Needle Drops vs. Using Music Cinematically

12Nov12

I saw two movies this week — “Argo” and “World’s Greatest Dad.” Both were well done, both were well acted, etc., etc. There were differences to be sure (one is a retelling of a real-life event, the other is a black comedy about something I’m not going to spoil here), but the main difference I can’t get over comes down to sheer movie making: the use of pop music.

Short and sweet, “Argo” went for the “needle drop” technique, where in order to get from one location or scene to the next, a song of the times (1980) was played. The songs chosen were largely effective, and a few made me think this soundtrack was exactly up my alley. We had “Dance the Night Away,” “Little T&A,” “When the Levee Breaks” and “The Sultans of Swing,” to name a few. But only “Levee” was used in any theatrical manner outside of making a smooth transition. The rest were like cover shots or editing techniques to just make us feel OK with suddenly being on a plane from Washington DC to Hollywood.

I don’t want to bag on “Argo.” It does a lot of things great, such as building tension in the final act through giving us information at precise moments instead of holding back. But this music thing really bugged me after a while. Like I said, these were all songs I enjoyed, but the movie never seemed to own any of them. Except for “Levee,” and even that one… it’s played in scene by some characters having a party, and I thought it was kind of funny how they nailed it on the turntable. It’s the final track on “Led Zeppelin 4.” Maybe we’ve all forgotten how hard it was to nail those literal needle drops, or maybe the character playing it was a professional DJ in his pre-political life. But whatever the case, “Levee” was the only song to have any affect on the movie. It was part of the movie. The other songs could have just as easily been substituted out for another like-sounding tune. I love “Dance the Night Away,” but nothing about that particular moment was enhanced by including Van Halen’s first top 20 hit. It was probably chosen because it’s a party scene (VH being a “party band”) in Hollywood (VH haling from So-Cal) in this time period (sure) and it sounded up-beat (which it undoubtedly does). And that’s it. You could find 10 other songs that do the exact same things cinematically as this one did.

Then we come to “World’s Greatest Dad,” which surprised me in a number of ways, both in the story it told and the way it was told. It was funny and heartfelt and charming and gross and satirical and well directed and acted. And part of that good direction came in its use of music. When a very sad thing happens to one character (which I won’t spoil), that sad character has a good cry set to a song. I couldn’t tell you the name of the song without looking it up, but that’s not the point. The point is that the movie OWNS that song, the scene OWNS that song. It carries the emotion of the scene. It’s not just a needle drop of any old tune. It was a song specifically chosen to tell this moment of this character’s life.

To be fair, “Dad” does include one of the worst uses of movie music ever: the “Tell Us Exactly What’s Happening With a Song” use. At one point, a character gets high, and the song playing has lyrics which, essentially, go, “I’m gonna get high now.” A liiiiiiiiiiiiittle on the nose for my tastes. But I’ve put up with those for years. We can’t all be Martin Scorsese.

Later, “Dad” calls back an earlier reference to “Under Pressure” to really nail its “music-as-part-of-the-movie” philosophy to great affect. The end titles song is the perfect rocking’ song that belongs to that moment and thus the movie.

I guess I’m saying I’m a Bobcat Goldthwait fan now, as opposed to a Ben Affleck fan.** That feels wrong and right.

*I know it’s weird that I’m not spoiling things, since I kind of believe that if you go on a non-professional blog talking about a movie, you have to expect spoilers. HOWEVER, on the off chance that you have similar tastes as I do AND you haven’t read the story synopsis of this film (as I had not), I’d hate to spoil what was truly a discovery for me.

**I want it made clear, however, that I am not an Affleck hater. I’ve normally liked the guy, and I think he’s making good movies. “Argo” only proves that he can structure a film precisely. His attention to detail in the storytelling only makes his needle-drop techniques more aggravating. And I want to go further to say that I consider music in movies to be storytelling. You know what I mean. “Scripted storytelling,” I suppose.

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One Response to “Needle Drops vs. Using Music Cinematically”


  1. 1 Script Doctor Eric’s Great Movie Challenge « Phillip Mottaz Town

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