Here are the best moments in the past year where films put the needle on the record.
Anyone who knows me, or even just comes into glancing contact with me for about 17 seconds, knows that I love my music. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have been Hullfire Radio’s Head of Music for my final year of uni, or kept a recorded database of my favourite songs and albums for each of the last 5 years, or started an eventual-monthly series of articles telling you what I’ve been listening to that month and ordering you to go and listen to them as well. And since I love my music, and I obviously love movies given the whole premise of this site, you’re probably not surprised to hear that I also love my “needle-drops” in films. One of my first experiences in “grown-up movies” – i.e. stuff I was about 8 or 9 years too young to be officially watching, hush hush – was the gangster movie double bill debut of one Guy Ritchie (Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch), a man whose career can mostly be attributed to his skill at this art-form.
But what is a “needle-drop” exactly? For those not aware, a “needle-drop,” which is not the technical term for this practice but it’s fun to say and also my piece so shut up, is when a sequence of film or television is deliberately backed by a pre-written and pre-recorded song rather than a section of the film’s specially-written score. For just one example, and one that gets a little more literal to the name than most, setting the sequence of Mia dancing in Pulp Fiction to Urge Overkill’s “Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon” is a needle-drop. When done right – which is to say, deployed at the right time, fits the content and themes on-screen, not being incredibly on-the-nose lyrically or atmospherically – they can enhance a scene twentyfold and become iconic moments of the film in question. So, since 2016 had a whole bevy of these moments, here are 10 of the best needle-drops in films released last year! This is absolutely not just a petulant middle-fingered rebuke to Suicide Squad’s horrendous butchering of the form.
There may be spoilers, proceed with caution.
“On the Nature of Daylight” by Max Richter in Arrival
This is not the first time that “On the Nature of Daylight” has been featured in a film, but there can be no doubt that it’s never been used as well as it was in Arrival. It’s a gorgeous lament, heartbreaking yet also filled with aching beauty and a sort of melancholy acceptance that comes from a full-blown emotional release such as this, and it fits Arrival perfectly, twice. Both times its usage backs moments of great joy and moments of great pain, the kind that can only come from love, but it’s the return at the film’s climax that really seals the deal. Initially, Richter’s song propels us through Hannah Banks’s short time on this Earth, and there’s a cutting hurt to it exacerbated by the events on screen. When it book-ends the film, it instead takes on a hopeful, even uplifting feel, an acceptance and embrace of fate and the future that mirror’s Louise’s own. Those diametrically-opposed contexts, creating a sort of palindrome effect for the whole film, are vital as to why this cue works and it provides the biggest emotional release of them all.
I wouldn’t say that it’s so important that you need to disqualify Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score from awards contention, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, but it’s still pretty damn important.
“SOS” by Portishead in High-Rise
So, I’m cheating a little bit here, given that Portishead covered this ABBA song specifically for High-Rise, but its usage is so strong that I cannot ignore it. Much like with “On the Nature of Daylight,” “SOS” has been used in High-Rise prior to the specific moment of deployment that is being discussed, specifically at the party of Royal’s that Laing gets thrown out of, in the form of a pompous string quartet. When Portishead’s version finally arrives, it’s during a brief lull in the madness of the High-Rise, most everybody having effectively “partied” themselves to exhaustion, and, for the few still standing, this brief flash of the harsh light of day illuminates exactly how far gone the building is, how much of a vicious monster Wilder is, how mad it is for Cosgrove to try acting like nothing has changed, and how much the High-Rise has consumed them completely. It’s a haunting, bleak interpretation that fits perfectly with the accompanied images – and with the state of a country that washes its hands of the politically-motivated murder of an MP, as the song ended up being repurposed for.
“Maneater” by Hall & Oates in Sing Street
Music can be an escape from the pain of the world around you, which is something that Sing Street understands better than almost anything else it tackles. The film opens on Conor attempting to deal with overhearing another argument between his parents by strumming random chords on his guitar and singing back random lines they yell. Rafina is frequently seen strolling around the streets of Dublin, Walkman in hand, listening to Conor’s latest song, finding solace in the boy’s work. But the film’s best instance of this theme comes when Conor retreats into Brendan’s room with Ann in order to drown out yet another argument between their parents by listening to music. “Maneater” is the track that Brendan puts on, and the song’s bouncy bassline and steady up-tempo beat provide the perfect backing for the pair to dance their cares away. Even Ann, who is not particularly close with either of them, ends up joining in, and for a few minutes this new generation of Lawlor’s are something approximating a loving family who have each other’s backs.
Then the very next scene cuts to an early run-through of Sing Street’s “Drive It Like You Stole It,” whose bassline is pretty much a complete rip-off of “Maneater”’s.
“Rhythm of the Night” by DeBarge in Ghostbusters
By this point, I think my aspirational adoration of Dr. Jillian Holtzmann as portrayed by Kate McKinnon has been thoroughly well-documented, so it should come as no surprise that this scene is my everything. Just the idea that Holtzmann’s attempt to (effectively) court Erin involves doing the weirdest dancing to a semi-forgotten classic of 80s Pop is amazing to me, but there’s a truth to her character there, too. It continues Holtzmann’s full-force, no-bullshit weirdness, where she is totally confident in just putting herself out there so fully with no compunction for whether the other person doesn’t reciprocate or thinks she looks like an idiot, and resultantly loops back around to being cool-as-shit. Also, the “DeBarge/Devo” line that sees the cue out is so random and stupid, yet so attuned to my sensibilities as a music-loving weirdo, that it’s actually one of my favourite lines in the whole movie despite, again, it making no goddamn sense.
“New York Groove” by Ace Frehley in Weiner
Much of the opening 30 minutes of Weiner is essentially one very long, excruciating set-up for the punchline we all know is coming and will end up playing out throughout the film’s remaining hour. When everyone got involved with making Weiner, they all thought they were documenting the political comeback story of the decade – instead they got the political cum-back story of the decade, ha ha ha, I am so sorry – and, to the film’s credit, these first 30 minutes are still structured like we’re watching a comeback story, to get us in that frame of mind. So here’s the “getting back into it” montage, complete with a team of enthusiastic, dedicated, and hopeful young volunteers, a make-shift base of operations that gets into a workable state very quickly, and Anthony turning on that old politician’s charm to talk to voters over the phone, all to the jangle of “New York Groove.” He’s back, guys! He’s the underdog, and he’s gonna rise up from his past defeats and show them all what for! He’s back in the New Yo- Oh, never mind.
“The Dickhead Song” by Miles Betterman in The Edge of Seventeen
Nadine can be a bit of an asshole. Sometimes intentionally, as with her callous story to Darian about the week after their father died, but oftentimes she can do so by being completely socially-inept, her deep-rooted self-loathing blinding her to things that practically announce themselves with giant blinkers. Erwin’s crush on her is one such thing – he’s already tried to kiss her on a Ferris wheel, she’s called him an old man as what she believes to be some kind of compliment – where they’re both good friends, but she also seems completely unaware that Erwin wants something more. So intendedly-friendly joking about having sex in Erwin’s swimming pool actually comes off as misleading and cruel to him. Things seem poised to break out into this huge argument, where Nadine’s only other friendship may be in jeopardy, when Erwin instead responds… by playing this out of the house speakers. It’s not only a great bait-and-switch and a funny diffuser of tension, but it also highlights the comfortableness that the two share with each other, like two close friends often have.
“Crime Cutz” by Holy Ghost! in Nerve
At the risk of driving this opener into the ground, anybody who knows me knows that I love me the soundtracks to Teen Movies – well, at least when they’re not subjecting me to The Chainsmokers, at any rate. Music is such a vital part of the teenage experience, what with it being the time where most throw off the shackles of mainstream Pop music and start experimenting with different kinds of new and cool music to see what they’re most comfortable with, and a Teen Movie needs to embody that with a diverse yet relevant-to-the-time soundtrack that compliments that free-wheeling phase of one’s life. In the movies, at any rate. Midway through Nerve, Vee and Ian attend a party – well, The Party, since Nerve takes place across one night – and “Crime Cutz” drops. I will admit to liking and knowing this song before I saw Nerve, so a part of it is hipster recognition factor, but the pulsating neon vibes of the track provide an excellent complement to the stylish, drenched look and feel of the film itself. No wonder it comes back during the end credits.
“I’m Afraid of Americans” by David Bowie in The Purge: Election Year
I’m not sure if you’re aware of this, but David Bowie passed away almost a full year to the day from when you’re reading this piece. It’s a loss that is still raw and still hurts like hell even now, one that cemented the man’s legacy even further, and makes even a passing reference as a joke in Office Christmas Party a stinging reminder that the Starman really has ascended to a better plane of existence. Weirdly, though, one of the best tributes to the icon himself this past year came from, like so many other surprisingly great things, The Purge: Election Year, which closed out its proceedings by blasting “I’m Afraid of Americans” over the credits in full-force. Now, one could argue that playing this specific Bowie song for a Purge movie is the definition of self-parodying on-the-nose soundtracking, but it really does work. For one, Election Year dares to end with some semblance of actual hope, which this song neatly contrasts. And for two, incredibly blunt and unsubtle-yet-loaded imagery is the hallmark of the best political B-cinema, so playing anything else would just feel like a half-measure and Election Year thankfully does not know the meaning of that term.
“Lovely Day” by Bill Withers in The Secret Life of Pets
On paper, this is the perfect example of a bad needle-drop. “Lovely Day” was overused even when Danny Boyle utilised it to great effect in 127 Hours, it’s incredibly on-the-nose for what’s going on on-screen (the owners arriving home at the end of the day to be reunited with their pets), and it’s desperately trying to re-orient the film into having an emotional centre that it hadn’t done any work prior to this to earn. And yet… it works, for me anyway, and not just because I am a dog owner and therefore a softy for this stuff. “Lovely Day” is a sweet, loving, and soothing song, and its usage here helps deflate much of the manic energy that had propelled Pets up to now so that it can end comfortably. There’s even another circular reason for its usage as the film, after about 50 minutes of loud slapstick and random cartoon nonsense, returns to the smaller, quieter observational humour of its still-great opening montage, which is a mood that “Lovely Day” helps to re-enforce. It’s a cue that is hackneyed and played out, yet still has some power to it.
“Nazi Punks Fuck Off” by Dead Kennedys in Green Room
Again, this is sort of a cheat, since the version that gets played in the film is The Ain’t Rights’ cover in concert rather than a playback of the Dead Kennedys’ version, but it’s still perfectly emblematic of the entire mood of Green Room’s first 30 minutes (i.e. before any box cutters get involved). Even if hardcore violence and the eventually, brutally-fought joy of seeing a bunch of Neo-Nazis get violently murdered weren’t involved, Green Room would still be a punk as fuck movie, because it gets the experience of being a broke-ass hyper-niche hardcore-punk band on-the-road and under everybody’s radar down to a tee. Siphoning gas to get by, falling asleep at the wheel, gigs falling through… If you have to take a gig at a place that goes against your principles purely so you can get home, why not take the risk of openly insulting the fuck out of your audience with the most blatantly-charged cover you can think of as a joke? What’s more punk than that?
Tomorrow we begin Part 1 of The 2nd Annual Callum Petch Awards!