There’s no denying music is important in film. Those tears you’re crying when the strings swell up are engineered to fall. That charge you get during Edward Norton‘s infamous mirror rant in 25th Hour (for which you should feel guilty) wouldn’t happen without the jazzy New York blues playing under it. Music and images have long worked in tandem to express and, yes, to manipulate.
But what about licensed music? It’s not enough just to get a composer sometimes. Using existing media often accentuates whatever belaboured point the filmmaker is attempting to make.
This can often go horribly wrong, either due to a poorly placed edit or an inappropriate choice. The best real life example comes from Ronald Reagan‘s 1984 campaign for re-election. He proudly approached the podium at rallies over the chorus to Bruce Springsteen‘s “Born in the U.S.A.” Unbeknownst to Reagan, the lyrics point to the failures of Reaganite America to take care of the working man. Just this year, several artists wrote to Donald Trump, politely (and otherwise) asking the candidate and now president-elect not to use their music at rallies. For some reason, Neil Young didn’t want his words played in tandem with conventions of unchecked bigotry. Go figure.
But too often in cinema, Hollywood gets too comfortable, using certain songs as a shorthand for an emotion or idea. Below are a list of such songs, followed by possible, lesser used numbers that could perhaps serve a filmmaker with a dose of originality.
15. “You Make My Dreams Come True” – Hall and Oates
It’s rare that one single director can violate the use of a single song so often throughout his filmography, but that, if nothing else, is Martin Scorsese‘s crime. The director clearly loves music, directing The Last Waltz, a three-hour Bob Dylan documentary that only covers up to his motorcycle accident in 1966 and a Rolling Stones concert film. He even scored Mean Streets, his first major film, using his own 45s.
He’s also featured this Rolling Stones classic no less than three times – more than once in The Departed. His gangster theme song may have been driven into the ground, but he always finds a way to make it feel visually fresh.
13. “What a Wonderful Word” – Louis Armstrong
Does your film feature long, arduous montages of murder, genocide, mass graves, famine, riots, race wars, disastrous election results, dolphin murder, the wrongfully imprisoned, Hitler talking, perfectly mowed lawns with picket fences, abortion, church bombings, assassinations, 9/11, the Munich Olympics, farmers, school shootings, water buffalos, refugees, homeless trashcan fires, cancer, white collar crime, draughts, deforestation, falling glaciers, drone strikes, disabled children, amputated veterans or the physically deformed? Then Louis Armstrong‘s classic, jazzy ballad is right up your alley.
12. “Fortunate Son” – CCR
Hey everyone, it’s the 60s! And we’re flying over rice paddies in the jungles of Vietnam, scared for our lives, but living in the camaraderie of our fellow drafted soldiers. Creedence Clearwater Revival’s protest song has been used as a decade signifier in countless films, but it’s also been horribly misused simply for its rockin’ beat in films like Live Free or Die Hard as the go-to patriot jam. Like many a political rally, no one could expect some semblance of subtlety from Bruce Willis.
11. “I Got You (I Feel Good)” – James Brown
Has your character recently come out of the closet or had sexual relations with a lady? Then, boy do we have just the number for you. James Brown‘s coke-fuelled shouts of affirmation will signify the audience that your character is, indeed, feelin’ good.
The problem with this song, like many others on the list, is its obviousness. It’s such an absurdly simple lyric, there’s no way to use it ironically. You’re not going to see a gritty Vietnam drama in which a soldier zippo raids a village to Brown’s hysterics (though, now that I think about it, this is something that needs to happen).
10. “Solsbury Hill” – Peter Gabriel
Also known as: So your teen/father relationship is about to experience a major breakthrough. So well documented is the overuse of Peter Gabriel‘s schmaltz that when re-edited trailers began trending on YouTube, the song was used to make it look like all Jack Nicholson needed to escape the maddening horrors of The Shining was the love of his family. It appeared in other mock trailers soon after, each using it with the same intent of ridiculous melodrama.
After that, the song’s sincere use showed no sign of stopping, showing up in the likes of Chris and Paul Weitz’s In Good Company less than a year later.
9. “Wild Thing” – The Troggs
The simple riff and loud strums off “Wild Thing” seemed destined to fit into a movie or two, but no one could have expected it to become the cliché that it is now. In a way, it’s the ultimate female objectifier. Whether it’s a stripper in a PG-13 film, an attractive woman walking being noticed walking into a room or a party that got out of control, The Troggs one-hit wonder is sure to be found.
8. “Bad To The Bone” – George Thorogood and the Destroyers
Does anything suck worse than “Bad To The Bone?” Outside of Country and Western karaoke bars in tiny Southwestern towns, is it ever played with any sincerity? There’s nothing inherently funny or charming about it. It’s an obnoxious riff played over and over; the kind of lyrics that could only be written by white men desperately trying to appropriate African American culture. You’d sooner find Bruce Willis’ alter ego Bruno belting it out at The House of Blues than you would anyone who actually lived hard or had a felony rap sheet.
Beyond that, its reserved for movies in which Tim Allen has a mid-life crisis.
7. “Ballroom Blitz” – Sweet
This messy, wannabe punk number has been known to appear during moments of great chaos. Be it a party, a riot or a Tia Carrere music video – and always in a comical fashion, Blitz fills the need of the filmmaker to both torture audiences and allow them to giggle at mayhem.
The most interesting fact: since June of this year, the song has been used in public service announcements in the U.K. warning of the overuse of gas and electricity. An overused song warning Britain about the dangers of over usage. There’s a joke there somewhere.
6. “I’m Walking On Sunshine” – Katrina and the Waves
Katrina’s hit is awful for film two-fold: it can be used as a decade signifier (as it was in American Psycho) or to express that a character is – spoiler alert – happy. Recently, in its continued pandering to the Trump campaign, Saturday Night Live used it to show a peppy Kellyanne Conway getting up in the morning (presumably before she shame-cried herself, then went on CNN to spin racist nonsense into some semblance of positive rhetoric).
5. “London Calling” – The Clash
You know your punk anthem has jumped the shark when its featured in arguably the worst James Bond film ever made. But there it is, as Pierce Brosnan‘s plane descends into Heathrow in Die Another Day. The Clash can work well in film – Joe Strummer scored and lent songs to the underrated John Cusack cult classic Grosse Pointe Blank, an 80s pastiche that harbours the same attitude with which the band began. Now it’s just kind of sad.
4. “For What It’s Worth” – Buffalo Springfield
For a song based so much at the goings on in the U.S. during the Vietnam War, it’s used an awful lot in scenes set within the jungles of Vietnam. Buffalo Springfield was rightly infuriated over the four students shot dead at a protest at Ohio State as well as the unlawful bombings of Cambodia. That anger came out here, and like “Fortunate Son,” the significance of the song wasn’t lost on any director. The only Vietnam film one can think of that didn’t use either song was Brian De Palma‘s Casualties of War.
3. “White Rabbit” – Jefferson Airplane
This paranoid, drugged-out hit from Jefferson Airplane has never been used for anything but a) a drug trip or b) a jungle war scene. It’s so commonplace, even those who got high to it in the 60s are tired of hearing it. I have horrible flashbacks just hearing the opening chords in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Your hair stands on end when Grace Slick’s vocals kick in, but for all the wrong reasons.
2. “Stayin’ Alive” – The BeeGees
John Badham’s disco hit Saturday Night Fever has been parodied so many times its easy to forget the actual film was a modest working class tale considered one of the best of the year of its release. “Stayin’ Alive,” however, is rightfully lambasted as a useless bit of fluff that has been used in so many parodies, homages and bad jokes, it’s hard to make it funny or fresh. Yet the number persists.
1. “Born to Be Wild” – Steppenwolf
Easy Rider, though it may be hard to notice through all of the haze and pot smoke of nostalgia and cliché, is a truly great American film. It’s also very much an editor’s film. One can imagine Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda handing over reels upon of film streaked with excess cocaine and acid tablets, an overworked editor trying to make sense of what they shot. But one downside to the film is the popularization and filmmaker shorthand that is “Born to Be Wild,” a fairly stupid song that feels as lazy as its omnipresence.
Worst offenders: Wild Hogs, Problem Child, Borat