small blue flowers

Wednesday

What is old is new again...

bluets

Some songs are just destined to make their way into film if only to be but a whisper. It is in those quiet moments of song and scene that an entire emotion and sub-plot is played out without us even being aware of it. This is especially true when the song is not one we are familiar with. This is where the composer of film scores does his/her best work. But what about those songs that are familiar? Last time I wrote about songs written specifically for film, but what about the soundtracks that are comprised of all pre-recorded songs. Songs that you can bet at least half of the audience has heard before. The familiar can be an important tool, when setting mood. It must be handled carefully though. The ability of the mind to go into a sensory memory state can backfire if it contradicts the mood that is trying to be established.

For instance, I was in this play called, “Moo” in college. I distinctly remember the director’s choice of using the soundtrack to “The Piano” for scene changes. This happened to be the same year the movie was nominated for several academy awards. What was important about these scene changes was the fact it was the cast (not stagehands) that moved the stark set pieces in rhythm with the soundtrack. The scene changes were intended to be part of the movement of the play itself. I remember speaking to an audience member afterwards and was not surprised to hear that when he heard the music all he could think about was the movie not the play. It pulled him out of the play and back into the movie where his mind thought music belonged. I am sure he was not the only one to experience this. After all, mover goers many times tend to be theatre goers. In this case the soundtrack to The Piano was just too new to be used without it being too recognizable.

But sometimes the use of recognizable songs can bring new life to an old song. There is comfort in the recognizable like that smell of pipe-tobacco that automatically makes you feel happy because it reminds you of your grandfather and he always made you feel so loved.

One movie to use all previously recorded songs for its soundtrack is “Strictly Ballroom” which by the way is one of my favorite movies. As the title of the film suggests, Strictly Ballroom takes place in the world of ballroom dance. I have encountered some of these ballroom dance studios and I must say although characters are slightly exaggerated, they really are quite um….whimsical folks let’s say. The soundtrack of this film uses a list of very recognizable songs yet they are used in a way that doesn’t pull you out of the experience of the film. Of course they revamped and re-recorded them with different singers and slightly different arrangements, but the heart of the songs are all still there. Without giving away too much about the plot for those of you who haven’t watched this very quirky and delightful film here are a couple examples.

I think the use of “Time After Time” (originally written and sung by Cindy Lauper) was brilliant. They did not try to hide the fact it was recognizable. In fact the volume is turned up on this one in the scene it is used. I loved the fact they let the words of that song speak for the characters and in many ways they mimic the same mood and scene Cindy Lauper herself used in the video for the song. There was something beautifully nostalgic about it that worked for me.

Strictly Ballroom also used the song “Tequila.” This song is quite popular as far as soundtracks go. Anyone remember Pee Wee’s Big Adventure? Now think of the song Tequila for a moment and then Pee Wee Herman…If you were young and alive in the 80’s you might be one of many that can not help but do Pee Wee’s tequila dance every time you hear that song. It wasn’t difficult; everyone could do it that is what made it special. It was accessible. I do not know for sure if the sound designers of Strictly Ballroom were fans of the Pee Wee Herman, but I do believe they knew what they were doing when they added that song to the movie. Strictly Ballroom is a film about dance for goodness sake. Sometimes you can use those sensory memories to work for you in film. The use of Tequila might have been an attempt to remind you of the youthful and silly and to make you feel like you were in on the joke…an active participant in the film.

It is a talent to be able to use recognizable songs in film. It requires balance between the too old and too new--the over used and the just used enough. I certainly have much respect for the sound designers that are able to distinguish what songs fall in each category and why, and I for one plan on listening even more for their cues.

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