|by David Cornelius
For this retrospective’s second list, we’re looking at the twenty best songs written for the big screen in the past ten years.
“Ask DNA” (“Cowboy Bebop: The Movie”) The anime series “Cowboy Bebop” oozed cool out of every pore. Naturally its big screen spin-off would do the same, opening with a laid-back burst of awesomeness from franchise house band the Seatbelts. The opening credits animation features characters tapping their feet along with the intro organ riff; as the horns kick in, it’s impossible not to sing along with the chorus of “What’s up, sweet cakes?” The rest of the lyrics get playfully philosophical (“No one owes you, no one’s to blame / Save for bad genes or DNA”) while the band sets off on a jazzy groove. “We can’t all be Superfly,” but the Seatbelts sure can.
“Beautiful Ride” (“Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story”) Like all the music in this biopic parody, this grand finale number was built to laugh long and hard at that musical cliché where, as Eddie Vedder explains in the movie, our hero performs “his final masterpiece that will sum up his entire life.” But also like all the music in this biopic parody, “Beautiful Ride” doubles as a great song. There’s a gentle beauty to the melody (and John C. Reilly’s genuinely wonderful vocal performance) that even the goofiest of lyrics can’t clobber. Not that they get too goofy - the chorus offers up a surprising sincerity, reminding us to “make a little music every day ’til you die.”
“Being Bad” (“Duplicity”) “Duplicity” was an exercise in frothy slickness, and here comes Shana Halligan and Kiran Shahani of the techno-lounge band Bitter:Sweet to craft the perfect theme song. Mixing Latin rhythms with electronica beats and chilled vocals, the duo turns in a seductive tune that sounds beamed in from some alternate universe where James Bond music was built with a heavy kick of kitsch. The lyrics, meanwhile, tie in perfectly with the movie’s double/triple/quadruple-cross themes: the chorus offers a mantra of “being bad never felt so good,” and it’s impossible to disagree.
“Belleville Rendez-Vous” (“The Triplets of Belleville”) I wonder if retro jazz bands like the Squirrel Nut Zippers cried a little when they heard this song, realizing how much they’d just been trumped. The song works wonders both in the film, where it’s performed past and present with eye- and ear-popping delight by the titular trio, and beyond it, where Matthieu Chedid (under his stage persona “-M-”) brought out the old school bounce, in both French and English versions. Whatever flavor you choose, the song, like the film, embraces its tilted kookiness while never losing its charm.
“Down to Earth” (“WALL-E”) There’s something triumphant about the sound of this song. Part of this is connected to the closing credits sequence of “WALL-E,” which plays as the happiest of all epilogues, Earth reclaimed with the hope of endless better tomorrows. Peter Gabriel and Thomas Newman’s song fits well within the world of the film, sprinkling plugged-in sounds - reverb here, synthesizer there - among the organic beats, while the lyrics sound like a new national anthem, celebrating a return to roots. But by the time Gabriel hits the chorus, the drums plow forward, the gospel choir leads us to smiles, and the tune rises beyond the movie, into its own triumphs.
“Falling Slowly” (“Once”) Let’s not forget that the entire song score for “Once” is pretty much a full-on work of genius, thirteen expertly crafted brokenhearted gems; the problem with celebrating “Falling Slowly” - unquestionably the best movie song of the decade, and among the best love songs of all time - is that we tend to ignore tunes like “When Your Mind’s Made Up” and “Say It to Me Now,” which, in a “Falling Slowly”-less world, would be winning all the Oscars.
But there it is, kicking off the album, winning the awards, becoming the core of one of those scenes that instantly enter the realm of the classics, and deservedly so. The lyrics sing of sinking boats and hopeful voices, bad memories and bright possible futures, first steps taken, but guardedly. The title suggests falling, but it’s the type of falling that results in the gently rising opening notes of Glen Hansard’s guitar. It’s a song of healing, sung by two characters who need it desperately, adding a bittersweet tone - Hansard’s voice nearly cracks under the ache, while Markéta Irglová’s floats like an angel around him. It’s as if there’s so much emotion, the song itself can barely contain it - while we can barely contain our joy.
“Father and Daughter” (“The Wild Thornberrys Movie”) When Paul Simon sings “there could never been a father who loved his daughter more than I love you,” dads around the world begged to differ - if only so they could steal the song to sing to their own daughters. Simon’s ode to parenthood, written for the underrated big screen adventure for the Nickelodeon cartoon family, dances with pride, support, and tales of checking for monsters under the bed. It’s Simon’s best work since his “Graceland” days.
“Into the West” (“The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King”) After nine-and-a-half hours (or eleven-and-a-half, if you prefer the extended editions) of Peter Jackson’s epic fantasy trilogy, in comes Annie Lennox to close the show with this sprawling ballad, the perfect complement to Howard Shore’s monumental score. (Shore co-wrote the tune with Lennox and Fran Walsh.) With its tranquil verses and romantic chorus, the song doubles as a summation of the “Return of the Kings” epilogue and as a lullaby of sorts for the dying. Lennox’s final chorus leaves us exhausted; the orchestral coda allows us to drift away with thoughts of grey ships passing into the west.
“Little Wonders” (“Meet the Robinsons”) The idea of a Disney theme song by the guy from Matchbox Twenty is hardly appealing. And yet, just as “Meet the Robinsons” became the Mouse House’s best (non-Pixar) effort of the decade (a most wonderful surprise indeed), Rob Thomas delivers their best music. Thomas digs deep into the underlying sorrow of an otherwise giddy comedy, using the subplot of the villain’s inability to shake off his grudges as the basis for his lyrics, which sing of letting the past “roll right off your shoulder” as you focus instead on the small things in life, where the miracles are there if only you choose to see them.
“Lose Yourself” (“8 Mile”) It’s Eminem’s masterpiece, a steamroller of a song where the lyrics always seem like they’re anxiously racing for somewhere they’ll never be able to reach. It’s five minutes of high pressure frustration, exploding in the chorus, bottling back up for the next verse. For all that anger, though, there’s great optimism here (the thing ends with a reminder that “you can do anything you set your mind to, man”), although it’s an optimism laced with stern reality (lest audiences get too energized by Rabbit’s victories, Eminem spits lines about how in reality, “it’s no movie, there’s no Mekhi Phifer”). It’s a smack to the face, a best friend telling you to follow your dreams while reminding you how rough the road to those dreams can get.
“A Love Before Time” (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) Tan Dun’s lush orchestral score for Ang Lee’s martial arts fantasy walked the fine line between Asia and Hollywood. So too does the theme song that closes the film, sung in both Mandarin and English versions by Chinese superstar Coco Lee. It’s unapologetically lavish and defiantly pure pop, but Lee’s performance and the musical arrangement keep the schmaltz at a healthy distance. “A Love Before Time” reminds us why, in the right hands and with the right voice, a grandiose ballad can work beautifully.
“Never Did No Wanderin’” (“A Mighty Wind”) Mitch and Mickey’s kiss got all the attention, but the strongest song to come from Christopher Guest’s lampoon of the folk music scene is “Never Did No Wanderin’,” a dead-serious goof on musical tales of sailors and vagabonds. (The tune’s narrator prefers to stay home.) Proving the strength of Harry Shearer and Michael McKeon’s melody, the film offers two versions: a remarkable low-key rendition by the Folksmen, and a remarkably cheesy mangling by the New Main Street Singers. The latter reveals just how hard it is to make intentionally bad music sound right, while the former, which strips away the winking comedy and plays it straight, reveals just how perfect the song is.
“Old Habits Die Hard” (“Alfie”) There was no “what’s it all about?” moment in the 2004 remake of “Alfie,” but the soundtrack offered the next best thing: a collaboration between rock vets Mick Jagger and Dave Stewart. The duo’s music lends heart to the story - and the story, in which a womanizer ends up rejected by a string of exes, lends a melancholy to the music. Jagger’s cries of “I can’t give you up” sound passionate on their own, but when matched with Jude Law’s reworking of the character, we start to find deep regret in the lyrics, Alfie realizing how many chances have slipped away. It’s a fine example of a great theme song enhancing a film (and vice versa) while still holding strong on its own.
“Opal’s Blues” (“Because of Winn-Dixie”) Sorrow is a key ingredient in this adaptation of the Kate DiCamillo novel. Sorrow, regret, ghosts from the past. But at the center is Opal and her dog Winn-Dixie, who sweep away the clouds, and that’s why “Opal’s Blues,” despite downhearted lyrics (“Lordy, seem like every hour sure goin’ be my last”), has such a sunny side - her blues can never really be blue. Written and performed by alt-country trio the Be Good Tanyas, the tune is a lightweight slice of carefree down home delight, hiding sad ideas underneath the happiest of music.
“Perfect World” (“The Emperor’s New Groove”) It’s Tom Jones in a Disney movie, and that blows my mind. As if eager to show just how un-Disney their animated comedy is going to get, the makers of “The Emperor’s New Groove” kick everything off with a brassy assault of mambo by way of Vegas, wailed with a wink by Jones (and co-written with uncharacteristic jest by Sting). What better way to set up Kuzco’s snide attitude than to have a lounge act ramble on at full volume about his awesomeness? With one song, Disney successfully bridged the gap between its show tune-centric Nineties and its comedy-centric Aughts.
“The Spirit of Adventure” (“Up”) If you stuck around long enough during the closing credits of “Up,” you were treated to a scrumptious cookie: a dusty old record of the Charles Muntz-inspired Depression-era dance ditty “The Spirit of Adventure.” Craig Copeland supplied the vocals, with Michael Giacchino slipping the film’s score into the melody (and tweaking the recording to sound like it’s pouring out of a dusty Victrola). The lyrics open with “adventure is out there,” referencing Muntz’s catchphrase, and we can imagine young Carl humming along to the song as he dreamed of heroics. (Meanwhile, the song’s closing line, “my spirit of adventure is you,” reminds us of Carl’s love for Ellie.) As the song progresses, Giacchino gets sillier and sillier with the lyrics, taking his retro tune to dizzying corners of weirdness (one verse deals with hunting giant monkeys), and his rhymes get increasingly jokey (“The Spirit of Adventure is something to indenture”), all adding to the kicky fun of the movie’s thanks-for-staying treat.
“Take the Money and Run” (“Teacher’s Pet”) If you don’t remember “Teacher’s Pet,” the big screen spin-off of the short-lived Saturday morning cartoon, don’t worry - barely anybody saw it. Those that did, however, were treated to a wild, inventive, and very, very funny family film that took the insane world of the TV show and warped it into a musical. Several great songs got squeezed onto the soundtrack, the best of the bunch being this high-energy toe-tapper about the splendors of cold hard cash, which beats love every day of the week. There are enough wailing horns and jump jivin’ drums to drive any swing fan into a Lindy Hop frenzy. Better still, the whole thing’s topped with knockout vocals by jazz legend and “Schoolhouse Rock” vet Jack Sheldon. Swing, Jack, swing!
“Things Have Changed” (“Wonder Boys”) When he was younger, Bob Dylan wrote about times a-changing and answers blowing in the wind. In 2000, he got right to the point: “I used to care, but things have changed.” The song is swimming in disillusionment, and even if it’s not Dylan’s own (there’s a pitch black cynicism that suggests Dylan is taking on a character here, perhaps one inspired by Michael Douglas’ character), it’s easily and eerily relatable. As usual with Dylan, the lyrics invite endless analysis despite also being straightforward - it’s one part midlife crisis, one part drunken ramble, one part middle finger shoved in the world’s face. It’s dark and bitter, but maybe you can hear a sly smile beginning to curl around Dylan’s lips.
“Trust Me” (“The Informant!”) It’s been far too long since Marvin Hamlisch wrote music for the movies. His comeback in “The Informant!” is deliciously retro, fitting in with Steven Soderberg’s un-hip approach to the story. The melody of “Trust Me” pops up throughout the score, but it’s not until the final scene when the song takes center stage - and not just because its opening line gets used as the film’s last, best punchline. The tune shines as it gets reworked as big band cornball, highlighting smarmy, glossy vocals by Steve Tyrell. Its very old fashioned-ness is its best weapon, with Hamlisch refusing to sneak irony into the corners. This is old school cool all the way.
“You Know My Name” (“Casino Royale”) Of the decade’s three James Bond themes, the first was an outright disaster, the last was a loud, sloppy muddle, but the one in the middle? Rocker Chris Cornell and Bond franchise vet David Arnold (who, perhaps not coincidentally, had nothing to do with those other, worse theme songs) collaborated on a gritty, dynamic anthem for a revamped 007. The guitars are extra-crunchy, Cornell’s vocals are extra-angry, and, in the mix heard in the movie, the horns remind us that it’s still a Bond song without getting in the way of the heavier attitude. The lyrics scream of the expectation of betrayal and the abandonment of compassion (“the coldest blood runs through my veins”), setting us up for the prequel/reboot adventure to come. Daniel Craig gave us a blue-eyed blond with a cold-blooded stare, and Cornell and Arnold’s song added to the bite.
Next week: We wrap up with a look at the decade’s best scores.
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originally posted: 12/22/09 14:03:02