Death Set to Moby, Life Set to Mogwai: Five Instances of Music Making a Scene

By  · Published on June 19th, 2012

I’ve been taking my family on a tour of Michael Mann’s filmography recently, and every minute has been fantastic. Mann has a great eye for cinematography, writes and/or directs characters who are refreshingly competent and layered, and has a way of getting great mileage out of a topic he enjoys (crime and those who commit and prevent it) by changing the level of its presentation. He has done pieces both epic (Heat) and intimate (Collateral). He has ventured into the past, where his favorite subject varies in presence from “extant, but not important compared to other events” (The Last of the Mohicans) to “the point of the entire film” (Public Enemies). He brought Hannibal Lector to the screen for the first time as Hannibal Lecktor in Manhunter, which I must admit remains my primary source exposure to everyone’s favorite cannibal.

All of these traits make Mann a director whose work should be followed, but what absolutely drives me wild about him is his use of music in his pictures’ key scenes. Mann’s soundtracks are usually a mix of contemporary rock, house music, a slow and/or seductive piece for particularly romantic moments and several compositions written specifically for the film by his composer. At least once in every one of his films that I have had a chance to see, Mann takes a piece from his soundtrack and sets it to a climactic or character defining scene and the resulting moment never fails to astound. Dialogue is usually sparse to nonexistent during these moments, which places the burden of content on the cast’s physical acting, the camera work and above all the music itself.

Mann is far from the only filmmaker to use this technique, but he is particularly talented with it. And that is something to note, since relying on music to sell a scene’s content can backfire quite badly if the music is chosen poorly. But when it is done well, it can sear the scene into the collective brains of the audience as a moment where film’s nature as an art of synchronization did something incredible.

Let’s take a look at some of those scenes, both from Mann’s films and from other directors, to examine what about the aural and visual content works so well. With an appropriate spoiler warning, here are five scenes seeped in music, along with the songs that made them unforgettable.

Heat: “God Moving Over The Face of the Waters” by Moby

There is a lot to like about Heat; it juggles its master plot with several subplots, usually quite well; it is proof that a shoot-out does not need explosions or someone dual-wielding guns the size of Rhode Island to be exciting; it has a great cast headlined by Robert De Niro as Neil McCauley and Al Pacino as Vincent Hanna, and for the first time in history, they share a scene. Their coffee shop conversation is an article all on its own, but it is not the moment that takes breath away.

No, Mann earns applause for De Niro and Pacino’s second, final, much abbreviated conversation. After an intense chase and a wonderfully tense stand-off that plays with the space of LAX’s freight terminal, Pacino’s Vincent fatally shoots De Niro ’s Neil. Dying, Neil looks up to Vincent and simply says “Told you I was never going back [to prison].” Vincent can only answer “Yeah,” and hold Neil’s hand as he bleeds out.

All the while, Moby’s instrumentals have been building in the background, getting louder and louder until at last Neil dies. Vincent is left staring out into the Los Angeles night, regretful of but reconciled to having killed a man he had a fair amount in common with. “God Moving Over The Face of the Waters” takes the audience into the credits. It is a discordant, beautiful and very sad piece, once that matches the tone of Vincent’s ambiguous future and Neil’s ultimate fate quite well.

Drive: “Under Your Spell” by Desire

Ryan Gosling’s Driver is a man of famously few words for the entirety of Drive, preferring instead to express himself through his actions. A held hand or a long, passionate kiss. A quick blow with a hammer or the infamous elevator beat-down. It is a remarkably physical performance, one that was justifiably hyped as being one of last year’s best. But where the Driver does not speak, Cliff Martinez’s soundtrack does some rather on-point vocalizing.

“Under Your Spell’s” presence in the picture is not as pronounced as College’s “ A Real Hero,” but its appearance is the first major hint of Drive’s halfway genre shift. Irene, the woman the Driver has fallen for, is throwing a party for her long-imprisoned husband Standard’s return home. As Standard toasts the room to second chances, Desire’s dance piece nearly drowns him out and flows over into the Driver’s apartment, where he is silently repairing a car part.

What had previously been a look into the lead’s head becomes a part of the world itself as the music is muffled through the wall. It is a shock that eventually serves as foreshadowing for what the Driver is capable of; what seems to be a part of the soundtrack is a part of the world. The man who seems quiet is in fact holding back a terrifying amount of anger. It is a supremely neat bit of filmmaking, and it would not be anywhere near as effective without Desire’s remarkably appropriate, impressively catchy song.

The Brothers Bloom: “Miles From Nowhere” by Cat Stevens

A bit of a disclaimer here; this is my favorite movie of all time. Yeah, it has its fair share of flaws, and it definitely is not for everyone, but the adventures of Rian Johnson’s con-men brothers, their explosives expert partner and the beautiful heiress they are conning/taking on an adventure fascinates me and reminds me why I love movies whenever I watch it.

The piece of music that makes me go “Oh, wow, that’s fantastic” is not actually on the soundtrack. “Miles From Nowhere” is a live recording, as opposed to the studio cuts from the rest of this list, and it is one of the wordiest songs here. It plays over a montage at the 2/3rds mark, when Adrien Brody’s Bloom (the younger) begins to seriously accept that he is genuinely happy because of his ostensible mark, Rachel Weisz’s Penelope. He palms the one red apple on a cart of green apples, only to be caught by a young boy and chased across a park. Brody runs down an incline, his long coat billowing behind him and a ridiculously goofy smile on his face as Stevens picks up speed, both on his guitar and with his vocals.

The song comes to a brief pause when he trips over someone and crashes into a tree, but resumes triumphantly when Mark Ruffalo’s Stephen (the elder Bloom) bails him out. Cat Stevens’s tune continues over a sequence of Stephen and Penelope experiencing genuine, crazy, wonderful happiness only to fade out upon the crew’s arrival in Mexico, where the con is supposed to climax. His music keeps time and marks the joy of the occasion, and as with the rest of The Brothers Bloom, it is pure pleasure to watch/listen to.

Inglourious Basterds: “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)” by David Bowie

As is his wont, Tarantino draws Basterds’ soundtrack from several decades and a fair few musicians. Despite the sheer oddity of having a David Bowie piece in a movie set in World War II era France, Tarantino makes it work. The situation over which it plays is just as absurd. At the request of Frederick Zoller, a young Nazi war hero who has starred in a propaganda movie based upon his exploits, the entire Nazi High Command (Hitler included) has traveled to a small movie theater in Paris to attend the film’s premiere. What neither Zoller nor the high command know is that fetching young theater owner Emmanuelle Mimeaux, who Zoller is smitten with, is in fact Shosanna Dreyfus, a young Jewish woman whose family the Nazis butchered.

Having seized the once-in-a-lifetime chance to wipe out the people who ordered her family murdered, Shosanna plans to kill the entire High Command by burning her theater to the ground with them locked inside. Aside from the obvious references to incinerating things in the lyrics, Tarantino’s use of Bowie works well with the inherent absurdity of the entire situation, as Shosanna dresses and applies make-up in Nazi colors, dons a veiled hat and walks out into her theater’s lobby, where scantily clad Nazi waitresses sell cigarettes to Heinrich Himmler and his entourage. It is a ridiculous image, one that music by the man who gave the world Ziggy Stardust only enhances.

Miami Vice: The Director’s Cut: “Auto Rock” by Mogwai

Miami Vice is probably the most uneven of the films on this list. It has some pacing issues, and a few plot-important characters are badly underdeveloped. On the other hand, Jamie Foxx and Colin Farrell bring Rico Tubbs and Sonny Crockett to the 21st century with style and pathos, the central plot itself is quite solid, and Mann’s second experiment with digital video (after 2004’s Collateral) is generally well-shot. But it is the soundtrack that makes the picture, particularly the piece that plays as it closes, Mogwai’s instrumental “Auto Rock.”

As with Heat, Mann uses the piece to capture and enhance the emotions of the moment, as Sonny watches Gong Li’s Isabella leave Miami forever for her own protection and Rico waits for his wife, Naomie Harris’ Trudy, to come out of her coma. It is a melancholy scene set to a melancholy piece, but neither is without hope. As “Auto Rock” builds in intensity, Trudy’s hand begins to move, and then actively grasp for Rico’s. He calls the nurse over, and Sonny arrives at the hospital, having seen a woman he might have loved to safety. The picture fades to black and the music cuts after the film’s title credit comes up.

It is a really transcendent piece of filmmaking to the point that I remembered it for years after seeing the film and eventually bought it primarily for this specific scene. I also discovered Mogwai because of it.

Those are the usages of music that make me love movies. There are a fair few more others out there, but these are the ones that stick in my mind, the ones that make me want to show the pictures to my friends and family. How about you? What movie music makes a moment, a scene or even the entire movie for you?

Guest Author Justin Harrison is currently developing a book on John Carpenter’s filmography and its impact on US cinema. At the moment he maintains a blog called Adventures in Celluloid, where he records his thoughts on current cinema and explores the careers of directors whose work catches his eye. His favorite contemporary film is The Brothers Bloom, but he’s long been inspired by Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. That and the “Blood Sister: One Tough Nun” sequence in “Infinite Jest.”