People have a pretty intimate relationship with music. The song that was playing when you had your first slow dance, broke up with that certain someone, or lost your virginity will rank higher for you than it will for some random listener. Even bad songs have a way of causing flashbacks, for better or worse. So when a movie ties a song to imagery we never imagined while making out in the back seat, it can shake up our reality a little. Say Anything permanently connected Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” with boom boxes and early-morning wake-ups, and who among us can hear Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl” without regretting that they spent good money to see Sleeping with the Enemy? Here are some other songs that celluloid changed forever.
“The Star-Spangled Banner,” Poltergeist (1982) – A whole generation hears this song with a sense of dread thanks to its use under the opening credits of Steven Spielberg and Tobe Hooper’s seminal frightfest. It not only leads into the television sign-off static that propels the film’s terrors, but also provides an ominous grandeur to the chills to come. Want further proof that our national anthem is as much a part of Poltergeist’s scares as the carnivorous tree, “They’re here”, and that damn clown? It appears as the opening track on the movie’s soundtrack…followed, of course, by a few seconds of spine-chilling static.
“We’ve Only Just Begun” by The Carpenters, 1408 (2007) – When John Cusack’s professional skeptic Mike Enslin checks into room 1408 at New York’s Dolphin Hotel, he doesn’t expect the stories of its grisly past to be true, let alone so…nasty. More than just spectral images and things going bump in the mini-bar, 1408 has some wicked mind games in store for Enslin, including a clock radio with an affinity for this cheesy 1970s classic. A holdover from Stephen King’s original short story, the song’s presence is innocuous and even jokey at first, then a little disturbing, then downright malevolent. And it’s more than just a horror movie spin on Groundhog Day’s use of “I Got You Babe”; the lyrics hold a chilling message for Enslin: Think you’re scared now, buddy? We’re just getting started.
“Sister Christian” by Mr. Mister, Boogie Nights (1997) – There’s never been a drug deal quite like the one in the last half hour of Paul Thomas Anderson’s nostalgic porn industry epic. Already keyed up, adult film star Dirk Diggler and friends sit in the living room of Rahad Jackson (Alfred Molina), a tweeking dealer in a gold lamé robe, black bikini briefs, and de rigeur oversized medallion who happens to adore Mr. Mister’s arena rock anthem. Pacing and sweating, Molina plays the role like an overwound watch; you can feel this guy about to explode, and it ain’t gonna be pretty. The tension ratchets up even further when he starts showing off his prized gun collection. And then there’s Jackson’s “houseboy,” who spends the scene wandering around the room lighting firecrackers, sending Diggler, his buddies, and the audience into jumpy overload.
“Sail Away (Orinoco Flow)” by Enya, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) – It’s curtains for Mikael Blomkvist: he’s manacled in killer Martin Vanger’s starkly lit dungeon, and there’s a disconcerting amount of tarp lining the walls and floor. All that’s missing is the right mood music. So before going to work on his victim, Martin clicks on the stereo, filling the basement killing room with the strains of…Enya? According to David Fincher, Vanger, despite his snarling bravado, would need a little music to sublimate the stress of his deed. But the director didn’t have a song in mind until Daniel Craig himself suggested the track from his own iPod, forever changing it from spa staple to ironic music to kill by.
“American Girl” by Tom Petty, The Silence of the Lambs (1991) – Dr. Hannibal Lecter beats his prison guards to a bloody pulp accompanied by Bach’s “Goldberg Variations.” Buffalo Bill tries on his new woman suit to Q Lazzarus’ eerie “Goodbye Horses.” But the prime musical moment in Jonathan Demme’s Oscar-winning classic accompanies Catherine Martin as she drives home, unselfconsciously singing along to the Petty rocker and unaware that she’s about to cross paths with Buffalo Bill. It’s the pitch-perfect choice for low-rent Catherine (the lyrics almost seem to have been written for the character), and it’s an essential element of the dread that looms over the scene on repeat viewings.
“Singin’ in the Rain” as sung by Malcolm McDowell, A Clockwork Orange (1971) – Though Stanley Kubrick’s classic (and the Anthony Burgess novel on which it’s based) are rife with disturbing imagery, it’s the callous malevolence of its antihero Alex and his band of Droogs that makes it all the more unsettling. The mayhem reaches its peak as Alex beats an elderly writer and prepares to rape the man’s wife while singing the musical classic. The act becomes a perverse parody of Gene Kelly’s memorable scene, with Alex landing kicks to the fallen writer’s abdomen as Kelly kicked up sprays of water in the rain-drenched street. The idea was a last-minute one by Kubrick, who found the sequence as written a little blah. He asked McDowell to sing, and it was the first song that came to the actor’s mind. Movie fans who know both films haven’t looked at the original the same way since.
“Tiptoe Through the Tulips” by Tiny Tim, Insidious (2011) – Wife and mother Renai thinks she’s alone in the house, until a phantom child starts playing hide and seek. Then a turntable starts by itself, and Tiny Tim’s falsetto sends the scene from creepy to pants-wetting. The song later accompanies the “lipstick demon” as he sharpens his metal fingertips, preparing to battle father and son in a scene that recalls the opening shots of the original Nightmare on Elm Street.
“Stuck in the Middle with You” by Stealer’s Wheel, Reservoir Dogs (1992) – Quentin Tarantino’s movies are master classes in the use of songs on celluloid, but he has yet to top the scene in his directorial debut, which gave baby boomers gory imagery to put with this classic by one-hit wonder Stealer’s Wheel. In a nod to The Warriors, Tarantino uses a DJ (an unseen Steven Wright) spinning 70s classics to spark his characters’ trademark tangents on pop culture throughout the film. But it’s all just window dressing until the unhinged Mr. Blonde turns on the radio and tortures a cop to this tune, culminating in the removal of the fellow’s ear. We never actually see the slice, only its gruesome aftermath, including Mr. Blonde’s sick jokes (all ad libbed by actor Michael Madsen). The sequence is bloody, terrifying, and funny in Tarantino’s signature style.
“In Dreams” by Roy Orbison, Blue Velvet (1986) – Sure, Isabella Rossellini puts a hell of a spin on the Bobby Darin hit that gives David Lynch’s freakfest its title, but Dean Stockwell’s lip-sync to this Orbison tune is the stuff of nightmares. Naïve young Jeffrey is treated to a nerve-wracking introduction to an assortment of psychotic Frank Booth’s bizarre friends, topped by Ben (Dean Stockwell), rocking heavy pancake makeup, a cigarette holder, and the voice of Ginger from “Gilligan’s Island.” At Booth’s request, Ben ups the creep factor when he holds a bare light bulb under his chin and performs as no drag queen before or since.
“Tiny Dancer” by Elton John, Almost Famous (2000) – It’s not just terror that can change how we hear a song after it appears in an iconic film. An hour in, when Crowe’s already won us over with sweet (but never precious) characters and dialogue, Almost Famous reaches one of its most memorable and effective moments. Elton John’s piano starts as William, the band, and assorted groupies and hangers-on board the tour bus the morning after a life-changing house party. As the bus rolls down the road, the travelers (nearly the entire cast at this point) begin to sing along. It’s a scene that might be laughable to anyone who hasn’t seen the movie. To those in the know, it’s magic.
HONORABLE MENTION: “Hurdy Gurdy Man” by Donovan, Zodiac (2006) – Like much of Donovan’s music, this tune was very much a product of its time and didn’t have tremendous life beyond the 60s. But once you hear it in David Fincher’s deliciously dark, moody chronicle of the hunt for the Zodiac killer, you’ll never hear it the same way again…if you can hear it played anywhere, that is.
– M. Robert Grunwald