Music in the Movies: (500) Days of Summer

In the last segment of Music in the Movies, I focused on Quentin Tarantino’s use of music and his penchant for presenting songs as diegetic sounds. In (500) Days of Summer, the music is presented as non-diegetic but it still effectively serves the filmmaker’s goals. (500) Days of Summer is a quirky, clever, and incredibly honest romantic comedy that was released in the summer of 2009. Very witty, often quite humorous, and paced extremely well, the film was lauded by critics and landed on a number of “Top Ten” year-end lists of 2009.  It starred Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Tom, a hopeless romantic, and Zooey Deschanel as the oft-distant Summer. It featured a soundtrack filled with the best that the indie rock, alternative rock and folk rock genres have to offer. More important though, instead of just being thrown into the movie randomly, these songs were employed extremely effectively, enhancing the emotionality of a number of scenes. The soundtrack fully captures the “hipness” and offbeat postmodernism that (500) Days of Summer so embodies.

The entire track listing of the soundtrack is below, but there are a number of songs that were featured in the movie which were not on the soundtrack. Belle and Sebastian’s “The Boy with the Arab Strap,” which I wrote about here, was featured, as well as Spoon’s “The Infinite Pet,” The Black Lips’ “Veni Vidi Vici,” and “The Music” by Paper Route. Several of the songs were used particularly well to increase the sentiments of a number of scenes. Regina Spektor’s “Us,” during the opening credits in conjunction with the home movies on the screen helped set a cautiously hopeful tone for the entire movie. “There Goes the Fear,” employed with a well-shot montage, also stood out to me as it almost symbolized Tom falling for Summer.

The use of “Sweet Disposition” on the train to the wedding also worked well as it reflected Tom’s hope for a second chance with Summer and instilled similar hope in the audience who at this point is already rooting for Tom. Feist’s “Mushaboom” in the very next scene was utilized similarly and it continued to echo Tom’s hopeful sentiments. The extremely clever split-screen shot that compared Tom’s expectations to reality was accompanied by Regina Spektor’s “Hero,” a perfect complement as the song starts out hopeful but ends in a dizzying disappointing tone, mirroring Tom’s feelings. “Vagabond” was utilized flawlessly, probably the best of any of the tracks. Tom had just hit rock-bottom and he was slowly recovering and picking up the broken pieces of his life. “Vagabond” conveys an inspiring feeling of re-creation, and its involvement in the scene completely enhanced its effect. “She’s Got You High” was played during the closing credits and really almost tied up the loose ends of the story, instilling confidence in the audience that Tom has truly found love this time and is happy.

(500) Days of Summer is a perfect example of effective use of music in a movie. Never overshadowing the action unfolding on screen but always providing a boost, the music helped communicate both the ecstasy and the heartbreak that Tom experiences over the course of the movie. While there were good performances and an extremely witty script, an impeccable use of music was one of the integral reasons why (500) Days of Summer was one of the surprise movies of 2009.

  1. “A Story of Boy Meets Girl” – Mychael Danna and Rob Simonsen
  2. “Us” – Regina Spektor
  3. “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” – The Smiths
  4. “Bad Kids” – Black Lips
  5. “Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want” – The Smiths
  6. “There Goes the Fear” – Doves
  7. “You Make My Dreams” – Hall & Oates
  8. “Sweet Disposition” – The Temper Trap
  9. “Quelqu’un m’a dit” – Carla Bruni
  10. “Mushaboom” – Feist
  11. “Hero” – Regina Spektor
  12. “Bookends” – Simon & Garfunkel
  13. “Vagabond” – Wolfmother
  14. “She’s Got You High” – Mumm-Ra
  15. “Here Comes Your Man” – Meaghan Smith
  16. “Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want” – She & Him

Music in the Movies: Quentin Tarantino, Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction

I find the personality of the piece through the music that is going to be in it… It is the rhythm of the film. Once I know I want to do something, then it is a simple matter of me diving into my record collection and finding the songs that give me the rhythm of my movie.” – Quentin Tarantino

The soundtrack is often one of the most overlooked aspects of a movie. Songs have this powerful ability to often say more than dialogue. Music can communicate emotions much more effectively than actors can. With that said, music in movies shouldn’t tell us how to feel, but rather enhance the sentiment of the scene. Trainspotting, which I mention previously in a previous post, is an example of an excellent movie soundtrack. Boyle’s use of Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” during Renton’s overdose is simply on point. Quentin Tarantino is a master of using song, more specifically popular music, to convey messages, often presenting them as diegetic sound. His attention to detail in compiling his soundtrack is unparalleled. In Pulp Fiction, there a number of examples of Tarantino using songs as diegetic sound allowing the music to naturally complement the action unfolding on screen.

As the opening credits roll, Dick Dale’s “Misirlou” plays before suddenly transitioning into Kool and the Gang’s “Jungle Boogie.” It’s then revealed that the song is actually coming from Jules & Vincent’s car radio and as Jules and Vincent discuss Amsterdam, you can still here “Jungle Boogie” but it’s at a much lower volume. Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell” is playing in Jack Rabbit Slim’s as apart of the dance contest. Urge Overkill’s “Girl, You’ll be a Woman Soon” is only included when Mia turns on the stereo in her house. “Flowers on the Wall” by the Statler Brothers is playing on Butch’s car radio and the lighthearted nature of the song creates a perfect contrast as in only seconds, Butch will proceed to run Marcellus over. As Butch enters the pawn shop, Maria McKee’s “If Love is a Red Dress” is playing on a small portable radio. By incorporating songs as part of the narrative sphere of the film, Tarantino supports and enhances the emotion of the scenes without disrupting the natural flow of the story.

“Although the story is very much present day, it has a ’50s feel but I used music from the ’70s. In one scene, the audience learns that a local radio station is hosting a Super 70’s weekend and that’s why I am using and referencing the bubblegum music that was popular during that period. I found that the music was a terrific counterpoint to the action on screen” -Quentin Tarantino on Reservoir Dogs

In Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino uses a mock radio show, “K-Billy’s Super Sounds of The Seventies” as means of distribution of the number of “bubblegum pop” songs included in the movie. The up-beat sound and innocent nature of the songs seems like a peculiar pick for a movie noted for its copious profanity, stunning ferocity, raw power, and strong violence but as Tarantino notes above, it creates a stark counterpoint and contrast to the action unfolding on the screen. None of the uses of song are as memorable or distinguished in Reservoir Dogs as the use of Stealers Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle With You” during Mr. Blonde’s torture scene of Officer Martin Nash.

“If a song in a movie is used really well, as far as I’m concerned, that movie owns that song, it can never be used again” –Quentin Tarantino

You can no longer bring up “Stuck in the Middle With You” without someone bringing up this iconic scene. Once again Tarantino presents it as diegetic sound as Mr. Blonde, played by Michael Madsen, goes over to the radio, turns it on, and then increases the volume. “Stuck in the Middle With You” comes on, and its cheery and happy-go-luck sound seems to clash with the seemingly psychopathic Mr. Blonde. He starts dancing and singing and the upbeat nature of the song is almost contagious. As the viewer you start tapping your foot and almost want to start dancing too. Tarantino is making the audience choose which emotion they want to feel. The disgust, horror and sympathy for Office Marvin Nash or the foot-tapping, lighthearted ecstasy inspired by “Stuck in the Middle With You?” After cutting off Nash’s ear, Mr. Blonde steps outside to his car to get gasoline and leaves the music in the warehouse. Suddenly, silence and the sounds of a sunny afternoon. As a viewer you get a bit of break and you begin asking questions, wondering what’s next. Mr. Blonde walks back into the warehouse and the music returns. Mr. Blonde is dancing maniacally, Nash is pleading for his life and Stealers Wheel continues to confound and conflict the viewer. Classic Tarantino, a truly iconic scene, magnificent directing, squirm-inducing action, and all set to the backdrop of a”Dylanesque, pop, bubble-gum favorite” as described by the K-Billy  DJ voiced by Steven Wright.

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.