Seven Diegetic Music Moments from Films I Saw in 2015

Between mid-January and late December 2015, there were seven new movies that I saw in theaters which had memorable uses of diegetic music (music coming from a source seen in the film, like a song playing on a radio or something sung/performers by the characters). I was inspired by the recent post I made about shots/scenes/dialogue in films from last year as viewed in moving GIF images; I thought about how much more important sound and music can be in a movie when it is heard not only on the soundtrack, for us viewers, but also in the film’s world, by its characters.

P.S. If I could have found any good clips showing the many wonderful uses of disco in The Martian, or a high-quality clip of the “Tarzan Boy” scene in The Wolfpack (the only available video was fuzzy), I would have included those scenes too.

Friday, January 16: “La nuit n’en finit plus” (Petula Clark)/Two Days, One Night (2014, dirs. Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne)/Lincoln Plaza Cinemas (Broadway between W 62nd and 63rd Sts)

Marion Cotillard was nominated for an Academy Award last year for her performance as Sandra Bya, a clinically depressed Belgian woman who must visit her co-workers between Friday and Sunday to convince them to vote in favor of saving her job on Monday; the options are to fire Sandra and give the remaining workers a holiday bonus, or to keep Sandra and forgo the extra pay, which most people need. In this scene, Sandra and her husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione) drive from one co-worker’s home to another, and although Sandra’s experiences on the road have run the gamut of emotions, hearing Petula Clark’s French-language cover of “Needles and Pins” (first recorded by Jackie DeShannon and made more popular by the Searchers), translated as “La nuit n’en finit plus,” calms her down. Despite the much darker lyrics in Clark’s version, something about Sandra and Manu feeling a moment of closeness while listening to it is quite moving. Although there are no subtitles for this video, you can see in Cotillard’s eyes how this sad song can be life-affirming.

Wednesday, February 11: “Diamonds” (Rihanna)/Girlhood (2014, dir. Céline Sciamma)/Film Society of Lincoln Center (Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center) (W 65th St between Broadway and Amsterdam Ave)

Uploaded in two parts (the first clip shows only the first 50 seconds or so of the scene), “Diamonds” plays at a high point in Girlhood (the English-language title for the French film Bande de filles, which translates to Gang of Girls), a coming-of-age drama about black teenage girls living in a lower-class Parisian suburb. The main character, Marieme (Karidja Touré), is naturally shy and plain in appearance, but once she befriends “bad girls” Lady, Adiatou and Fily (Assa Sylla, Lindsay Karamoh and Mariétou Touré), Marieme gains newfound confidence. Changing her hair, her clothes and her outlook on life, Marieme assumes the nickname “Vic” (for victory) and in the scene shown in the clips above – when Marieme and her friends rent a hotel room in Paris using stolen money – their singing and dancing along to Rihanna’s pop song “Diamonds” brings Marieme the final cathartic release to bring her out of her shell.

Saturday, May 9: “Get Down Saturday Night” (Oliver Cheatham)/Ex Machina (2015, dir. Alex Garland)/Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM Rose Cinemas) (Lafayette Ave between Ashland Pl and St. Felix St)

In the middle of Alex Garland’s sci-fi thriller, there is a random scene in which mysterious millionaire/robotics expert Nathan (Oscar Isaac) has a disco dance party with one of his cyber creations, Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno); Nathan’s protégé, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), looks on in total confusion. As weird as the scene is, compared to all the more serious events in the film, it had a particular impact on me and probably on the other moviegoers in the theater – which was, as you may have noted, on a Saturday night.

Thursday, June 11: “My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark/All I Do Is Win” (Das Sound Machine)/Pitch Perfect 2 (2015, dir. Elizabeth Banks)/City Cinemas 1, 2 & 3 (3rd Ave between E 59th and 60th Sts)

It’s a lot to ask for “good entertainment” from the sequel to a big-budget franchise about competitive a cappella singing groups; there are only so far the jokes can go before they run out of steam. The one truly fun aspect of Pitch Perfect 2 was the presence of the Barden Bellas’ fiercest opponents, German team Das Sound Machine. Their performance of a mash-up of Fall Out Boy’s “My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark” and DJ Khaled’s “All I Do Is Win” at the climactic World Championship showdown is energetic and, thanks to Craig Alpert, well-edited.

Thursday, July 16: “I Want It That Way” (Backstreet Boys)/Magic Mike XXL (2015, dir. Gregory Jacobs)/Regal Union Square Stadium 14 (Broadway between E 13th and 14th Sts)

After some worry over having possibly lost his male-stripper mojo, Big Dick Richie (Joe Manganiello) is set a task by his buddies: to bring a smile to the solemn face of a cashier (Lindsey Moser) in a roadside gas station. When the Backstreet Boys song “I Want It That Way” – one of the poppiest boy-band tracks of the late 90s – starts playing on the store’s PA system, Richie improvises a dance with Cheetos, bottled water and some imagination. I assure you, if you had seen this in a packed theater like I did, where the audience was 95% women, you wouldn’t have been able to prevent yourself from grinning and cheering like the ladies did.

(UPDATE on Fri. 1/15/2016: The video I originally posted has been deleted from YouTube, so in its place – even though it does not have anywhere near the same impact – is a clip of director Christopher McQuarrie explaining the making of the scene just prior to when “Nessun dorma” appears in the film.)

Thursday, August 13: “Nessun dorma” and other selections from Turandot (Gregory Kunde and company)/Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015, dir. Christopher McQuarrie)/AMC Loews Lincoln Square 13 (IMAX Theater) (Broadway between W 67th and 68th Sts)

Even though this sequence is ripped right out of Alfred Hitchcock’s Royal Albert Hall assassination scene in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), it is still thrilling to watch Ethan Hunt (the seemingly unstoppable Tom Cruise) do battle in the rafters at the Vienna State Opera, the action taking place as American tenor Gregory Kunde performs one of Puccini’s most famous arias. The combination of music and visuals was especially impressive when seen on a gigantic IMAX screen. And hey, there’s a weaponized clarinet! That’s a new one.

Wednesday, December 30: “Back to Black” (Amy Winehouse)/Amy (2015, dir. Asif Kapadia)/Museum of Modern Art (Theater 1) (W 53rd St between 5th Ave and Ave of the Americas)

A brilliant moment caught on film, Amy Winehouse’s studio session recording her song “Back to Black” (about her tempestuous relationship with then-boyfriend Blake Fielder-Civil) is a rollercoaster ride for the audience as the background music fades into the isolated vocal, then is abruptly cut out by the documentary’s director, Asif Kapadia, to emphasize the quiet but powerful rawness of the performance and all the meanings we hear in those lyrics, both from the time they were written and what we think of now.

2015: Part 4

Aloha. Directed by Cameron Crowe. Jesus Christ, this movie is bad. I would be thoroughly shocked if it weren’t a major contender at the upcoming Razzies ceremony; not only is the social/political content (revolving around a convoluted plot related to nuclear weaponry) kept to a dumbed-down minimum in favor of a bland romantic story, but Crowe’s screenplay also has several cringe-worthy lines (“I go hard, I go deep, and sometimes I break things.” “Don’t skin your knees on eternity, brah.” “I was sound-transducing when you were still in a ballerina costume!” “You sold your soul so many times, nobody’s buying anymore.”) that I can’t believe came from the same mind who crafted Say Anything… and Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Maybe in an alternate universe I would at least be able to praise Bill Murray for doing a sexy dance with Emma Stone to the tune of “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do),” or Jaeden Lieberher (Murray’s young co-star from St. Vincent) for being one of the better child actors of his age (as Rachel McAdams’ and John Krasinski’s son), but all I can focus on is the negative: Bradley Cooper’s character as the white savior of Oahu, complete with bright blue eyes and a flawless tan, Emma Stone’s embarrassing role as a part-Hawaiian, part-Chinese character (to those who say her casting is necessary because there are no biracial actresses who could be hired – did you ever think that maybe the reason why you think that is because Hollywood systemically refuses to hire them and instead goes with a white actress whose popularity will help the movie sell more tickets?), Rachel McAdams in yet another of her signature boring performances and John Krasinski in a role he appears to sleepwalk through in every element (Cooper’s best friend, McAdams’ husband, father of two children) sink this ship even faster than its captain could have imagined.

P.S. At least half of the songs on the soundtrack are soul-deadening indie pop/rock songs. You know, the kind that sound like Elliott Smith on tranquilizers – in other words, like almost everything from the last ten years. I think I murmured oy gevalt! internally every time I heard one.

Amy. Directed by Asif Kapadia. Even if you already know part or most of the story, you still won’t be fully prepared for how devastating Asif Kapadia’s documentary about Amy Winehouse is, particularly if you experience it in a packed movie theater. Sitting with the MoMA audience last night, there were so many moments of total silence among the moviegoers, caught in the spell of this talented, troubled performer. I found myself thinking about Amy’s trajectory as an artist and as an addict, the way she was used and abused by so many around her, including her husband, Blake Fielder-Civil, and her father, Mitch. These family members, friends and other people in managerial positions enabled her substance problems; it’s especially disgusting when Mitch Winehouse says that it was Amy’s responsibility to help herself (even though it is clear to the viewer that she was unable to do so on her own and she desperately needed a firm hand to convince her that she needed treatment) and also when manager Raye Cosbert prioritizes a tour over Amy’s need to go to rehab, claiming that heroin isn’t such a big issue because he knows other artists who are able to function while using it. Amy reminds people (or tells some of them for the first time) of Amy Winehouse’s musical gifts, but it’s much more important and powerful as a harrowing portrait of how addiction can destroy you – the human body can only take so much before it gives out. At the end of the film I heard two women talking about the film and one said that she thought it was “distasteful” that the director showed footage of the aftermath of Amy’s death, with the paramedics carrying the body bag out of the flat; as sad as that image is, it’s necessary. Addiction is an ugly thing, and her death was the final, horrible consequence. I thought a lot during the film about how people have reevaluated Amy’s career after her passing, posting and reblogging photos of her on websites like Tumblr and Pinterest and obsessing over her as a posthumous icon, a member of the 27 Club. Where were those people when Amy was alive? Undoubtedly making fun of her along with the rest of the world, mocking her once she could no longer perform to everyone’s demands and laughing even more as her disintegration (which also included bulimia) continued. Probably the most telling moments in the film are the two scenes showing “Tonight Show” host Jay Leno thanking Amy Winehouse for performing on his program, then, some time later, making jokes about her serious drug addictions in a monologue. (Another key moment: when one of the many paparazzi cornering Amy on the street is bumped/hit into by her, which is a small shock to the cameraman; he was there to do a job, but even though he got physically close to his subject, right in her face, I guess he still thought there was supposed to be distance between them and he hadn’t expected to collide with her.) (Also, since I have mentioned late-night talk show hosts, here’s the other side of the coin: Craig Ferguson’s monologue from 2007 about why he refused to make jokes about Britney Spears and her substance/mental health problems.) Amy is as much an indictment of the unbelievable pressures of celebrity – seen in the constant presence of paparazzi hounding Amy practically to her death, even after death as her corpse was carried out of her home – as it is about the pitfalls of Amy’s dependencies and co-dependencies, even though the film could not exist without all of the footage that was used in it. Art can be a vicious, grotesque cycle.

The Martian. Directed by Ridley Scott. I had the opportunity to finally see The Martian (and in 3D!) at MoMA on the evening of December 9. While nothing about the film (essentially Cast Away in space) is groundbreaking – not even the visuals/use of 3D – it is an entertaining flick with a great soundtrack. It totally makes sense why the film is categorized as a comedy for the Golden Globes; a lot of the dialogue is quite funny, including the use of certain disco songs on the soundtrack. Matt Damon does a very good job in carrying the film, again not surprising or innovative but still solid; few other performances are particularly noteworthy, but I did enjoy Michael Peña (not a shock, he’s probably this year’s film MVP) as a fellow astronaut and Sean Bean as the director of the astronaut training program. Kate Mara seemed ill-cast (and looked too young) as another member of the space team, while Kristen Wiig was poorly used as NASA’s PR woman (why cast such a funny woman in such a bland role? Diane Lane or Ashley Judd could have been cast just as easily, right? … except for the bigger popularity of Wiig, of course) and Donald Glover also has far too little screen time as the tech genius who figures out how the Hermes can save Damon (also, did anyone else notice the awkward switch that the score made into hip-hop-flavored beats in two instances when Glover was the center of a scene?). Even so, The Martian moves at a very nice pace and is constantly fun to watch, so it’s hardly the usual “mindless/soulless popcorn” thing that people assume will be the case with big blockbusters.

Spy. Directed by Paul Feig. I really enjoyed this movie. I have a tendency to shy away from recent comedies because so many of them are painfully unfunny, but I had the feeling I would like this one; how could I not, given that Paul Feig, who purposely works from a feminist perspective, wrote and directed it? The gender-flipping of the traditional James Bond-type secret agent story works well, giving Melissa McCarthy a great leading role with lots of character development over the course of the story and loads of funny lines (and most of them don’t have to do with her body size). She is ably assisted by Jude Law as the dashing, Bond-like spy guy whom she has worked with for years (and quietly lusted after); Jason Statham as the wildly unprepared and pompous hyper-spy Rick Ford; Miranda Hart as McCarthy’s good friend at the agency, who, like McCarthy, gets the opportunity to move from “basement work” into the field; and Allison Janney as the CIA head in charge of the missions. (In smaller roles, it’s also nice to see Michael McDonald as the CIA gadget guy who gives McCarthy the greatest watch imaginable, Steve Bannos as “Alan the Bartender” and Zach Woods as a waiter with nefarious intentions.) I was less impressed with Rose Byrne, who I guess is OK as one of the main villains, but she never outshines McCarthy in any of their scenes together; Bobby Cannavale, another of the baddies, is suitably handsome but underused, not unlike the bland but pretty eye candy that often shows up in female form in James Bond flicks – more of Feig’s intentional gender-flipping, perhaps? The nicest surprise, cast-wise, was Peter Serafinowicz (who I totally forgot was also in Spy until he showed up) as Aldo, a sex-obsessed CIA liaison who casts his amorous eye on McCarthy. Every scene they share is gold, especially the last one at the end of the film. For a film filled with send-ups and spoofs of its genre, all of which could have failed in lesser hands, the screenplay, dialogue, most of the performances and the overall trajectory of Spy succeed, and hilariously so.

Woman in Gold. Directed by Simon Curtis. Contrary to what some critics and moviegoers may have said, Woman in Gold is a well-acted drama. Helen Mirren is, as one would expect, good in the role of Maria Altmann, who fought to get back the paintings that Gustav Klimt gave her family (including the most famous one of her aunt Adele, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I) and which were subsequently stolen by the Nazis in 1938. Ryan Reynolds also does an OK job as Altmann’s lawyer, Randy Schoenberg, not perhaps an Oscar-worthy performance but still fairly good considering that I’ve never thought of Reynolds as much of an actor. All of the most effective actors, however, appear in the Vienna flashbacks: in this order, Allan Corduner as Maria’s father (a beautiful, beautiful performance), Max Irons as Maria’s husband, Tatiana Maslany as young Maria, Nina Kunzendorf as Maria’s mother, Tom Schilling as a Nazi officer assigned to watch the family. I didn’t have any particular opinions about Daniel Brühl‘s boring performance as investigative reporter Hubertus Czernin, while Katie Holmes is wasted in a throwaway role as Randy’s wife, Pam Schoenberg, who has very few facial expressions other than “concerned.” Where the film is weakest is in the overarching feeling of being a Hollywood drama/biopic/Holocaust story, exactly the sort that Harvey Weinstein produces (which he did, in this case) and which is designed to make you feel certain feelings. I am totally sympathetic with Maria Altmann in terms of the art restitution case – would Aunt Adele really have preferred for her portrait to hang in the Belvedere Palace gallery if she had known what would happen to her family, friends and country in WWII? – but perhaps because I remembered the Maria Altmann story (I recall when she died a few years ago, which led me to read all about the case and visit the painting in the Neue Galerie), Woman in Gold did not provide any surprises. But I should not be too shocked; the film was made by the same who directed the problematic My Week with Marilyn.