Drive, 50/50 and the Best Use of Music in Movies in 2011
As everyone looks back on the year that was, I've found myself returning to a few moments in the movies that resonated especially well thanks to a phenomenon that achieves soul-stirring status so rarely, though not for lack of frequency: Song choice. I'm not talking about dropping the latest Kelly Clarkson/Natasha Bedingfield ditty into a crap rom-com. I mean the special, skin-tingling magic that occurs when a song is married so perfectly to a character, story, or feeling that the music and the moment swell within us with new, layered meaning. Join me and let's hash it out: Which movie(s) used music the best in 2011?
This is certainly a subjective topic, but consider the lost art of meshing music (songs, not score; pre-existing or original recordings) to film. "Mrs. Robinson" in The Graduate. "Over the Rainbow" in The Wizard of Oz! Where were our iconic movie-music moments in 2011?
For me it comes down to two films: Jonathan Levine's 50/50 and Nicholas Winding Refn's Drive, two very different offerings with wildly divergent sounds that nevertheless have stuck in my mind and my senses, indelibly tied to the musical choices within.
50/50: "Yellow Ledbetter"
Despite being shot in Vancouver, Jonathan Levine's 50/50 was about a 27-year-old Seattle man facing cancer, so maybe that bit of intent factored into Levine's use of Pearl Jam in his end credits; in any case, using the "Jeremy" B-side "Yellow Ledbetter" to close the film was an inspired choice.
As Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), having survived cancer, tentatively embarks on his first date with Katie (Anna Kendrick) -- the start of new possibilities, a new hope -- the strains of "Yellow Ledbetter" tentatively begin. And while nobody really knows the actual words that are coming out of Eddie Vedder's mouth, there's an optimistic melancholy to the song that just works. Legend has it Vedder wrote the song after walking with a friend who'd just learned his brother had died in the Gulf War, watching as patriotic neighbors shunned the grieving friend; easy to see how thematically this works with Adam's movie ending, having been in close proximity to death while everyone else -- except that one special someone -- doesn't quite understand.
Honorable mention: 50/50's use of Radiohead's "High & Dry" as Adam learns he has cancer.
Drive: "Tick of the Clock"/"Oh My Love"
But let's be honest -- the entire Drive soundtrack has been in heavy rotation for me and many others all year, and I've raved about it here so much already. But a closer examination of how Refn uses his song selections is worth a look, Cliff Martinez's throbbing score notwithstanding.
Two scenes in particular conjure that magical musical feeling for me. One is the early getaway scene in which the pulsating beat of Chromatics' "Tick of the Clock" sneaks in as Ryan Gosling's Driver is introduced during his latest getaway job. His clients have taken too much of their five-minute window, the cops are wising up, and the clock is literally ticking; Johnny Jewel's beat kicks in as the real action starts, accelerating and swelling as this simple job turns into a chase.
It's pure aural adrenaline we hear, approximating the same daredevil juices that flow through Gosling's calm, coiled being. Like the track itself, Gosling is just so motherfucking cool. It's a brilliant way to jump into Driver's life in a snapshot that instantly informs us of who he is, what he does, and that he's cruising on the razor edge of danger.
The better song in Drive, however, is also the most underappreciated track in the bunch, possibly of the year: Riz Ortolani's original recording of "Oh My Love," sung by Katyna Ranieri decades ago. Recall the film's turning point, as the soaring operatic tune plays while Driver finds Shannon (Bryan Cranston) dead, then stalks and confronts Ron Perlman's Nino -- the most imposing of his enemies, even if Albert Brooks' Bernie Rose emerges as the one to be feared the most -- culminating in a moonlit beach attack.
Now, in a soundtrack filled with contemporary electro tracks (including College's "A Real Hero," the theme song of Drive) and fleshed out by Martinez's complimentary score, "Oh My Love" seems an oddity -- but it's the most inspired, and the most brilliant choice of them all. Originally recorded circa 1971 for the infamous Italian exploitation flick Addio Zio Tom (Goodbye Uncle Tom), a mondo faux-documentary about American slavery reviled for its terribly misguided content, the song is a beautifully evocative, lyrical ode to the inherent darkness in our nature -- but also to the redemptive potential in man. Take a closer look at the lyrics, and watch the sequence in which it appears:
Oh my love, look and see
The sun rising from the river
Nature's miracle once more will light the world
But this light is not for those men
Still lost in an old black shadow
Won't you help me to believe that they will see
A day, a brighter day
When all the shadows will fade away
That day I'll cry that I believe
That I believe
Oh my love
High above us
The sun now embraces nature
And from nature we should learn that all can start again
As the stars must fade away
To give a bright new day
It's a sequence featuring a swirl of emotion and action -- sadness, hope, revenge, bloodlust -- marking the moment when Driver, pushed to the brink, throws any chance for a peaceful happy ending away and instead embraces the darkness within. This is the defining moment for Driver, and for Drive, the instant in which our hero truly becomes an anti-hero, choosing to avenge Shannon and preemptively protect Irene over the possibility of running away with her and Benicio -- a future in which they would have run, together, but would've always lived in fear of retribution. Ortolani and Ranieri's song perfectly illuminates Driver's place in this world of hard, dangerous men, but it also, importantly, gives us hope for his future.
So, gauntlet thrown: Do you have a better pick for best song use in the movies this year?