The 10 Best Uses of Music in Edgar Wright Films
Edgar Wright’s eclectic – yet very British – taste in music has played an integral role adding humor and color into the films and television episodes he’s directed, from the celebratory use of the Magnificent Seven theme in Spaced‘s second episode, to the Brit Pop and late 80s/early 90s Madchester cuts that pepper The World’s End and its hard-partying, stuck-in-the-past protagonist, Gary King. His upcoming film, Baby Driver, seems to be all about the music, as main character Baby (Ansel Elgort) always has headphones in as he drives getaway cars for heists all over Atlanta. The track list was released earlier this month, and it’s a real grab bag of pop, dance, classic rock, and oldies tunes, including some artists that Wright has previously featured in his films, like T-Rex and Blur.
Before you add the songs from Baby Driver to your Spotify or Apple Music playlists, check out a few of the great songs from Edgar Wright’s previous films. There’s something for your inner hipster, Goth, Anglophile, dance floor fiend, or Nick Frost-wearing-a-jester-hat fetishist in here.
10. “Let Me Show You” (Tall Paul Remix)/”A-Team” by Camisra/Guy Pratt from Spaced Season 1, Episode 6 “Epiphanies” (1999)
Without Spaced‘s Season 1 episode “Art,” which featured its bleach-blond comic book artist protagonist Tim Bisley (Simon Pegg) thinking he was fighting actual zombies while playing the video game Resident Evil 2 and tripping balls, there would be no Shaun of the Dead, or possibly no Edgar Wright filmmaking career (that would really suck). Spaced is about two young people from London – Tim and Daisy (Jessica Hynes) – who pretend to be a couple to get a better deal on a flat. It offers an honest, hilarious, and at time surreal look at young people in the 1990s that the romance and coffee-obsessed denizens of Friends couldn’t hold a candle to. Spaced also established a lot of Edgar Wright’s directorial trademarks, including using editing to create visual comedy, genre homages in the “real world,” and of course, using a well-placed needle drop to make a good scene fantastic.
“Epiphanies” is one of the most memorable episodes from Spaced, mostly for the rave sequence that caps it off, containing camera cuts that pulsate to the beat of “Let Me Show You” by house artist Camisra when Tim’s friend/comic book art courier, Tyres (Michael Smiley), appears on the screen. It opens with Tim and Daisy lounging on the couch watching the TV, and ends with Tim’s best friend, the military obsessed Mike (Nick Frost), leading a group dance to an electronic remix of the A-Team theme while wearing a jester hat. There is also a subplot of their neighbor, tortured artist Brian (Mark Heap), facing his fear of clubs because he got decked in the face as a young’un when he spilled a beer on reveler dancing to “Come On, Eileen” by Dexys Midnight Runner.
The rave (and “Let Me Show You”) brings the entire main cast together (sans creepy landlady Marsha) and cements the strong platonic friendship between Tim and Daisy after an episode full of bickering. They confess to caring about each other while the camera swirls to mimic the effect of ecstasy. It also helps Mike and Brian come out of their military and art-obsessed shells, respectively, with the first strains of the A-Team theme mixing with “Let Me Show You” when Mike starts to lead the crowd. They might not dodge explosions (the paintball episode is an exception), but Tim, Mike, Daisy, Brian, and even the vapid, fashion-obsessed Twist make a great team, and also have a good time dancing and raving together. Hooray for friendship and sweet techno beats!
9. “Don’t Stop Me Now” by Queen from Shaun of the Dead (2004)
The two protagonists of Shaun of the Dead, electronics store manager Shaun (Simon Pegg) and part-time weed dealer/full time video game player Ed (Nick Frost), definitely show they are music geeks even in the face of the zombie apocalypse (oops, we said the zed word). Shaun is super sad when his first pressing of “Blue Monday” by New Order becomes a weapon against a zombie wandering around his garden, and before the apocalypse he enjoys spinning records with Ed to the chagrin of his more career-driven neighbor, Pete, who has to be up for work in four hours. So, it’s fitting that he gets a great Queen song to kick the Winchester Pub’s undead landlord’s ass to, with Ed, his ex-girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield), her insufferable flatmates David and Dianne, and his angelic mother in tow.
The noise of the jukebox leads to zombies storming the pub, but for one shining moment, Shaun, Ed, and Liz get to be action heroes in a beautifully choreographed action scene that foretells future bar fights in The World’s End. After running, hiding, and pretending to be them for most of the film, they finally get to kick some zombie ass and do so with glee. Wright perfectly synchronizes Freddie Mercury’s soaring vocals to swipes of the pool cue, and the group gets more confident and efficient as the song’s tempo builds. This scene is a true masterclass in how to marry action and music in a film.
Shaun’s triumph is shortlived in the greater scheme of things, and only he and Liz get out alive (thanks to a timely military ex machina). However, this scene uses the music of Queen to show the camaraderie that he has with both Ed and Liz, foreshadowing that things will work out with both his girlfriend and best friend, even if there is much more than one aged zombie landlord to deal with in Shaun of the Dead‘s third act.
8. “You’re My Best Friend” by Queen from Shaun of the Dead (2004)
This song is technically cheating, as most of it plays during the end credits rather than the actual, final scene of Shaun of the Dead, but I couldn’t resist including another song from probably one of the greatest bands to rock the multiverse. Plus, it’s deeply tied to the major theme of Shaun of the Dead and much of Edgar Wright’s early work: friendship. Even though Shaun has grown up a lot through his experiences in the zombie apocalypse and gotten back together with Liz, his main passion still lies in his friendship with Ed, who is now a zombie chained up in the garden shed.
You can see the enthusiasm in Pegg’s line readings increase when Liz excuses Shaun for some time in the shed, and in a trademark Edgar Wright whip cut, the shed doesn’t have a porn stash, workout equipment or something stereotypically masculine, but just Ed hanging out and playing video games. Even after his “death,” Ed hasn’t changed much (except he’s definitely not holding any weed). Shaun might have a more stable life after the events of the movie, but he still has time for split-screen first person shooters with his best friend. This is when “You’re My Best Friend” kicks in, and Shaun enjoys a moment alone with his best friend in the world. Even when you’re an adult with a job, rent to pay, and a relationship to maintain, it’s fun to just hang out and play video games with your friends to relax.
Forget Jack and Rose from Titanic – death truly couldn’t come between Shaun and Ed, and there’s a Queen song to commemorate it.
7. “Village Green Preservation Society” by The Kinks from Hot Fuzz (2007)
Simon Pegg’s character in Hot Fuzz, Nicholas Angel, has a much different relationship with music than the electro pop-spinning, “Yeah boy-ing” man-child Shaun. He’s a no-nonsense, London homicide detective, whose clearance record makes the rest of the department look so bad that he’s shipped off to idyllic, crime free village of Sandford (filmed in Edgar Wright’s hometown in Wells in South England). Sandford is filled with secrets, and its beauty and perfection are literally built on the bones of those who don’t who fit in. Hot Fuzz ambles along like the pace of life in the rural town it’s set, and then embraces the frenetic action of cop action movies like Point Break and Bad Boys 2, the kind that Angel despises and heavy-drinking rookie policeman Danny Butterman (Nick Frost) lives for.
However, Nicholas Angel doesn’t know this underside early in the film when he jogs the whole perimeter of the tiny cathedral town to the soothing bars and acoustic guitar of “Village Green Preservation Society” by British rock legends The Kinks. The song is an ode to “jolly old England” and all it entails, including jam, Sherlock Holmes, and medals for valor in wars that were usually fought for imperialist reasons. Still, it’s a happy tune, and fits in with a scene where every citizen of Sandford politely greets their new police officer and tries to make small talk with him even though Angel just wants to work out in peace.
The song’s lyrics and title take on a more nefarious tone when it’s revealed that the town of Sandford’s Neighbourhood Watch Alliance, which started out as a group of kooks walking around and being paranoid, have been covering up murders for decades so that Sandford can keep winning the coveted “Village of the Year” award. The dark irony of the lyrics and town itself are one part of what makes Hot Fuzz Edgar Wright’s strongest work of social satire, especially a decade later in a world of Trump, Brexit, and Theresa May, where people who aren’t straight, white, able-bodied, and Christian aren’t welcome in the United States and the United Kingdom. It’s also a damn good shoot-’em-up, and Frost and Pegg have instant buddy-cop chemistry, even though their characters are diametrically opposed in personality.
6. “Scott Pilgrim” by Plumtree from Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)
Based on Bryan Lee O’Malley’s cult graphic novel, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World was also the first feature film Edgar Wright made that didn’t star Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. It was also set in snowy Toronto, Canada instead of England. The movie is about an unemployed bass player named Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) who must defeat the seven evil exes of the enigmatic American package carrier, Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), with fighting game style combat. It’s a visually stunning celebration of video games, indie music, action films, and comic books filtered through the romantic comedy genre, and is my personal favorite Edgar Wright film. On the music side, Beck actually wrote original music for Scott’s band in the film, Sex Bob-Omb, including the glorious ballad “Ramona.” The Scott Pilgrim soundtrack is a wonderful feast of indie music that the hipster types that populate the film would probably enjoy.
The comic book character Scott Pilgrim got his name from the 1997 song “Scott Pilgrim” by all-girl Canadian power pop band Plumtree, who Bryan Lee O’Malley was a fan of. They broke up in 2000, but got a resurgence in popularity thanks to the movie/comic. The song itself has a kind of rough punk sound, but it’s still melodic and catchy like Sex Bob-Omb’s songs about thresholds, garbage trucks, and of course, summer. It doesn’t play during one of the glorious battle sequences, but when Scott is just going through the motions of his fairly normal slacker life, including playing video games at an arcade with his high school girlfriend and walking to his tiny apartment that his amazingly sassy gay roommate Wallace (Kieran Culkin) pays for. Scott Pilgrim is a slice of life story about a boy in a band who falls for a girl – that just happens to feature old school video game elements and physics.
The repeated lyric “I’ve liked you for a thousand years” in “Scott Pilgrim” could easily describe Scott’s feelings for Ramona, as he fell in love with her when she was using the Subspace pathway in his mostly empty head way before he ran into her in real life at a party. Also, it’s flat out cool to see the evolution of a character from song title to Bryan Lee O’Malley drawing and finally in flesh and blood, courtesy of Michael Cera wearing a Plumtree shirt, while kind of/sort of rocking out on the bass.
5. “By Your Side” by Beachwood Sparks from Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)
Although it features fight scenes ripped out of Street Fighter or Double Dragon, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is a romantic comedy at its core. It has one garbage fire of a meet cute, with Scott using a Pacman-related chat-up line on Ramona, then “stalking her for the rest of the party.” He finds out that she’s a courier for Amazon.ca, orders a package, and then waits by his door for several days just so he can ask her out. Reluctantly, Ramona agrees to a date with Scott, and they end up walking through snow-covered Toronto before evacuating to Ramona’s apartment for tea and chill via Subspace pathway.
Scott and Ramona share a kinda cute, kinda awkward chemistry that is helped a lot by Michael Cera’s total awkwardness and Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s utter cool. She says the word “date” like it’s not a big deal, then takes the lead as they start making out to L.A. alt-country band Beachwood Sparks’ cover of “By Your Side” by Sade. Cartoon hearts appear around their head, and it’s a sweet moment. Edgar Wright interweaves the repeated lyric “Oh when you’re cold, I’ll be there by your side” with the fact that it is literally cold, so she cuddles under blankets with Scott, and he spends the night even though they don’t have sex.
“By Your Side” is singlehandedly responsible for setting up Scott and Ramona as two people who could actually be a couple once the dust clears and all the evil exes are reduced to piles of gold coins. It gives what could be a supremely awkward scene a warm feeling of romance, and the “heavenly visuals” from Wright help too. It makes you want to root for Scott and Ramona as a couple, even though he’s technically still dating Knives Chau. Plus, it’s just a damn good love song.
4. “Black Sheep” by Metric from Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)
Remember that ex of yours that got famous all of a sudden? In Scott Pilgrim’s case, that person is Canadian alt rock chanteuse Envy Adams (Brie Larson), who is the frontwoman of Clash at Demonhead. He and his shitty band, Sex Bob-Omb, get a once in a lifetime opportunity to open for indie darlings Clash at Demonhead at the famous Toronto concert venue, Lee’s Palace. As well as Scott’s ex, Envy, the band features Ramona’s third evil ex, Todd (Brandon Routh), who has superpowers because he’s vegan. The fictional band Clash at Demonhead is based on the real-life successful Canadian indie band, Metric, and Envy herself is based on their charismatic frontwoman, Emily Haines.
Even though much of the Scott/Envy material from the original comic is cut, Edgar Wright uses her appearance to flip the “evil ex” formula a bit and have Scott come to terms with running into someone from his own past that also happens to be connected to someone from Ramona’s. It’s super complicated, and comes to a head when Clash at Demonhead performs the Metric song “Black Sheep,” with Brie Larson providing vocals in-character as Envy Adams. The song’s venue-filling power, coupled with Envy’s success and strutting stage moves, incites Scott into action as he challenges Todd to both a bass battle and a more traditional fist fight. He gets his ass kicked musically and physically, but is saved by the timely intervention of the vegan police when it’s revealed that Todd has used non-vegan creamer and eaten chicken parmesan.
The epic sound combined with Edgar Wright’s music video directing style of “Black Sheep” demonstrates just how pathetic Scott is compared to his ex, with Clash of Demonhead being a world class indie outfit while Sex Bob-Omb sounds like a garage band that desperately needs to practice more in said garage. The lyric “You crack the whip, shape-shift, and trick, the past again” also applies to his relationship with Envy, who comes into his life just as he is about to start a new relationship with Ramona. She also changed her name from Natalie to the more theatrical Envy, and there is tension between her stage persona and insecurity about her past.
It shows that everyone has the skeletons of failed relationships in their closets, including Canadian indie rock goddesses played by future Academy Award-winning actresses.
3. “Loaded” by Primal Scream from The World’s End (2013)
In The World’s End, the final installment of Edgar Wright’s Cornetto Trilogy, Simon Pegg plays his biggest man-child yet, Gary “Fucking” King. He’s a drug and alcohol addict, a pathological liar, a bit of a thief, and he still wears the same duster and sunglasses that he did has a teenager. After a foreshadowing-filled flashback of his hard partying life in the small town of Newton Haven, as well as a failed attempt to complete the Golden Mile pub crawl, Wright abruptly cuts to the 41 year old Gary telling the story of how he and friends almost drank twelve pints in twelve pubs over the course of a single night.
It seems like The World’s End is going to be a darker version of the redemption story that Simon Pegg’s character Shaun had in Shaun of the Dead, but dialogue from the 1966 Peter Fonda biker flick The Wild Angels shows that he has no intention of getting his act together. This immediately cuts into the 1990 track “Loaded” by Primal Scream, a Scottish dance/rock band that Gary and the lads probably listened to after a night of getting hammered. Edgar Wright uses the song for some visual irony in a montage of Gary’s childhood friends, Steven (Paddy Considine), Oliver (Martin Freeman), Peter (Eddie Marsan), and even Nick Frost’s character, Andy, getting ready for a full day of adulting that includes family, children, an office, putting on a suit, working out, and more. They have grown up, while Gary is strutting around like Andrew Eldritch, the frontman of the 1980s British Goth band Sisters of Mercy, and he basically blackmails them into trying the Golden Mile again.
For Gary’s friends, “Loaded” is a nostalgic reminder of their dissolute youthful years, but for him it’s a manifesto. Towards the end of the film, Gary tells the Network, a group of aliens who are trying to make Earth better-behaved by replacing people with copies of themselves, that he wants to live out the lyrics of this song. He wants life to be a great adventure filled with pints of ale, pratfalls, attractive women, and great British music from the late 80s and early 90s, like Primal Scream.
2. “Step Back in Time” by Kylie Minogue from The World’s End (2013)
To be honest, I could fill this whole list with songs from The World’s End, which boasts a soundtrack that is perfect for a Brit Pop or Madchester-themed party, with cuts from artists like Blur, Pulp, James, Happy Mondays, Inspiral Carpets, and of course, The Stone Roses. However, Edgar Wright decided to use the 1990 pop hit “Step Back in Time” by Kylie Minogue in a pivotal part of the film. The song pops up in the 8th pub on the crawl, The Mermaid, where a “disco” for young people is being held, and its beats and airy lyrics may or may not bring you back to your high school prom.
Instead of learning about the reason why everyone in Newton Haven is robots, Steven, Gary, Andy, and Peter are too busy dancing with three young women that resemble the “girls” they ran into during their first attempt at the Golden Mile decades ago. It feels like they’ve traveled in time, and they’re too drunk to care that the women just want them to assimilate and be docile “blanks” like the rest of Newton Haven (except for the conspiracy theorist Basil (played by David Bradley). “Step Back in Time” is also about Kylie Minogue wishing she was young again, with lines like “Remember the old days/Remember the O’Jay’s/Walkin’ in rhythm, life was for livin’.” She wishes she was in the disco/funk 1970s, while Gary and his friends wish they were in the Brit Pop 1990s – not three drunk forty-somethings running from blue liquid-splattering robots in their old hometown.
In the Mermaid scene, it really feels like Edgar Wright has come full circle from the rave scene in Spaced. The screen pulsates like it did back in “Epiphanies,” but the subtext behind the party is much more sinister. These aren’t a tight-knit group of friends finally letting loose, but ones who have drifted apart and are trying to rekindle their relationship in a pretty toxic way. The name of the pub is a dead giveaway, because traditionally mermaids led sailors to their deaths (and weren’t cheery, singing gingers in Disney movies).
1. “This Corrosion” by Sisters of Mercy from The World’s End (2013)
Sisters of Mercy seems to be the visual medium through which Gary King presents himself to the world, so it’s fitting that their most epic single, “This Corrosion,” is a part of both The World’s End‘s climax and its final scene. Gary and Andy finally reach The World’s End pub when the film decides to go full-blown science fiction. The 40-piece choir intro of “This Corrosion” soars, as The Network offers Gary a chance to be young again, showing him a vision of his younger self while saying he’ll have “selective memories” about the good times of his youth – and not when his friend Andy almost died while drunk-driving him to the hospital after a wild night. Edgar Wright’s camera lingers, and it looks like Gary will take the deal, but he twists his younger self’s head off causing, the blue robot blood to splatter everywhere.
This is because Gary King (and by extension, humanity) doesn’t like being told what to do by an alien light show that replaces flesh-and-blood human beings with robots before useing their empty shells for compost. Sure, this whole film is about him rekindling memories of his ill-spent youth by doing the Golden Mile pub crawl, but that was on his own terms. With his love of songs like “Loaded’ and “I’m Free,” Gary is all about that lovely human free will, even though he can barely spell and do basic arithmetic. Like he says, “It’s our basic human right to be fuck ups.” Except this time his fuck-up leads to the literal end of the world as we know it.
This is where “This Corrosion” kicks in one final time, as Edgar Wright courts controversy by setting The World’s End in a far-flung, post-apocalyptic future where Gary’s duster that was out of place in London’s financial district fits right in as he leads a band of young robots through the devastated landscape like some kind of Goth Man with No Name (Edgar Wright’s first, unreleased film was the spaghetti western Fistful of Fingers). However, Gary drinks water now, and has found meaning and adventure in a way that doesn’t involve copious amounts of alcohol and hanging his friends out to dry. Still, he will always be responsible for the end of human civilization.