Soundtrack is one of the most fundamental components of filmmaking, articulating the inner lives of characters, setting the emotional tone for the scene, or shaping the time and place. This list examines, in no particular order, some of the best moments of the decade, and includes both source music (heard/sung by the characters within the film) and extradiegetic music (soundtrack used as score).
Frances Ha – “Every1’s a Winner” and “Modern Love”
“Everyone’s a winner, baby, that’s the truth”—everyone, that is, except for Frances who fumbles through Paris on an ill-fated trip. The song’s velvety tones, deep, seventies-style bass, and overall funkiness ironically counters Frances’ millennial awkwardness and anxiety. David Bowie’s “Modern Love” carries Frances’ elation as she leaps and bounds through the New York streets in another scene. As an audience, we feel her exhilaration in the guitar riffs of Bowie’s infamous jam.
Marriage Story — “Being Alive”
Stephen Sondheim’s “Being Alive” is one of the greatest songs about love ever written; it perfectly captures the ambivalence, joys, frustrations, and euphoria of romantic relationships. Noah Baumbach’s inclusion of the solo in A Marriage Story— his emotional chronicle of a painful divorce—is incredibly poignant and affecting. Charlie’s random karaoke performance of the song unexpectedly ushers in the feelings he’s been bottling up, and he realises the impact of the love he has lost.
A Ghost Story — “I Get Overwhelmed”
“I Get Overwhelmed” by Dark Rooms is jangled and strange, much like David Lowery’s hypnotic A Ghost Story; it powerfully conveys the film’s metaphysical longing. Lowery crosscuts between M listening to the song before and after her husband’s death and his ghostly presence. The lead singer’s keening sounds like a howling animal and voices her acute grief. She is alone, so alone, as the singer moans. This scene is a moving example of how music anchors to our memories and connects to our loved ones.
Drive — “A Real Hero” and “Under Your Spell”
The dreamy 80s synth of Electric Youth’s “A Real Hero” combined with the slow-motion shots and golden imagery of Irene and the Driver speeding through the empty LA River crafts a gorgeous sequence that immediately hooks you into Irene’s adoration of the Driver. The Driver is the real hero, a cool and formidable man who carries Irene’s little boy to his bed. She is understandably awestruck. Desire’s “Under Your Spell” plays over a slow zoom in shot of Irene staring off at her husband’s party, distracted by her yearning for the Driver, seen in a crosscut alone in his room. The lyrics are her inner thoughts: “I don’t eat, I don’t sleep, I do nothing but think of you.”
Blinded by the Light — “Born to Run”
There are numerous uses of Bruce Springsteen on the film’s soundtrack worth mentioning, but the “Born to Run” sequence is a candy-coated moment of sheer bliss. Bruce’s sharp, pure rock and roll sound fills the screen as three enthusiastic teens run through the halls of their school, out into town, boogie with street dancers, and jump into the air. The scene is so joyfully infectious that you feel as if you’re going to burst.
American Honey — “American Honey”, “Dream Baby Dream” and “We Found Love”
American Honey is a cinematic mixtape with numerous notable uses of soundtrack. Rihanna’s glittery “We Found Love” represents the runaways’ ne’er do well life as they tear through a K-mart. “Dream Baby Dream,” a Bruce Springsteen cover, has a moving passion that expresses Star’s internal longing for a better life. Her connection with the working-class truck driver as they listen to the song on the radio is one of the film’s more tender moments. Andrea Arnold wonderfully recreates the sensations of being on a road trip throughout the film, particularly during a sing-a-long of Lady Antebellum’s “American Honey,” a sweet song that reveals the group’s unspoken desire for a quieter, pastoral life. Arnold’s use of soundtrack through the entirety of American Honey is exceptional.
Take This Waltz — “Video Killed the Radio Star”
The 80s synth pop of “Video Killed the Radio Star” matches the colorful lights that swirl around Michelle William’s and her lover on a spinning indoor amusement park ride. The physical whirling and the song’s techno rhythm capture her exhilaration and budding crush. As the song slows down, doubt settles in and her smile starts to fade. The lovers’ swaying bodies crashing into one another is no longer a thrill but a frustration. The song abruptly ends and the harsh overhead lights snap on with a smash cut. The joy of the ride is over. Their relationship is now left with questions and uncertainty. Sarah Polley creates a captivating moment that uses soundtrack to trace her lead character’s mini emotional journey.
Her Smell — “Heaven“
Elisabeth Moss’ tour de force performance as a wild rock and roll chick comes to a quiet climax in a moving scene where she softly plays and sings Bryan Adams’ “Heaven” on the piano. Her daughter requests a song that “reminds you of me.” The tender lyrics in Moss’ soft, quavering voice are a quiet plea for redemption, an assertion of bottomless love, and incredibly poignant after the hell she has put her daughter—and everyone in her orbit—through. It is a small moment of grace that allows Becky to emotionally connect with her young daughter after providing her such a strained upbringing. Her daughter’s love is the light she needs to heal.
Gloria Bell and I, Tonya — “Gloria”
In 2019 and 2018, Laura Branigan’s “Gloria” was used in Gloria Bell and I, Tonya, respectively. The highly catchy and danceable pop song is not only an in-joke for the lead character of Gloria Bell, but it also scores the entire final scene. At first, Gloria is reluctant to dance to her namesake, but at her friends’ pleading she gives in and dances—an act that provides her joy but also reveals her loneliness. The lyrics speak to her situation as she also navigates her love life throughout the film, running after men who are not worth it. In I, Tonya, the song gives Shane Stant and Derrick Smith, the bumbling Nancy Kerrigan culprits, confidence and energy. The song seems to imbue them with the power to get the job done. The song’s exuberance and their passionate lip synching has a comedic irony after the slipshod execution of their crime that follows.
The Social Network — “Baby, You’re a Rich Man”
“How does it feel to be one of the beautiful people?” The Beatles ask Mark Zuckerberg, who has spent the duration of the film attempting to ascend the Harvard ranks and achieve success. Yet, despite being one of the richest people on earth, he is still utterly alone. He sits by himself, repeatedly pressing the refresh button on Erica’s profile—still pining for something he can’t have, just like he did in his dorm room. “Baby, you’re a rich man,” the chorus repeats, not as a celebration but a bitter condemnation. David Fincher uses soundtrack to create one of the most biting film endings of all time.
by Caroline Madden
Caroline hails from the home state of her hero, Bruce Springsteen. Her favourite films include Dog Day Afternoon, Raging Bull, Inside Llewyn Davis, and The Lord of the Rings. She has an MA degree in Cinema Studies from SCAD and also appears in Fandor, Reverse Shot, Crooked Marquee, and IndieWire. You can follow her on Twitter @crolinss. Order her book Springsteen as Soundtrack here.
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