Pairing wine and food is either a discipline built around concrete, knowable tenets, or it’s an imprecise skill honed by years of experience and palate growth. No matter how that pairing is built, the goal is always the same: some alchemical success in which both the wine and the food are elevated by one another. In this way, the symbiosis of food and booze mirrors the relationship of popular music and film. Popular music, in this case, refers to music that was created without a movie in mind – not film scores, or original songs, but music chosen by a director to color their work some way. Trainspotting is remembered fondly for many reasons, but the film’s truly iconic, timeless sequence is Danny Boyle’s finest pairing: Iggy Pop’s frenetic, joyful “Lust for Life” backing similarly playful character introductions.
It’s hard to say why this montage – and a number of similarly iconic moments in other films – is so effective, while other choices in a much larger number of movies range from forgettable to cringe-worthy. It’s also hard to say why, unlike the craft of pairing wine and food, google doesn’t turn up dozens of articles enumerating the rules of this imprecise science. You can, however, using a few agreed-upon iconic moments of popular music in film, try scraping the surface of the relationship between pop music and film. Like choosing a perfect wine, there can’t possibly be a formula (too many variables involved, and too many acceptable choices), but the relationship is hardly arbitrary. A good choice of wine makes the food taste better. A good choice of food does the same for the wine. But a truly great choice amplifies the best qualities of each.
With Trainspotting‘s sequel now in theaters, we present the following as some rules for pairing music and film. As with wine, each of these rules comes with infinite variations and numerous exceptions, but, these – call them guiding principles – should at least identify how not to screw up either your culinary pairings or cinematic ones, if not providing a surefire idea of what works.
Quality Counts – The Amazing Spider-Man 2, “Gone, Gone, Gone” – Phillip Phillips
Here is the kind of self-evident non-revelation that risks undermining this entire proceeding. “Don’t be bad in the first place” is hardly an earth-shattering concept, but it’s also important to remember that bad is subjective, especially when it comes to cinematic meals. Thus, don’t focus on Andrew Garfield’s second venture in the spider-suit as ‘bad’ – maybe you like it, and good for you! Instead, perhaps it’s more diplomatic to point out that both this film and song exist in a pretty agreed-upon strata. We’re talking about a hot dog and a bag of sorority wine; the needs they satisfy are more primal than artistic, and we all indulge in them (I’ve personally had more hot dogs than duck breasts, and I’ve enjoyed every one), so it’s largely a waste of time to consider the merits of the pairing. It’s all just empty calories, mostly forgotten before the first post-meal burp.
Contrast is Good. Be Discordant – Inglourious Basterds, “Cat People (Putting Out the Fire)” – David Bowie
This Tarantino choice is inspired for a number of reasons. The song is both obscure and film-related (“Cat People” was the theme song for a somewhat forgotten 80’s horror movie), which satisfies Tarantino’s image as both filmmaker and curator of pop culture detritus, but the real reason it works so well is that it’s incredibly jarring. “Cat People” stands alone on a soundtrack otherwise littered with Ennio Morricone’s western cast-offs and other re-purposed instrumentals, like the theme. When Inglorious Basterds‘ fifth chapter opens with this Bowie Song – clearly from a time period decades removed (in the future) from the events on screen, and categorically different than the sound of the rest of the film – it makes you sit up. It’s ear-catching, engaging, interesting to the senses.
For those who may find “Cat People” a very self-satisfied and indulgent selection (which makes sense; it’s Tarantino), one that draws almost too much attention to itself, consider “Layla (Piano Exit)” in Scorsese’s Goodfellas. The song choice now feels less audacious than it should, mainly because of the scene’s timeless ubiquity. And yet, “Layla” – now and forever related at least in part to images of murdered mobsters – while always rueful, was about unrequited love long before it was the melancholy elegy for Henry Hill’s whacked buddies. Scorsese’s use of “Layla” fundamentally changed the reading of both the scene and the song; it’s a perfect pairing, one we started taking for granted long ago.
Cut the Tension with Levity – Boogie Nights, “Jessie’s Girl” and “99 Luftballons” – Rick Springfield and Nena
There’s a classic technique in wine and food pairing, timeless and reliable: balance fatty foods with wines that have acid, or structure. Fatty food, like rich meats or creamy dishes, coats your mouth, so a wine with some assertive flavors can literally cut through that sensation, providing balance and cleansing the palate.
This is probably too much information, but it relates to film in that too much of any particular flavor can be overwhelming. This scene from Boogie Nights is relentlessly tense – a drug addled showdown featuring a completely unglued Alfred Molina that ends in an inevitable tragic blood bath. The scene is long – long enough to dull the audience’s sense with tension that drones on. Eventually it becomes exhausting waiting for that first shot, but the scene retain’s its vibrancy and suspense though using three distinctly light and unsettling songs: “Sister Christian,” “Jessie’s Girl,” and “99 Luftballons.” The curiosity of the music adds a complex element to the tone of the sequence, and allows that unsettling feeling to linger indefinitely.
In a famous scene from American Psycho in which Patrick Bateman murders Jared Leto’s character with an axe while Huey Lewis and the News play from a stereo, a similar effect is achieved. American Psycho wants to be horrifying, and grotesque, but it also has a distinct humor to it, a sensibility that encourages audience members to laugh and then cringe at themselves, recoiling at their own reaction. Bateman’s placid disposition, Huey Lewis’ 80’s pop sound – it all combines to create a singularly memorable and disturbing atmosphere.
Play to Your Strengths (Find The Star) – Color Of Money, “Werewolves of London” – Warren Zevon
Plates of food are rarely one-note, unless you are talking about a slice of cheese or a piece of cured meat. Movies are entrees, however, and the collaborative nature of a film – the acting, cinematography, direction, tone, story – resembles more a complex dish than a one-bite appetizer. When dealing with food, it’s hard to pair a wine with more than one or two elements. Trying to succeed on multiple fronts can ensure that you don’t find a match suiting any particular one, so you combat this by finding the star of the dish. Maybe its the sauce, maybe its the protein, maybe its one particular seasoning; the one flavor in the mix that truly pops.
This montage from Color of Money knows its star. The way Scorsese’s camera focuses on Tom Cruise here is nearly pornographic. His magnetism and the camera’s energy elevate Zevon’s well-known tune to dizzying heights. The director has a knack for distilling scenes to their essence, building an unbreakable bond between star and lens. Think of DeNiro’s entrance to “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” in Mean Streets, or DeNiro (again) smoking in slow motion to Cream’s “Sunshine of your Love.” Scorsese always knows how to find the most important flavor on the screen, and he chooses music appropriately.
Don’t Confuse ‘Discordant’ and ‘Interesting’ – Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, “Orinico Flow (Sail Away) – Enya
Contrast isn’t everything, however, and can’t be. David Fincher, another director with a penchant for popular music, falls short of the bar set by “Cat People” or “Layla” when pairing The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo‘s climactic torture scene with Enya’s “Orinoco Flow.” It’s less unsettling than it should be, in large part because it feels derivative of Tarantino’s use of “Stuck in the Middle With You” in Reservoir Dogs, or the appearance of “Goodbye Horses” in Silence of the Lambs. Enya lacks the audacious genius of “Cat People” or the surprising chemistry of “Layla.” It’s just…there, begging to be noticed. Tarantino and Scorsese don’t have an exclusive right to couple disturbing violence and dissonant, airy music of course. Fincher’s use of “Hurdy Gurdy Man” in Zodiac succeeds where Enya fails, still feeling tonally wrong (in a good way), but based on the film’s time period and the scene itself, the song is a more natural pairing.
Scorsese himself can be too incongruous occasionally, which is unsurprising given the number of songs he has featured in his filmography. The odd emergence of Foo Fighters’ “Everlong” in Wolf of Wall Street, for instance, distracts from the montage on screen.
Be Bold – Rushmore, “A Quick One, While He’s Away” – The Who
At some point, everyone seemed to agree that Wes Anderson’s filmmaking could only be described as “twee,” which is a shame, because it’s also – love it or hate it – bold, flavorful, and almost confident enough to be brazen.
Watch this sequence from Rushmore. “Visionary” is probably too strong a word, or at least not an accurate one, but it is the execution of a very particular vision with complete fidelity. There’s a confidence baked into it, from the framing of Bill Murray’s car as it runs over a bike to – importantly – the song choice. Without a doubt, the montage is helped by the actors (Murray’s begrudging grin in the beginning, Jason Schwarzman’s strange, pathological confidence in the elevator exit, the defiant gum on the wall), but it’s the song that truly elevates this clip. The Who’s playing brings an off-kilter energy and dynamism to the images, while also retaining an analog sensibility that fits with the filmmaker’s living diorama aesthetic.
In The Life Aquatic, Anderson is even more musically audacious, repeatedly featuring Brazilian musician Seu George with a ukulele, singing David Bowie songs in Portuguese. These choices flirt with gimmickry, but they also feel deliberate and fitting – the type of bold ornamentation that characterizes Anderson’s polarizing filmography.
Complementary Isn’t Always Obvious – Snatch, “F***in’ in the Bushes” – Oasis
Choosing a contrasting wine or song is arguably easier than choosing a complement. The contrast itself appears interesting, thoughtful, and informed; contrarians are contrarians for a reason. Choosing a complementary pairing, however, runs the risk of being too ham-handed or obvious. A wine should not overshadow the meal it goes with, and a film should remain a film, not turn into a music video.
Snatch is the type of montage-heavy, overly-musical, non-linear offering that frequently cropped up in the years following Tarantino’s ascension, but director Guy Ritchie – at least in this case – never indulges his music video impulses too fully. The film’s final fight, a super-produced, fast-cutting, hyper-energetic montage walks right up to the line of yelling “How fucking cool does Brad Pitt look here?!” at audiences – but never crosses it. The song in the background, Oasis’ “F***in in the Bushes,” is perfect. It’s fast, epic, and dramatic, but just obscure enough to force a google search upon any inquisitive audience member.
Snatch, for all its quick-cut editing, slow motion, and style, uses music in a mostly old-fashioned way. The songs don’t do much more than comment on the images before them. Massive Attack’s “Angel” is played during one pivotal sequence, just to remind the audiences that people burning alive in their trailers is actually not so great a thing to have happen, and Oasis tears through “F***in in the Bushes” during that climactic fight, as though the hyperactive camera and the insane sound editing weren’t effective enough signifiers of brutality and stakes. While this is a rudimentary use of popular music, Snatch is effective because it’s consistent. None of these montages seem like frivolous music videos, because the entire movie is sort of one breezy, stylish montage. It works.
Embrace the Overlooked – Mean Streets, “Rubber Biscuit” – The Chips
Circle back to Scorsese, for a moment, as a master of mixing popular music and film. For better or worse, Scorsese’s best songs choices always feel thoughtful, and they always reflect the depth of his musical knowledge. This tracking shot, from Mean Streets is an insanely brazen bit of filmmaking for a director making his second movie (in 1973), and he pairs it with “Rubber Biscuit,” a doo-wop nugget that is basically hypnotic gibberish, making this one of the director’s earliest legendary sequences.
Scorsese’s best choices always feel sought after, weighed. Conversely, The Departed is a film that uses “Gimme Shelter” – a song featured in two other Scorsese films – not once, but twice. The second time in particular, thanks to some sloppy looping, is uncharacteristically distracting, but that film also gives us Scorsese at his best, such as the inspired selection of Badfinger’s “Baby Blue” in one scene, and the Rolling Stone’s “Let it Loose” in another.
Obscurity doesn’t relate to quality as a rule, and it’s not enough to be impressed by a director’s knowledge of some deep cut or another, but the opposite of obscurity (“Drowning Pool” in XXX, “Hallelujah” in The Watchmen, or “Gimme Shelter” in The Departed) is often much worse – it’s boring. Pinot Noir pairs with almost anything, but isn’t it more satisfying to reach for something new?
Don’t Try Too Hard – Harry potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1, “O Children” – Nick Cave
Some of these may seem to cancel each other out, but that’s the issue with alchemy; it’s all about balance. Be esoteric, be obscure, but don’t try too hard. Don’t be distracting. At the end of the day, the song and movie are going to have a relationship. There has to be a natural chemistry, some common ground. You can try narrowing the middle of the Venn Diagram, but don’t rip it in half altogether.
In Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows Part 1, Nick Cave’s “O Children” rips the audience out of the film. It’s odd and discordant in a way more distracting than pleasing. The characters can’t dance to the song’s slow, melancholy rhythm; why would they be listening to Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds in the first place? That seems like a stretch. The lyrics are also too audible; the song imposes itself on the film with too much power. The pairing is random and out of balance, and the only positive of this choice is that the film’s director appears to like interesting music. It’s not enough to create a fruitful pairing.
Trainspotting contains some exquisite song-and-sequence pairings, and its sequel, T2: Trainspotting looks to repeat that success. So what are your favorite pairings of movie and music?