Making musical memories in cinema

November 7, 2010

Originally published in The Michigan Daily

A friend of mine recently stated in her Facebook status that she “never ceases to be amazed by music’s ability to recall time and place and feeling.”

I’m not assigned to comment on music for the Daily, but I would say that my friend’s wonder is as much related to my mission as film columnist as it is to the more obvious, originally referenced art form.

Her revelation regarding “time and place and feeling” is a study of the cinematic effect of music, which, partially through its use in visual art forms, has become a signifier and trigger of visual memory.

Music and film have historically been intertwined in prominent ways, most obviously through the classic film musicals of the Hollywood studio era and the more modern musicals of the last decade. The two have also been combined in rock films over the past 50 years, including “A Hard Day’s Night” (1964) as well as contemporary pop soundtrack-based movies like “Garden State” (2004) and every film in Cameron Crowe’s filmography.

John Cusack holding a boombox over his head in Crowe’s “Say Anything…” is meaningful because of its place in the film’s specific romantic context, but the scene is memorable for Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” emanating from the stereo. Similarly, fictitious band Stillwater riding in a bus while singing along to Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” in Crowe’s later film “Almost Famous” is emblematic of the film as a whole and has a reverse effect on the song itself. Modern listeners, some of them possibly experiencing the song for the first time, will forever think of “Tiny Dancer” in the context of the specific scene and the film.

Music also links itself to the cinema through pop musical over-scores (often over diegetically silent scenes) and musical montages. A quintessential example of the former is in Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now”: The Doors’ “The End” sets the despondent and horrific tone from the opening scene’s very first bursts of napalm, and by bookending the narrative, the song becomes absorbed into the movie’s character. Can you really listen to “The End” and not see the fire?

The latter is what TV’s “Grey’s Anatomy” has overused to cliché, and pretty much to death — montages of scenes set to popular music (or in the case of “Grey’s Anatomy,” indie music) used to infuse the story with a specific artistic and cultural reference point. By using a certain type of music, the production — whether a TV show or a film — takes on the qualities of its music in more than just a formal sense by also piggybacking on the song’s meaning and the personal identities of the artist and listener of the music.

Beyond the overuse of montage on “Grey’s Anatomy” or the bastardized presentation of popular music in the first act of “The Hangover” (which has music arguably too popular to really be effective), contemporary film often does musical montage very well.

One example is Zach Braff’s “Garden State.” The story of a struggling actor’s return home after his mother’s passing is remembered more for its soundtrack than its success as a film, likely due to its musical selections’ strength in embodying the protagonist’s character.

In one memorable montage scene, the despondent Andrew Largeman (Braff) sits still on a couch in the middle of a silent cacophony of movement at an ecstasy and alcohol-ridden party. The aural diegesis is silenced and the only sound is Zero 7’s “In the Waiting Line.” The song’s lyrics state, “Do you believe in what you see? / There doesn’t seem to be anybody else who agrees with me.” The song is meaningful alone, as is the silent visual moment, but the fusion of the two makes the scene memorable.

On a different level, Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” has numerous montages to classic rock songs, including a masterful extended Ray Liotta voiceover montage under the piano exit of “Layla” by Derek and the Dominos. The song’s lamentful, nostalgic and yet accepting decline to a romantic affair perfectly reflects its point in the film, as the crime family culture of the first two acts falls in bloody and disastrous fashion, allowing narrator and protagonist Henry Hill (Liotta) to walk on (relatively) unscathed but yearning for his younger days.

Whenever I hear the piano exit to “Layla,” it’s not that I see the entire montage from Goodfellas; the importance of the combination is that each form informs and changes the other. For me, just as much as “Layla” is an essential part of “Goodfellas,” the film has become an essential part of my experience of the song.

The same way that people relive their memories to music, my experience of music often returns me to a film. That said, music in film is more than mathematical and the combination is far more than the sum of its parts. Music combined with a visual medium can change the way we move, the way we respond to real situations and most importantly, the way we remember.

The human memory is enormously complex; we can remember songs lyric-for-lyric that we haven’t thought of in years, and in the same way, we can always remember the essential combination between aural and visual — whether that comes from our own experience or through witnessing another’s in film.

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