The National Mix: Oscars Edition
Each week we ask our writers to submit their choice of songs for a given theme. With the Oscars set to kick off in a matter of hours, we had our writers pick their favorite song from a movie soundtrack. It was difficult, but sometimes you just have to let it go.
“Suicide is Painless,” by Johnny Mandel, from M*A*S*H*
Although I associate the song with the TV show more than the movie, this song still conveys a touching element of depth and complexity to the M*A*S*H* story. Beyond the simple wordplay of “Painless Pole” Waldowski attempting suicide in the movie, a focused listen of the song truly captures the essence of the film. It’s sad — really sad — and cynical, which is really what M*A*S*H* is. Yes, it’s largely comedic, but it’s made clear in the movie and especially the TV show that the humor is just how they cope with the horrors of war around them. Also important: The lyrics were director Robert Altman’s son Mike, who was fourteen years old when he wrote the lyrics. When I was fourteen, all I did was play Halo 2 and struggle with puberty. This kid wrote profound lyrics about life not being worth living. He’s basically the Lorde of the 1970s.
“The Shoals of Herring,” performed by Oscar Isaac, from Inside Llewyn Davis
With high-stakes stories and attention-grabbing spectacle dominating this year’s field of nominees, the Coen Brothers’ weird, quiet film about the early folk scene slipped through the cracks. As someone whose first cassette (I feel old) was a Bob Dylan greatest hits collection, I loved this movie, from a protagonist that begged you not to like him to the portrait it painted of an America on the threshold of the ‘60s. Perhaps its greatest accomplishment is the live-filmed musical performance, produced by T-Bone Burnett and Marcus Mumford. Late in the movie, Oscar Isaac’s Llewyn plays “The Shoals of Herring” for his silent father at his nursing home. The performance is moving enough on its own terms, as a song to a former merchant marine father from his son considering giving up music to follow his father to sea. Its power is magnified by the connection it draws to Bob Dylan’s pilgrimage to Woody Guthrie’s hospital room in New York before Guthrie’s death of Huntington’s, a story that has achieved near-mythic status in Dylan’s folklore.
“I Want You,” by Bob Dylan, from I’m Not There
“I Want You” is a beautiful song that is used perfectly in this fascinating movie. With the exception of shoutouts to Dylan’s motorcycle accident and the album art for The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, the makers of I’m Not There call a timeout from their incessant Dylan references to instead use his song to capture the joy and alluring loveliness of falling in love. That the film accomplishes all this while providing the backdrop of Vietnam and Heath Ledger’s underrated acting (it was one of his last films, but the critical praise was bestowed on his role in Dark Knight instead) is downright amazing. But the song is so integral to the scene that it’s inextricable to the moment–the song is the catalyst for the emotions on screen and felt by the viewer as much if not more than the actual events playing out in the movie. “I want You” isn’t my favorite song from Blonde on Blonde, but no other song has played as intrinsic a role in my experience of a film.
“Tiny Dancer,” by Elton John, from Almost Famous
When thinking about music in film, I kept dwelling on moments where the movies’ characters would sing or do something unexpectedly musical, creating a nice moment of levity or a revealing look into the character’s inner monologue. There are several contenders for my favorite of this time of movie music—Ryan Gosling singing ‘You Always Hurt The One You Love’ and playing ukulele in Blue Valentine, an entire restaurant singing ‘Say A Little Prayer’ in My Best Friend’s Wedding, the parade scene set to ‘Twist and Shout’ in Ferris Buehler’s Day Off—but the one that comes to the perfect pinnacle of humor, emotion, and character development is the iconic ‘Tiny Dancer’ scene from Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous. In a movie full of musical performances and carefully chosen music cues, this one emerges as a spontaneous sing-a-long on the tour bus of the fictional band at the center of the film after a turbulent night of missing lead singers and drug trips. The familiarity of the Elton John hit works perfectly to melt away the tension on the tour bus, and you can clearly see the transformation happening within each character during this song. Maybe it’s too easy that this volatile band can forgive each other just by singing along to “Tiny Dancer,” but the moment plays so genuinely and unpretentiously, that you can believe all it takes is the reminder of their passion for music to keep the tour going.
“Just Like Honey,” by The Jesus and Mary Chain, from Lost in Translation
I rarely let the emotions I feel while watching a film get the best of me to the point where I produce tears. However, the one film that evokes such a response from me each and every viewing is Sofia Coppola’s magnificent Lost In Translation. The scene that works me up is always the ending scene where Bill Murray leaves his town car upon glimpsing the back of Scarlett Johansson’s head and whispers his goodbyes before he returns to his mid-life crisis in America. As Murray backs away from Johansson, the opening drums to “Just Like Honey” kick in and they never fail to rip open my heart. When Jim Reid’s vocals softly and timidly greet the screen, it is impossible to doubt that Lost in Translation is Coppola’s magnum opus and Psychocandy is the best of many great records by The Jesus and Mary Chain. Never have I seen song choice so perfectly compliment a film ending. It’s no wonder why I can’t stop from welling up.
“Fog Bound,” by Klaus Badelt, from Pirates of the Carribean: Curse of the Black Pearl
When I hear this song, I think about pirates. I knew about pirates before Pirates of the Carribean had ever been released, I had read books about pirates, I had pretended to be a pirate, but it wasn’t until I heard this song that I really understood the appeal of romanticized sea theft. I don’t know if I can honestly call it a great song, but the jaunty old timey tune imparts a feeling of adventure and freedom that characterizes the film, and that’s a credit to any soundtrack.
“I Just Called to Say I Love You,” Stevie Wonder from The Woman in Red
You know a song is good when it makes the little wikipedia sidebar on Google search when you look up a film. That’s serious business — and not an award many songs should receive. However, in the case of Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called to Say I Love You,” that honor is well-deserved. The song is cheesier than a Nabisco fair (and even cheesier than that joke), but it’s is the best kind of cheese there is. Behind Wonder’s smooth vocals and some great synthesizer chords, “I Just Called to Say I Love You” is a beautiful piece of 80’s schmaltz, and there’s really no way to avoid enjoying this song. Plus, it has a pretty rad, totally 80’s music video that is really just too perfect for words.