Friday Music Focus: 3/31/17

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Today we look at six songs connected to cinema and the power of storytelling. Dramatist and composer Neil Brand once described the effect of hearing music in films, which can be a thrilling experience from the moment the lights go down in a theater: “The darkness, the strangers, the anticipation, the warm comfortable embrace of the cinema seat. We’re ready to experience some big emotions, and the minute the music booms out, we are on board for the ride. Human beings are very good at interpreting sound. Right back to when our prehistoric selves will have heard a twig snap in a forest and thought ‘that’s it, I’m dead.’ We have a very deep understanding of what music is doing, and it’s very physical. We can feel it going into our ears via sound waves and it can produce all sorts of physical responses, including in the right circumstances an actual thud to the stomach.”

Francis Monkman, “Main Title” (from the score for the film The Long Good Friday, 1980, dir. John Mackenzie; subsequent scene from same film). Bob Hoskins’ breakout big-screen role was as Harold Shand, the kingpin of the London underworld in The Long Good Friday, director John Mackenzie’s cinematic retelling of Macbeth updated for the gritty early 80s. Regardless of whether you’re keen on the dated musical stylings of composer Francis Monkman, there is no denying that Harold’s introductory scene is the embodiment of cool. Bob Hoskins walks through the airport as though Harold’s theme music were playing in his head.

Jools Holland, “Morse Code” (appears on the album Jools Holland Meets Rock “A” Boogie Billy, 1984; subsequent scene from the film Near Dark, 1987, dir. Kathryn Bigelow). From an essay published by Bloody Disgusting: “Directed by Kathryn Bigelow, Near Dark is something of a companion piece to James Cameron’s Aliens, released one year prior. Granted, the films have nothing to do with one another, but what they do share is a few key cast members – Cameron and Bigelow were dating at the time, and when Aliens wrapped, three actors leapt from outer space to the southwest. Lance Henriksen and Jenette Goldstein, who played Bishop and Vasquez in Aliens, star in the horror-western, but the real star of the show was Bill Paxton, who absolutely stole said show as the vampire Severen.

“…In what is easily one of the horror genre’s very best scenes, our band of villainous antiheroes arrive at a local watering hole; Severen leads the charge as they proceed to make the establishment their own and lay waste to anyone who’s not down with that. Cracking wise, walking across the bar top and kicking ass, Paxton is at his scenery-chewing best in the infamous Near Dark bar sequence, displaying every bit of the screen presence that made him such a beloved entertainer.

“Revisiting the scene today, I realized that it sums up why Bill Paxton has always been one of my favorite actors. Whether he was playing a good guy or a bad guy, making you laugh, cry, or fear for your life, Paxton was always the most likable and charismatic actor in the room; Severen entering the bar and completely taking over is not unlike Paxton’s own screen dominance in the films he was in. In both Aliens and Near Dark, the ensemble casts are stacked from top to bottom with incredible actors, but it was Paxton who managed to shine the brightest – there’s a reason you remember his lines above all else. His was the best character in nearly every single movie he was in, bringing unmatched confidence, charm and personality to each of those roles.”

P.S. Fun fact: the last line in the scene above, which is one of the most famous quotes from Near Dark, was improvised by Bill Paxton.

The Cramps, “Fever” (appears on the album Songs the Lord Taught Us, 1980; subsequent scene from the film Near Dark, 1987, dir. Kathryn Bigelow). From an essay published by Digital Spy: “’Finger-lickin’ good!’ howls Severen as he struts and gluts, with [Bill] Paxton’s mesmerising energy perhaps explained by the B12 injection he took prior to shooting in an effort to quash a migraine. We might not see any elongated incisors in Near Dark, but the cast sure sink their teeth into the furniture during this boisterous scene.” (More on that migraine at the beginning of this video interview with Bill Paxton.)

Eddy Dixon, “Relentless” (appears on the soundtrack of the film The Loveless, 1981, dirs. Kathryn Bigelow and Monty Montgomery). Watching Near Dark reminded me of how much I love the theme song that plays throughout Kathryn Bigelow’s debut feature film, The Loveless. Listening to “Relentless” again right after Jools Holland and the Cramps, I realize just how much Bigelow must love rockabilly, especially since she gave one of the main acting roles in The Loveless to rockabilly icon Robert Gordon.

Sheryl Crow, “Tomorrow Never Dies” (opening credits sequence from the film Tomorrow Never Dies, 1997, dir. Roger Spottiswoode). Both the film Tomorrow Never Dies and its title theme song by Sheryl Crow have gotten flak over the years for supposedly being lesser offerings from the James Bond franchise. OK, so maybe the movie is mediocre by the series’ standards, but I quite like the tune. It more than meets the requirements for Bondian flair, although Crow’s song is closer in spirit to the laid-back vibe of Nancy Sinatra’s “You Only Live Twice” than to the Sturm und Drang sound of Adele’s “Skyfall.” And anyway, Tomorrow Never Dies (the film, not the song) isn’t totally without merit; I love the scene with Vincent Schiavelli as a German hitman straight out of a comic strip, and I also enjoy the creepy main villain played by Jonathan Pryce. Pryce’s media mogul, Elliot Carver, is a power-mad billionaire who thrives on the exploitation of the world’s failures, traumas and bloodshed. When the usual gory headlines aren’t enough to satisfy his thirst for tragedy, Carver has his henchmen carry out violent attacks that pit the militaries of several nations against one another. It’s not fake news; it’s real news of Carver’s own design. Do we see any current-day parallels and worrying future eventualities here?

The Passions, “I’m in Love with a German Film Star” (appears on the album Thirty Thousand Feet Over China, 1981). A great song draws you in by telling a compelling story with its lyrics and its music; a really great song hooks you by suggesting an intriguing scenario just by the title alone. Then, when you hear the song: do you muse on who the German film star is, whether he’s a real person? Does it even matter, when you can imagine up your own fantasy based on the dreamy guitar by Clive Timperley and the vocals by Barbara Gogan?

The Passions’ legacy is that of a one-hit wonder band because of “Film Star,” which was the only charting single (it hit #25) of their brief career (they released three albums in the consecutive years of 1980-1982; they disbanded in 1983). Many other post-punk and New Wave bands are better remembered, but few made songs with the timeless staying power of “I’m in Love with a German Film Star.” Listening to it is like being enveloped in the welcoming darkness of a movie theater, maybe a small one like the kind where you might find the German matinee idol’s films playing.

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