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.
Grosse Pointe Blank is a brisk satire with a razor-sharp script anchored by John Cusack’s sardonic performance. This quirky action comedy centres on a philosophical hit man (Cusack) who reluctantly accepts an assignment in Detroit that coincides with his 10-year high school reunion in the Grosse Pointe suburbs. The soundtrack is just as nostalgic as the plot, chock-full of classic 1980s tunes and artists such as The Clash, Violent Femmes, The Specials, and more. These songs are not only a time capsule of Martin’s youth, which he has yet to leave behind, but they also provide an emotional weight, penetrating the enigmatic Martin’s jaded stoicism to voice his inner thoughts and feelings.
Martin is unsure about going to the reunion, telling his therapist, “They all have husbands and wives and children and houses and dogs, and, you know, they’ve all made themselves a part of something and they can talk about what they do. What am I gonna say? ‘I killed the president of Paraguay with a fork. How’ve you been?’” Before social media, reunions were a minefield of potential humiliation and surprise. The present status of all your former classmates, unless you kept in touch with them, was completely unknown. Did the bullying football stars and cheerleaders end up with a better life than you? Or worse? Was your biggest crush happily married with three kids? Or single? Was the dorkiest kid now a successful millionaire? You were there to discover how your life stacked up against your peers.
Martin feels that he has nothing to show for himself: no family or relationship, only a morally corrupt job. After reuniting with his old flame at the reunion (Minnie Driver), he starts to wonder if now is the time to move his life in a different direction. The (relatively short) needle drop “Under Pressure” by Queen conveys Martin’s internal struggle between domestic and solitary life. Martin sits down with a former classmate who tells him, “Life’s so great. People think that when you get married, you lose your freedom. But it gets better and better,” while she holds her baby boy. She asks Martin how his life is, to which he sarcastically replies, “In progress.”
While his former classmate reaches to get her son a bottle, she hands him her baby. Immediately, the song “Under Pressure,” already playing in the background, amplifies. Director George Armitage cuts between tight close ups of the adorable and expressive baby and John Cusack’s wide-eyed, inquisitive wonderment. Martin squares his focus on the baby, squinting his eyes and really taking him in. Armitage cuts to another angle, the profiles of Martin and the baby, as they continue to stare at one another. Martin’s curiosity turns to tenderness in the last shot, when he feeds the baby his bottle. Looking into his big, round eyes, Martin sees the thousands of experiences that await the little boy. Unlike Martin, he has his whole life ahead of him; his life is a blank slate waiting to be written. For Martin, the older he gets, the more a stable, content future seems to slip away. The baby is also a window into the life that Martin could have if he abandons his nefarious occupation as a mercenary and settles down.
The song choice absolutely nails the pressure this reunion puts on Martin to reevaluate his life. Its grandiose sound matched with the hypnotic, colorful closeups of the baby, situate this as a pivotal moment for Martin. Only the last verse is fully heard, but it sums up the complex emotions Martin faces at the reunion perfectly. Queen’s hit dares him to be as vulnerable and pure as this little boy is so that he can open himself up to falling in love. Although he has an aloof exterior, inside Martin is another person “on the edge of the night,” as the song says—someone in need of direction and companionship. Love may be an old-fashioned word, but it transcends time and space, re-connecting Martin to his old girlfriend no matter how long they’ve been apart. Ten years after high school, he faces the intense pressure to have his life together. He finally cares about himself now, as Queen sings. Rather than create death with his job, Martin wants to create a new life, a life where he truly loves and provides for another person. Grosse Pointe Blank may be a biting black comedy, but it has a moving moment where the protagonist contemplates life for the first time, like a child.
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