How to Use Music in Movies – And How Not To
It cannot be understated how important the use of music is in cinema. I’m not talking about the score, but of carefully chosen popular songs. There is no better way of engaging an audience, to give them the immediate context of what you’re trying to make them feel than with a carefully constructed scene that makes use of this type. Some filmmakers excel in this medium: Quentin Tarantino has made it one of the most important components of his directorial career, Goodfellas by Martin Scorsese is basically a set of beautifully sound tracked vignettes that chart where the main character Henry Hill’s arc is at that point of the story.
The latest example of this skill is Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver, a film that is a pop song come to life by way of a heist movie. Wright constructs his entire film with the broad strokes of the music he soundtracks it with. From Baby’s rhythmic interactions with the world around him to his melodramatic romance with waitress Deborah. It’s a film obsessed with music.
Of course, not all films are like Baby Driver. Most films use music in a more limited way yet can still feel significant. So the question is, how do you use music in the right way? Before we can answer that it might be easier to look at a movie that gets it totally wrong. It will come as no surprise that the movie is Suicide Squad.
Suicide Squad is a strange beast. A DC team-up of misfit criminals that seemed to learn all of the wrong lessons from the likes of Deadpool and the Guardians of the Galaxy films. The way director David Ayer uses music is a great signifier of the film’s quality. In order for a musical moment in a film to be effective, there are two things that need to be considered. One is obviously the song choice, and the other is how you use it. Suicide Squad’s song choices are as uninspired as the rest of the film. It’s packed full of well-known hit songs that are used so obviously that any significant impact they could have had is lost.
Black Skinhead by Kanye West is used to soundtrack Deadshot fire a gun. Why was it used for that? Because Will Smith is black and has a skinhead for the role. Let’s not even mention the fact that the movie is so culturally toned death that it thinks using a song about how America has mangled black culture to soundtrack a black man firing a gun. Less problematic, but still wrong, is the sheer amount of songs he film goes through. It feels like instead of having a music supervisor Ayer put his iPhone on with the shuffle broken. The first half an hour is akin to an extended preview album, 30 seconds of Eminem, 30 seconds of Queen, and Creedence Clearwater Revival, and on, and on.So that’s not how to do it. For an example of the right way to use music let’s go with a film that is on the other end of the spectrum.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, the directorial debut of Ana Lily Amirpour, is a tiny indie vampire film. As far as a soundtrack, the film uses music a lot more subtle than Suicide Squad, except for one scene. It’s midway through the film with The Girl, who is a vampire, and Arash, himself a lonely man in the early stages of drug dealing, listen to a song on a record player. The song is “Death” by British band White Lies. As the full song plays the Girl and Arash being to approach each other, both lost in the music. It’s a brilliant scene, with the song filling the space between the two characters, with the lyrics about being afraid of death adding to the atmosphere of the scene whilst reaffirming some of the films central themes. It’s not there to be cool or window dressing. It I used to enhance Amirpour’s point about the spiritual death that one character is facing, and the literal death that the other is trapped by. It’s a centerpiece moment, and easily the best scene in the film.
Both of these examples represent the use of music on different sides of the spectrum; with most movies use of music coming between these two points, but it’s a useful tool for any aspiring filmmaker to know that music can be a great tool when used correctly.
Contributor: Kevin Michael Boyle
Subscribe to VersusMedia Magazine to get access to timely annotations, critical essays, and features by film professionals and critics from around the world.