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The Movie Music of the Decade, Part 1: The Scenes

by David Cornelius

As the decade-ending best-of lists begin to pile up, let’s turn our ears to the movie music of the decade. Our first list covers the most memorable musical scenes of the past ten years - the twenty best movie moments where song and story collide in all the right ways.

“Afternoon Delight” (“Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy”) It’s something of a tradition for modern goofball comedies to break into song. Usually, though, the gimmick smacks of desperation, sweaty filler that strains for silliness. But in the anything-goes universe of “Anchorman,” the joke is so very, very right: the Channel 4 News Team asks Ron (Will Ferrell) to explain what love is; Ron obliges with an a cappella take on the Starland Vocal Band’s biggest hit. It’s not just that he’s singing a tacky 70s hit, or that the rest of the cast joins in with harmonies to die for (although Steve Carell’s high notes alone would make the shtick a winner), or that they bounce back for one last four-part take on the title, as if offering the scene a pinch of punctuation. It’s the sheer inappropriateness of the song choice - only Ron Burgundy could equate an ode to daytime quickies with true love.

“America, Fuck Yeah!” (“Team America: World Police”) If George W. Bush could pick his own theme song for his first term, it’d be this chunk of Trey Parker badassery, which cuts through every bit of macho posturing and just tells it like it is: “comin’ again to save the motherfuckin’ day, yeah!” It’s not enough that “Team America” serves as one giant middle finger to the entire action flick genre; Trey Parker and Matt Stone felt the need to pause here to go wildly over the top in its send-up of jingoism at its most idiotic, rah-rah posturing set to the music of a crappy beer commercial. If Michael Bay could’ve put the scene in “Bad Boys II,” I’m sure he would.

“And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” (“Dreamgirls”) In all my years of moviegoing, I’ve never seen an audience react to anything close to the way the “Dreamgirls” crowd reacted to Jennifer Hudson’s showstopper. Cheers drowned out the movie - it’s as if Hudson herself had walked into the multiplex and delivered the song in person. More impressive is that “I’m Not Going” isn’t even the best song in the movie, not by far. (I’m partial to “One Night Only,” which packs quite the emotional punch.) The song itself sounds designed more around vocal acrobatics than solid melody, but it doesn’t matter. Hudson provides both the acrobatics and the heartbreak, in which a pregnant Effie begs her man (Jamie Foxx) not to abandon her. Hudson earns her Oscar right here, demanding attention - and getting it.

“Cat People (Putting Out the Fire)” (“Inglourious Basterds”) Quentin Tarantino’s soundtracks are as notable as the movies that feature them, and no QT soundtrack moment made audiences take notice quite like David Bowie’s theme from the 1982 film “Cat People.” Deliriously, wondrously, unapologetically anachronistic for this World War II thriller, Bowie’s droning synth-pop rises up out of nowhere as Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent) gets done up in homemade war paint, transforming herself into a vengeful killer. When the lyrics hit the chorus of “putting out the fire with gasoline,” Shosanna’s fury echoes with a thunder of hate. It’s Tarantino’s mixtape masterpiece.

“Cell Block Tango” (“Chicago”) When it comes to memorable musical moments, “Chicago” racks up a baker’s dozen, each song delivering its own priceless visuals. The best of the bunch is “Cell Block Tango,” with a stunning jailhouse set ripped right off of a certain Elvis flick. The tune itself is a collection of wicked little jokes about adultery, abuse, and stone cold murder (“he ran into my knife ten times”), while director Rob Marshall divides the scene between the damp reality of the prison with a sexed up, Fosse-fied burlesque fantasy world.

“Christmas Is All Around” (“Love Actually”) With props to Hugh Grant and the Pointer Sisters, the impromptu wedding band, Joni Mitchell, the Bay City Rollers, the Beach Boys, and adorable young Sam the drummer, the finest musical moment in the decade’s best romantic comedy comes right at the end, when has-been rocker Billy Mack (Bill Nighy at his Bill Nighy-est) makes good on his promise to sing his “festering turd” of a hit Christmas single bare-ass naked on live television. It’s a bit of vindication for the naughty character we’ve come to love, and the whole nation is there to cheer him on. Now let’s get pissed and watch porn.

“The Edge of Night” (“The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King”) J.R.R. Tolkien peppered his “Lord of the Rings” trilogy with numerous musical asides, so it’s only fitting that Peter Jackson would do the same for his epic film adaptation. None have the impact as “The Edge of Night,” the quiet tune the villainous Denethor (John Noble) requests of Pippin (Billy Boyd). As the hobbit serenades the Steward (who grotesquely devours his lunch, sauce dripping like blood, reinforcing his image as a monster), we see Faramir (David Wenham) lead his army into certain doom - a mission ordered by Denethor himself. Pippin sings “all shall fade” while the Steward is immune to such emotional ties. Following the glorious battle of Helm’s Deep in “The Two Towers,” Jackson throws us a fight without glory, only inescapable death, pushed forward by a heartless leader.

“Falling Slowly” (“Once”) It’s the scene that inspired this list, the most wonderful musical moment of the entire decade. The guy (Glen Hansard) and the girl (Markéta Irglová) have just begun their flirtations when they make their way into a piano shop. He teaches her a song he’s written, and she picks up on it immediately. We already know they’re made for each other, but do they? And does the guy realize the importance of his song choice, with its opening lyrics of “I don’t know you but I want you / All the more for that”? Here, the guy and the girl discover just how perfectly in sync they are. They let the music - with its thoughts on broken hearts and hopeful beginnings - speak what they’d never allow themselves to say. The scene resonates throughout the rest of the picture (the unforgettable finale cuts right back to this moment), the aching melody becoming part of movie history.

“It Only Takes a Moment” (“WALL-E”) Leave it to Pixar to find sweeping emotion within a broken robot and a forty-year-old musical. Michael Crawford’s tenor was an unexpected way to start Pixar’s robot masterpiece; ninety later, we realize there’s no other voice that could possibly end it. His duet with Barbra Streisand taught WALL-E and EVE how to hold hands, so when a woefully injured WALL-E reboots at film’s end, his blank stare makes us - and EVE - worry he’ll never be his jolly old self again. Ah, but the spark of love returns, and as our robot couple enjoy a happy ending, the duet returns, fading us out with a smile.

“A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow” (“A Mighty Wind”) Christopher Guest’s follow-up to “Best in Show” invented an entire universe of fictional folk classics, all of them as ingeniously crafted as the immortal hard rock tunes of “This Is Spinal Tap.” Each song was genuine in its cornball approach to the genre, a half-send-up, half-celebration. The story itself, meanwhile, all leads up to this tune, a folk favorite by Mitch and Mickey (Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara): the backstory reveals a milestone moment in folk history, when the duo paused mid-song to kiss on live television; for their reunion concert, will the now long-separated couple kiss again? And with Mitch in such a shaky mental state, will he manage to get through the show at all? In the middle of Guest’s trademark improv insanity, we’re tossed this adorable love story, and two former folkies we just plain adore. The rest of the cast makes a point to abandon their subplots and hurry to the stage to watch, and we’re right there with ’em.

“(Mama) You Got to Love Your Negro Man” (“Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story”) Speaking of an entire universe of fake music, “Walk Hard” invents a back catalogue of vintage country rock for its troubled hero, and just like “A Mighty Wind,” each song works as both ridiculous parody and genuinely great music. For “Negro Man,” director Jake Kasdan and star John C. Reilly lampoon that moment in every rock n’ roll biopic where the future superstar gets a chance to step out of obscurity and grab the spotlight. In Dewey Cox’s case, he’s been studying the rowdy stage banter of a soul singer (Craig Robinson), and then, well, it’s one of the film’s most bitingly funny punchlines.

“Man of Constant Sorrow” (“O Brother Where Art Thou”) Who’d’ve guessed a collection of antique bluegrass tunes would’ve led to one of the best selling soundtrack albums of all time? The success mirrors the film itself, where our hapless heroes dub themselves the “Soggy Bottom Boys” in order to earn a quick buck at a radio station, only to have their song become a hit. The song repeats throughout the film, most famously when the boys perform disguised in cheap beard before a raucous crowd. But the real keeper is the recording scene, which delivers a sort of raw joy, with the blind station manager (Stephen Root) lost in his own wondrous musical world.

“Mess Around” (“Ray”) Another recording studio scene, this one in the middle of what’s arguably the decade’s most successful biopic. While “Ray” is bursting with great music, the standout sequence is a smaller affair: Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun (Curtis Armstrong) has written a jumpy little song, and he’d like Ray (Jamie Foxx) to try it out. There’s unbound delight in watching the song quickly evolve from Ahmet’s nerdy, stilted performance into Ray Charles’ slick, wild, totally rockin’ rendition. The sequence is one of the movie’s shortest, yet it’s impossible to forget watching Foxx and Armstrong play off each other as they recreate one of Charles’ first big hits.

The rap battle (“8 Mile”) The boldness of Eminem’s semi-autobiographical tale comes early, when we see Rabbit fail miserably at a local rap battle, putting a question mark on his dreams. And when the film becomes reluctant to show us the very talents his friends swear he has, we wonder if Rabbit is just another wannabe, all talk and no skills. Then comes the rap battle, and a showdown with rival Papa Doc (Anthony Mackie). Suddenly Rabbit explodes with a creative rage, insulting himself - thus rendering Doc’s predictable put-downs useless - before attacking Doc’s prep school background. When the beats end, Rabbit keeps going, an entire movie’s worth of aggression and emotion exploding into the microphone.

Sita sings (“Sita Sings the Blues”) OK, so this one’s a total cheat. Rather than select one song from Nina Paley’s groundbreaking animated musical, I’m just going to go with the whole darn thing. The idea to mix a bubbly cartoon reworking of the Ramayana with the music of Annette Hanshaw is one of the grandest ideas in modern independent cinema. Each song works splendidly in its own playful manner - I haven’t met anyone yet not totally captivated by the charms of these scenes. The film is then bookended with original music that booms with catchy techno beats, all set to Paley’s experimental animation styles, a blend of sight and sound that refuses to escape from memory.

“The Times They Are A-Changin’” (“Watchmen”) In retrospect, it seems so simple an idea, yet looking back, I remember being bowled over by the total unexpectedness of it: the complete, convoluted backstory to an “unfilmable” twelve-part graphic novel gets condensed into a five-minute opening credits sequence, all set to the music of Bob Dylan. Oh, and each image will be something of a staged photograph that the camera can move through. Director Zach Snyder floors us right off the bat as he walks us through forty-five years of alternate history with deceptive ease. (Too bad the rest of the movie couldn’t hold up.)

“Tiny Dancer” (“Almost Famous”) Cameron Crowe’s films have jokingly been called movie mixtapes, stories where the soundtrack is more important than the script. But, like Tarantino, Crowe has the knack for matching the right song with the right moment. Midway through “Almost Famous,” we’re as exhausted as Stillwater, the fictional band who pauses on tour to crash a local party. The group has been at odds with each other, and it seems they’re certain to not last. But then, aboard the tour bus, an Elton John song plays on the radio, and one by one, the band begins to sing along, and they all realize that everything will be alright, that the family will stay together. It’s Crowe’s finest statement about the healing power of music, capped by Penny Lane’s (Kate Hudson) earnest observation about young reporter William (Patrick Fugit): “You are home.” It’s three words that welcome him to the family, and the song rolls on.

“Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 77” (“There Will Be Blood”) There’s not much humor in Paul Thomas Anderson’s epic drama, but man, how it ends on such a bitter punchline. As Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) finishes pummeling Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) to a bloody pulp - an eruption of hostility, one con man bashing in the brains of another - we pause to watch the oil man contemplate the wretchedness of his life. When he informs his manservant “I’m finished,” the line takes on multiple meanings, each one delivered with the darkest wink imaginable. And then, suddenly, Brahms’ third movement blares on the soundtrack, as if the film is taking a bow after telling the world’s most sinister joke - and the camera just sits there, lingering on Plainview, letting the concerto wash over us.

“Whole Wide World” (“Stranger Than Fiction”) There’s plenty of whimsy in Marc Forster’s fantasy of a tax man trapped in an author’s imagination, but the film’s best scene plays out squarely in the real world. Harold (Will Ferrell) is struggling to impress his date, alterna-chick Ana (Maggie Gyllenhaal); while she’s in the kitchen washing dishes, he picks up her guitar and nervously begins to play the only song he knows. To her surprise (and ours), it’s not some sappy whitebread tune, but Wreckless Eric’s punk classic. Ana’s so taken by the song choice, she jumps Harold right there, nearly crushing the guitar in the process. The soundtrack, meanwhile, jumps from Ferrell’s soft-voiced rendition to the original plugged-in recording, the perfect serenade for an on-the-couch make-out session.

“Wig in a Box” (“Hedwig and the Angry Inch”) Hedwig fans will probably pick one of the film’s more melancholy numbers, perhaps “The Origin of Love” or “Wicked Little Town.” For me, however, the movie’s highlight is “Wig in a Box,” which blends the inescapable sorrow of the title character with a happier chance at reinvention, all those wigs giving her all those chances to be someone else, if only for a little while. The scene even comes with both a rock-out interlude and a follow-the-bouncing-ball chorus sing-along, a little something for everyone.

Next week: A look back at the decade’s best movie songs.

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originally posted: 12/17/09 18:07:18
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