A needle drop is more than just the use of a popular song in a film—it’s an affecting moment that ignites our senses, bringing the visual medium to artistic heights. “Needle Drop” is a monthly column that will explore such moments, looking at how a variety of films across genres use pre-existing songs to colour a scene.
Love Actually has many memorable needle drops throughout—Bill Nighy’s cheeky yuletide version of Wet Wet Wet’s “Love is All Around,” the rousing concert performance of Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You,” and who can forget Hugh Grant shaking his booty to The Pointer Sisters’ “Jump For My Love”? But there is one moving scene that is the emotional high point of the film.
One of the numerous story lines follows Karen and Henry, played by Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman. Harry contemplates cheating on his wife with his raven-haired, wide-eyed secretary Mia (Heike Makatsch). He ends up purchasing Mia a necklace for Christmas which Karen sees when she goes through his things and excitedly believes it’s for her. Unfortunately on Christmas Day, Karen is heartbroken to discover that all he got her was a Joni Mitchell CD; “To continue your emotional education,” he quips. Karen anticipated a gift with romantic meaning, but instead Harry insultingly jokes about how she has no feelings. With this gesture, Karen immediately knows something is wrong in her marriage. She retreats to her room and listens to “Both Sides Now.”
The smoky melancholy of Joni Mitchell’s voice encapsulates Karen’s despair. The lyrics about love, the “dizzy, dancing way that you feel,” overlays lovely framed pictures of she and her husband with their kids, the picture-perfect fairy tale that became real, as Joni sings. In the past, as we see in these photographs, Karen saw love through the rose-coloured glasses of happiness. The next shot shows Karen alone, awkwardly on the left side of her bedroom, the unmade marriage bed glaring in the middle. She clutches her wrist, standing on edge as if trying to find something to distract her from the fact that she is going to burst out crying.
Joni Mitchell’s somber lyrics about love being “just another show, and you leave ‘em laughing when you go” represents not only Karen’s knowledge that their relationship has been a lie the entire time and Harry has just been pretending, but also Karen’s feelings of foolishness: foolish enough to think that her husband was getting her something romantic and ashamed that she even hoped for it, because she is not “deserving” of a sweet gift like that. A close-up shot of Karen putting her hands over her face to try to stop her flow of tears follows, just as the strings swell and Joni sings the emotional chorus, is absolutely devastating.
Mitchell’s lyrics explicitly voice Karen’s feelings. She can only see the joy they once shared in hindsight. Now, the love of their past seems like an illusion. Karen had no idea that her husband was thinking about cheating, and now that she knows it is all she can think of. Every moment they’ve shared is a sham because Harry was secretly doting on another woman. Karen really doesn’t know love at all. She has only been looking at love from one side—happiness—but now she can see the other side, her husband’s unhappiness. The lonely trumpet adds to this scene’s poignant sorrow. Emma Thompson knocks this heart-rending moment out of the park, bringing to life Karen’s dejection with an achingly raw authenticity. (One cannot help but wonder if she brought some of her life circumstances to the role, as she was cheated on by her ex-husband Kenneth Branagh).
“Both Sides Now” transfers to a non-diegetic score, overlaying Karen walking out of the room and putting on a brave face for her children. “Something’s lost and something’s gained in living every day,” Mitchell sings as the song fades out and the shot switches to the next scene. Karen has gained the unfortunate knowledge that her husband is cheating and lost any secure feelings about her relationship. Joni Mitchell’s tender song exquisitely captures Emma Thompson’s marvellous and deeply affecting portrait of heartache.
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.
Categories: Needle Drop