I feel those words have been used to in some way describe multiple films by nearly every thoughtful filmgoer. It’s a sure sign that film’s overall impact is as much auditory as it is visual, because every film does trade in some rhythmic frequency, even those devoid of actual music. Sound surely enhances the emotional impact of a scene, but quite often offers an intellectual impact as well. Both Star Wars and 2001: A Space Odyssey contain shots and scenes that look rather similar to one another, but where one booms with John Williams’ instantly recognizable themes of expansive melodrama, the other dances with Johann Strauss’ “The Blue Danube”.
2013 may not boast a purely bonafide musical in its ranks, the closest notable one being Disney’s Frozen, whose musical compulsions vanish in the third act. Last year was apparently musical enough to merit the Oscars claiming it as theme, though only Les Miserables was present of the small musically compelled batch last year. As far as endurance in the cultural mindset goes, it’s not even the most resilient. Families are far more likely to take out Pitch Perfect every year, rather than put themselves through the misery porn of Tom Hooper’s stylistically flat adaptation.
More often that not, however, the year’s best musical moments don’t rise from conventional musicals, or even moments of vocal excellence. A sly repurposing of preexisting music can be ripe with scintillating subtext and sensory impact. The opening minutes of Spring Breakers juxtapose a raucous college beach party with Skrillex’s dubstep party jam “Scary Monsters & Nice Sprites”, but the result is less a celebration than a simultaneously hilarious and gratuitous assault of self-perpetuating pornography. This in a movie where, shockingly, no two characters have sex, it should be noted.
That moment was certainly considered in assembling this list, as were many others. Some missed the cut for lack of decisive moments, such as Frances Ha soundtrack replete in French New Wave references or Simon Killer‘s repeated, and consistently abrupt, use of “Apply” by Glasser. Others just weren’t substantial enough, like the Acapella group’s ignored rendition of “Up the Ladder to the Roof” from At Berkeley or Spring Breaker’s eerie matching of Nicki Minaj’s “Moment 4 Life” to the girls’ robbing of a chicken shack.
The moments that did make the cut were ones that I simply couldn’t shake from my mind, and if it doesn’t quite meet your tastes, then it is admittedly a subjective list, from the perspective of one who’s yet to see Her, Blue is the Warmest Color, American Hustle or The Wolf of Wall Street. I may well update this list once I have, but for now I open the floor for you to offer your own favorite musical moments to counter the ten I’ve assembled.
Film Misery’s Top 10 Musical
Moments in 2013 Cinema
In a summer where audiences were over-obsessed with originality in studio blockbusters, The Lone Ranger exceeded Man of Steel & Pacific Rim alike, not through hollow homage, but through loving tribute. It’s rare that you get both an exciting and ingenious musical cue out of a Hollywood action sequence, but Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger puts all the undeserved critical malice to shame as it gallops into its rollicking final train sequence and Armie Hammer’s to-this-point oafish John Reed into legend as the Lone Ranger. Accompanying this excitingly choreographed display of practical effects wizardry is Hans Zimmer’s rearrangement of the familiar William Tell theme, blending both the celebrative classicism of the original tune with Zimmer’s surging, historically cathartic original compositions, ranking well amongst the best original scores of the year. In a film about keeping history alive, even when all who’ve witnessed it are dead, an ecstatic battle overture fusing past to present bombast is a better punctuation note than city-destroying terrorist attacks.
9. “Crown on the Ground” from The Bling Ring
A key part of creating a rampant, hypnotic vibe in 2013’s pair of teen mischief narratives was their pop heavy soundtracks, but where Spring Breakers went to the grungy party side of the spectrum, Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring was more tuned to seek sonic empathy. The kids jamming out to “All of the Lights” and “Bad Girls” is less a typical wayside expression as it is an unconsciously desperate cry for empathy from their idols. Coppola never lets the film or the teens become aware of that emptyness, but clues the audience into it time and again. The very first auditory distraction layered onto the actions of these teens is the opening credits theme of Sleigh Bells’ loud and bright “Crown on the Ground”, which blares in on sub-woofers as we enter the first of many dark, empty celebrity houses. “Let’s go shoppin'” Katie Chang declares as we’re ushered into a ride that allows us the rush of their experience, but the outsider’s perspective to critique (not judge) their actions.
8. “Please Mr. Kennedy” from Inside Llewyn Davis
Okay, there are more frostily melancholy numbers to pull from in the Coen brothers’ 60s folk musical Inside Llewyn Davis, but I don’t recall any of them being as mile-a-minute alive as this most intentionally satirical performance. With Oscar Isaac’s titular Davis short on cash and desperate for a gig, he goes in for one with guileless singer Jim Berkey. As far as subtext goes, there’s none beyond the song’s parody of Vietnam-opposing pleas to John F. Kennedy, but in reference to the space program (T Bone Burnett, Adam Driver and Oscar Isaac discuss the process of the song’s creation here). When it comes to the quicksilver editing of this sequence, I can’t recall another scene this year pulling so many laughs from putting the same jokes on repeat, be them Llewyn’s puppy dog ‘puh-puh’s or Adam Driver’s pitch-perfection bass vocals. Now if we could please get a mash-up video with this song attached to footage from Gravity, that would be just sublime.
More than Frozen or Inside Llewyn Davis, Belgium’s Foreign Oscar entry The Broken Circle Breakdown is the year’s most fully fledged musical, but also the most curious one. A Finnish language relationship drama that expresses itself with distinctly American music, the juxtaposition of markedly different languages reveals the film’s international subtext well before the film’s most overt addresses of that theme. When George Bush comes on the telly to speak against stem-cell research, you know the film’s at risk of being too passionate in its proclamations, but for every over-the-top rant there’s a note of profoundly affecting grace to counterbalance it.
The bluegrass soundtrack is an offbeat delight, but the moment that yields the punishing emotional impact is an instrument-free rendition of “Didn’t Leave Nobody But the Baby”. The moment during which it plays is funereal to say the least (and the most), and the introduction of music to that depressive mood feels like it’s edging precariously on inappropriate, but it’s at this moment when the film must seize or abandon its soaring empathy. The latter may have been a more graceful choice, but the film is too defiantly hopeful for that, even as it stamps out any sense of a happy end. And my God, all the emotions!
The most obvious pop generation alteration in Baz Luhrmann’s cover of The Great Gatsby is the not-so-subtle fusion of Jazz era music to hip-hop jams. Jay-Z’s contribution opened the doors for many artists to contribute to Luhrmann’s cross-generational hodge-podge, and much like last year’s Django Unchained, not all were given full weight in the film’s final mix. Sia’s “Kill and Run” was relegated to the end credits while Nero’s percussively solemn “Into the Past” was chopped down to a mere snippet, be it one played over a crucial final scene in the film. For all the music that couldn’t slide into the works, one scene was so bright and bustling with music both past and present, but consistently bombastic.
Kanye’s “Who Gon’ Stop Me” ushered us into the party world in Tom Buchanan’s secret adultery flat in New York, but the doors were blown off the hinges by Nick’s first party at Gatsby’s, who up till this point has maintained an air of mystique, which hits its climax in this vibrant atmosphere where the only one missing seems to be Gatsby himself. Fergie & will.i.am are booming, Nick’s getting consistently more drunk & naively flirtatious with dynamite Elizabeth Debicki’s Jordan. Then “Rhapsody in Blue” starts teeming in and we’re flashed the same teasing
Green Lantern ring. Nick chases after Jordan while relaying the rumors of Gatsby to his charismatic new friend. Then…
And then the list took a sharp turn from play to pain. Bastards, Claire Denis cold-hearted neo-noir, knows only two frequencies: seething eroticism and gratuitous eroticism. Denis’ dealt with the overlap in sex and violence before, to more visceral and less apologetic ends in Trouble Every Day, but Bastards turns her interest to the consequences of that overlap. The physical results upon Lola Creton’s Justine are self-evident, but the ethical ramifications they have on the family grow more sickening as the films moves hypnotically forward. Sexual boundaries are stretched, but are more unsettling for never snapping. “I’m not witty. I’m a very sinister person,” Denis’ stated in total seriousness, and the degree she lets her audiences bathe in sickliness attests to that, as does the film’s segue into its end credits, with Tindersticks’ haunting melody “Put Your Love in Me” making all sorts of psycho-sexual implications while, in spite the disgust raised by the final footage, nonetheless arousing us.
And then we all went home and took a long cold shower.
It may well have passed by everyone who saw Captain Phillips, Paul Greengrass’ propulsive hostage thriller, but at a crucial sector of the film’s final act we switch off Henry Jackman’s distractingly brass-heavy original score and turn briefly back to a track from Greengrass’ usual collaborating composer John Powell. During unarguably the pivotal climactic scene of the film, as Tom Hanks’ eponymous Phillips prepares for almost certain death, the Navy moves closer and closer in, with tensions in the lifeboat escalating as the militia’s technical precision zeroes closer in on their targets. It’s a moment when we pray for “the good guys” to save our protagonist, but when they do, we’re suddenly forced to reassess who the victims were all along. The moment may have held that intrinsic weight on its own, but matched to the music from the finale of Greengrass’ last feat of real world cinematic journalism, United 93, the moment takes on a deeper cathartic meaning.
3. “Let It Go” from Frozen
If not destined to take Best Original Song this year, then a total lock for a nomination, it’s not hard to see, hear or feel why. By the time it comes Frozen has already had two soaring musical numbers (and one playful one), but all lensed through Anna, the sister who accesses her emotions more freely than Elsa, who’s been told to deny her emotions her entire life. Yeah, no queer subtext at all in this (Will elaborate on this further soon). Putting aside subtler minority subtext, the moment Elsa stops denying her feelings is one destined to resonate in the canon of great Disney songs, not to mention countless YouTube covers of it to come.
Within the film itself, the way the scene plays out is wholly indicative of the film’s aesthetic, constructing a rather practical ice castle set to match the film’s embrace of classical musical structure. One imagines high school theater departments will slave over that set when the film is fully adapted into a Broadway musical, but that’s not to say Frozen would work just as will in live action. What makes the film so stunning is not a denial of its sprightly adolescence, but its embrace of the emotional freedom of adolescence. Seeing somebody whose childhood has been practically nonexistent embrace that herself never ceases to raise hairs and touch hearts.
On a note of nitpickery, why must Disney muddle this song’s impact with an unnecessary Demi Lovato cover? I can imagine nobody who would prefer listen to that version.
David Ehrlich’s tribute to this moment (and 2013 as a whole) should speak the volume of praise, but Park Chan-wook builds a seductively erotic turning point out of a playful bit of uncle-niece piano time. Up to this point Mia Wasikowska’s India has been understandably distrusting of Matthew Goode’s squeaky clean, boyishly handsome Uncle Charlie, who now takes matters into his own (musically dexterous) hands. Accompanying India’s traditional playing with lower-pitch inserts, the scene becomes a musical battle of wits between India’s dainty, playful nature and Charlie’s darker, sensuous compulsions. It’s more of a chemical mixture than an organic composition, and it’s the most satisfying lasting signature of Phillip Glass’ involvement in the film. It may lack lyrics, but is it too much to ask that this qualify as an original song?
I was not the biggest fan of Destin Cretton’s Short Term 12, a film whose honeydew sweetness can’t help but belittle the teen traumas it seeks to address. I say this not to boast of my hip subversive, but to stress how strong this brief moment of music registers. It comes in stark contrast to the slightly patronizing mothering of kids at the facility and of Brie Larson’s Grace herself, and from the onset it’s clear that we’re going to get more abrasive honesty out of Keith Stanfield’s Marcus than anyone else is willing to admit. Filled with cusses like f***, slut and bitch, the song wallows in the lost chaos that teen growing up in this facility must feel so often. For using music as a means of undiluted expression, I can think of nothing else so refreshingly forward.