Monday, August 20, 2007

5 Worst Film Uses of Pop Music

The much-awaited follow-up to last week's mini-list. Again, the focus is on the film's use of existing pop music, not original recordings.

5. American Psycho (2000). No wonder the men of Late Night Shots routinely trade quotes from this chotch epic on their often-hilarious members-only forums. It's their ultimate wish-fulfillment fantasy: 1980s cocaine-fueled predator UTTERLY DOMINATES women, Wall Street, and all his foes. And he does it to a soundtrack featuring both Robert Palmer and Huey Lewis. That's hard enough to believe by itself, but it only gets worse when you throw in "Lady in Red," "If You Don't Know Me By Now," and two Phil Collins/Genesis songs. I know, I know, it's all supposed to be ironic, but at some point this movie, like its fans on LNS, starts enjoying itself so much it leaves the irony behind. Phil Collins doesn't help.

4. Garden State (2004). Is this a controversial call anymore? Or has the Zach Braff backlash (Brafflash?) made it boringly conventional to hate on Zach and everything he's done? In any case, this movie is not The Graduate for our generation (neither is "Knocked Up," by the way). It's not even good. And the lite indie soundtrack is limp enough even without Braff calling attention to his good taste with egregious scenes like the one parodied here.

3. Dazed and Confused (1993). American Graffiti was the early '70s doing the early '60s; this is the early '90s doing the mid '70s. Problem? The mid '70s pretty much sucked. I'll admit did enjoy this movie in high school (I even bought the soundtrack! It slotted in perfectly between The Best of Grand Frunk Railroad and Bad Company's 10 From 6). But looking over the music again, man, it just sucked: ZZ Top, Ted Nugent, Alice Cooper, "Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo", and "Jim Dandy." Some of these songs wouldn't even crack a Classic Rock Block anymore. Do they convincingly recall the American high school experience of 1976? Maybe. But to borrow from Phil Collins (see above): I don't care anymore. They still suck.

2. Fear (1996). If the mid '70s were lame, what can we say about the mid '90s? If you haven't seen it in a while, it's time to revisit this Mark Wahlberg/Reese Witherspoon thriller, which borrows heavily from both Cape Fear and Straw Dogs. I caught it via On Demand last week, and was impressed by Reese's navel-hugging jeans, the guy from CSI's hilarious performance as her intense dad, and the fact that at one point in time Marky Mark was a pretty tough dude. I wasn't impressed by the music. In fact, Fear is the inspiration for both these lists. Aside from one throwaway moment where Toad the Wet Sprocket is heard in the background (don't blame the director; this was the mid-90's after all), there are apparently only two songs in the entire film: a soggy '90s girl band cover of "Wild Horses," used enthusiastically whenever something kinky is going on; and Bush's "Come Down," used enthusaistically whenever Mr. Mark is being a badass. There's a chance "Machinehead" subs for "Come Down" during one of those frequent badass scenes, but I swear those two songs recur about seventeen times during this 90 minute movie.

1. Armageddon (1998). I love ripping on this movie. It's like Michael Bay saw "Independence Day" and then bet Roland Emmerich that he could take out the aliens and still make an explosions/space/world-saving movie that was louder, coarser, uglier, and dumber than what had come before. (It's too bad Bay didn't make a similar wager with Emmerich after The Patriot--I would love to have seen that film). Anyway, everybody remembers the loathesome "I Don't Want To Miss A Thing," but that was recorded specifically for the film so technically can't count here. Fortunately, Armageddon sports two other awful Aerosmith tunes, including their cover of "Come Together," which should be mentioned -- along with "I Don't Want..." -- in any serious discussion about The Worst Song Of All Time. There's also Bon Jovi, ZZ Top, and Bob Seger. To be honest, I can't remember exactly how all these songs are used, but does it even matter? At least Dazed and Confused was purposely trying to capture the sour-milk taste of '70s cock rock. What's Michael Bay's excuse? He's making a giant sci-fi epic about saving the planet. We're left to suspect that he really thinks "Sweet Emotion" is, like, the most ass-kicking song in history. Ugh.


Akshay said...

The songs in American Psycho (and the accompanying ridiculous analysis) are actually my favorite part of that movie. I don't think you can blame a work of art for the audience it happens to attract, any more that you can say that All in the Family was racist because plenty of viewers didn't get that Archie Bunker's character satirized racist attitudes and didn't actually celebrate them.

Matt K said...

I don't know. I do think there is a tradition of supposedly ironic cultural works who attempt to "skewer" something repellent but end up replicating, or even celebrating it. I'd put American Psycho there, along with Fight Club, and, to some extent, Goodfellas (cue angry Drew rebuttal). It's not just that that a hundred thousand frat boys incorrectly thought Movie X celebrated chotch violence; it's that the film itself depicts the violence so lovingly -- and with such pride in its own macho sleekness -- that the frat boy reading isn't totally wrong.

I'd put All in the Family in a slightly different category -- rougher-edged, more straightforward artistic and political statements that have been willfully misinterpreted. Reaganite thralling to Springsteen's "Born In The USA" is another example of this. I don't suspect that Norman Lear, on some semi-conscious level, really is a racist, but I actually do wonder about Bret Easton Ellis.

was I'm not quite as familiar with All in the Family, but it seems like a more complicated case, partly because

Matt K said...

Whoops. Another mid-comment editing error there.

Akshay said...

From what (little) I've read about Ellis, I think you're probably right. And I definitely agree with you about Goodfellas and Fight Club. I might put A Clockwork Orange in the same category, but in that case it's really hard to say. I really think the same isn't true of Mary Harron, though. The changes she made to the book, and the spin she puts on what's there, are all in the direction of making the movie's indictment against a certain sort of male vanity more clear.

Drew said...

Matt, the whole point of Dazed and Confused is that the mid-seventies sucked. Numerous characters repeatedly make this point explicitly! If anything, Linkletter is interested in exploring the nature of nostalgia and how from the ironic distance of a decade or so, a miserable period for fashion and music can seem quaint and cute. It's not unlike your early-nineties nostalgia parties.

John said...

How did I miss this list before. It is awesome, although I think Akshay has something of a point about American Psycho. Bateman's lengthy disquisitions about horrible music (Huey Lewis and the News, Whitney Houston) are, I think, the best parts of the movie.

But at the same time, I think American Psycho definitely does fall into that Fight Club, "really kind of celebrating what you're supposedly ironically decrying" category. But maybe not. Bateman and his cronies are so ridiculously odious that they don't really compare with the "awesome" stuff that Pitt's Tyler Durden does in Fight Club for instance. Pretty much from the beginning of the film (I've not read the novel) Bateman is entirely odious and disgusting, and so is virtually everyone else in the movie.

And Drew was right in the previous comments thread - clearly A Knight's Tale is the worst usage of popular music in a film. It's set in the 14th century and features, according to Wikipedia 'classic rock songs like Queen's "We Will Rock You", War's "Low Rider", David Bowie's "Golden Years" Thin Lizzy's "The Boys are Back in Town" and AC/DC's "You Shook Me All Night Long", (and many others)'

This is, essentially, an incredibly more obvious version of the soundtrack to Dazed and Confused (doesn't "Low Rider" feature heavily in that movie?), except in a much, much worse movie, which is set, not in 1976, but in 1376. Totally horrendous.

John said...

Also, two words:

Forrest Gump.

It deserves a place on the list for its ridiculously clich├ęd use of "Fortunate Son" alone.

Also, any movie featuring any of the following songs:

Steppenwolf, "Born to be Wild" (Easy Rider being the exception which proves the rule)
Steppenwolf, "Magic Carpet Ride"
Creedence Clearwater Revival, "Fortunate Son"
Buffalo Springfield, "For What It's Worth"
Jimi Hendrix Experience, "All Along the Watchtower"
Jefferson Airplane, "Somebody to Love"
Jefferson Airplane, "White Rabbit" (with the exception of The Game, which is awesome)

Particular odium arises when these songs are used to demonstrate how crazy the 60s were.

Drew said...

Okay, so none's reading this except maybe John in Austria (get back to work, Kenney!) but I have to respond to the last one: Reservoir Dogs has a fine use of "Magic Carpet Ride," although one could argue that Tarantino, unlike Linkletter, actually thinks the 70s ruled so thus is mistaken in using the song, but I do love the Reservoir Dogs soundtrack. Also, it's worth noting that the original plan for the finale of season three of Battlestar Galactica was going to use the Hendrix version of "All Along the Watchtower," but the issues of rights and continuity with the Galactica world caused them to instead do a new cover. I agree with your larger point, John, that filmmakers often use music as a lazy shorthand for "Whoa, man, the cultural turmoil of the late 60s!" and I would even say that Forrest Gump is WORSE than A Knight's Tale, because at least you can make a case that there was something original about the latter.