I love music, love it so much I spend any spare money picking up albums from Amazon* or buying concert tickets. I love music so much that despite my complete and utter disdain for people in general, my complete unwillingness to dance and a low tolerance for the aroma of sweat, stale beer and urine I make the effort to go to as many concerts as possible.
Picture a robot, not some futuristic robot that looks like Rutger Hauer or some sleek steely humanoid, but the kind of robot we have now. One of those arms that Toyota use to build their cars, or those hideous death mannequins the Japanese keep building for reasons best left to themselves, or one of those bomb disposal robots which looks like a treadmill had a drunken fling with a littler grabber. Now imagine it trying to dance whilst it’s Japanese creator looks on with perverse paternal pride and you’ll have an idea of how my yeti like frame reacts to any kind of beat. But I persist, because I really, really, like music. This blog isn’t about best albums or best singles of the year (I might write about that later, but to be honest it seems like an exercise in self-pleasure in an already unbearably masturbatory medium), this blog is about uses of music which just made me remember why I love music. Whether it be a TV show, a film, a videogame or even a film trailer in 2010:
IN DREAMS by Rob Orbison (as used in ALAN WAKE):
ALAN WAKE is probably my favourite game of the year. Not the best, not the funnest to play, not even probably the best written, but its style and ambience and story just hit me in a way that made me fall in love with the game. I might talk more about why I love ALAN WAKEin a later blog, it’s a game which compels me to evangelise, but one of the key aspects of ALAN WAKE that made me love the game were its music cues.Now ALAN WAKE is broken up into a series of ‘episodes’ and at the end of each episode we’re treated to a cliff-hanger and then a black screen with ‘Press A to continue’ written on it. The narrative of ALAN WAKE fitted this format beautifully and you were utterly compelled to continue, BUT scoring this simply black screen were a selection of songs which were just wonderfully evocative.
From IN DREAMS by Roy Orbison, and forever associated with Dean Stockwell in my youthful mind, to the glorious UP JUMPED THE DEVIL by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds the music at each chapter break was used to amazing effect. Not only were the song choices inspired, I can’t hate a game that gives love to Nick Cave and David Bowie, but they also served as natural buffers. They forced you to slow down, take your time, unwind from the last chapter and really get ready for the next chapter and in doing so they made ALAN WAKE one of my favourite experiences of 2010.
QUARTET FOR STRINGS AND PIANO IN A MINOR (ALLEGRO) – Gustav Mahler (as used in SHUTTER ISLAND):
A little Mahler goes a long way. I like classical music, but I would never consider myself a fan of classical music. Classical music feels like you need to be studious to be able to truly honour yourself as a fan. I can tell you why I like certain pieces and I can identify certain composers from their signature style, but that is just the text and to be a true classical music aficionado you have to reach beyond the artifice and embrace permutations of music seemingly inconsequently different. A person who likes classical music can be moved to tears by the beauty or power of the music, a true connoisseur of classical music can feel the heartache of a particular conductor just based on changes almost indistinguishable to the untrained ear. Why I love Mahler is that his emotion is so overwhelming, his heart so bloodily woven on his sleeve, that it is almost impossible to be subtle with the work. It is an emotional wrecking ball and even this piece, which is gentle by Mahler’s standards and is a lilting flower compared to the Scherzo which follows it in the suite, is almost irrationally emotive. SHUTTER ISLAND’S soundtrack, like any soundtrack picked by Martin Scorsese, is a wonderful piece of work.
If I included compilations in my top ten I’d probably place it in my top three, easily. It is a masterful assortment of work and one of the reasons I’ll defend SHUTTER ISLAND as a genuinely great film. The use of this quartet in the film is perfect because it represents its main character Teddy at his rawest, most unfiltered, most honest. It happens early in the film as Teddy verbally spars with Jeremiah Naehring. The confrontation erupts from Naehring listening to a recording of the Quartet which reminds Teddy of the liberation of a concentration camp he took part in. The fraught back and forth between Jeremiah and Teddy intensifies as the Quartet gains momentum, finally flitting back to the darkest day of Teddy’s service in World War 2 as he watches a mortally wounded Nazi reaching for a gun beyond his grasp, desperate to end his life but denied mercy by the Americans. It’s an amazingly rendered scene and it is given tremendous resonance by the use of Mahler’s music, the intensity of his music perfectly encapsulating the mental maelstrom Teddy finds himself in.
DON’T LET ME BE MISUNDERSTOOD – Nina Simone (as used in the finale of LUTHER)
Nina Simone was pivotal in perhaps one of my all-time favourite cinema moments. It was 2006; I was at my local art-house theatre, and a full house was watching the final scene of INLAND EMPIRE. The audience were both fraught and enthralled by the film, that electricity you get with a really good crowd was buzzing, and then BOOM the credits hit and SINNERMAN by Nina Simone kicks off an infectiously energetic credit sequence as a camera zooms around an unknowable party full of guests having the time of their lives rocking out to Simone. It was catharsis, just pure exuberant release after nearly three hours of tension and it is one of my abiding memories of the 00s. This started a love affair with the music of Nina Simone that I’ve never been able to fully shake. As such the use of DON’T LET ME BE MISUNDERSTOOD over the ending of LUTHER was one of the nicest surprises of the year.
Now LUTHER was in no way a perfect show, but it was interesting and watchable and had a two part finale which was just kind of amazing. It was also an immaculately designed Television show and one of its best design choices was interplaying a ‘Next Time’ trailer with the end credits with a piece of music scoring it, it was a great, stylish effect but it was only with the finale that it really became quite brilliant. Now you see, without wanting to spoil things, the finale left our heroes in something of a dire predicament and so the credits were interspersed with shots suggesting that things were about to get VERY heavy for the main characters. Over these merged credits Nina Simone sings DON’T LET ME BE MISUNDERSTOOD and it works so perfectly that you kind of ignore how ‘on the nose’ the lyrics actually are. It’s a fitting, melancholic, end for the show.
VLTAVA – BedÅ™ich Smetana (as used in the TREE OF LIFE trailer)
Watch the trailer for Terrence Malick’s TREE OF LIFE, go on…I’ll wait. Seen it? Looks good, yeah? You’re going to watch it in a cinema right? Good.** Let’s continue. You know that piece of music that kicks in about twenty seconds into the film, which sounds like a pure distillation of Phillip Glass, Michael Nyman and Thomas Newman? That’s the opening to a piece of music called VLTAVA from a suite called MÁ VLAST by a Czech composer called BedÅ™ich Smetana. It was written in 1874 and is just one of the reasons I often wonder why Smetana has never received the adoration his peers such as Wagner and DvoÅ™ák outside of his native Czech Republic.
The issue with Smetana is that he heavily embraced the nationalist furores that flooded Europe in the 19th Century and his work which was so vitriolic and patriotic was tarred with the excesses of this Nationalism in the early 20th Century. The MÁ VLAST suite is literally an ode to ‘My Country’, a love letter to the Czech Republic which sought to solidify the Czech national identity. His music was strong and militaristic, his operas often grand but a little obvious in their intent, and for this Smetana never entered the public consciousness.
COMPASS – Jamie Lidell (as used in RED DEAD REDEMPTION)
If one game challenged ALAN WAKE’S crown to evocative music in video games it was RED DEAD REDEMPTION*** which mixed together a Morricone influenced score with specific songs tailored to specific moments in the game. Most people will have fond memories of entering Mexico for the first time with a Jose Gonzalez song playing, but for my money the use of COMPASS by British artist Jamie Lidell was the perfect music at the perfect time. Coming towards the end of the game its lyrics and maudlin orchestration combined perfectly to create a sense of urgency and emotion for the return home. This had been a moment the game had been building towards for thirty hours and it made the scene far more powerful.
*Seriously, I kind of love and loathe Amazon’s MP3 store.
** If you answered no to this then I’m making a frowny face at you, FOR ETERNITY.
*** RED DEAD is peculiar in that I know I ADORED the game whilst playing it and wasted months of my life with its multiplayer, but I have no real memories of the single player aside from some truly evocative moments.