Gavin Smith: Pop music is used in films, at least at one level, to cue the audience to what era it is.
Martin Scorsese: Oh, no, no, forget that, no.
—Film Comment interview, 1990
In any given year, 80 percent of my musical epiphanies take place in the car, 1 percent happen in front of the stereo, clubs and concerts account for zero percent, and the rest I get from the movies. When it comes to melding pop music to image, 20 years of Madonna, the Beastie Boys, or anybody else on MTV hasn’t produced anything quite so startling as sequences found in recent films by the Andersons Paul (Boogie Nights) and Wes (Rushmore). These musical detours are elaborate enough and sufficiently self-contained that you could yank any one of them right out and you’d have a contender for Greatest Music Video Ever Made, and the same can be said of ready-made videos scattered across the work of Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, and other pop-crazy directors.
Scorsese, of course, represents the single most inescapable reference point for any director today who tries to choreograph movie narrative to a pop-music backdrop. Almost every Scorsese film has a signature musical moment or two (high on my own list would be Jackson Browne’s “Late for the Sky” in Taxi Driver, Ray Barretto’s “El Watusi” in Who’s That Knocking at My Door?, plus at least a dozen inspired matches found in Mean Streets and GoodFellas), but by the time of 1995’s Casino he was straining tooutdo himself. This year’s Bringing Out the Dead again finds Scorsese in a holding pattern. The Clash’s “Janie Jones” and the Cellos’ “Rang Tang Ding Dong (I Am the Japanese Sandman)” leap out thrillingly for a few seconds before being cut short, while Big Brother’s “Combination of the Two” is regrettably buried in the background. Scorsese betrays the two most fundamental rules he’s been teaching disciples for years: Let it play, and play it loud.
Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson learned better than anyone, emerging in the ’90s as the first really serious competition Scorsese’s ever had as cinema’s number–one cut-creator. Tarantino, you know about—deservedly or not, Pulp Fiction‘s (1994) bang-bang mix of Dick Dale, Chuck Berry, and Dusty Springfield generated more widespread awareness and adulation of a rock and roll soundtrack than anything since 1973’s American Graffiti. As much as I like how Tarantino used all of the above, he also committed the major sin of wasting Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” in the same film. I much prefer not only Reservoir Dogs‘ (1992) seismic K-Tel jolts (George Baker Selection, Blue Swede, Stealer’s Wheel) but also the serene world-weariness that marks the Delfonics, Bobby Womack, and Johnny Cash in 1998’s Jackie Brown.
Maybe Tarantino suddenly felt old after he saw Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights (1997), which felt like one of those “Oh yeah?—top this” dares that McGwire and Griffey throw at each other during All-Star Home Run Derbys. Anderson’s sympathetic ensemble piece matched the freewheeling sweep of GoodFellas to the esoteric junkiness of Reservoir Dogs and advanced the art of the rock and roll soundtrack a little further still: the pool party sequence to Eric Burdon and War’s “Spill the Wine,” a deviant’s living-room Fourth of July festivities to Night Ranger’s “Sister Christian,” the vacant rot in Burt Reynolds’s face posed against the Chakachas “Jungle Fever” and Melanie’s “Brand New Key.” Toward the end, a profound pop-music moment—with chaos breaking loose all around, Wahlberg finds himself caught up in Rick Springfield’s “Jessie’s Girl” and a smile of deep recognition begins to cross his face.
Wes Anderson’s (no relation) Rushmore, a last-minute ’98 release I’ve seen six times this year, may be even better. Certainly it’s something new—Boogie Nights, Reservoir Dogs, and GoodFellas belong to the time-honored tradition of low-life mooks that goes back to The Wild One and Blackboard Jungle, but Rushmore is more like Being Pete Townshend, a prep-school fantasy that comes from somewhere inside the same head that imagined the misfit heroes of “I’m a Boy,” “Pictures of Lily,” and Quadrophenia. The Who actually do turn up in Rushmore, a generously uninterrupted two minutes of “A Quick One While He’s Away” as Jason Schwartzman, Anderson’s own misfit hero, squares off against his equally maladapted mentor (Bill Murray) in a spectacularly vindictive display of one-upmanship. Elsewhere, semi-obscurities from the Rolling Stones (“I Am Waiting”) and the Kinks (“Nothin’ in the World Can Stop Me Worryin’ ‘Bout That Girl”) definitively capture adolescent self-pity and middle-age spite, while buoyant contributions from Cat Stevens, the Faces, and John Lennon mirror the more irrepressible side of Schwartzman’s Max Fischer. The movie opens with the Creation’s “Making Time” over an indescribable résumé of Max’s extracurricular pursuits, including such high-profile campus favorites as fencing, beekeeping, model aviation, and bombardiering. If I had to choose, the “Making Time” sequence in Rushmore would be the one: my nomination for Greatest Music Video Ever Made.
No other film in 1999 came anywhere close to Rushmore as a pop-music event, but a few things caught my attention. I spent the first half-hour of Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels fidgeting through the by-now-familiar drill of déjà Tarantino, but then the Castaways’ “Liar, Liar” appeared out of nowhere and the same old clichés seemed vital again. American Beauty is at its wildest when Kevin Spacey punches up the Guess Who’s “American Woman” on the car radio, with a too-few seconds of Free’s “All Right Now” further underscoring Spacey’s liberating descent into the kingdom of who-gives-a-fuck. The Limey opens with the Who’s “The Seeker,” which it serendipitously shares with American Beauty, and ends with a poignant old clip of Terence Stamp strumming Donovan, secret hero of ’90s film scores (cf. Goodfellas, To Die For, Election). And though I don’t often take much notice of newer soundtrack music, the combination of Nicole Kidman eyeing herself in the mirror and Chris Isaak’s “Baby Did a Bad Bad Thing” was the one time Eyes Wide Shut lived up to the promise of its amazing trailer.
On the downside, David O. Russell’s Three Kings starts off like it’s going to salvage those strange few months in pop history between Milli Vanilli and Nirvana (Snap, Public Enemy’s “Can’t Do Nuttin’ For Ya Man,” Rare Earth standing in for M.C. Hammer), but the music soon dries up completely in the Kuwaiti desert; Russell does manage to sneak in “In God’s Country,” the only U2 song I’ve ever really loved, over the end credits. Boys Don’t Cry has the Isley Brothers, Timmy Thomas, and Lynyrd Skynyrd, but to little effect; when the Cure-originated title track finally appears and turns out to be a cover, you feel cheated. Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam stands alongside Bringing Out the Dead as the year’s major letdown. Lee’s done some terrific things in the past with “Livin’ for the City” and “Erotic City,” but he stumbles badly with the Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and “Baba O’Riley,” resulting in a couple of big showcase montages even more overwrought than the rest of the film. I barely remember a thing from Outside Providence or 200 Cigarettes, both of which belong to the Flamingo Kid school of soundtracks: “Hey, the Drifters—it must be 1960.”
Thanks to the Andersons, the rest hardly matter. Rushmore and Boogie Nights have meant more to me the past couple of years than my favorite new music during that time, and I’m betting that both will become sacred texts to a new generation of rock and roll filmmakers. Being someone who once had aspirations of making the Great Pop Movie myself (until all that technical stuff about knowing how to write scripts and operate cameras got in the way), watching them’s also a bit of a bittersweet experience. When someone really gets it right, which in the 35 years since A Hard Day’s Night and Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising has happened surprisingly infrequently, there’s always a part of me that wishes it’d been me instead.