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?

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  • Jeff Bayer says:

    Funny - 50/50 and Drive are absolutely the right movies, just the wrong songs.

    for 50/50: "The Other Side of Mt. Heart Attack" spoke to me more than any other song and captured the emotion perfectly.

    for Drive: Sometimes the popular choice is also the right choice. I was hoping to hear "Real Hero" twice during "Drive." I was rewarded for my hope.

    for Warrior: another bookend song. The National singing "About Today."

  • Jake says:

    No better pick. Drive, hands down, showed the best use of music all year. It used a form of electronic pop music that most people are not familiar with, and yet, people came out of the film raving and loving the music on a first listen. Plus, how many times did the lyrics tie in perfectly with the storyline. "I don't eat, I don't sleep, I do nothing but think of you." being sung as the husband arrives home from prison? Perfect. "A real human being, and a real hero." "I want to drive you through the night, down the hills..." "There's something about you, it's hard to explain..." And at the same time, all these songs, though by different groups, have a tonal cohesion that is perfect. You would think that the music and lyrics were written especially for that film.

    Not sure why you thought of 50/50. The movie was pretty lame and the music was not memorable, including the use of Yellow Ledbetter. Clearly, you had a different experience in that yawn-fest of a film.

    Honorable mention: The Zepplin cover in the title sequence to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

    Honorable mention: Submarine.

    I'm just so thankful to Refn (one of my faves since seeing Pusher and Bleeder back in the 90s) and Drive for restoring all of our faith in filmmaking in general and certainly for modern "somewhat indie" filmmaking. 50/50 was just more of the same crappy indie-ish filmmaking we've been seeing for 15 years.

    • Jen Yamato says:

      Glad we could agree, at least, on Drive. 🙂

      The Karen O cover of "Immigrant Song" is aight, just don't think it adds *that* much. Does help set the tone, along with those supercool visuals.

      Of the other great uses of songs that have come up today in discussing this, "La Mer" in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is another favorite.

      • Jake says:

        I just liked it because it was Fincher being so Fincher-y visually and it set an interesting tone for the film.

        I didn't totally hate 50/50, I just have a lot of issues with those kinds of films and protagonists. I'm just tired or quarter life crisis films (or delayed coming of age films), which I feel have been done to death (although, admittedly, this character is going through a very real crisis). I can see why other people like it.

        I hope more people respond cause this is an interesting topic and I'd live to hear more people's thoughts.

  • Mathieu says:

    It doesn't add anything, but I was really happy to hear Slick Rick's Children's Story in the opening credits of The Sitter. Which, in the end, was the only thing that made me happy during the whole movie. Hearing a new Slick Rick song during the end credits was pretty cool too, though.
    And I have to mention the Hanna soundtrack by the Chemical Brothers. One of the rare examples of a score that has the power to make you like the movie much more than you actually should.

  • tully says:

    "Nights in White Satin" in HOUSE OF PLEASURES towers over everything else this year, joining somewhat recent entries "This Time Tomorrow" (REGULAR LOVERS) and "Nightshift" (35 SHOTS OF RUM) in the all-time canon.

  • casting couch says:

    Maybe good music, but apart from the opening six minutes I found Drive alternately boring and overrated. No, I didn't expect The Fast and the Furious; it wasn't a good movie in my eyes.

    • The Cantankerist says:

      +1 here. The word is "risible". Such a good opening sequence and then such a disappointing B-grade melodrama thereafter.

      And the use of College's "Real Hero" is BLOODY AWFUL. If that constitutes classy scoring, we all need to go back in time and give Mariah Carey some kind of Lifetime Achievement award for "Glitter", specifically the bit where we fade out of her orphanage flashback to the present and the soundtrack goes "Dear God, it's all so tragic and I / Never had the chance to feel the / Closure that I ultimately / need..."

      Seriously, the Drive soundtrack? I heard no scoring all year that pulled you OUT of a movie more consistently. I always thought the difficult bit of the job is enriching folks' understanding of the characters (or action) while staying IN the scene.

      Still, yeah, I know, people love it. Fine. Dandy. But let's not pretend that doing the Literal Video Version is somehow a brilliant advance in scoring.

  • Tom Cendejas says:

    I love this topic. When done well, there's nothing like the impact it can give a scene. In fact, I was once so inspired by what I thought was the moving and brilliant use of Sia's 'Breathe Me' for the final scene in the last episode of 'Six Feet Under', I created an event and panel discussion at Vidiots where I invited that show's music supervisor and several other KCRW on-air hosts to show a clip of their favorite use of a song in a movie. It was called "That Song in the Background."
    As I researched, I discovered some personal favorite moments that i think have some of the spirit of what you mention here: the use of Soul II Soul's "Back to Life" at the beginning of Hype Williams' Belly; 'Sister Christian' during the 'firecrackers' scene in 'Boogie Nights'; 'The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore' in 'Truly, Madly, Deeply'; Digweed during the train ride home in 'Groove'; a Spanish version of 'Crying' in 'Mulholland Drive'; 'When It's Cold I'd Like to Die' from Moby during 'Heat.'
    While, to me, 'Drive' often wore its influences on its sleeves, I agree with you about the music cues. However, they also made me think about the terrific use of 'Benny and the Jets' in the forgotten 70s drive-in, similarly-themed film 'Aloha Bobby and Rose' or 'The Locomotion' in that era's 'Dusty and Sweets McGee.'
    I thought The National's 'Think You Can Wait' was a nice end-credit moment for 'Win Win' and in 'Shame,' Chic and whatever the dance track was during the gay club scene were effectively used; Carey Mulligan singing 'New York, New York' did more for me about loneliness than the rest of that film. The video for Girls' 'Vomit' may be the most cinematic use of music I've seen this year. Most obnoxious: 'Tiptoe through the Tulips' in 'Insiduous.'
    I hate it when songs are used in a too 'on the nose' way; here's to better matches in 2012 films. Thanks for a great article!

  • mtnz says:

    I agree.
    Drive proved Refn knows how to make a music video.
    He aimed high and missed wide.

  • Charles says:

    I liked "Immigrant Song" too, but much more so in the Dragon Tattoo theatrical trailer than in the movie's title sequence. For me, that was *the* trailer of the year.

  • AS says:

    I loved both of those tracks from Drive, but for me, it's all about that opening credit scene set to Nightcall. I get so pumped when that song starts playing, I almost have a heart attack.

    But really, if you're going to talk about the best scores of 2011, how can you not mention Contagion? Also by Martinez! It's, in my opinion, the best original score for a film this year. I love that electronic beat that's used during the final sequence of the film, and then as it cuts to black. Brilliant ending by the way.

  • Nino Vox says:

    If you are a fan of electronic music you might also want to give the score for Tron 2(forget the name) a listen. It made the movie watchable and fit perfectly. The soundtrack is a very good piece if just listening as a fan of DAFT PUNK. If you don't like them or electronic music then that's a problem. But a movie that takes you into a videogame you can't really have old blue eyes can you?