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.
According to The Handmaid’s Tale music supervisor Maggie Phillips and showrunner Bruce Miller, one of the most significant needle drops in the second season took “forever” to get approved. This is not surprising considering Bruce Springsteen’s careful permissions process. As I discuss in my book (shameless plug here!) Springsteen as Soundtrack, Springsteen is notorious for being particular about what films and television shows use his music. He only chooses projects that best represent his artistic values. Therefore, the inclusion of “Hungry Heart” in The Handmaid’s Tale, though a small snippet, holds great emotional and thematic weight.
The song plays in the eleventh episode of season two entitled “Holly,” which focuses on the birth of June’s second child in the most dire of circumstances. Isolated in an abandoned country house with no electricity, June ends up delivering her child alone. While exploring the property, she finds a 1975 Chevy Camaro—the same brand Springsteen sings about in “Racing in the Street.” Miraculously, it still runs, and June sits at the wheel contemplating making her escape before her labour pains start kicking in. The car as a symbol of freedom is an obvious allusion to Springsteen’s entire lexicon.
June turns on the radio and hears Oprah Winfrey’s silky voice reading the news before introducing Springsteen’s song: “Now a tune to remind everyone who’s listening, American patriot or Gilead traitor: We are still here. Stars and stripes forever, baby.” The jubilant opening chords of “Hungry Heart” blend into Oprah’s reassuring voice, offering listeners solace in this dark time. Who better to serve as the face of a bygone republic in a bleak dystopian future than Springsteen, the bard of blue-collar America? Springsteen’s work champions the true and fundamental American values of freedom and equality, all which have been lost in June’s bleak world. The Handmaid’s Tale also acknowledges the universality of Springsteen’s star image; he is one of the most unifying artists with the ability to draw fans from both sides of the political sphere, from Republican to Democrat and American Patriot to Gilead traitor.
The tune speaks powerfully to June, and the camera holds on Elisabeth Moss’ kaleidoscopic face as she shifts from wonder to relief to bliss to stern resolve. Springsteen’s buoyant yet uneasy song galvanizes June to take charge of her impending labour. Only the first verse and the first two lines of the chorus play, where Springsteen underlines humanity’s ubiquitous yearning for something, whether it be a place to rest, a home, love—or in June’s case, to find her daughter. June’s hungry heart for Hannah is literally the only thing keeping her alive. Like Springsteen’s listless narrator, June longs to go out for a ride and never come back, but she is running towards her family, not away from them. June’s escapist desires have much higher stakes than Springsteen’s reluctant patriarch—she wants to evade the draconian tyranny of Gilead. But unlike the protagonist of “Hungry Heart,” June cannot successfully run from her responsibilities because she is about to give birth.
Another version of “Hungry Heart” from the Live 1975-85 album plays over the credits. There is a nostalgic pathos to the raucous sound of an enormous crowd singing the first verse and chorus in light of the episode’s isolation and intense circumstances. The happy-go-lucky cheers of the concertgoers are an eerie echo of simpler and happier pre-Gilead times (and in light of the pandemic, these sounds of tangible human connection are especially moving).
Although the needle drop is brief, what makes the moment so strong is that Springsteen’s anthem connects to our core humanity. “Hungry Heart” expresses the idea that no matter how much life beats us down, we will always have a ravenous appetite for something more. In The Baltimore Sun, “Phillips said by having a ‘strong American icon’ heard with a crowd, it tells the people of Gilead that, with persistence, things could be OK.” America has so often turned to Springsteen to see us through dark times such as 9/11 and the Trump era. Springsteen is an enduring American icon who has advocated for America’s virtues and contradictions for over fifty years. He is the perfect musical artist to serve as a beacon of hope in the evil wasteland of Gilead.
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.