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.
Mommy is directed by the young auteur Xavier Dolan whose films often feature soundtrack choices that “have an emotional tenderness that digs under the skin and burrows into the soul of his characters. His impeccably curated song selections define and articulate their thoughts, fears, desires, hopes, and dreams” —I wrote in Fandor. Most of the songs are featured in sequences with a unique music video visual aesthetic. One of the most notorious musical scenes in his canon is the use of “Wonderwall” by Oasis in Mommy.
Mommy tells the story of a working-class woman named Diane who struggles to tame her son Steve, a tumultuous hurricane of intense anger, violence, and black moods. Their unexpected friendship with their neighbour Kyra provides a glimmer of hope. Dolan films Mommy in a claustrophobic 1:1 aspect ratio in the vein of an album cover or Instagram photo to embody Diane’s suffocating life striving to make ends meet while managing Steve’s savagery. The tight framing traps the spectator inside Diane and Steve’s toxic and stormy relationship that constantly ricochets between love and hate.
Dolan uses the rapturous 90s anthem “Wonderwall” by Oasis to craft a mesmerising sequence that illustrates Steve’s brief liberation from the shackles of his own destruction. The song is a joyous respite from the harsh, apoplectic reality that imprisons Diane, Kyla, and Steve. Liam Gallagher’s piercing vocals and tender lyrics overlay a cheerful montage of Steve getting along with his mother, successfully doing school work with Kyra, Diane earning more cleaning jobs, and the women riding their bikes in the street along with Steve on his skateboard. During the song’s drum break, Steve stretches his arms out and the screen expands from its claustrophobic square aspect ratio to a relieving widescreen. For the first time, Steve feels hope.
This visual device symbolises how the world has suddenly opened up for the trio. Once they all begin to harmoniously get along, their whole world seems bigger, brighter, and ready for the taking. Like the song’s narrator, Steve faces winding roads and blinding lights that confuse him; he buries his emotions beneath a layer of anger, not knowing how to fully express himself to his mother; he has many things to say, but he doesn’t know how. Now, he seems to have overcome that anxiety. Maybe Kyla is going to be the one that saves him, as Liam Gallagher sings with elongated vowels so that you can feel his deep anguish. Kyla’s newfound friendship and mentorship with Steve could be what saves him.
The song starts to fade out when the trio are making a meal together. Then, Diane answers the phone and discovers that she is being sued for the damages Steve caused setting the cafeteria on fire at his previous mental institution. The world literally closes in on her when the widescreen slowly returns to the confining square aspect ratio. Any happiness she felt during the “Wonderwall” sequence quickly evaporates along with her smile. Diane is once again enclosed in the unhappy truth of her familial circumstances.
As I wrote in Fandor, “Dolan crafts a splendorous visual world that is continually shaped and formed by melodies and rhythms” in his films. Mommy features one of his most beautiful and emotionally devastating needle drops.
by Caroline Madden
Caroline is the author of Springsteen as Soundtrack. Her favourite films include Dog Day Afternoon, Baby It’s You, Inside Llewyn Davis, and The Lord of the Rings. She is the Editor in Chief of Video Librarian. She has an MA degree in Cinema Studies from SCAD. You can follow her on Twitter @crolinss.