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Popular Music in Film | Research

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Film Studies
Wordcount: 5534 words Published: 15th Dec 2017

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This study aims to look into pre-existing popular music in film, it’s use and place within modern film making, with express interest in determining whether or not it can fairly be compared and judged along side more traditional original scoring techniques as an artistically viable means by which to add depth and further weight to the image, or if it is simply a cheap and easy means by which to score a film. In Ronald Rodman’s essay The use of popular music as leitmotif in 1990’s film, he states that

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“within the hands of a skilled director and music editor, the use of pre-existing popular music can be used to convey narrative events and characters in a way similar to classical Hollywood scoring. However, the two exist at opposite ends of a modernist/post modernist continuum. With the Hollywood score being valued for it’s original and film specific uniqueness and the found score being valued for it’s ability to redefine and recycle it’s self when used well, it offers a “live again” feeling, that allows the music to transcend it’s original form, and find new merit within the context of the image“. (Rodman, from the compiled essay collection Changing Tunes: The Use of Pre-existing Music in Film (2005: 135)

This study does not refer to a specific question requiring a final answer, instead aims to explore whether or not the idea of recycled music truly can transcend it’s self in skilled hands, and if the use of popular music in film has become used more widely and in a more sophisticated fashion following it’s emergence in many films of the 1990’s. I also intend on looking into the work produced when artists more established within the realms of popular music, try their hand writing original music for film, and if this combination of film specific, more traditional scored music and the different approaches that popular music and those more schooled in it’s construction can bring to the table with regards to an original score, is truly the definitive way to create an interesting, exciting and truly brilliant piece of work that does what all good scores should achieve, too not only enhance the image, but to stand strong on it’s own as piece of work in it’s own right. By exploring the research of others with original research and thoughts of my own, I intend to come to a personal conclusion regarding the matter.

This investigation is going to be based around the initial idea that popular music has a valuable and useful place within modern film making, however, due to it often being used in a lazy and not fully thought through manner, it has become some what looked down upon with in the medium, being seen simply as a means for cheap laughs, a pleasant way to pad out the background music of a scene and as a way to add more marketability to a film . In light of this generally accepted opinion of popular music’s place in film, and it’s viewing in such a negative light, I wish to look into how and why this view exists, despite countless examples of it being used to great effect within a film and how in recent years, the trend for recruiting the skills of popular musicians to construct original material specifically for film is not only the next step in popular music’s place in cinema, but it’s creative apex.

This investigation, through the course of it’s three main chapters, intends to look closely at popular music’s place within modern cinema, how it has arrived there, where it can go from here, and if it can be seen as important and useful as classical means of film scoring.

I intend on looking into the following points through out the course of this investigation:

Chapter 1 – Popular music and Modern Cinema

How the genesis of both popular music and cinema are inherently linked to one another and a cross-pollination between the mediums has always been inevitable

How popular music as score differs from traditional scores in what it does within a film.

The potential (both positive and negative) that pre-existing material brings to a film, from it’s ability to comment add extra levels to a film through it’s lyrical content and it’s already established place in the public subconscious through to the historical and social abilities it has in helping define eras and public attitudes when necessary. I shall look at the use of The Doors song ‘The End’ in Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1984) in order to explore this

The powerful imprinting effect that the correct piece of popular music and the correct visuals can have on one another, combining in such a way that they elevate both song and scene to a completely new level of meaning, operating on many more levels than they would have done separately. I Shall look at Roy Orbisons ‘In Dreams’ within the movies Blue Velvet (David Lynch 1982)

Chapter 2 – Popular music as Leitmotif

Look into how popular music has adopted the traditional film scoring technique, leitmotif.

Explore the manner in which popular music’s use denotatively and connotatively through leitmotif differs from the classic score, how it is not relied upon the actual repetition of specific themes that connect characters and narrative, but rather the repetition of styles of music or their social context.

Investigate two films that use popular music as leitmotif, Shaun of The Dead (Edgar Wright,2004) and Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1992) and how their employment of the technique differs to one another.

Chapter 3 – The Popular Musician as Composer

Investigate, through existing examples within movies, of popular musicians being either being used to write film specific music for cinema or actually constructing an original score tailor made for a film, and if these approaches herald different results and opportunities to scores constructed by more traditional composition methods.


Discuss an over view of my investigation, come to a personal evaluation of whether popular music’s place within cinemas audio landscape is viable as artistically expressive and appropriate as a method of scoring.

Chapter 1 – Popular Music and Modern Cinema

Popular music, since the late 1970’s has come to hold a particularly interesting and powerful position amongst the many visual media forms that exist, and though a large majority of these forms that have mutated and cross pollinated as a result of the rise of various technologies and the prominence of popular music as a form of cultural expression, are mainly used as tools of marketing (music videos, television spots and advertisements), it possess a unique functioning purpose within the medium of film, “only in dramatic film and television are popular songs used in order to help tell a sustained narrative story – a role that has traditionally been played by commissioned musical score” (Wright, Popular music and Film, 2003:8)

It’s hardly surprising that popular music has come to be used as such within film, though at their most fundamental levels they operate as two quit different forms of expression, the trajectories both have moved along through the early twentieth century show striking similarities to one another, to quote Ian Inglis in his introduction to Popular Film and Music (2003)

“The genesis of both came about as a direct result of late nineteenth century technological developments, both predominantly rely on a new type of mass audience sharing a common interest, both started with humble beginnings as novelties to expand and become some of the largest industries in the world with colossal annual turnovers, both have been approached and consumed from perspectives that have allowed them to evolve from simple tools of popular and mass culture into examples of more high and elite culture“. (Inglis, 2003:1)

It is no longer required in modern film making to contain a score written specifically with the images and narrative in mind, a movie’s musical landscape is now just as likely to be entirely filled with pre-existing songs (be they popular or more esoteric) as it is to feature a more traditional score, often a combination of the two will be employed by a director.

In order to greater appreciate the role that using pre-existing popular music in a film can have on, not only the narrative implications, but the way an audience will respond to the movie going experience, one must lay out the inherent differences and opportunities that popular music can bring when compared to a traditional classical score.

Music written and scored with a film in mind is specifically catered to the needs of the images on screen, often a film will be scored late in a film’s production schedule, there for it is necessary to bend and fit to the constraints of the image, the composer is almost a slave to the film at hand, taking full responsibility for fleshing out every nuance and emotion that a scene requires. They must adapt and fit around what is (normally by the time a composer is brought on board) a fairly concrete structure of how the narrative events take place.

On the other hand, when a director chooses to use pre-existing material in a film, the scenes have usually been designed in such a way as to bend around the song. Pre-existing material can not be manipulated in the same manner of a piece tailored to fit a narrative, however, through the use of shooting and editing a sequence with music in mind, it allows a certain unity and rhythm to emerge from the combination of the two.

Looking at whether or not one of these approaches to film scoring is more artistically viable is a more complex question that at first it would appear.

“The most fundamental observation that can be made about music in any audio? Visual medium is that it enjoys a rather direct route to our subconscious. Humans are by nature more visually orientated, we digest visual information more consciously – and more critically – than we do aural information” (Wright 2003:10)

Since it’s music’s uncanny ability to override the logical front of our brains and plug directly into our emotional back allies, it tends to offer the driving force in telling us how to feel about events within a film. It can be used with great effect to inform us how we should feel about characters or places, it can instantly set time periods or moods, “precisely because in most cases it is completely removed from the specific logic of a film’s story line” (Wright 2003:10).

However, it is this powerful, yet extremely subtle ability to steer an audiences emotions within a film that makes the score so depended on a plethora of various factors, be they cultural, historical or otherwise. What a person is going to feel when exposed to different sounds is extremely subjective, how one person responds may not correlate with how another would when exposed to the same thing.

“All popular music contains visual elements; all film relies, in varying degrees, on musical elements” (Inglies 2003:3)

A director can take great advantage of that fact that pre-existing popular music will often have already existed within the consciousness of the public for long enough that a response will have been built up in their mind, especially with regards to songs containing specific, concrete lyrics. An example of the successful combination of a songs lyrics and a sequence edited perfectly to it’s rhythm would be the opening montage of the Zack Snyder directed Watchmen (2009), the sequence, which shows the unfolding of an alternate historical timeline of the 1960’s, moves along at a constant, smooth and meditative crawl, all the while Bob Dylan’s “The times they are a-changing’” echoes out, the lyrics seeming to directly reference the events taking place and the mid tempo, simple yet mournful and effective guitar/harmonica parts perfectly compliment the mood and set the tone; there is a heavy sense of sadness, a great part of the story centres around the fact that a new generation of costumed heroes are now faced with a society that no longer has time for them, that fears them even and in this sequence we look back into the halcyon golden days of the older generation of costumed heroes, when it was more innocent, but we view the often depressing events that lead to the current state of affairs within the narrative.

In other instances, the right song placed with the right images can elevate both beyond their limits as separate mediums, fleshing out one another in new and exciting directions.

For example in David Lynch’s masterpiece Blue Velvet(1986), a few keys scenes, use pre-existing material to truly haunting and terrifying effect. Most famously perhaps is the scene where Jeffery Beaumont (Kyle Maclachlan) is serenaded by the suave, menacing, porcelain white, rake thin figure of Ben (Dean Stockwell). Ben lip-synchs along to Roy Orbison’s classic “In Dreams”. The song, a ballad that tells a story of lost love, had already become a well known hit by the time Lynch made Blue Velvet. Recorded in 1963 (twenty three years prior to Blue Velvets release) it peaked at number seven on the billboard charts. Within the dark, unsettling noir universe that Lynch had created for the film, the song took on something of a far more disturbing meaning. The ironic juxtaposition of Orbison’s ethereal voice, haunting melody and the dream like music accompanying it, along side the creeping dread and ominous shadow of impending violence smothering the sequence help elevate the mood and capture it brilliantly. Blue Velvet itself felt a lot like a dream, or a nightmare, and the song’s lyrics resonated with a compelling and strange clarity within the films mood. The whole film was about looking below the surface of something seemingly perfect and finding that it was rotten to the core, here, in this context, a remarkable beautiful piece of music is suddenly something more, there’s something darker at it’s heart. A truly inspiring choice of popular music for a scene, and a prime example of the amplification of a scene’s mood the correct piece of pre-existing music can have. The innocent, whimsical connotations and feelings evoked by “In Dreams” sits in a perfect, jarringly uncomfortable unity along side the hellish, violent world at “Blue Velvet’s” heart. The impact of the sequence is unmistakable, one can not imagine the scene playing out with any other song and similarly after viewing the sequence, one can not hear the song without imaging Ben swaying and singing or Frank Booth (Dennis Hooper) becoming lost in sadness, then insane with rage upon hearing the song he’s obsessed with. From a commercial aspect the song was incredibly useful in revitalising Roy Orbison’s then lagging career, though he was at first shocked upon viewing the way his music had been used, the song and film bolstered interest back into the singer’s work.

Although, on the other side of the coin, “it is precisely because the message in music is so implicit, because it influences us somewhat subliminally, that we find it’s failings so noteworthy[…] The stakes are high: when it works, it moves us, but when it fails, we cringe at the attempt” (Wright 2003:12).

Because popular music tends to exist within the moment, it changes and mutates at the same rate as fashion or hairstyles, the risk of using a popular song from a certain time can immediately give a film a shelf life. Obviously, over time, all films begin to look dated compared to their modern equivalents, however, popular music evolves at such a lightning pace that the wrong piece (or some times, the right piece for that moment in time) can often make a film seem laughable or extremely out dated within a short space of time (See many, many, many films from the 80’s)

It therefore, appears that producers and directors run significant risk when making a conscious decision to use popular music as score. Which does seem to beg the question, that if music written for the film can be tailored to fit a film’s needs precisely and pre-existing material tends to loose it’s relevance within years, why do people still use popular music?

From a cynical point of view it could be suggested that it’s more often than not with financial reasons in mind, it’s common knowledge that only one in ten productions will return a substantial profit, however it’s the huge profit of that one that makes up for all the others, so the added bonus of having an easily marketable sound track is always going to be a draw in terms of money.

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However, pre-existing music has it’s own artistic merits within film as a choice of soundtrack. Since most popular songs chosen for film (such as “In Dreams” mentioned earlier) have already existed within the public consciousness for considerable time enough for people to build and attach their own set of feelings and emotions to a song, the use of popular music brings with it a ready prepared set of emotional triggers that a film or scene can build on top of, this always for a scene to carry more emotional clout than if an unheard and unknown score made for the film was used in it’s place.

“The right song in the right place can be an extremely powerful device” (Wright 2003:13)

Though it is indeed true that the use of popular music can run the risk of making a film seem out dated fairly quickly, the act that pre-existing popular music does capture and retain the mood of the time period it was created in can be an extremely useful tool when the subject matter of a film is specific to a certain era, it can instantly and effortlessly conjure up the mood of a certain point in history in a way that a composed score would struggle to achieve. Familiar examples of music from the desired era summon up not only the musical memory of the time, but come complete with the attitudes and ideas that were linked to that period (Wright 2003:13).

For example, the 1960’s for many cultural and historical reasons stills resonates powerfully within the public consciousness. Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) partly achieved a faithfully accurate depiction of the ear through the careful use of songs strongly linked to that decade, but more than that, the songs chosen often reflect the bizarre situations Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) finds himself in and the deepening sense of dread that consumes him as he heads further down the river and into the stories nightmarish underbelly. This effect is starkly illustrated in the films famous beginnings, as Willard stares blankly at a ceiling fan in his room, the Doors song ‘The End’ plays non-diegetically along with the sound of helicopter blades. Not only does the song help to evoke feeling and images of the 60’s, but it also comments upon an uncomfortable and unsettling notion that haunts the film, as Matthew Caley describes it in his essay Heavy Rotation

“The opening sequence invokes the notion of a terrible re-occurrence – the end becoming the beginning, signifying the heaviest of burdens” (Pop Fiction, Caley 2005:38)

Some events, in this case the Vietnam war, can never be overcome on a personal level.

Another important difference between the use of popular music as score and traditionally composed pieces is that, for the most part, traditional scores are used non-diegetically, as seemingly separate entitles, floating above the action, where as very often, popular music is used diegetically within the frame. This could be in part that we are almost conditioned to think of songs as more than simply visual accompaniment, we hear a song and nine times out of ten we’ll imagine a performance going along with it, we see the band, the singer and the stage, lyrics also cry out for attention and want to be hear and analysed. Simply underscoring a scene with a popular song, can in some cases distract the audience from the main narrative drive, and as soon as an audience is lost from the film, it becomes increasingly difficult to get them back involved. So, to counter this, more often than not the source of a piece of popular music will normally be within the frame, be it a car radio or a CD player or (as was the case in Blue Velvet) some one singing. In this way, we no longer find the presence of a separate medium looking for attention problematic, the characters can hear what we are hearing, a logical justification for the songs presence has been given. This can also happen on a wider scale through out a film, when the set up provides a musical or semi-musical means by which to accept the constant presence of diegetic music, for example in High Fidelity (Stephen Frears, 2000), the narrative revolves around Rob Gordon (John Cussack) who runs a small, alternative-music store, and his employees. The overt musical setting always for many chances for popular songs to appear diegetically within the movie, however, once the action is removed from the apparent source of these songs, they act as score instead, but because the viewer has been given enough logical justification for their presence, their use in these situations does not direct attention from the action, or seem contrived and indulgent in their use. With out the earlier conditioning provided by the film’s location allows use, this may not be the case.

“Given all these difficulties, music, with its ‘back door’ access to our consciousness, is a powerful tool […] it stealthily pilot The audiences mood ad emotional response to a film’s content” (Wright 2003: 20)

What it is that succeeds when popular music is used as accompaniment in film is subject to many different factors, most extremely subtle. Precisely how it effects a person is of course on an individual level and can’t realistically be hammered down to a science in any way, but the successful use of music often engages in a way that is simultaneously original, but resonate with a timeless quality. Popular music is an ever changing form of expression in and of itself, and as too, the landscape and language of cinema grows and changes over time it is fair to say that what in principle can be regard as the rules to determine what does and does not work as musical accompaniment to film, will remain the same.

An interesting angle that has also been undertaken by many modern film makers (perhaps not consciously) is the mimicking of techniques used in more traditional film scores when using pre-existing material, the most prevalent of these could possibly be the use of popular song as Leitmotif, which I will now explore in chapter two.

Chapter 2 – Popular Music as Leitmotif

Firstly, the term leitmotif is, according to Grove’s Dictionary of Music defined as such:

“A theme, or other coherent idea, clearly defined so as to retain its identity if modified on subsequent appearances, and whose purpose is to represent or symbolise a person, object, place, idea, state of mind, supernatural force or any other ingredient in a dramatic work, usually operatic but also vocal, choral or instrumental”

A term used original to denote a process occurring in the operas of Richard Wagner, it has been adopted by film scholars as a means by which to describe a similar role in the classical film score, “a way of producing subtle sensations and associations in the listener (or viewer)” (Costantini: http://filmsound.org/gustavo/leitmotif-revisted.htm).

In essence, the leitmotif is any melody, progression or harmony that occurs more than once during the film, and is normally attached to characters or actions as a means to evoke a memory in the viewer via a subconscious attachment of the repeating music to the images on screen.

Leitmotif’s also have the power to be both denotative and connotative in they way they present emotions and link to the image. The music denotes characters or/and situations through a link with music, then a repetition of the music, it can also create more subtle connotations when “foreshadowing or contradicting the images on screen” (Rodman, changing tunes 2006:124)

For example, many of the scores composed by Ennio Morricone for director Sergio Leones spaghetti westerns, prominently feature the use of leitmotif to establish characters.

In The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1966), the use of a recurring two note melody is a frequent motif, played on three separate instruments to represent the three main characters of the film: flute for Blondie, ocarina for Angel eyes and human voices for Tuco.

Through the denotative use of the notes A and it’s fourth interval upwards D, a Spanish flavour is achieved within the music, along side the three separate instruments help create a potent connection with the characters and ambience of the images on screen.

The link between this leitmotif and the images it scores are so prevalent, that it is practically impossible to separate the two from one another, they are forever inescapably tethered together through this denotation, however, as leitmotif works connotatively as well, the describing traits that the music presents can exist outside the images context. Though we will always link that two note motif visually with the characters of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, we too will always link the emotions, mood and feeling of the film (A romanticised, stylised version the west, heroism, treachery, adventure) with the music , and these connotations can carry on beyond the context of the film’s images, having been emotional hardwired in to our minds via the ‘back door’ access connotations within music can supply.

It is interesting to note that upon it’s release as a soundtrack album, Morricone’s score performed very well, reaching number four on the billboard charts and becoming frequently sampled , re used and referenced by many popular musicians since (including, Gorrilaz, R.E.M and The Pogues) and thus, could be argued that it has moved from it’s initial use as a film score, more into the public consensus as popular music, possibly even a cultural touchstone, even if it’s original interests where not defined that way.

As popular music has evolved beyond a simple form of entertainment and entered into the musical landscape of cinema as a method of scoring, it’s denotative/connotative properties have made it possible to assume the role of leitmotif when used correctly in films, it is this utilising of an established method of scoring…and utilising correctly, that gives yet more weight to popular music as artistically viable.

When used as leitmotif, popular music tends to be given more denotative power than a traditional score, though also still able to connotate subtle meanings.

The difference being that the denotation is more subtle, nuanced and relies more heavily on the viewers familiarity and competence with the music prior to experiencing it in the film.

To explore this, I shall examine two popular modern films that heavily rely on popular music as score, both using it as leitmotif, in different ways however. Shaun of the Dead (Edgar Wright, 2004) and Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994).

Shaun of the Dead is presented as being a romantic comedy…with zombies, the film garnered hugely favourable reviews upon it’s release for it’s blend of witty Douglas Adams-esque British humour and the classic elements of the zombie genre found in the work of George A Romero. Like director and writer (along with Simon Pegg) Edgar Wright’s earlier work on the television series Spaced, Shaun of the Dead uses a compilation score (along with a few tracks written specifically for the film) consisting of popular tunes.

The same song does not reappear frequently through the film to reinforce character or situation as leitmotif may be used in a traditional score, instead the film’s leitmotif is to be drawn from a perceived prior knowledge that the viewer must have with the songs, which allows an emphatic, direct meaning (via lyrics, song titles and often a reference to horror genre) to achieve denotative references, often used to comic effect to act as leitmotif through the film. The stipulations of leitmotif are also achieved via the songs connotative effect on the viewer via their subtle (sometimes not so subtle) descriptions of a scenes mood, or a character trait or often the film’s overall theme.

For example, the film opens with an excerpt from ‘Ghost Town’ by the Specials over a black screen, before cutting to a medium close up of Shaun (Simon Pegg) sat, mouth agape, a brain dead expression stapled to his face, in a pub (we there for automatically make the assumption that the music is being heard diegetically by the characters as well, emanating from a jukebox or something similar).

The song immediately makes clear the mood of the film, the very title of the track is ‘Ghost Town’, straight away subtly suggesting the coming events of the film’s narrative, The lyrics (though originally written about the large scale unemployment feared to be brought by the policies of Margret Thatcher) twist and lend perfectly with one of the films core themes, the idea that modern British society is dulling down, decaying, zombifing itself and wasting away in to nothing more than the aforementioned ‘Ghost Town’ of the songs title.

The style of music itself also captures the spirit of the film, connotating on an almost subconscious level to the viewer what to expect in terms of the films mood, the up beat Ska style is certainly light hearted almost comical in it’s bouncy rhythms, but a sinister vein runs through the song, similarly, the film, though a comedy at heart, has moments of real horror as the zombie crisis escalates towards the end of the film. It is also extremely British in sound, as the film is too, extremely British in it’s writing and acting.

Other examples of songs being used for their inherent referencing/or placement within the horror genre are ‘Zombie Nation’ by Kernkraft 4000 and ‘The Blue Wrath’ by I Monster. Both these songs differ wildly in their stylistic traits, but by their nature of both taking reference points from supernatural angles (zombies, monsters) they are linked to the leitmotif structure the film uses. ‘Zombie Nation’ in particular, though used for only a very short space of time, prescribes to a similar denotative/connotative use as ‘Ghost Town’ does. Denotatively in it’s title it directly name checks not only the main antagonistic force of the movie but also the movies entire scene set up and connotativley it also refers to the perceived notion of a zombifed Britain, using the title in a less literal sense, the style of music (a repetitive dance song) also, through heavy irony, helps subtly convey the idea of a brain dead society, (though, that’s not to suggest that dance music is inherently brain dead, more that, the repetitive nature of it’s genre along with the social image of hordes of silent, blank eyed individuals, twitching along in unison trapped in some nightclub runs a neat parallel with the zombie hordes occupying the move)

A sequence which has since gained a great deal of attention and become something of a ‘classic’ comedy moment, takes place towards the end of the film, trapped by the marauding, relentless zombie hordes into the Winchester pub, Shaun and his friends are forced to deal with the now un dead pub landlord, during the course of the melee the jukebox starts to play the Queen hit ‘Don’t Stop me Now’. The juxtaposition of the song’s upbeat, positive, energetic refrain against not only harrowing and almost certainly doomed situation the characters find themselves in, but also the beaten down, bloody, bruised and emotionally frayed survivors creates a sublime moment as song and image seamlessly combine, creating comedy from unexpected irony. The song’s place here however, does not conform to the regular leitmotif that has been used through the film (song as denotative via lyrics or song title), and initially the lyrics seem ironic in their positive mantra, however, the song can also be seen as a comment on Shaun’s now fully developed character traits. Up until now he’s been something of a loser, unable to pull his life together and it takes the apocalypse to rally his leadership qualities, from this angle, the songs positive message seems more sincere in it’s use, we


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