Words: Oscar Goff
Half the fun/agony of being a movie critic is the annual tradition of boiling down the previous year’s cinematic offerings into a tidy list. Having already dispensed with my list of the year’s best films, I thought it would be fun to get granular and focus on some of 2019’s most memorable soundtrack moments. Some of the following tunes were composed specifically for the films they’re found in, some were sourced from their directors’ record collections, and exactly none of them were nominated for Best Original Song at the Oscars. But who needs a little gold man when you can have the jolt that comes with a perfectly placed cue? So track down these films–on blu-ray if you can, streaming if you must, in a repertory theater if you’re lucky– or just fire up these needledrops on your headphones.
10. “The Dead Don’t Die” – Sturgill Simpson (The Dead Don’t Die)
“Where have I heard this song before?” “Oh, it’s the theme song.” This exchange– between small town cops Bill Murray and Adam Driver– sets the tone for Jim Jarmusch’s drop-deadpan hangout zom-com. The song in question is the title theme by alt-country superstar Sturgill Simpson. Like the film itself, the song is something of a shaggy beast– it’s not actually about zombies, but maybe it is?– but the appeal of its loping riff is undeniable. What’s more, its inescapability becomes a running gag; it’s seemingly the only song played on the radio, the CD single is sold at gas stations and hotel lobbies (and in real life), and Simpson himself appears as a zombie, dragging a guitar through the streets of town.
9. “Can You Hear Me Now” – Donald McMichael (The Art of Self-Defense)
The Art of Self-Defense is a nut I’m still not quite sure I’ve cracked, its Napoleon Dynamite-esque indie-quirk ramming right up against its bursts of graphic violence and its surprisingly dark take on toxic masculinity. This peculiar tonal cocktail extends to its closing theme, a haunting power ballad with an incongruously mundane chorus and a hilarious falsetto climax (accompanied onscreen by the film’s title rendered in an unreadable black-metal font). I know nothing about “Donald McMichael” apart from the fact that he clearly uses a pseudonym, but it’s a genuinely well-written tune which will stick with you longer than you’ll expect– much like the film itself.
For whatever reason, I’m a sucker for a foreign language version of a great song, and these two, each deployed at their respective films’ emotional ends, hit me like a gut punch. The German version of David Bowie’s Berlin Wall anthem “Heroes” was obviously a perfect choice for Jojo Rabbit, Taika Waititi’s emotional satire of Nazi Germany. I’m less clear on the reasoning for using “Senza De Ti,” Fredo Viola’s Italian cover of Harry Nilsson’s version of Badfinger’s “Without You,” to close Lulu Wang’s The Farewell (if only Harry spoke Chinese!), but it’s a great
song and a wonderful film, so I can’t argue with it. In any event, they’re two of the loveliest songs by two legendary singers, and both transcend language.
7. “In the Still of the Night” – The Five Satins (The Irishman)
Martin Scorsese may have spent much of 2019 at the center of the film world’s discourse (did you hear he doesn’t care for superhero movies??), but, at 77 years old, he knows he’s probably nearing the end of his career. This is apparent in every one of The Irishman’s 210 minutes, as Scorsese (with longtime associates Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Harvey Keitel) returns to the gangster genre with an older, more wizened eye. But the cheekiest moment comes in the opening scene, as Scorsese reunites with the gliding steadicam he once used to explore the swank nightclubs of Goodfellas. This time, however, he’s using it to guide us through ex-hitman Frank Sheeran’s nursing home, filled with convalescing old timers puttering and playing checkers. The icing on the cake is the Five Satins’ golden oldie “In the Still of the Night,” mocking Frank with its syrupy cheeriness as he stews in his failings. Ironically, it’s the kind of
puckish observation that proves Marty still has ample kick in him.
6. “Les Fleur” – Minnie Riperton (Us)
Jordan Peele’s ambitiously satirical horror-thriller Us has no shortage of pithy soundtrack cues, from Luniz’s “I Got Five on It” (first heard on the radio, then eventually woven into the score itself) to an accidental spin of N.W.A.’s “Fuck tha Police.” But for my money, Peele saves the best needledrop for the end, as we learn the extent of the antagonists’ plan (no spoilers, obviously) to the swelling strains of Minnie Riperton’s “Les Fleur.” The song’s spare guitar, swelling strings and cacophony of voices, and cryptic, spooky-pretty lyrics serve as a perfect match for the film’s deceptively psychedelic take on sci-fi horror and American class relations.
5. “The Songwriter’s Medley” – Jeremy Bobb (Under the Silver Lake)
Okay, this one takes a little setting up. In Under the Silver Lake, David Robert Mitchell’s extravagantly weird follow-up to his horror breakout It Follows, shiftless protagonist Sam (Andrew Garfield) is investigating the disappearance of the foxy neighbor he almost hooked up with once, and in doing so uncovers a vast, nebulous conspiracy of secret codes, illuminati messaging, and ghostly, owl-headed women. After following geographic clues coded via numerology in a single by a local glam-goth band, Sam infiltrates the mansion of an elderly, unnamed songwriter (Jeremy Bobb), who casually admits to penning every popular song in history. As he speaks, he noodles a medley of his hits on a grand piano, from “Ode to Joy” to “Push It” to the theme from Cheers to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (“I wrote it on this piano, between an omelette and a blow job,” he sneers). Then Sam bashes his head in. If you’re
worried that I’ve spoiled the movie for you, don’t worry– there’s like an hour left, and this is ultimately a footnote. Like I said, this movie is wild.
4. “Another Girl, Another Planet” – Something She (Her Smell)
Her Smell is a hell of a film– every bit the swirling sensory overload as Uncut Gems, with a phenomenal lead performance by Elizabeth Moss– but perhaps its greatest trick is finding a way to talk about Courtney Love without having to talk about Kurt Cobain. As washed-up ‘90s alternagrrl turned superstar Becky Something, Moss captures the toxic yet undeniable charisma that made– and makes– Love so much more than rock’s second most famous widow (rather than include a Cobain analogue, director Perry pairs her with a Riki Rachtman-style VJ played by Dan Stevens). The original songs are uniformly excellent Hole impressions, but the film’s mission statement comes in its opening scene, in which Something tears into a cover of the Only Ones’ ur-pop-punk classic “Another Girl, Another Planet.” Like the song’s damaged narrator, Becky is a mess (spoiler alert: the girl and the planet are both metaphors for heroin), but like the song itself, you can’t help but get swept up in her orbit.
3. “San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Flowers In Your Hair)” – Emile Mosseri, Joe Talbot and Daniel Herskedal (Featuring Mike Marshall) (The Last Black Man in San Francisco)
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Joe Talbot’s The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a gentle, elegiac look at hanging onto one’s home and chosen family in the face of gentrification.
Playing a fictionalized version of himself, co-screenwriter Jimmy Fails serves as our eyes and ears, gliding around the city on his skateboard and haunting the house that may or may not have been built by his grandfather. The film’s most powerful passages are the ones in which Fails silently observes his kingdom, and never are these moments more profound than when set to Scott McKenzie’s hippie-drippy SF anthem, rendered heartbreaking by soul singer Mike Marshall. (Marshall, incidentally, is a venerable R&B singer and session vocalist, whose credits include– wait for it– the hook from “I Got Five on It!”).
2. “Supernature” – Cerrone (Climax)
Like most films by Gaspar Noe, Climax is something of a rough watch: a troupe of young dancers descend into madness and violence in a snowbound studio after someone spikes their sangria with hallucinogens. But as unpleasant as the proceedings can be, one thing can be agreed upon: the dancing scenes are phenomenal. With the exception of Sofia Boutella, Noe cast his film with professional dancers, and it shows in the scenes in which they strut their stuff to a lovingly compiled crate of 12”s. Even if no one drank the punch and the film never ventured into horror territory, its opening scene, set to Cerrone’s dancefloor classic “Supernature,” would make it one of the year’s most electric cinematic experiences.
1. “Baby You’re Out of Time (string version)” – The Rolling Stones (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood)
Quentin Tarantino is the undisputed heavyweight champion of the needledrop– just ask Dick Dale, Stealer’s Wheel, or Tomoyasu Hotei– so it’s no surprise to see him topping this list. Indeed, much of Once Upon a Time’s running time is spent simply riding around Los Angeles as Brad Pitt’s Cliff Booth grooves to a lovingly curated AM radio playlist, ranging from Paul Revere and the Raiders to Vanilla Fudge to Neil Diamond. But the film’s most striking cue comes right at the beginning of the third act, when the timeline jumps to a turning point in the relationship between Booth and his boss, aging western actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio)– and to a fateful day in the life of Dalton’s neighbor, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). As all three characters approach their very different crossroads, the lights flick on across Tarantino’s lovingly recreated Sunset Strip to the strains of the Rolling Stones’ “Baby You’re Out of Time” (in true cratedigger fashion, the version used is an unusual alternate single mix with a string section). It’s a
disarmingly bittersweet moment from a director not usually known for his sentimentality, and a large part of what makes Hollywood one of the most rewarding works of Tarantino’s career.