As some of you may know, The Playlist started out way back as a music-influenced movie blog and while our horizons have expanded exponentially since then, we like to keep a finger in that pie, and hope that we’re never remiss in giving the often overlooked audio component of the cinemagoing experience its full due. This year we’ve already run two celebrations of music at the movies: our Best Soundtracks of 2013 and our Best Scores of 2013, but as much as we think they give a good overview, there’s still room to talk about those times when a film’s music has been so integral to a scene that it transcends the wider discussion of whether the whole soundtrack is good or bad, or even whether the movie is good or bad, and creates a small sliver of something special and memorable.
These music moments, as we’re calling them, can be anything really—whole songs sung by characters from the film; soundtrack choices that lift an ordinary scene or shot into the realm of the extraordinary; or oftentimes some perfectly apropos, transformative moment where the image and the music merge so exceptionally that it’s impossible to think of one without the other. This is our much-wrangled-over top twelve of those moments from 2013 movies.
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12. “One That Got Away” – “I Used To Be Darker”
Matt Porterfield‘s underrated Baltimore-set “I Used To Be Darker” tells the story of a pregnant Northern Irish runaway who shacks up with American relatives who are in the late stages of a crumbling marriage likely to end in divorce. The married duo are both musicians, though the male half Ned Oldham has “grown up,” left it behind professionally to keep the family fed. This is of course part of the family schism and strain. Named after a lyric in a Bill Callahan song, “I Used To Be Darker” is pretty intimate and restrained; a lot of passive aggressive characters with internalized pain, suffering, regret and anger. The veil of these tucked away emotions doesn’t get lifted much, but in one scene, an introspective Oldham, who still plays music at home for fun, breaks out the acoustic guitar and belts out a song (“One That Got Away” by The Anomoanon, his real life band). It ends with an explosion of frustration; a resigned father and husband smashing his guitar, knowing all too well this drama isn’t going to end well. But it’s not that exclamation mark on the end of the scene that really does it, but the song itself; communicating so much with its ache, it’s yearning, it’s howl of pain. It may not be as special out of context (see the scene below), but in the movie, it’s just one of Porterfield’s deeply empathetic and well-observed moments.
11. “Joga” – “Top Of The Lake”
We really loved it, but since it was a TV show that aired early in the year, arguably not enough great things have been said about Jane Campion’s moody crime mystery TV mini-series “Top Of The Lake.” Directed by Campion and Aussie Garth Davis, “Top Of The Lake” takes a “Se7en”-esque thriller and transforms it to something more sensual and mysterious, often due to the fact that several of the main characters are female and its ghostly feminine traits are all over the show (in a terrifically original way we might add). In the seven-part mini-series, Holly Hunter plays GJ, the enigmatic leader of a camp of estranged females (mostly divorceés and abused women) squatting on a drug dealer’s land. The energy in the camp aloof, much like the spiritually esoteric GJ, who is a sage, but not a flaky, new-agey one; instead vehemently encouraging the women to crawl through the muck of their pain to get to the other side. As the main mystery of the film unravels—the whereabouts of a disappeared and pregnant 12-year-old girl—with its cool, icy tone, the final episode takes a breath to pause and features singer Georgi Kay as one of the girls on the camp playing a song to her fellow campmates (and Kay is shown throughout the series, playing her guitar and adding a spooky, echo-y musical texture to the show). Her song is an exceptional cover of “Joga” by Bjork and it’s incredibly haunting on its own, but as the movie slowly coils towards its conclusion it transforms the already disquieting mood into something deeply unforgettable; both beautiful and unnerving.
10. “Gloria” – “Gloria” & “The Wolf Of Wall Street”
On the surface, 2013 was a good year to be Laura Branigan. Her 1982 hit “Gloria” was included in two movies this year, one of them Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street.” But really, 2013 was a great year for the Italian singer Umberto Tozzi, the original author of the song in 1979. Tozzi’s “Gloria” was a huge hit in Italy in Europe in the late 1970s, but it was Branigan’s U.S. English-language cover that rocketed her to (albeit brief) international fame. So perhaps it’s fitting Tozzi is finally getting his due. The first version of Tozzi’s disco-pop classic is utilized in Sebastián Lelio’s “Gloria,” a Chilean drama about a 50-year-old free-spirited divorcee making her way through life (starring a brilliant Paulina García, and if it’s lucky, it’ll be one of this year’s five final Foreign Language Oscar nominees). Being the namesake of the song’s subject, Gloria plays her song often, and we see it twice, the first time in her car as she belts along to it out loud; it’s a nice little introduction to the character. But after her journey ends, an up and down of daughters leaving the country and a wishy-washy boyfriend who causes her nothing but pain, Gloria hears her song again. This time it’s a clarion call to persuade her out onto a dance floor, despite being miserable and surrounded by happy people. Gloria reluctantly shuffles around on the floor, part moping, still disgruntled by her recent misfortunes, but slowly, the song somehow keep ascending to beautiful crescendos of pop splendor. And as it builds and slinks around Gloria, it disarms her disaffection, enchants her and soon lifts her up until she’s back, dancing like no one exists in the whole world. It’s a glorious moment of small triumph that wonderfully captures Lelio’s small, modest story about an otherwise undervalued human being. And on screen, it’s something quite magical. Scorsese uses the resplendent song too, but of course transforms it into a deeply comical and simultaneously awe-inspiring moment when “The Wolf Of Wall Street” suddenly becomes “All Is Lost” meets Wolfgang Petersen’s “The Perfect Storm.” It’s almost too difficult to articulate, given that you likely haven’t seen the film yet, but trust us when we say it is so absurd, it hovers close to being something utterly sublime.
9. “Roll, Jordan, Roll” – “12 Years A Slave”
When we first meet Solomon Northup in Steve McQueen’s wrenching tale, we’re introduced an educated, erudite, and popular man who doesn’t seem to need religion to balance what is already a successful and fulfilling life. But one of the film’s more intriguing thematic undercurrents, and one that seems to have taken a backseat in discussions that tend to center on the unflinching brutality in the drama, is how Solomon sees the absolute worst in humanity and yet still finds solace and hope in the simple act of singing a spiritual. As depicted through Michael Fassbender’s loathsome slave owner/amateur preacher Edwin Epps, Christianity was warped to give permission to and rationalize no shortage of horrors, many of which Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Solomon bears witness to. And yet, through all the abuse, beatings and the breaking of his very soul, Solomon clings desperately to the last scrap of hope that still dwells in whatever is left of the shattered shell of his weary body and mind. And it comes through beautifully in the deeply moving “Roll, Jordan, Roll” sequence, with Solomon first joining in tentatively with his fellow slaves, then wholeheartedly, calling and singing out with everything he’s got because his life depends on it “I want to go to heaven when I die.” It’s a lyric loaded with meaning, in a scene that not only says much about the character of Solomon, but perhaps McQueen’s perspective on human nature, it’s indefatigable ability to withstand even the harshest cruelties and the optimism that there is something nobler, and better, watching over us all.
8. “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” – “Inside Llewyn Davis”
You could probably fill this list entirely with moments from the Coen Brothers‘ latest masterpiece (and a film that, arguably, comes even closer to being a full-on musical than “O Brother Where Art Thou” did). There’s Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan‘s lovely duet (and who would have thought that would be a combination we’d ever see singing folk music on screen?) on “500 Miles,” the gorgeous “Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song),” which even makes Marcus Mumford‘s off-screen presence into something oddly haunting, and, of course, the unforgettably hilarious “Please Mr. Kennedy.” But the one that’s really stuck with us is the very first one of the film, as Oscar Isaac‘s title character performs the track “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” (popularized by folk singer Dave Van Ronk, the loose inspiration for Llewyn Davis) at the Gaslight Cafe. It’s a crucial moment, where we have to see the sheer talent that our hero possesses so that we can still feel for him when he’s behaving like an ass, or verging on squandering it, and Isaac absolutely nails it: his rich voice and delicate guitar picking are enough to make you think that he might be some unsung 1960s Greenwich Village folkie frozen by the Coens and unearthed just to make the movie. Shot in smoky close-ups by the Coens and DP Bruno Delbonnel, it might not be the showiest scene here, but it might be the most soulful. There’s no clip available of it, unfortunately, but to make up for it, here’s Grizzly Bear frontman Daniel Rossen covering the song.
7. “Gimme Shelter” – “20 Feet From Stardom”
Music aficionados probably know this one already. In recent years there’s been a trend towards excavating isolated tracks from classic pop and rock songs—the intricate drum tracks on Led Zeppelin’s “Fool In The Rain” or “Whole Lotta Love” by John Bonham, John Entwistle’s wobbly bass lines from “My Generation,” George Harrison’s passionate solo from “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” etc. The list goes on and on. The excellent Morgan Neville-directed “20 Feet from Stardom” shines the spotlight on the often anonymous and (ironically) unsung heroes of rock n’ roll: back-up singers. And it features it’s own soon-to-be iconic moment of isolated vocals. In the doc, it tells the story of Martin Scorsese’s oft-used classic, the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” and the backup singer, Merry Clayton, who was called into the studio in the middle of the night to sing the chilling siren call of “rape, murder, it’s just a shot away, it’s just a shot away.” In the mix of the song you all know, Clayton’s voice is heard, but its a subtle additive elevating the song in a way you’re probably not quite conscious of. “20 Feet From Stardom” plays the isolated vocal in a studio while interviewing Merry Clayton and holy fucking shit, this moment not only gives you immediate alarming chills, but it blows your hair back. You have to see it in context to truly understand it—especially with Mick Jagger and Clayton describing the vocal cut right before it plays (you even hear Jagger exclaim, “whoo!” in the middle of her take)—but even listening to it just as an isolated track is a transformative experience that communicates the eerie darkness of the song. And Kudos to Neville for finally giving all these ladies their rightful due.
6. “Leum mai long (Can’t Forget)” – “Only God Forgives”
Inarguably handsome to look at, Nicolas Winding Refn’s wildly divisive “Only God Forgives” (which has shown up on as many “worst of 2013” lists as it has “best of 2013” lists), is also a treat to listen to, usually due to Cliff Martinez’s excellent score. But, as Refn himself told us in Cannes, Martinez also had crucial input, even at script stage, over one of the film’s most defining and distinctive moments that has nothing whatever to do with his score: the karaoke scenes—Martinez, apparently, already “knew a lot about [Thai karaoke]” which is in itself pretty amazing. The first, and therefore most memorable of these scenes features, as a seeming non-sequitur, the frightening, morally ambiguous yet extreme figure of Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), who may either be the titular God or the Devil (or neither or both, but let’s not get into that), singing the Thai song “Leum mai long” in the world’s most decorous, respectful and sumptuously appointed karaoke club. Now, “karaoke” and “terrifying” are kind of mutually exclusive concepts (except for the more musical among us), yet Chang loses none of his rigid, enigmatic dignity, nor his aura of controlled violence throughout the scene, which plays out so somberly and so minutely (we occasionally cut to stiff-backed, unsmiling spectators) that it almost achieves what we think Refn was going for throughout a lot of the film: it becomes an abstraction, a dream of a karaoke session, something not just from another culture, but almost from another world. The layers of sincerity and seriousness and poise that Refn lavishes onto something as ersatz and would-be kitschy as a karaoke session make this scene, whatever one may think of the film that surrounds it, one of the more sublime musically-inflected moments of the year.
5. “Horses” – “Touchy Feely”
Director Lynn Shelton’s “Touchy Feely” was simultaneously her best film to date and a somewhat uneven affair, but the picture boasts terrific repeat-viewing value (kudos to Katie for shouting it out in her Most Underrated Movie Of 2013 picks). The movie is essentially about human connection via the the two passing ships of connectedness that are siblings. One is a uptight dentist who comes to discover he has a healing touch (a brilliant Josh Pais, whom we gave plaudits to in our “For Your Consideration: Actors” piece), the other a relaxed masseuse (Rosemarie DeWitt), who suddenly becomes averse to all physical contact. And there’s a world of loved ones around them all struggling for understanding once the two main leads’ lives (and spiritual centers) have gone out of synch: Ellen Page as Pais’ stagnating daughter, Scoot McNairy, the bemused boyfriend of DeWitt wondering what the hell happened to his lady, Allison Janney, the wacky Reiki healer and spiritual center of the movie, Ron Livingston as DeWitt’s ex-boyfriend and Tomo Nakayama, the shy musician who’s got a thing for Ellen Page. There’s a cause and effect to the lack of order in this once-interconnected, now chaotic microcosm of family and it leaves most of the characters bewildered, yearning for something more. As the movie crescendos towards its peak and even suggests (if only for a moment) that all the partners are with the wrong people, it is soundtracked to Nakayama’s deeply empathetic “Horses,” a gorgeous ballad about our desire to be loved and understood. Some characters find themselves entrenched in sadness about their situations—the missed connections they’ll never really have—some say goodbye to old connections and others come to epiphanies about what they need in life. On top of it all Nakayama just crushes it all emotionally with his gorgeously soaring song. We literally felt the hair on the back of our neck stand up when we first saw this striking and deeply human moment, that’s fantastic musically and otherwise.
4. “Modern Love” – “Frances Ha”
As we said in the soundtrack piece, “Frances Ha” has a glorious, ragtag collection of music, from classical cuts to the entirely unexpected, and totally effective, use of disco-soul novelties Hot Chocolate. But most memorable and iconic of them all is David Bowie‘s “Modern Love,” which soundtracked both the film’s trailer and a idiotically joyous moment as Greta Gerwig‘s title character dances through the streets of NYC oblivious to anything but the sheer fucking joy of doing it. Like Frances herself, it’s awkward and graceful at the same time, and one of Bowie’s most upbeat numbers is a perfect match for it musically, while lyrically backing up a movie that, like the ‘undateable’ Frances, Don’t Believe In Modern Love. All good little cinephiles will now say that the scene is an homage to a similar moment in “Holy Motors” director Leos Carax‘s “Mauvais Sang,” in which a very young Denis Lavant performs a similar dance through the streets of near-future Paris. It’s a curious reference point for a film that otherwise nods to Truffaut and “Manhattan,” but it’s entirely plausible; Frances seems like the kind of person who’d walk out of a retrospective screening of the Carax film at FilmLinc and dance all the way from home, Bowie blaring in iPhone earbuds (though Frances also seems like the kind of person who’s constantly breaking her phone, so maybe not). And who minds a bit of borrowing when it makes the heart soar like this scene?
3. “The Power Of Love” – from “Sightseers”
We loved so much of Ben Wheatley‘s “Kill List” a few years back, but were left unsatisfied by the ending, which had an emotional gut-punch, but felt ambiguous because the filmmakers didn’t have the answers, not because they wanted the audience to find their own. There was no such problem with the conclusion of follow-up “Sightseers,” which featured one of the very best endings of 2013, and an absolutely golden use of some 1980s power-pop. Their passion seemingly reignited after some serious relationship problems, star-crossed caravaning Bonnie and Clyde couple Chris (Steve Oram) and Tina (Alice Lowe) set fire to their caravan, and climb a viaduct in order to take their own lives, rather than return from their idyllic, blood-splattered holiday. The sound of Frankie Goes To Hollywood‘s anthemic “The Power Of Love” soars as they release Banjo, their stolen dog, and get ready to jump into oblivion, and it’s an oddly moving climax to a very twisted love story. Except, as Chris jumps, Tina lets go of his hand and lets him plummet solo, freeing herself of a relationship that was literally going nowhere. Wheatley cunningly cuts the music at that exact moment, bringing home that, if Tina was in love once, the spell has long since been broken.
2. “Doby” – from “Anchorman: The Legend Continues”
Discussing this one without *spoilers* is admittedly very difficult, but we’ll do our best (the film opens today). “Anchorman: The Legend Continues” is far more perceptive and sharp than it has any business being. What could have been a story about Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) farting around with the Channel 4 news team in 1980s New York actually acts as a catalyst for when the evening news transformed from the hallowed fifth estate into the shallow, hollow shadow of itself known as 24-Hour infotainment. In that regard, it’s an incisive indictment of the media and has texture you’d never think you’d receive in a mainstream comedy. And then somehow, Adam McKay, Will Ferrell and company end up in the most hilariously absurd, strange and overlong tangent in recent memory which we’ll call the “Lighthouse Blues” section of the movie. There… well, we can’t really go into detail, suffice to say we don’t want to spoil some of the sheer nonsensical hysterical madness that happens throughout. It all crescendos beautifully, sonorously with “Doby,” a loving and moving tribute Ron Burgundy sings with his family to a pet great white shark. That’s all we can really say about this gloriously terrific, for-the-ages music moment (and moment of comedy). It’ll make more sense in context when you are crying with laughter, possibly afterwards in the restroom when you are trying to trying to play off some crotch pee stain as a moment when you spilled your soda. Additionally, it’s currently also a long list Best Original Song Oscar Contender, so we can only hope (you can listen to the full song here).
1. “Everytime” – “Spring Breakers”
This particular moment/montage in Harmony Korine’s “Spring Breakers” could be seen as the film’s thesis of sorts, as well as the defining, most talked about moment of the film. It’s absurd and somehow poignant; violent but sweet at the same time. As James Franco’s character Alien noodles on the white grand piano perched oceanside in front of his Florida spread, his newly minted protégées, Brit (Ashley Benson), Candy (Vanessa Hudgens) and Cotty (Rachel Korine) make their debut in their uniforms of hot pink balaclavas, sweat pants and shotguns. They implore Alien to “play somethin’ sweet, somethin’ upliftin;… play somethin’ fuckin’ inspirin’” and he launches into this ballad by Britney Spears, whom he calls “one of the best singers of all time and an angel if there ever was one on this earth,” (this moment also alerts us to the one thing Franco can’t do: sing). The girls sing along, twirling girlishly with their guns in the pink sunset. As Spears’ version takes over the scene, Korine transitions into a slow-motion montage of Alien and the girls going on their crime spree: sticking up spring breakers’ hotel rooms, arcades, and even a wedding, their wild-eyed grins and flying spittle juxtaposed with sprays of blood and hog-tied teenagers (there’s got to be an analytical paper in Franco’s stuffing of a groom’s head into a wedding cake, his heaving, tattooed, naked torso covered in frosting). It’s a ridiculous, mesmerizing, and insane moment, but it’s also the central tipping point in the plot, when the girls join Franco as criminals, learning from him (and ultimately eclipsing him). As Spears croons “everytime I see you in my dreams, I see your face, it’s haunting me, I guess I need you baby,” it expresses the unique love story between Alien and the girls, as well as their love story with each other, with the headiness of weed and violence set against a neon tropical sunset. Of course it ends with Alien’s whispered refrain of “sprang break, bitches,” and a 21-gun salute into the night sky. This music moment defined “Spring Breakers,” and maybe defined some kind of zeitgeist in 2013.
The one that’s caused the most fallings-out around here (seriously, this is proving to be a particularly fractious Christmas at Playlist Towers, the floor of which is now crisscrossed with lines that one or other of us is no longer allowed to cross) has been the Backstreet Boys showing up at the end of “This is the End” which exactly half our staff seem to think is brilliant and funny, and exactly the other half think is tired and uninspired, an “insert kitschy boy band here—whoever will sign the contract” moment, so you be the judge. Less controversially just missing out on the main list are: Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” which is used to good effect both in “Gloria” and in “American Hustle”; the Skrillex-backed opening bacchanalian montage in “Spring Breakers”; Alabama Shakes’ “You Ain’t Alone” in “Afternoon Delight”; Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson’s duet of Karen O’s touching “The Moon Song” in “Her”; the use of The Doors’ “Alabama Song” in “The World’s End”; and the rhythmic pipe-beating bit at the start of Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ “The Kings of Summer,” and not to mention the lively use of Thin Lizzy’s “The Cowboy Song.”
The call to arms-like ending of “Upstream Color” and its “Inception“-like synth blast was a pretty memorable musical score moment in Shane Carruth’s awesomely perplexing movie; “Drinking Buddies” has a lot of great little emotional music moments, especially the use of “Tonight” by Sibylle Baie, but we already gave that a shout out in our Best Soundtracks of 2013 piece and the same goes for the moody and sinister electro-throbbing pulse of “Simon Killer.” In fact, we’d argue if you think something is missing you’ll likely find some mention of it it either in our Best Soundtracks of 2013 feature or our Best Scores of 2013 piece. Happy listening. If you’ve a music moment that meant something to you this year, or you want to weigh in on the Great Backstreet Boys Feud, let us know below. — Rodrigo Perez, Oliver Lyttelton, Kevin Jagernauth, Katie Walsh, Jessica Kiang