When Danny Boyle first started out in England, his movies were often criticized for their sleek MTV-era construction with accusations that the films weren’t films at all, but rather just music videos stitched together by flashy editing at a breakneck pace. Boyle’s reaction wasn’t what the British press was expecting. “I was quite proud of that,” he said at a recent 92Y conversation in New York, addressing the use of music in his films. Boyle didn’t mind the criticism for several reasons (for one, he thought it was a compliment at first), but chief among them, Boyle thinks music is integral to every part of our lives.
“I always believed music is with just with us all the time,” he said. “It’s just part of us, so why shouldn’t they be in the films? So that’s why my movies have a lot of tracks in them.” (It’s a topic he also addressed during his panel at South By Southwest this year).
And it’s the emotional texture, complexity and meaning — that dazzling juxtaposition — that Boyle loves to play with. “Songs are amazing things to use because they bring baggage with them,” he continued. “You know them from your own experience, from long ago or they may have painful associations and so its really interesting when [songs] interbreed with the material you’re using.”
That’s what Boyle has done, time and time again — he’s either introduced the world to new songs (like he did with Underworld in “Trainspotting”) or used the preexisting history of a song to gleefully counterbalance what’s on screen (something like “Beyond the Sea” in “A Life Less Ordinary”) or sometimes he just chooses a song that will pump up the emotional context of a sequence and make it take flight (the Sigur Ros track in “127 Hours”). Boyle always seems to be digging through the record crate in his mind, and, more often than not, he chooses the perfect song to go along with the perfect scene.
And with Boyle’s latest electronically fueled thriller “Trance” (once again finding him paired with Underworld member Rick Smith, who provides some great score cuts) hitting theaters this weekend, we figured it was a good opportunity to revisit the best movie music moments from the director. And with those three aforementioned examples in mind and featured below, here’s our ten favorites across Boyle’s filmography so far.
01. Underworld “Born Slippy” and Brian Eno “Deep Blue Day” from “Trainspotting”
It’s easily the most iconic song in any Danny Boyle film. It made the movie, it made the band, and lifted both of them into superstardom. But if you’ll recall, Boyle uses “Born Slippy” in the climax of the film, but very atypically. “What I love about the use of [‘Born Slippy’] is that at the most delicate moment – where if you were scoring that conventionally, you wouldn’t hear a pin drop when Renton takes the bag from the sleeping Begbie – but instead you’ve got this pounding beat, which is like what his heart is doing at that moment. BOOM, BOOM, BOOM. I love scoring like that,” the director said.
Boyle came across the track circuitously because at the time it was a way lesser-known B-side. The filmmaker was using songs from Underworld’s Dubnobasswithmyheadman as a temp track to the film. Boyle then went into HMV one night, started browsing, saw the single with the track he’d never heard on, put it on and knew immediately he had made a discovery. “It sounds like a deliberately created PR moment, but it’s true, I knew that was the end of the film,” he said.
The movie, up until this point, was a decidedly raucous account of the lives of a handful of English heroin addicts (it was based on a similarly scuzzy novel by Irvine Welsh), one that definitely had its moments of whimsy and humor, but was largely defined by darkness – desperation, sweatiness, filthy living conditions, a ghostly dead baby, and a trip down a lavatory that was staged with all the baroque underwater beauty of a Busby Berkley musical number. “The truth is, I’m a bad person, but I’m going to change…” Ewan McGregor narrates, as the beat pulses rhythmically away. McGregor walks towards the camera, a grin on his face, carrying a large sum of money in a bag slung over his shoulder. He then goes on his “Choose life” monologue (again), saying things like “Christmas presents,” “the family,” “the fucking big television,” “good health,” “dental insurance,” etc… “I’m going to be just like you,” he says (or warns). The music sours. So does your heart. It’s one of those perfect marriages of song and visuals that takes you to another plane. It’s euphoric, but not sugary or happy. There’s still a chance he’d fuck up big time. But at least he’s got a cool soundtrack for doing it.
After the movie became a big hit, a version of the song with dialogue from the movie came out, which makes a perverse kind of sense. Lots of kids, in a rave, jacked up on god knows what, singing along to lyrics from a movie about the ruinous consequences of heroin addiction. Yeah. That works.
Perhaps more hilarious is the use of Brian Eno’s “Deep Blue Day” from the aforementioned “Worst toilet in Scotland” sequence. You only hear a brief snippet of the lovely and pacific music, taken from Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks — an album also featuring Daniel Lanois and Roger Eno — but the abrupt juxtaposition of utterly disgusting scene to something dream-like and serene is pretty quintessential Boyle. Here’s the track in full because when you watch the quick scene you’re gonna want to listen to it in its entirety. Boyle would revisit Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks again using Eno’s gorgeously celestial “An Ending (Ascent)” in a brief moment of reprieve in “28 Days Later.”
02. Grandaddy “A.M 180” & John Murphy “In the House – In a Heartbeat” Theme from “28 Days Later”
It’s no secret that Danny Boyle wanted orchestral rockers Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s doomsday-laden apocalyptic music for his end-of-times virus/outbreak/zombie thriller “28 Days Later.” Boyle wanted to use their tracks throughout the entire film, “For me, the soundtrack to ‘28 Days Later’ was Godspeed. The whole film was cut to Godspeed in my head,” he said in a 2002 interview. It quickly became clear to Boyle after he contacted the anti-commercial, deeply anti-corporate band that using their music in the film was going to be out of the question. “They were helpful, and very clear about how unlikely it was that they would give us permission to use [their music.]” Instead, Boyle got composer to create a score, that when you think about it hews very close to the crescendoing Godspeed sound. Perhaps Godspeed turning them down was a blessing (though the band eventually relented and let Boyle use one track, “East Hastings”) as Murphy’s score is now iconic and “In the House – In a Heartbeat” has been appropriated in various trailers (“I Know Who Killed Me,” “Death Sentence,” “Beowulf”) and even other films (“Kick-Ass“). It’s also been covered by British Death Metal band The Rotted, used in trailers for post-apocalyptic videos games and it’s become the theme to express the end is nigh. True to form, Godspeed wouldn’t allow Boyle or Fox Searchlight to include their song on the eventual “28 Days Later” official soundtrack.
However, much more lighthearted and a complete 180 contrast to all the gloomy, fiery apocalypse music in the film is the goofy yet sublime track “AM 180” by the indie rock band Grandaddy, greeting a sequence where our survivors are rummaging through an abandoned supermarket. It’s a moment of levity in a movie defined by oppressive gloominess and apocalyptic despair, highlighting Boyle’s ability to change the meaning of a scene (and a song) by its contextual placement. With the Granddaddy song, Boyle taps into that sliver of possibility that accompanies any end of the world scenario – the thought of, wouldn’t it be cool to have everything to yourself? This sequence is also placed strategically before the second half of the movie gets going, which is an almost oppressively bleak descent into the darkness of the zombie apocalypse (and maybe, more frighteningly even, the human soul).
03. Nina Simone “My Baby Just Cares For Me” & Andy Williams “Happy Heart” from “Shallow Grave”
Boyle is a big fan of serendipitous luck and this applies to many of his music choices, especially in his debut feature “Shallow Grave,” a kind of what-would-you-do update on Hitchcock-ian tropes that introduced art house audiences to a young actor named Ewan McGregor. “The best songs are the ones that drop in your lap, they sorta find you,” Boyle explained. “When you go out looking for songs and material — which is what happens with a lot of movies these days, they go out ‘seeking’ a soundtrack — whereas if you let them find you, it sounds naïve, but they sort of just emerge in the film.” For the end of “Shallow Grave,” Boyle says they didn’t know what piece of music to use for the end credits. Serendipitously on one of the last nights of filming, Boyle and his producers jumped into a Glasgow black cab and on the radio was playing Andy Williams’ “Happy Heart” that he would end up closing out the film with. “My dad used to play that song, he loved Andy Williams and crooners,” and he knew the instant he heard it, “that’s the end of the film. When they fall in your lap like that, you mustn’t turn them away.”
“That song is incredibly ironic because she thinks she’s got the money, and she thinks she’s used these guys cause they’ve fallen in love with her,” he said of the grand Andy Williams tune and the way it fits in with the backstabbing that goes on between three young London twenty-somethings whose flatmate ends up dead, alone, and with a pile of cash (that they all unscrupulously divvy amongst themselves). “So when he sings, ‘And it’s all because you’re near me, my love …Let me love you night and day In your arms I want to stay, oh my love,’ it’s meant to be deeply ironic.”
The use of another old classic, the Nina Simone song “My Baby Just Cares For Me,” is included over a montage that shows how each one of the flatmates is spending their share of the money and how their relationships and motives might be altered by the process. It’s a great, economical little sequence and the use of “My Baby Just Cares For Me” over a montage of people only caring about themselves adds to the movie’s darkly humorous, deeply ironic edge. There was a reason that when “Shallow Grave” burst onto the scene, people took notice.
04. Muse “Hysteria” from “Millions”
Danny Boyle loves using British pop bands, this much is true. It’s a streak of nationalist pride that would reach its zenith with Boyle’s staging of last summer’s Olympics Opening Ceremonies. So it’s kind of shocking that it took him so long to utilize a song from Muse, the kind of arena-ready counterpart to the far artier and more critically accepted Radiohead. In his underrated holiday family film “Millions,” the band’s “Hysteria” was tapped to score (of course) a heist sequence. It serves as a lively digression to the otherwise placid film and adds a much needed sense of time and place, since the movie takes place during a fictional monetary switchover from the pound to the Euro (which still hasn’t happened yet). Boyle might not be the best filmmaker to utilize the band (that distinction goes to French filmmaker Alexandre Aja and his impeccable placement of “Newborn” in “High Tension”), but it’s still damn good. When we recently asked Boyle why he hasn’t done a musical yet, he sighed and lamented the fact that “Millions” should have been a musical and suggested that should anyone want to mount a musical stage adaptation of one of his films, it should be “Millions.”
05. Leftfield “Snakeblood” and Underworld “Eight Ball” * “The Beach” (Plus How Moby’s “Porcelain” Got On The Soundtrack)
Danny Boyle never really worked with a composer properly to score any of his films until “28 Days Later” when his mainstay John Murphy (who also scored “Sunshine” with Underworld) entered the picture (although, it should be noted, Bond composer David Arnold did contribute some pieces to “A Life Less Ordinary”). Up until then, his movies were “scored” with just pop tunes and existing source music. But he did try with “The Beach.” During the 92Y conversation, the filmmaker revealed that he had hired a very famous composer, but it was not to be. “I worked with Angelo Badalamenti — who is a fantastic composer — on ‘The Beach,’ but I couldn’t really give him the film — and I’ve apologized to him since,” he admitted. “There was a very important theme in the film where the travellers came across the beach itself. He wrote this very lovely theme for it and I didn’t use it in the end. I used ‘Porcelain’ by Moby and I realize, in retrospect, it was me not surrendering the film to someone else. You’ve got to trust the composer and I’ve learned that and I’ve learned a lot as a filmmaker by doing so.”
While the Moby track is lovely, there are a pair of electronic pieces that add much more punch. The first is a Leftfield song called “Snakeblood” that accompanies the film’s galvanizing first minutes wherein Leonardo DiCaprio becomes acquainted with the sights and sounds (and smells and tastes) of Bangkok. (Sadly it establishes an energy level and weirdness factor that the rest of the film has no hopes of following through on.) The other song is a more placid electronic number by noted Boyle collaborators Underworld, called “Eight Ball.” “It’s my favorite, favorite Underworld track,” Boyle said. “It’s a beautiful, lovely, gentle really peaceful, musical song called ‘Eight Ball’ and we’ve kind of continued on like that through different movies.”
06. M.I.A. “Paper Planes” from “Slumdog Millionaire”
There are actually two different versions of “Paper Planes” in “Slumdog Millionaire” — the original version and a DFA remix (produced by LCD Soundsystem mastermind James Murphy) — and, in our mind, the original version, which scores a montage of the young boys’ youth in India (particularly a sequence where they travel across train cars), is the most effective. What’s interesting is that earlier that same year the song was popularized by another movie (David Gordon Green’s stoner action comedy “Pineapple Express”) that it wasn’t even in. It was just in the trailer. Boyle, of course, made it fly — it’s the perfect, freewheeling song to capture the unpredictable, pin-balling experience of being a youth in third-world India and, given its early placement in the movie, makes you prepare for wilder, grander musical moments yet to come (like the closing musical dance sequence, which, at SXSW, New York Times reporter and “Trance” 92Y panel host David Carr said was the moment he realized the movie would win the Best Picture statue). The “Jai-Ho” musical number might be the most famous and the one most annoyingly repeated at gimmicky weddings, but it’s Boyle’s strong, subtle use of “Paper Planes” that gets the blood pumping more organically.
07. Sigur Ros “Festival” from “127 Hours”
With “127 Hours,” Boyle literally crammed himself into a canyon and asked the audience to watch as a man (James Franco playing real-life amateur adventurer Aron Ralston) grappled with his own mortality before ultimately deciding to slice his own arm off with a dull pocketknife. Somehow, though, Boyle manages to make this a compelling drama that hums with its own brand of low-wattage electricity. He also manages some pretty amazing musical moments while having his one and only character shoved in that gorge, such as when Franco fantasizes about fizzy soda pop, which results in a soda commercial montage scored to Bill Withers‘ “Lovely Day” that made everyone in the audience lick their lips or slurp from their giant concession-stand beverages. But the truly triumphant moment, both musically and in terms of the film, is when Franco finally frees himself. He stumbles out of the canyon as Sigur Ros‘ “Festival” soars. If you weren’t already choking back tears, then this did the trick. It’s a gorgeous song (filmmakers like Wes Anderson and Cameron Crowe are also deeply fond of the band) and fits with the images perfectly – he is freed, finally, and he couldn’t be happier.
And while Boyle kept connected to the true story narrative, that didn’t carry over to the sounddtrack. Not included anywhere in the movie or soundtrack is Phish, Ralston’s favorite band and undoubtedly his soundtrack for that fateful day. “I tried with Phish,” Boyle laughed during the 92Y chat. “I bought everything and listened to it multiple times, but I found it very, very difficult.” He did however, throw Ralston a bone and included a Trey Anastasio song (“Sleeping Monkey”) in the film briefly.
08. Art & Doddy Todd “Song Of Love” from “Trance”
Boyle’s latest, “Trance,” is a hallucinogenic mind-bender that concerns a stolen painting, a love triangle, and the dark heart beating inside even the most seemingly ordinary of men (a favorite theme of his) – a return to the bleak terrain that made him famous after spending a couple of movies examining relatively sunny scenarios (Aron might have cut his arm off but at least he got out of the damn canyon). The movie centers around an unscrupulous auction house security guard (James McAvoy), who after being knocked unconscious during a robbery (a robbery, it should be noted, he helped engineer), forgets the particulars of the crime (something his confederates, led by Vincent Cassel, are none-too-thrilled with). The gangsters enlist the help of an unnaturally beautiful hypnotist (Rosario Dawson), who tries to unlock his secrets subconsciously. Part of how she does that is by asking him to imagine a day with a beautiful young woman with “an old song” playing on the radio – the old song being this obscure gem, Art & Doddy Todd‘s “Song of Love.” It’s a beautiful little pop song, one that plays during one of the gauzy dream sequences. Once again, the reason it works so well is that it not only contrasts so strongly with the rest of the inky-hued movie, which includes fingernail-extracting torture and nudity, but that it also sharply contrasts with the score by Rick Smith, which is mostly droning electronic propulsion (he cowrites a pop song for the end credits that features Emilie Sande that is gorgeous, but talking about the ending of this movie is downright treasonous). Like the fantasy sequences themselves, the song lulls you into a false sense of tranquility and when you’re ripped out of that world, things are even grittier and more violent.
09. Bobby Darin “Beyond the Sea” from “A Life Less Ordinary”
Nobody is going to mistake “A Life Less Ordinary,” Boyle’s big-budget, Americanized follow-up to his breakthrough “Trainspotting,” as anything less than a weird misstep on his resume. It’s far too silly and its energy levels are oddly hampered by the bizarre setup – it’s a Danny Boyle romantic comedy so, of course, it involves kidnappings, guns, robots and a pair of murderous angels (wait, what?). There is a moment of fun, however, about an hour into the film, when a musical number between the lowlife criminal (Ewan McGregor) and his hostage (Cameron Diaz, sporting truly atrocious late-nineties hair), erupts in a seedy roadside bar. It’s ostensibly a karaoke number set to crooner Bobby Darin‘s classic “Beyond the Sea” (McGregor is clearly a more gifted singer than Diaz), but Boyle embellishes it, turning into a fantasy-tinged musical sequence, complete with wardrobe changes, dramatic lighting, and sparkles. For a moment there, a glimpse of the gonzo euphoria that Boyle and the rest of his collaborators (including producer Andrew Macdonald and writer John Hodge) were going for can be seen and felt. It’s truly uplifting and, unlike the rest of the movie, not terribly off-putting. A rare Boyle dud, this sequence proves that even in a movie as wildly uneven as “A Life Less Ordinary,” there are still shining examples of his unparalleled genius (especially when it comes to music).
10. Underworld “Peggy Sussed” from “Sunshine” & “Sunshine (Adagio In D Minor)” by John Murphy
Late in the game of post-production on “Sunshine,” Boyle’s ambitious space epic about an attempt to “restart” the sun, led by a team of winningly multi-culti scientist, engineers, and astronauts, the director decided to have his composer, John Murphy, team up with Underworld, to create something wholly new. The result is an invigorating mixture of the classical and the technological, and we thought we’d single out a moment from each. Firstly, there’s “Sunshine (Adagio in D Minor),” a piece of music that is either ceaselessly sampled or shamelessly ripped off by pretty much every composer since. It shares a melodic throughline with some of the pieces Murphy did for “28 Days Later” but has a grander, more spacey pallor, fitting well with the melancholic characters who are adrift both literally and spiritually in “Sunshine.”
The other piece of music is a new Underworld song, which plays over the closing credits of “Sunshine.” Boyle often uses the closing credits music to create a mood that he wants the audience to walk out on, sometimes quite different than the film they had spent the previous couple of hours sitting through. Or, in the case of “Sunshine,” Boyle wanted to continue the relentlessly intense sensation that the last act provided, weaving that through the credits with a pounding, propulsive, what-I-can’t-even-catch-my-breath-for-five seconds sensation amongst those in the audience. It’s absolutely one of the most balls-to-the-walls pieces Underworld has ever done for Boyle and it’s not as hopeful or optimistic as the last moments of the movie lead you to believe, but that ambiguity adds even more weight and pizzazz to the piece. “Peggy Sussed” could easily be the soundtrack to a post-apocalyptic wasteland or the theme song to a sunshine-y new beginning.
And of course there are countless more examples of brilliant Danny Boyle musical moments. We haven’t even talked about two of his more profound musical projects in recent years — his staging of “Frankenstein” in London and the great Olympics Opening Ceremony from last year, both of which featured new music from Underworld and were pretty brilliant all around. We would be remiss if we didn’t acknowledge a certain fondness for the All Saints song “Pure Shores” that cheekily closes out the otherwise grim “The Beach;” there’s a great Beck song called “Deadweight” that was written specifically for “A Life Less Ordinary” that’s sort of clumsily utilized for the movie, but remains one of his most killer tracks; the Emile Sande song that brings “Trance” to a close that, as we said before, totally rules; there are a handful of Bollywood composer A. R. Rahman tracks on both “Slumdog Millionaire” and “127 Hours” that are truly exceptional; and who could forget the use of the Iggy Pop/David Bowie wonder “Lust for Life” at the beginning of “Trainspotting?” Not us. And probably not you. Tell us your faves below. – Drew Taylor, Rodrigo Perez