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.
*NOTE: INCLUDES SPOILERS FOR THE ENDING OF HEREDITARY
The horror masterpiece Hereditary has a bone-chilling finale that culminates in a satanic cult’s victory. Surrounded by the decapitated bodies of his family and the cult members’ naked, ghostly pale bodies, Peter (Alex Wolff) vacantly stares into the void — his soul vanished and body inhabited by the demon Paimon, one of the eight kings of hell. The final shot closes on Peter standing in the candle-lit treehouse, encircled by his worshipers. After the cut to black, writer and director Ari Aster places the whimsical, fast-paced cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” by Judy Collins over the end credits.
“Both Sides Now” has an airy wistfulness that starkly contrasts the dread and fear that has been prevalent throughout the film. At first, Collins’ brisk, upbeat voice, the lush strings, and playful harpsichord and chimes, seem incongruous. The tonal shift from the dark, sinister ending to the song’s bright and merry tenor is jarring, even humorous — but ultimately striking. Set against the film’s bleakness, the song’s sunny disposition seems twisted and malevolent.
“Both Sides Now” is a coming-of-age song, a meditation on how things are not always what they seem. The song deals with the known vs. the unknown, how the ease and enjoyment of childhood slowly wears away as we gain knowledge of the world’s hard realities as an adult. The simplicity and beauty of life and love gives way to the truth and we begin to see things as they are. Clouds that were once “ice-cream castles in the air” become the harbingers of rain and the ruiners of a good time.
Annie (Toni Collette) is childlike, secluding herself with her living dollhouse, trying so hard to control her life and memories. Little does she know, her fate is already sealed by the cult; she is their living doll. Her family secrets are buried beneath a thinning veil of normalcy, waiting to be revealed. When Annie was younger, she assumed that her family’s mental issues were merely hereditary. She thought she knew what was causing the clouds of her upbringing, but she didn’t really know life at all. In the end, Annie’s life was all in the service of a demonic force. It was too late before she was able to realise the truth.
The jovial sound of “Both Sides Now” and its opposition to the film’s terror comments on the two-sided perspective of the ending. Although the lead characters have lost the battle for their souls, the cult is rejoicing that their demon has been put into the world. If you look at Hereditary from the cult’s point of view, it is a happy ending.
Themes of duality are consistently present throughout Hereditary, adding another layer to the use of “Both Sides Now” in the end credits. The song’s title refers to the sides of life and death, as Annie grapples with the deaths of her mother and daughter; the good and evil sides of a typical suburban family and satanic cult (which side they fall on depends on your viewpoint); hell and earth, the latter where Paimon is finally able to rule; and the proper gender line that Paimon needs to rule his subjects.
A bold final song choice, “Both Sides Now” is a fitting end credits song for Hereditary because it is ultimately about how things are not what they seem to be. A nuclear family is the hotbed of a satanic cult. The love of a grandchild is adoration for a demon. The Graham Family is lost, but what was gained was the successful ritual of bringing forth their leader. The sweet, dreamy tempo of “Both Sides Now” fits the darkly comic streak that runs throughout Hereditary, much more than Mitchell’s deep-voiced, melancholy version. “Both Sides Now” is a perfectly strange, eerie, and even witty endnote to leave Ari Aster’s terrifying film on.
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