured of his “sickness”, meaning he can go out and continue hurting people without physically getting sick again.
The film is set in the future when society has gone downhill and crime and rampant. This is the exact opposite of the innocent nature of the era when ‘Singing In The Rain’ was made.
5. Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009)
Inglourious Basterds is Quentin Tarantino’s attempt at a World War II epic the likes of The Dirty Dozen and Kelly’s Heroes. While there are certainly a number of historical inaccuracies in this film in its depiction of World War II, this is a Quentin Tarantino film and it is all about entertainment and his pop culture orientated world.
As such, the David Bowie song ‘Cat People (Putting Out Fire)’ by David Bowie from the soundtrack of the 1982 film Cat People is used. The film is set in 1944, long before this song was made and before Bowie was even born.
This is a classic example of Quentin Tarantino using his extensive knowledge of pop culture by using this song and its dramatic sound to show that the big showdown in the film is about to happen, and that Shosanna is ready to enact her revenge.
4. Back To The Future (Robert Zemeckis, 1985)
Although Back To The Future is a 1980s classic, it absolutely revels itself in the 1950s. 1980s teenager Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) travels back to 1955 where he has to adapt to a new way of life, including the music his teenage parents love.
This film was made in 1985, but features music from 30 years earlier to reflect the time period Marty McFly is sent to, and also to show what an outsider he is as he is in a strange land and time. When Marty plays ‘Johnny B. Goode’ at the Enchantment Under The Sea dance, he plays a 1980s era guitar solo at the end, and everyone looks at him, having no idea what he just played.
3. Watchmen (Zack Snyder, 2009)
Despite being a superhero movie, Watchmen is ultimately about the disillusionment people feel as they get older and realise the world can be a horrible place. A group of superheroes called the Watchmen have worked together from the 1930s onwards, and were at the peak of their powers during World War II, only for the group to crumble after both internal and political turmoil due to the effects of the Vietnam War.
Although set in 1985, this film uses various songs from the 1960s, the characters’ heyday as superheroes before becoming disillusioned. The 1960s was about revolution and great change in society, but those dreams were shattered. The Bob Dylan song ‘Times, They Are A-Changing’ plays during the opening credits showing how the heroes were young, motivated and successful in the 1930s and 1940s, but eventually the group disbanded and society deemed them to be unnecessary and a thing of the past.
Other 1960s songs are used as well to emphasise this point, such as ‘All Along The Watchtower’ by Jimi Hendrix plays during a combat scene during the Vietnam War, and ‘The Sound Of Silence’ by Simon and Garfunkle plays during the funeral of one of the fallen Watchmen.
2. The Great Gatsby (Baz Luhrmann, 2013)
Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic American novel The Great Gatsby had a lot of criticisms upon its release, one of which being its use of contemporary music despite being set in the 1920s.
The soundtrack consists of songs by Lana Del Rey, Kanye West, Jay Z, Gotye, Beyonce Knowles, and more. This was done to have songs the audience will know and will be able to relate to more, but also creates a modern atmosphere for a story set a long time ago, and done so in Baz Luhrmann’s extravagant style of filmmaking.
The Lana Del Rey song ‘Young And Beautiful’ in particular is used to great effect when Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) are reunited after not seeing each other for years and immediately fall in love again. The passion of the song really synchs well with the affection Gatsby and Daisy are showing each other.
1. Moulin Rouge (Baz Luhrmann, 2001)
No one in the modern age of cinema does extravagant and colourful films like Australian filmmaker Baz Luhrmann. Over a decade before The Great Gatsby was made, Luhrmann made his overwhelming musical Moulin Rouge. The energy of the performances, dance sequences and crazy visuals make this film real eye candy, but perhaps the music is the real star of the film.
Moulin Rouge is set in 1899 in Paris just as the 20th century is about to start, but the film uses songs from the late 20th century, made long after the story’s setting, that are sung by the cast in the fashion of songs from this era. The songs’ lyrics and meanings are used to advance the plot, and create a new spin on the songs’ meanings. This film uses so many hit songs that it took the filmmakers two years to acquire the rights to use all of them.
Some songs include ‘Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend’ by Marilyn Monroe is sung when Satine (Nicole Kidman) is sensually singing to all the men in the club so she can get diamonds and money from them. She then sings ‘Material Girl’ by Madonna to explicitly say that she is more interested in material goods than love. ‘The Show Must Go On’ by Queen, is used to say Satine will continue performing despite dying from tuberculosis.
When Christian (Ewan McGregor) is professing his love to Satine, he sings a combination of songs by The Beatles, Kiss, U2, David Bowie, Joe Cocker, and more. That is only one sequence in the whole movie where various songs are combined together in melody. There are so many examples that it could be a list article in itself.
Originally published here at tasteofcinema.com on Friday 15 April 2016