Of all the seismic jolts to ripple through the foundation of American filmmaking in the 1970s, none left the landscape more ecstatically transformed than Harvey Keitel falling back onto his pillow as the syncopated drum intro of "Be My Baby" kicked up up on the soundtrack. This is the beginning of Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets. And this is the roiling discontent of the 1960s turning inward. It is, on one (partially regrettable) level, the beginning of cinematic solipsism. But, more importantly, it is ground zero for the repurposing of pre-existing popular music as a dynamic means to enhance the emotional state of the characters and/or the scene. As a technique, it is unrivaled in its power.
So it stands to reason that, in the intervening thirty-four years, the practice has been worn out like a two-dollar whore.
For Scorsese, using The Marvelettes’ pleading "Please Mr. Postman" to score a pool hall scuffle was as natural as it was inexplicable. You can intellectualize these choices to death, but it’s a visceral decision, an evocative marriage of craft and good musical taste. Logic might state that another Rolling Stones track would’ve been the ideal choice, but, when it comes to music, logic inhibits; once technique is mastered, it’s all feel. And, for whatever reason, "Please Mr. Postman" fit perfectly with the tempo of that scene.
But with great power comes even greater opportunity for exploitation. As Scorsese would later warn (in an interview with the British Film Institute), "[I]t’s very easy for the music to become a kind of security blanket, for the filmmakers and then for the audience. It’s bad enough when it’s used for nostalgic purposes, or when it’s used to place a scene in time, but there’s nothing worse than when music is used to tell the audience what they should be feeling. Unfortunately, it happens all the time."
The use of music "for nostalgia purposes" was the beginning of the debasement, and it was innocuously presaged in 1973 through the deeply personal debut of another filmmaking force of nature named George Lucas. A fond, if gently wistful, recreation of the 1960s Northern California cruising culture, American Graffiti forged a profound bond with Baby Boomers moving/settling into their thirties. For Lucas, the sole purpose of playing Bill Haley’s "Rock Around the Clock" was the inducement of nostalgia, a callback to the carefree youth of that perniciously populous generation. And, unlike Mean Streets, it took immediate hold in consciousness of the American mainstream, spawning Garry Marshall’s sitcom Happy Days and a glut of artistically bankrupt, backward-looking retreads. That said, it is impossible to imagine National Lampoon’s Animal House earning a begrudging greenlight from Universal without the success of American Graffiti, so its influence isn’t all bad.
1983 is the year it really went wrong. That’s when Lawrence Kasdan crammed his Baby Boomer ensemble drama, The Big Chill, full of 60s-era pop. While the film was a hit, the accompanying soundtrack LP proved epochal by moving millions of units and exploding the "oldies" radio format (for a time during the 1980s, oldies stations seemed to outnumber Top 40 outlets). And for the kids there was Adrian Lyne’s Flashdance, the Simpson/Bruckheimer "Style Over Substance" treatise that played like a two-hour commercial for the multi-platinum LP (which was also pimped ceaselessly via MTV). Ten years after the triumph of Mean Streets, the wedding of the image to popular music was now an industry in and of itself.
For true connoisseurs of cinema and music, the cheapening of this marriage has not completely eroded its ability to inspire. Until the failure of Bringing Out the Dead, Scorsese was still astonishing with counterintuitive uses of classic pop songs, his master thesis being Goodfellas. From Tony Bennett’s "Rags to Riches" to Sid Vicious warbling "My Way" over the closing credits, the film is a miraculous blending of musical eras and genres. And while Scorsese may at times be indulging in a bit of nostalgia himself, Henry and Karen wending their way through the kitchen of the Copa as The Crystals’ "Then He Kissed Me" blares on the soundtrack repays the transgression tenfold. It’s one spot-on cue after another, and there are no wrong answers as to which are the best (that said, I’ll take Billy Batts catching a beating to Donovan’s risibly mystic "Atlantis", and the camera booming up over the grille of Johnny Roastbeef’s pink Caddy to the opening chords of the mournful bridge to Derek and the Dominoes’ "Layla"). And for those who think Scorsese’s lost his muse after The Departed (even though the last season of The Sopranos informed us that wiseguys love the soundtrack), they obviously haven’t seen Bob Dylan: No Direction Home.
Then there are Scorsese’s three most talented proteges: Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson. Though they may at times violate the sacred rule of telling the audience what they should be feeling (think PTA’s dicey "Wise Up" singalong in Magnolia), at least it’s in the service of pushing boundaries. Unfortunately, their influence is so pervasive that marketers and second-rate directors can’t help but pilfer their sonic discoveries. When Dick Dale’s "Miserlou" exploded over the title sequence for QT’s Pulp Fiction, it heralded artistic liberation; when it was appropriated by the Black Eyed Peas for "Pump It", and subsequently whored out in the name of Pepsi and Best Buy, it was the absolute death of that composition.
And it’s retroactively diminished the impact of Tarantino’s film; the minute "Miserlou" fires up, your associations are almost entirely corporate. The same is tragically true of "God Only Knows", by The Beach Boys. Though hardly an obscure track, it hadn’t been definitively used in film until Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights in 1997. But then it turned up in the live-action Scooby Doo, Love Actually, the HBO polygamy drama Big Love and, finally, a Mastercard commercial. And that’s how the song went from being a personal favorite to something I actively dread.
Honestly, while the commercialization of a great song is a terrible thing, it’s the secondary (and third and fourth and so on) uses by unimaginative directors or lazy music supervisors that most offends. Any filmmaker with an ounce of self-respect would’ve known to keep their hands off of "God Only Knows"; though Brian Wilson wrote it, the track is the cinematic property of Paul Thomas Anderson in perpetuity (satiric deployment notwithstanding). The only thing it conjures up is the segue to Boogie Nights‘ denouement and, thereafter, insurmountable disdain. Equally repugnant is I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry‘s closing credits theft of Queen’s "You’re My Best Friend" from Shaun of the Dead; a preferable form of flattery would’ve been to simply run a commercial for the DVD of the Wright/Pegg flick in lieu of reminding audiences, name by name, who’d been insulting their intelligence for the last two hours.
When a song is indelibly utilized in any film, good or bad, that’s it! It’s out of circulation. And aside from homage or satire, further uses of said song should be considered a sacrilege punishable by non-stop Leo Sayer. Of course, what constitutes "indelible" is highly subjective, which is why I propose the formation of a review board composed of Scorsese, Tarantino, the Andersons (i.e. P.T. and Wes) and Cameron Crowe. Basically, all they’d have to do is gather annually to determine what’s still in play and what’s verboten. And their decisions will absolutely apply to the scoring of trailers, ‘cuz shit’s been way out of hand in that field for decades (and getting worse, as evidenced by "American Pie" and Hendrix’s "All Along the Watchtower" turning up in the preview for Charlie Wilson’s War).
But since these gentlemen might be a tad too preoccupied with the actual creation of art to bother with the policing of other filmmakers’ soundtracks, I figured I’d give them a head start. First, the master list of "Dead Songs", i.e. tunes that are so overused, they only evoke eye-rolling and/or physical revulsion.
"I Got You (I Feel Good)" by James Brown
"Gimme Shelter" by The Rolling Stones
"Hallelujah" by Leonard Cohen (as performed by too many, though Jeff Buckley’s version is the modern template)
"For What It’s Worth" by Buffalo Springfield
"Let’s Get It On" by Marvin Gaye
"Tainted Love" by Soft Cell
"Let My Love Open the Door" by Pete Townshend
"Heroes" by David Bowie
"What a Wonderful World" by Louis Armstrong
"Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World" by Israel Kamakawiwo’ole
"Start Me Up" by The Rolling Stones
"Respect" by Aretha Franklin
"(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" by Aretha Franklin
"Under Pressure" by David Bowie and Queen
"Blitzkrieg Bop" by The Ramones
"I Wanna Be Sedated" by The Ramones
"Old Time Rock and Roll" by Bob Seger
"You’re My Best Friend" by Queen
"Kung Fu Fighting" by Carl Douglas
"God Only Knows" by The Beach Boys
"Mr. Blue Sky" by Electric Light Orchestra
"All Star" by Smash Mouth
"You Sexy Thing" by Hot Chocolate
"Ain’t No Mountain High Enough" by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell
"Magic Carpet Ride" by Steppenwolf
"Born to Be Wild" by Steppenwolf
"All Right Now" by Free
"Son of a Preacher Man" by Dusty Springfield
"Tears of Jupiter" by Train
"All Along the Watchtower" by Jimi Hendrix
"American Pie" by Don McLean
"Everybody’s Talking" by Harry Nilsson
"Breathe Me" by Sia
"Taking Care of Business" by Bachman-Turner Overdrive
"My Girl" by The Temptations
"Oh Yeah" by Yellow
"Dreams" by The Cranberries
"Semi-Charmed Life" by Third Eye Blind
Feel free to lobby for the inclusion of other songs. I mean for this to be definitive.
Finally, before I sign off, I thought I’d compile a quick, sorted-by-filmmaker list of songs that should be designated off-limits (exceptions being possible for exceptional directors). But that’s nothing "quick" about such an undertaking, so I’ll save for a follow-up piece (in which I’ll also incorporate your recommendations).