MOVIES

The 20 Best Needle Drops of the ’90s

The birth of the “jukebox score” is often credited to George Lucas’ “American Graffiti” and the film school generation. But it took another couple of decades — during which popular music, and the act of marrying sound and vision, underwent several seismic evolutions — for music supervision to come into its own as a recognized art form. By the 1990s, needle drops were no longer the exclusive province of auteurs; the use of pop songs in movies had grown to the point that it was more than a way to capture a moment in history (say, a cut to Vietnam War footage signaled by Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower” riff) or propel an ’80s montage (Everybody sing: “Just a steel town girl on a Saturday night / Looking for the fight of her life…“). Partially motivated by the draw and economics of having a popular soundtrack or a hit tie-in video on MTV, pop cues became a widely used cinematic tool, and the craft and importance of music supervisors like Randall Poster was starting to be recognized.

The palette of the needle drop has expanded and deepened since the ’90s: The awkwardness of how hip-hop was used during the decade has evaporated, and Terrence Malick has shown filmmakers they can mix and match classical composers in the same film. Still, there are needle drops from the ’90s that came to define to form, which forever linked a song and a film and continue to resonate louder than anything playing in theaters today.

The following is a list of the top pop cues in ’90s films, as chosen and ranked by the IndieWire staff. For the purposes of the list, we defined a needle drop as a preexisting recording of a pop song given new context by its placement within a film. Full-on musical numbers were not considered, so apologies to the modern standards of the Disney Renaissance. If a song was commissioned for or “inspired by” (to borrow a phrase from the decade’s original motion picture soundtrack albums) a film, or if it met the ever-slippery standards of the Academy Award for Best Original Song, it was also disqualified. (For this reason, Aimee Mann’s “Magnolia” compositions and the Elliott Smith songs from “Good Will Hunting” amounted to some of our most painful cuts.) For succinctness’ sake we tried to limit our final picks to one film per director, and one needle drop per film — though there was one famously verbose director whose ’90s output had such a profound impact on the art of the needle drop that we had to bend the rules.

You can watch our Top 10 in the Video Above, edited by Azwan Badruzaman, and read our Top 20 below. 

This article contains contributions from Erik Adams, David Ehrlich, Jim Hemphill, Chris O’Falt, and Sarah Shachat.

20. “Velvet Goldmine”: Lou Reed, “Satellite of Love”

David Bowie wouldn’t license his music to “Velvet Goldmine,” Todd Haynes’ fictionalized history of glam rock by way of Oscar Wilde and “Citizen Kane.” But his voice still resonates throughout the film, as Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ Brian Slade dons Ziggy Stardust drag, stages an elaborate farewell concert for the alter ego that threatens to consume him, and, in an echo of Bowie’s personal and professional relationships with Lou Reed and Iggy Pop, collaborates with and romances an American counterpart, Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor). It’s at the ecstatic peak of that relationship that Bowie’s voice is actually heard, in the “mmm-hmm”s and “bum bum bum”s of Lou Reed’s swooning “Satellite of Love.” It’s a cheeky sleight of hand, sidestepping the catalog-wrangling that keeps “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story” out of circulation, but Haynes doesn’t let that get in the way of the emotion, splashing Brian and Curt in shades of blue and pink as they serenade one another from a carnival ride of mutual appreciation. Brian isn’t Bowie (there’s some Bryan Ferry and Jobriath mixed in there), and McGregor isn’t Reed either (his hairdo and onstage antics are all Pop). But for that scene, reality and fantasy blend in a most eye- and ear-catching fashion. —EA

19. “The Girl on the Bridge”: Marianne Faithfull, “Who Will Take My Dreams Away”

Patrice Leconte’s “The Girl on the Bridge” sounds like a tale of mutually assured destruction: A suicidal young nymphomaniac volunteers to be the human target in an unlucky knife-thrower’s circus act after he rescues her from the freezing waters of the Seine. But everything changes when Marianne Faithfull begins to warble “Who Will Take My Dreams Away?” over the soundtrack as Adèle (Vanessa Paradis) and Gabor (Daniel Auteuil) practice their act on a train, the danger of it all melting into a dizzyingly romantic — even orgasmic — pas de deux about death-obsessed strangers who make each other feel invincible. It’s the stuff of pure cinematic ecstasy, as tenuous and perfect as the song that makes it whole. —DE

18. “William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet”: Radiohead, “Talk Show Host”

It flies by in an instant, as fleeting as a sunset or the lives of two star-crossed lovers in fair Verona where we set our scene: lonesome guitar, trip-hop drums, and the voice of a man so haunted by a sneak peek at Baz Luhrmann’s beach-scuzz turf war interpretation of the Bard that it inspired one of the best tracks on “OK Computer.” “Exit Music (For a Film)” got the closing credits of “William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet,” but the brief spotlight moment for an older track earlier in the film lingers in the memory as both a theme for Leonardo DiCaprio’s sensitive, tortured Romeo and a reminder of a time when Radiohead completists had to plunk down upwards of $18 to get a listen to that spooky B-side they’d heard on the band’s ’97 live tour. (It’d be a few more years before Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker bit their thumbs at the major labels and called it Napster, one of several death knells for the platinum-selling soundtrack album.) No doubt our young Montague would’ve been one of them: The lamentations of his well-heeled mother (Christina Pickles), Luhrmann’s decision to render “O brawling love! O loving hate!” as notebook poetry — DiCaprio is the Radiohead Romeo. —EA

17. “Dazed and Confused”: The Edgar Winter Group, “Free Ride”

From the opening credits set to Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion” to the Foghat anthem, “Slow Ride,” that closes out the film, “Dazed and Confused” is a master class in how to use needle drops for maximum effect – the movie is unthinkable without them. Writer-director Richard Linklater’s ensemble character study of a group of high schoolers cutting loose on the last day of the school year in 1976 uses an expertly curated playlist of rock classics as its score, but the songs’ use goes beyond mere nostalgia. Sure, Linklater uses the music to establish period, but more importantly he uses it to express the inner lives of his characters so that the dialogue doesn’t have to; a case in point is his choice of The Edgar Winter Group’s “Free Ride” to kick off a montage of the teenagers getting ready for the night as the sun sets. The song’s giddy energy perfectly conveys the sense of anticipation and liberation in the air and propels the movie into its second act with infectious good cheer – a feeling characteristic of the work of “Free Ride” songwriter Dan Hartman, who would go on to write or co-write ’80s soundtrack staples like “I Can Dream About You” from “Streets of Fire,” “Living in America” from “Rocky IV,” and “Get Outta Town” from “Fletch” before his untimely death at the age of 43. JH

16. “Clueless”: The Muffs, “Kids in America”

If “Clueless” rocked less, we might be able to talk about it more: from a crash course in to Radiohead for folks who missed the release of “The Bends” three months earlier to a little bit of Beastie Boys and Coolio giving ’90s suburban kids their first bite of punk and rap to a track from the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, exemplars of the coming ska craze. The musical world of “Clueless” is, in the parlance of its age, Just So 90s. But nothing sets the stage better for what’s to come than The Muffs’ pop punk cover of Kim Wilde’s “We’re The Kids In America.” The roaring guitar riffs that open the film, even before we’re finished seeing the Paramount logo go by, have a bite to them and the opening lyrics have an antisocial energy, a loneliness, that lies behind all teenage facades. But when paired with the introduction of Cher Horowitz (Alicia Silverstone), the track soars into a new gear — fortunately one that Cher’s Jeep doesn’t have to deal with. Nothing expresses the rush of teenage freedom and the confidence of privilege better than the title refrain of “We’re The Kids In America.” Director Amy Heckerling shoots Cher’s adventures with her friends around LA with a camera that, like its subjects, can’t sit still. It’s constantly in motion, trying to find the teenagers in frame because they’re too cool for a static shot. But the scene would be a blank without music, and particularly without the hooky backup vocals that today would make for a perfect song of the summer. It’s simultaneously true to Cher’s social milieu and true to her, the joys she has and the attitude she brings to her life. “We’re The Kids In America,” much like “Clueless itself, is a perfect bop. —SS

15. “Eyes Wide Shut”: Chris Isaak, “Baby Did a Bad Bad Thing”

In hindsight, the use of Chris Isaak’s horned up strut of a country-western song toward the beginning of “Eyes Wide Shut” (and throughout one of the greatest teaser trailers ever cut) was one of the final jokes that famous rapscallion Stanley Kubrick ever played on us. Reeking of sweat and impossibly good sex, “Baby Did a Bad Bad Thing” teases us with an X-rated look at one of Hollywood’s most picture-perfect couples, and its needle-drop moment delivers on that promise, even if only in a softcore way.

Thank God for that, because the scene Isaak soundtracks contains all of the sex that Alice and Bill Harford are going to be having over the course of the 159-minute film that follows — a tormented dream epic of marital jealousy and the trysts not taken. Kubrick needed to give audiences a kind of cinematic blue balls in order to fuel Bill’s erotic journey to nowhere, and to do that he chose a song that almost sounds like a parody of seduction. Even nearly three hours later, after watching Bill travel to the far edge of his fantasies only to wind up in a children’s toy store, you can still hear the sexual tension of those staccato guitar notes vibrating under every shot. —DE

14. “Pulp Fiction”: Dick Dale & His Del-Tones, “Misirlou”

When Quentin Tarantino wrote and directed “Pulp Fiction,” he wanted audiences to know they were in for something more exciting, more ambitious, and more provocative than not only his own previous feature but than just about anything else hitting American movie screens in 1994. We all got the message a few minutes into the movie, when Amanda Plummer’s promise to “execute every motherfucking last one of” the patrons in the diner she and Tim Roth were about to rob gave way to the driving surf guitar of Dick Dale’s “Misirlou.” As Tarantino said at the time of the film’s release, “Having ‘Misirlou’ as your opening credit, it’s just so intense. It just says you’re watching an epic, you’re watching a big, ol’ movie… It just throws down a gauntlet that the movie now has to live up to.” “Pulp Fiction” did, of course, live up to the promise of Dale’s speedy, catchy riff (a modern take on a folk song from the Eastern Mediterranean) and became one of the most influential films of the decade. The association between song and movie was so complete that only two years later, in “Space Jam,” a few notes from “Misirlou” and a wardrobe change for Elmer Fudd and Daffy Duck were enough to instantly reference Tarantino’s film in a way that every adult in the theatre would understand. —JH

13. “The Long Day Closes”: Debbie Reynolds, “Tammy”

A non-linear vision of 1950s Liverpool that unfolds with the slippery warmth of a Technicolor deathdream, Terence Davies’ “The Long Day Closes” finds the director orchestrating his childhood memories into what Nat King Cole might call “the music of the years gone by.” But none of that music has a greater impact on him — or us — than Debbie Reynolds’ willowy 1957 ballad “Tammy,” which soundtracks one of the most indelible sequences of the decade as a series of God’s-eye-view panning shots melt church, school, and the cinema into a single place in the director’s mind. The longing in Reynolds’ voice reverberates with Davies’ own search for love, leading him ever deeper into a romance with the music and movies that have always loved him back. —DE

12. “Wayne’s World”: Queen, “Bohemian Rhapsody

Today, Queen is firmly entrenched in the classic rock pantheon, the type of legendary act handed down to new generations of fans in greatest hits playlists, overblown biopics, and Target graphic T-shirts. But it wasn’t always so: As Mike Myers tells it, he had to put up a fight to play “Bohemian Rhapsody” in his first starring vehicle. Myers wanted the 1975 single to soundtrack the headbanging intro to the “Saturday Night Live” spin-off “Wayne’s World,” but either producer Lorne Michaels or Penelope Spheeris (accounts differ) insisted on a more zeitgeist-y Guns N’ Roses track. Myers threatened to walk, Queen got the green light, and an indelible cinematic vision of suburban goofballs making their own fun was born.

“Bohemian Rhapsody” wasn’t getting a lot of radio airplay at the time of filming, but it’s evident that the song is in heavy rotation among Wayne (Myers), Garth (Dana Carvey), and friends: There’s a familiar, lived-in feeling to the performance and direction of the sequence, underlined by the way every passenger plays his own part and hits his own cues within the “I see a little silhouetto of a man” operetta. It helps that Myers and co-stars Sean Sullivan and Lee Tergesen were reenacting scenes from their own misspent youths, which they pulled from as Garth’s blue AMC Pacer, the Mirthmobile, was towed up and down the streets of West Covina, California for take after take.

Myers was right about how “party time” should look and sound outside the “Wayne’s World” basement, and his convictions were echoed by the swell of renewed Queen appreciation that followed frontman Freddie Mercury’s death in November of 1991. When “Wayne’s World” hit theaters the following Valentine’s Day, a posthumously reissued “Bohemian Rhapsody” had re-entered the charts, and audiences were freshly primed to nod along. The needle drop supercharged Queen’s resurgence, and other films quickly followed suit: Disney’s “Mighty Ducks” franchise, for instance, brought the jock-rock block of “We Will Rock You” and “We Are The Champions” to even younger viewers. Even the setup of the sequence found a second life, as the shout-along title sequence to “That ’70s Show,” from Myers’ fellow “Wayne’s World” screenwriters and “SNL” alums Bonnie and Terry Turner.—EA

11. “Malcolm X”: Sam Cooke, “A Change Is Gonna Come”

Few filmmakers made better use of needle drops in the ’90s than Spike Lee, from his haunting use of Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City” in “Jungle Fever” and the dazzling juxtaposition of ABBA, The Who, and L.E.S. Stitches in “Summer of Sam” to the parade of Prince cues in “Girl 6” and the sweet nostalgic sounds of “Crooklyn.” Lee’s greatest marriage of music and image came in 1992’s “Malcolm X,” in which he scored the title character’s arrival at the site of his assassination with this Sam Cooke classic. It was also one of Lee’s greatest triumphs of negotiation, as Cooke’s estate had never licensed the song to the movies before, and only did so for “Malcolm X” because of the emotional impact of the scene and under the condition that the song not be listed in the credits or featured on the soundtrack album. Cooke’s powerful anthem — inspired by his desire to create a song like Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” — provides an inspiring, haunting, unforgettable crescendo as Lee’s masterpiece approaches its climax. —JH

10. “Rushmore”: The Creation, “Making Time”

After Martin Scorsese saw “Rushmore,” he wrote its director the type of admiring letter any young filmmaker dreams of receiving. One of the things Scorsese keyed in was the film’s use of music: Instead of wallpapering “Rushmore” with a mixtape of favorite tracks, Wes Anderson and music supervisor Randall Poster had scored this very personal movie with nuggets from the British Invasion. It almost didn’t matter that the ’60s tracks had no literal relation to the story of Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman) and the blue-blazer prep school he loved. The soundtrack transcended setting and time period to capture the spirit and the intention of this singular cinematic vision.

Anderson announces that intention with the clanging riff of a nearly forgotten mod classic. No sooner has Rushmore headmaster Dr. Nelson Guggenheim (Brian Cox) declared Max “one of the worst student’s we’ve got” than The Creation’s “Making Time” whisks us through a survey of the accolades and honors Max uses to camouflage his academic shortcomings. This cinematic supplement to the Rushmore Yankee — of which young Fischer is the editor-in-chief, natch — is an oft-parodied, never duplicated feat of motion, composition, cadence, color, and sound. It projects the worldliness, sophistication, and popularity Max aspires to (and, based on the attendance for some of his extracurriculars, fails to achieve); the musical sneer of “Making Time” supplies the brio he’s yet to earn, no matter how many stone-faced poses he strikes for the camera. With an introduction like that, you might understand how grown-ups like Herman Blume (Bill Murray) and Rosemary Cross (Olivia Williams) might become intrigued by this curious little striver in the red beret. Moreover, you can see and hear what Scorsese did all those years ago: Emerging talents, planting a flag —CO & EA

9. “Reservoir Dogs”: Stealers Wheel, “Stuck in the Middle with You”

Roger Ebert wrote about how actors could become stars in one scene — Jack Nicholson when he put the football helmet on in “Easy Rider,” Eddie Murphy when he took over the country & western bar in “48Hrs.” — but the phenomenon isn’t limited to performers. Directors can become stars in one scene too, and that’s what happened to Quentin Tarantino when Michael Madsen’s “Mr. Blonde” turned up the volume on “Stuck in the Middle with You” and danced and sliced his way into film history. Although there’s no real onscreen gore in Tarantino’s depiction of Mr. Blonde’s razor-blade assault on his hostage’s ear — the camera looks away just before the maiming begins — the impact of expressing a sociopath’s glee through catchy bubblegum pop was so disturbing that early audience members, including horror maestro Wes Craven, walked out on the movie at that point. (You know you’re pushing some boundaries when you’re too rough for the director of “The Last House on the Left.”) The viewers that stayed — and who returned to the film over and over again — were hooked, though, and the invigorating mix of disparate tones that Tarantino’s use of the song facilitated would become one of the director’s trademarks.  —JH

8. “Fucking Åmål”: Foreigner, “I Want to Know What Love Is”

“We are so cool,” Elin (Alexandra Dahlström) whispers to Agnes (Rebecka Liljeberg), the young girls simultaneously nervous and impressed by the badassary of their sneaking out in middle-of-the-night adventure, which takes an even more daring turn when they flag down a car to hitch a ride.

Foreigner’s ’80s power ballad is initially just background coming through the crummy car radio of the middle-age man who stops to pick them up. But when he gets out to look under the hood of the stalled-out car, the music shifts to pure soundtrack bliss, propelling the girls’ nervous excitement into a passionate kiss.

Just as important as the euphoric sound transition, is the moment the needle careens of the record and comes to a screeching halt — the kiss and the music interrupted by the return of the man, who scolds them. The juxtaposition of the magical kiss of (as the lyrics espouse) “knowing what love is” and the adult world that forbids them encapsulates how hard it is for them to find true escape. —CO

7. “Belly”: Soul II Soul, “Back to Life”

For many of the filmmakers who dazzled MTV viewers in the 1990s, a pivot to the big screen seemed like a logical next step. It worked for David Fincher, Spike Jonze, and (sigh) McG. Yet, to this day, one of the form’s most audacious and imitated visual stylists still has only one feature to his name. (Which only makes the McG thing more galling.)

But what an entrance Hype Williams makes with “Belly”: The surreal crime drama begins with what’s essentially a peak-era Williams music video in miniature, as Nas and DMX (also making their feature debuts) glide through New York’s infamous Tunnel nightclub, backed by the original, skeletal recording of Soul II Soul’s “Back to Life.” Without the dancefloor thump of the remix that had made the song an international smash, “Back to Life” settles over the scene like an ominous cloud, a stark contrast to the revelry surrounding Tommy (DMX) and Sincere (Nas) and the robbery they’re about to commit. Williams amplifies that tension between glitz and gloom with some of his VMA-worthy signatures: the slow-motion photography, the wide-angle tilt toward the doomed club manager’s face, the shiny surfaces everywhere, the “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Could See” black light effect that gives the protagonists’ eyes a feline glow. Williams reportedly sunk most of the film’s budget into the sequence, and it shows in a meticulousness that extends to its choice of song. Steady, are you ready? Hype Williams sure was, and here’s hoping he gets another shot to prove it someday. —EA

6. “Fight Club”: Pixies, “Where Is My Mind”

The lyrics of “Where Is My Mind?” arriving at the end of “Fight Club” is one last cruel joke — but more importantly it’s a hilarious joke. Even though it’s the Narrator (Edward Norton) who takes Marla’s (Helena Bonham-Carter) hand at the very end of the film, nothing embodies the cool chaos of Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) quite like that keening guitar lick and the haunting “Hoo-oooo” of Kim Deal’s vocals. The music is triumphantly anarchic, right at the moment that the modern world the Narrator has found so stifling comes tumbling down — one unfortunate way the film has aged is that we’ve since seen so many real high-rise buildings and skyscrapers destroyed that, watching it now, the lack of smoke and shrapnel from the explosive charges doesn’t feel realistic.

But “Fight Club” isn’t realistic; it is a dark, urgent desire of a story, and having a Pixies anthem lead us into the credits is a good final proof of just how fun those can be. The song has since become a staple in film and television, showing up in everything from “Veronica Mars” to “The Leftovers,” but a whole generation was introduced to it (and Pixies, and maybe punk as an aesthetic) right here. “Where Is My Mind?” was never issued as a single, meaning its reached its widest audience through visual media. When that happens to a song, it can become shorthand for emotions, for types of cuts and montages, even for cliffhangers. The joyful abandon of “Where Is My Mind?,” of asking where your sanity has gone and really not caring to get it back, is never more powerful than it is here as the final, beautifully painful note of a David Fincher masterpiece. —SS

5. “Chungking Express”: The Mamas and the Papas, “California Dreamin’”

There’s something that feels wonderfully of our digital age about how “Chungking Express” treats music. It’s not that Wong Kar Wai has picked out a set of majestic vibes to score this fractured exploration of love and loneliness in Hong Kong, although he has (and gotten Faye Wong to sing one of them herself in probably the best-ever cover of “Dreams” by The Cranberries). But songs in the film aren’t simply tracks; they are earworms, songs that are almost ideas, that get into your head and start to have a gravitational pull all their own. “California Dreamin’” by The Mamas and the Papas becomes a key pillar of the film in how it pops up again and again (and again and again), like a return to the small comfort of eating canned pineapple or picking up a chef salad from a bodega.

It’s remarkable — even in a story that is all about repetition and the obsessions and longings that will never leave us, the mistakes we make over and over — that the film’s heartbeat is the music that affects these characters as they flail around. It says something wonderfully warm and hopeful and ridiculous (as love always is), however, that “California Dreamin’” is the song that propels the film toward its happy ending in the second half. There’s a hazy quality that’s not just psychedelic about it; something about the loose way Wong moves whenever the song is playing, it’s like you can see what happens physically to your body when your mind is somewhere else. Director Wong understands that music’s ability to transport the senses isn’t just a power it has but a desire we have, too, a wish to be transplanted somewhere else in space and time. The repeated use of “California Dreamin’” in “Chungking Express” shows just how much that desire can take over and how delicious loneliness can sometimes be. —SS

4. “Boogie Nights”: Night Ranger, “Sister Christian”

There are multiple moments of pure musical perfection in “Boogie Nights” that are pinnacles of the form, as Paul Thomas Anderson lets us feel young Dirk (Mark Wahlberg) being swept up into the San Fernando porn scene. Young PTA even flashed some extra chops by repurposing a Chico Hamilton Quintet track from the “Sweet Smell of Success” score to capture a moment of shared melancholy.

But it’s Alfred Molina’s twitchy, coked-out drug dealer lost in his own private mixtape that takes the cake. While the gun wielding, bathrobe-draped kingpin jams out to Rick Springfield’s “Jessie’s Girl” and Night Ranger’s “Sister Christian,” we are left, like our paranoid protagonists, in a constant state of unease. Between his diminutive companion, Cosmo (Joe G.M. Chan) throwing firecrackers and the powerful, volatile nature Molina brings the character, we are anticipating a turn for the worse at any moment. The juxtaposition of half wanting to jam out and half wanting piss your pants is an incredible moment of filmmaking — that is the perfect combination of performance, sound, and music. –CO

3. “Trainspotting”: Iggy Pop, “Lust for Life”

It’s the energy. Iggy Pop and David Bowie drafted off the piston-pump rhythms of vintage Motown while writing “Lust for Life,” and that secondhand beat proves the ideal pacesetter for a pair of junkies flying down an Edinburgh sidewalk. In a bracingly fleet bit of montage, director Danny Boyle and editor Masahiro Hirakubo introduce us to the characters, setting, and philosophy of Irvine Welsh’s “Trainspotting,” while Hunt Sales’ pounding toms and Ewan McGregor’s motormouthed (and swiftly merchandised) monologue tell us everything that might not be immediately legible in Welsh’s dialect-flecked prose.

The “Trainspotting” soundtrack runs through multiple periods of rock ’n’ roll hedonism — ’70s Lou Reed, the ’80s Factory Records scene, then-ascendant Britpop and EDM acts — but the selection that best encapsulates the seduction and terror of its world is “Lust for Life,” a song returned to the cultural firmament by the film’s bracing opening. This renewed popularity put “Lust For Life” on a trajectory not unlike that of Renton (McGregor), briefly ditching the “liquor and drugs” to rub elbows with a supposedly better class of people. Fortunately, no amount of “Song About Heroin Used To Advertise Bank” syncs have dampened the jolt of that match cut between Renton taking one off the noggin on the football pitch and tying off in a flophouse. —EA

2. “Beau Travail”: Corona, “The Rhythm of the Night”

It is an unexpected coda to Claire Denis’ study of masculinity in movement.

After spending most of the previous 80 minutes in the sun-drenched world of military training — in which the story of Melville’s “Billy Budd” plays out amongst a group of French legionaries stationed in Djibouti — our narrator, the disgraced and court marshaled Galoup (Denis Lavant), now back in Marseille and remembering the events that led to his down fall, wakes up to make his bed with military precision, his gun still within reach. Cut to Galoup, alone and still in the corner of a night club, until “The Rhythm of the Night” comes on. The rigid military man has surprising amount of agility and acrobatic moves, as he unleashes something that’s been pent up inside.

It’s up to the viewer to interpret what Galoup is unleashing here — guilt, regret for losing the military job he loved (or freedom from it), the repressed homosexuality that motivated his tragic actions — but there is catharsis, and at the same tragedy, in watching this solo dance performance that ends with him rolling on the floor as the credits start to roll. –CO

1. “GoodFellas”: Derek and the Dominos, “Layla”

Early in the creative process, Martin Scorsese retreats to a hotel room to listen to music. Alone in a room, the director is not researching what specific tracks he wants for his latest movie, but rather it’s music that helps him unlock what movement, rhythm, texture, and feel is right for his next cinematic canvas. This anecdote doesn’t explain why Scorsese has become the modern master of the needle drop — and certainly longtime collaborators Robbie Robertson and Thelma Schoonmaker deserve credit for their role in this development — but rather is underlines how inseparable camera, color, and character are from music in a Scorsese film.

“Goodfellas” is the magnum opus of Scorsese’s use of popular music to score his films, and could have easily occupied the top 5 on this list alone: “As far back as I remember I always wanted to be a gangster,” cue Tony Bennett’s “Rags to Riches;” Robert De Niro’s slow-motion drag of a cigarette prompting Eric Clapton’s “Sunshine of Your Love” riff; being swept up in the Steadicam stroll through the Copa as “And Then He Kissed Me” captures Karen’s intoxication; or how “Jump Into the Fire” has become synonymous with cocaine-fueled paranoia on screen.

Part of it is the brilliant way Scorsese employed voiceover and song in “Goodfellas” to pull his story of violent horror. Combined with voiceover, music is the magic ingredient that allows Scorsese to put the viewer in his childhood window where he was both drawn to and horrified by the wise guys who ruled the Little Italy streets below. That concept of trying to capture both seduction and repulsion is hardly new, but its execution was.

So much so that tracks from “Goodfellas” are now engrained in culture as cues that elicit specific emotions outside of the film itself. Nowhere is that truer than the mournful coda of Derek and the Dominos’ “Layla,” which plays as Scorsese’s slow moving camera methodically reveals the loose ends Jimmy (De Niro) ties up after the big heist. There’s a nostalgia in the music itself, and a sense of looking back, that in context of the scene is almost ironic, as our narrator looks back with a touch of melancholy of the beginning of the end. –CO

This article was published as part of IndieWire’s ’90s Week spectacular. Visit our ’90s Week page for more.

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