Love To Walk Those Movie Sets: U2's Music In The Movies

By Collin Souter
Posted 08/31/02 02:40:34

One thing remains a constant in U2’s music: Every song demands a strong visual. Epic music has always been that way. Pink Floyd’s music has always conjured up compelling—sometimes disturbing—visuals in the listener’s head. Heck, The Beatles’ music caused a gang of talented artists to interpret the Fab-Four’s music for a full-length animated feature (“Yellow Submarine”). Nowadays, the big to-do on Broadway has been to take an artist’s catalog and work the songs into a cohesive storyline. Thus, we now have “Mama Mia!,” a show centered around Abba tunes and “Movin’ Out,” a show centered around Billy Joel songs. (Christ, does that mean that 20 years from now, we might see a Train tribute show on Broadway? Ouch!)

This, as we have recently learned, will never happen with U2’s music, although it has played an effective role in various mediums. Who can forget the use of U2’s cover version of “Happiness Is A Warm Gun” in Robert Altman’s TV series “Gunn?” Oh, you did forget it? Yeah, I didn’t watch it either. Still, I bet it looked great. Or, maybe not. Sometimes, U2’s music gets used just to sell a soundtrack or to show how unimaginative and inattentive the director can really be. U2’s music—or anyone’s music for that matter—can sometimes add a great deal of depth and emotion to a scene. Maybe even a laugh. But there have been times when I’m sure a director used it for a temp track, then decided to leave the song in because “hey, it’s U2, they’re popular. Leave the song in.”

U2’s music has always been multi-layered. It means to you whatever you take from it. Nobody wants to hear one of their favorite songs tainted by the memory of a bad movie, but when a song works in a great movie, it raises the experience to another level. Even a song you once hated can now become a standard in your private CD universe. Take the use of Elton John’s Tiny Dancer in the movie “Almost Famous” for instance. It took a great movie to make that an even better song. It may have meant something to Elton John and Bernie Taupin when they wrote it, but it has since taken on a whole new meaning.

The following two Top-5 lists come from a die-hard U2 fan and a true movie scholar. I could go on and on explaining the qualifications and exemptions, but I’ll keep it simple: No solo projects. U2’s music only. I love Bono, Gavin Friday and Maurice Seezer’s music and its usage in “In The Name of the Father” and Edge’s soundtrack for “Captive” sounds beautiful. I also enjoyed Adam and Larry’s version of the “Mission: Impossible” theme. But this is U2 we’re talking here. Their music has been popping up in movies more often these days and I don’t take the matter lightly.

I’m sure you’re like this with your music, too. If you’re messing and mixing my two biggest passions, you better do it right! If you insult my music with your insulting movie, you insult me! The first Top 5 list shows how saying “yes” to a director can be to U2’s and the filmgoer’s advantage. The directors of these films know exactly what they’re listening to. The next Top 5 list shows that U2 clearly don’t take the time to read the scripts or screen the rough cuts.

So Good, you’ll want to “smoke some cigarettes” afterwards.

Top 5 Best:

1.THE FIRST TIME (from “The Million Dollar Hotel”) Why # 1? Well, it may be the only time a U2 song has been used in its entirety with nothing but pure, glorious visuals accompanying it. No dialogue, no closing credits, no portions of the song removed. The First Time opens Wim Wenders’ “screwball tragedy” with perhaps the most telling U2 song as it pertains to the character we see on screen. The troubled and goofy Tom-Tom (Jeremy Davies) walks along the rooftop of The Million Dollar Hotel as the L.A. sun rises. He then takes a running leap off the edge, waving goodbye to someone in the process. A great music video in and of itself.

The way I see it, the song tells Tom-Tom’s back-story as well as his current emotional status. Tom-Tom could very well “have a father” with a “cup of gold” that Tom-Tom left behind. He could also very well “have a brother” who “Spends his [whole life] running after” him. Tom-Tom also has “a lover/ A lover like no other…” She could also be “the keys to [his] kingdom coming” and as Tom-Tom jumps, he “threw away the keys.” Just my interpretation, but the sequence puts a lump in my throat every time I see it. I only wish the rest of the movie held up as well.

2.WHERE THE STREETS HAVE NO NAME (from “Fearless”) Either this song is about this movie or this movie is about this song. The two compliment each other perfectly. In this case, director Peter Weir only uses the intro and cuts just as Bono begins to sing. Still, Weir couldn’t have picked a better background track. The scene has Jeff Bridges as a man who thinks of himself as immortal after surviving a plane crash. He has formed a friendship with another survivor, played by Rosie Perez. Perez’s character lost her baby boy, named Bubble, in the crash and hasn’t forgiven herself for not holding on tight enough to him when the plane hit the ground. Bridges, trying to be the best therapist he can be, suggests strapping Perez into the backseat of his car while she holds onto a toolbox. “Pretend it’s your baby,” he says.

The song kicks in. With Perez in the backseat holding the toolbox, Bridges gets in the car, starts the engine and heads straight for a brick wall. “Fearless,” one of the most amazing movies I have ever seen, also had Streets as its song for the trailer. Again, the two compliment each other perfectly, as Bridges’ character has all but “torn down the walls that hold [him] inside” entering a spiritual journey “where the streets have no name.”

3.ZOO STATION (from “About A Boy”) Ready for the laughing gas. Granted, the song Zoo Station has nothing to do with a layabout’s unlikely friendship with an awkward 12-year old boy, but I now find it hard to hear this song without hearing the sound of an obnoxious doorbell accompanying the beat. In Nick Hornby’s novel, Will (played by Hugh Grant in the movie) has his own preferable track listing for Achtung Baby. They never touch in this in the movie version, but in this scene, Will lays on the couch listening to Zoo Station. Marcus (Nicholas Hoult), a 12-year-old loner walks up to Will’s front door and mercilessly rings the doorbell to get Will’s attention. Will doesn’t want Marcus around. Will turns up Zoo Station and Marcus rings the doorbell in unison with the beat.

I remember when my girlfriend, Nikki, and I saw this in the theater. We laughed louder and harder than anyone else in the place during this sequence. We love pranks and mischievous humor, and hearing our boys’ song used in such a way sent us home happy. Actually, the movie is great in its own right. It has an amazing soundtrack by a band called Badly Drawn Boy that is worth picking up. Having the Zoo Station joke in this movie is merely icing on the cake.

4.IN GOD’S COUNTRY (from “Three Kings”) Director David O. Russell used this song at the end of his Gulf War comedy/drama/action/original. We read codas telling us what happened to every character after the war, so there exists more to the visuals than just credits. One would think that Bullet The Blue Sky would be a better choice for a movie about a war, but In God’s Country has a more liberating sound to it and “Three Kings” never tries to be just gut-wrenching. It’s one of those movies that defies genre. It tells the story of three American soldiers (Mark Wahlberg, George Cloony and Ice Cube) who decide to go off into the Iraqi desert to find millions worth of stolen Kuwaiti bullion, but they eventually get caught up in a democratic uprising.

The song says it all, with its “Desert skies” and “rivers run/But soon run dry,” and America being “Liberty/ And she comes to rescue me/ Hope faith/ her vanity,” and to top it off, “the greatest gift is Gold.” The movie has great humor, an innovative visual style and a lot to say about war and America’s place in it. The song and the film deserve each other.

5.MYSTERIOUS WAYS (from “Entropy”) Well, I had to go with either this or MoFo, and as much as I’d love to interpret the use of that song as Jake (Stephen Dorff) “looking for to save [his]/ Save [his] soul,” I won’t. Phil Joanou’s “Entropy” doesn’t have quite enough weight to it to merit such a lofty association. But I like this movie anyway. It may not be the most original or profound movie out there, but as a fan of movies about the making of movies and, of course, as a U2 fan, I have lots to like about it anyway.

In “Entropy,” Phil Joanou tells the story of what happened to him after he hit it big directing U2 videos and making “Rattle and Hum.” In real life, Phil got offered “Final Analysis,” a boring noir thriller, which he reluctantly directed. This movie draws from that experience and our boys come to the rescue just as Jake (or Phil) loses his sanity. During their PopMart show, U2 display on their big screen a wedding video of Jake and a groupie getting married in Las Vegas. The Ode to Temptation, Mysterious Ways, is the song of choice and it works. Never before has U2 played such an integral part to a movie’s plot, and that certainly deserves a little something, not to mention the fact that Bono remembered all of his lines on stage that night (“Jake…You can run, but you can’t hide”).

RUNNERS UP: STATELESS, from “The Million Dollar Hotel”; THE GROUND BENEATH HER FEET, from “The Million Dollar Hotel”; UNTIL THE END OF THE WORLD, from “Until The End Of The World”; STAY (FARAWAY SO CLOSE), from “Far Away, So Close!”; ALWAYS FOREVER NOW, from “Heat”; ONE MINUTE WARNING, from “Ghost In The Shell”; WILD HONEY, from "Vanilla Sky”; HOLD ME, THRILL ME, KISS ME, KILL ME, from “Batman Forever” (I see lots of similarities between The Fly and a black leather-bound billionaire kook).

So bad, you’ll want to “shoot yourself in the foot.”

Top 5 Worst:

1.SUNDAY BLOODY SUNDAY (from “Kids”) I don’t know if I consider this the absolute worst, but it certainly sticks out in its own way. I don’t know if this will make you laugh out loud or if it will offend the hell out of a U2 purist. Probably both. It certainly raised the eyebrows of this viewer. I didn’t like this movie, but I certainly couldn’t shake it off very easily. It tries to be an expose on the troubled youth of America and, while it may be accurate, it’s hard to have sympathy. I know, I know…get to the point!
Okay. The actual song Sunday Bloody Sunday doesn’t actually get used, but a character makes mention of it, the filmmakers had to get the rights to use it and the song appears listed in the closing credits. In the scene, a girl tells her friends how she lost her virginity. She says she lost it to a guy who loves to have sex with virgins and every time he does, because women tend to bleed the first time, he sings out loud Sunday Bloody Sunday. I’ll just step out of frame now and let you digest that in your own way.

2.WITH OR WITHOUT YOU (from “Blown Away”) In 1994, the only band to ever come out of Ireland was U2. At least, that’s how director Stephen “Lost In Space” Hopkins saw it. In this ridiculous movie, Jeff Bridges plays a bomb expert who once had ties to the IRA. Now, his mentor, played by Tommy lee Jones, wants to bomb stuff in Boston. As author/movie expert Joe Queenan observed, “Blown Away” contains a staggering amount of liquid Blarney, and to me, the use of With Or Without You only causes the cup to runneth over.
The movie contains so many bad Irish accents and wee scenes of Lloyd Bridges (who plays Jeff’s father in the movie) sitting in a pub talking about Guinness (“The nectar of the Gods”). It also loves to crank up those damn pipes for the soundtrack. As if that weren’t enough, we have a scene where Jones strolls through a rummage sale and someone suggests to him that he buy The Joshua Tree. “It’s U2. They’re an Irish band,” says the seller. He takes it home and listens to With or Without You while constructing a bomb.

3.SOME DAYS ARE BETTER THAN OTHERS (from “Milk Money”) Okay, I realize this song doesn’t exactly come to mind when a U2 fan lists their Top 100 favorite U2 songs of all time. But, still, a U2 song has no place in a movie about three young boys who hire a prostitute (Melanie Griffith) to meet one of the kids’ fathers. This is one of those times when the film’s director (in this case Richard “My Stepmother Is An Alien” Benjamin) said, “Just leave the temp track in there. It’s U2, they’re popular.” Bono has said the song is about being on tour. In “Milk Money,” it’s about…watching three kids ride their bikes. (Great. Thanks. We’re so glad you’re hip enough to pop Zooropa into your CD player. Why can’t you use your God-given good taste and make a good movie, huh?)

4.WITH OR WITHOUT YOU (from “Cousins”) Not again! I actually like this movie. It’s sweet, funny, wonderfully romantic and the cast is terrific. Now that I’ve gotten my critics blurb out of the way, I must say that one scene sticks out like a thorn. At a wedding party, the bride and groom dance to their song: With Or Without You. Oh, yeah, great choice! It’s not a love song, people. It’s a tormented song about love, but it has as much of a romantic feel to it as The Police song Every Breath You Take.
Now, the use of this song may have been for the sake of a laugh, but somehow I don’t think director Joel “Batman and Robin” Schumacher is that smart. Plus, we have to hear the song being performed by a bad wedding band. Come to think of it, Every Breath You Take would have actually been funny. You know, a wedding band playing a song about a stalker. That’s funny. This is just hard to listen to.

5.ELEVATION (from “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider”) True, U2 got a funny video out of this song thanks to the movie, but what the hell does Elevation have to do with a dull action heroine? This movie tells the story of a…something…that has to be placed into a round…something…on the third Tuesday of the month every thousand years or…something…the world will end…and Lara Croft has to stop it from happening before the bad guys do…or something like that. Anyway, it’s based on a video game and Anjelina Jolie breathes about as much life into it as a mole digging in a hole. The song gets used for the end credits, but it still reeks of a cheap soundtrack ploy.


Finally, some odds and ends:

NIETHER HERE NOR THERE: ALL I WANT IS YOU, from “Reality Bites”; BEAUTIFUL DAY, from “Bandits”; LEMON (BAD YARD CLUB MIX), from “Ready To Wear”; PRIDE (IN THE NAME OF LOVE), from “Moulin Rouge”; TRIP THROUGH YOUR WIRES, from “State of Grace”; THE SWEETEST THING, from “Mr. Deeds.”


I HAVEN’T SEEN IT, AND I BET YOU HAVEN’T EITHER: WALK TO THE WATER, from “The Courier”; OCTOBER, from “They Call It An Accident”

FUNNIEST USE OF A U2 SONG IN A COMMERCIAL: Actually, the boys have held out for quite a while from having one of their songs being used as a jingle. I’m not sure if this commercial ran nationwide, but here in Chicago I heard an organ donor commercial on the radio. Lurking within the announcement was Beautiful Day, the part where Bono sings “What you don’t have/ You don’t need it now, don’t need it now…” Great subliminal message usage, there.

(I originally wrote this for the internet’s #1 U2 news site,

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