ONE STEP AHEAD OF THE BLUES | Nine Soundtracks to Remember

08/28/14 | By | More

Just as Labor Day marks the beginning of the fall season in Telluride, the Telluride Film Festival marks the beginning of Oscar season, with the last five films winning Best Picture having their North American premieres in Telluride.

Last year, in addition to Oscar winner 12 Years a Slave, Gravity and Nebraska premiered in Telluride.  You can pretty much count on the fact that a couple  films from this festival will be on the slate when the nominations are announced in February. But those films will have to compete with Richard Linklater’s film Boyhood, which played last week in Telluride. Shot over the course of 12 years, it chronicles the life of a fictional family from Texas, particularly seen through the lens of the younger son (Ellar Coltrane) as he goes from kindergarten to college.

Boyhood is sure to garner several Oscar Nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay for Linklater (which I think it will win), Best Actor for Ellar Coltrane, Best Actress for Patricia Arquette (which she may very well win), and Best Supporting Actor for Ethan Hawke.

Boyhood was one of the coolest cinematic experiences I have ever had. It reminded me of a Krzysztof Kieslowski film (a longtime Telluride Film Festival favorite), mixed with a healthy dose of Michael Apted, creator of the Up Series that followed a group of 14 children from age 7 to adulthood.

This column is primarily a music column so in honor of Film Fest, I am featuring my favorite uses of music in film and some memorable soundtracks.

Reservoir Dogs/Pulp Fiction

I’ll start with the soundtrack of a film that was another zenith in my career as a cinephile. In 1992, I was working for the festival, and went to a staff screening  of Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. I had never heard of Tarantino, or the film (which was screening as part of a tribute to actor Tim Roth), which blew my mind. I had never seen anything like it.  I was a little shaken by the movie and I remember walking around Telluride afterwards, trying to digest the cinematic full-course meal I’d just had, not even remembering the name of the film.

Tarantino said this about the importance of music in his films: “I find the personality of the piece through the music that is going to be in it… .It is the rhythm of the film. Once I know I want to do something, then it is a simple matter of me diving into my record collection and finding the songs that give me the rhythm of my movie.”

The music in Reservoir Dogs is mostly the music played by the radio station K Billy’s Super Sounds of The Seventies, with Steven Wright (who basically disappeared after Reservoir Dogs) as the DJ.  From the opening title sequence set to the George Baker Selection’s  “Little Green Bag” to the torture scene set to Steeler’s Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle With You,” Reservoir Dogs is a film best played loud.

Whereas Reservoir Dogs featured a slew of one-hit wonders, Pulp Fiction relied on better- known songs, from Kool and the Gang’s “Jungle Boogie” to Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” (aside from Dick Dale’s then-unknown and now-iconic instrumental “Misirlou” that accompanied the opening credits). John Travolta and Uma Thurman dancing to Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell” may be the signature scene from Tarantino’s best film.

(Film School 101: Tarantino is the master of blending diegetic sound (every sound that emanates from the world of the film) with non-diegetic sound (sounds added in the editing room that include music). The best example of this is the aforementioned torture scene, in which Mr. Brown (Michael Madsen) first hears “Stuck in the Middle With You” on the radio (diegetic), and then turns up the radio so the music becomes soundtrack (non-diegetic). Mr. Brown later leaves the warehouse and as he walks outside, the music dims, as if coming from the radio inside (diegetic), he then walks inside the warehouse  and the song returns to the soundtrack (non-diegetic).

Tarantino opens Pulp Fiction with a similar transition, as “Jungle Boogie” from the opening credits soundtrack ends up being the song played on the radio in the car of Vincent (John Travolta) and Jules (Samuel Jackson) .

The Graduate

Mike Nichols’ 1967 film was a seminal piece in the way it used music, in this case the songs of Simon and Garfunkel. Nichols was the first director to use contemporary “pop” songs as part of a soundtrack. Legend has it that Nichols was listening to Simon and Garfunkel as he was cutting the movie when he had a thought – “Why can’t I use contemporary popular music as the soundtrack in the movie?” And thus, the music supervisor was born. The final scene, where Benjamin Braddock is running to the chapel to stop the wedding of Elaine Robinson (and “Mrs. Robinson” putters to a close) is cinematic butter.

Dazed and Confused

Linklater’s 1994 film did for 70s music what American Grafitti did for 50s music. The film features 29 songs that appear on two soundtracks, both of which are stellar (if you like 70s anthemic rock’n’roll). “The School’s Out for Summer “montage at the beginning of the film and the “No More Mr. Nice Guy” montage (as Ben Affleck’s O’Bannion looks to paddle some freshman hiney) are classic.


No one uses music in film better than Martin Scorsese, and Goodfellas is his musical masterpiece. The story moves from the 50s to the 80s, with the music pushing the narrative both chronologically and stylistically. Scorsese takes it over the top in the final sequence, in which Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) is preparing for a drug deal, coaching his brother Tommy on how to make spaghetti sauce, visiting the doctor, all the while trying to figure out if a helicopter may or may not be following him.  In the seven- minute sequence, Scorsese uses six different songs – Muddy Waters’ “Mannish Boy,” The Who’s “Magic Bus,” The Rolling Stones’ “Monkey Man” included. It is essentially what is known today as a mashup, done 15 years before they became commercially popular. The sequence perfectly captures Hill’s life literally spinning out of control and heading for imminent destruction.

One final note on Goodfellas: Dancing with Wolves winning Best Picture over Goodfellas was, in the words of the wise guys in the film, an infamnia.

Garden State

I loved Zach Braff’s 2006 film Garden State, a sweet love story about two over-medicated 20 somethings trying to navigate life through a pharmacologically induced haze. The soundtrack is letter- perfect, featuring music from the Shinns, Coldplay, Zero 7, Thievery Corporation and more. Natalie Portman has never been more fetching when she hands her headphones to Braff at the shrink’s office, saying: “You gotta hear this one song. It’ll change your life. I swear.” One of the great sequences in the film is when the three main characters are at a giant sink hole and the soundtrack plays “The Only Living Boy in New York” by Simon and Garfunkel. Not only is it a greed deep track from their catalogue, the song is a nod to The Graduate in terms of youth alienation, this time from the new millennium.

Easy Rider

Dennis Hopper picked up on the popular music zeitgeist started by Nichols with Easy Rider.  Hopper uses the music as a narrative device to great effect. The opening scene of Captain America and Billy riding their bikes through the desert to Steppenwolf’s “Born To be Wild” is as iconic an image there is of the 60s counter culture. “The Weight” was released only a year before the film, and while Rolling Stone puts the song at #41 among the greatest songs of all time, “The Weight” is in my top 10. That song must have delighted audiences. The entire Easy Rider soundtrack is letter-perfect.


This 1985 cult film, Fandango, marked the debut of Kevin Costner (and director Kevin Reynolds.) Set in Texas in 1971, the film is about a group of friends who embark on a road trip in search of the mythical “Dom.” There are several great uses of music in the film. The song “Spooky” by the Atlanta Rhythm Section plays on the soundtrack as the guys happily shoot fireworks in a cemetery, only to have Costner’s character see the tombstone of a soldier who died in Vietnam, where he is headed. The song suddenly takes on a new meaning. The final shot of the movie is set to Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Home,” which comes to mind every time I hear that great song.

Boogie Nights

Music is critical in P.T. Anderson’s Boogie Nights. The music follows the timeline of the film from the 70s to the 80s, and begat two soundtracks. The scene where Alfred Molina, clad in a robe and his tightie-whities, explains that he has made a mixed tape and then turns up Night Rider’s “Sister Christian” is a Hall of Fame musical moment in cinema. I love the nod to the mixed tape, an art form from those decades that I practiced with great abandon.

The Big Lebowski

Perhaps the biggest cult film of the last 25 years, the Big Lebowski features a note-perfect score by Carter Burwell (who has since become the Coen brothers’ go-to guy when it comes to scoring their films)  and  is packed with great music – think the Gypsy Kings’ “Hotel California” as we meet Jesus Quintana at the bowling alley. But the classic music moment from this cult classic is the Dude’s dancing/floating into space montage to Kenny Rogers’ “Just Dropped In,” “to see what my condition was in.”


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Category: One Step Ahead of the Blues

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