A new type of sound
More and more often in this day and age, films seem to be bringing in popular musicians to produce soundtracks in addition to more traditional composers. With popular and influential films of the 2000s like Shrek and Moulin Rouge using popular music in their own way, this millennium opened on a lyrical note. In 2013, this trend continued when several notable filmmakers used this concept to provide their movies with additional flavour.
The Coen Brothers’ Inside Lleywn Davis had popular folk-rock musician Marcus Mumford help produce the original songs in the film alongside Oscar-winner T-Bone Burnett, Spike Jonze’s Her is scored by Arcade Fire with songs by them as well as Karen O, and Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby features a score produced by Jay-Z.
While these musicians are all talented, is it possible that their cooperation is more valuable as an audience-draw rather than any kind of irreplaceable artistic touch? The answer to this question lies in whether or not the use of a particular artist’s skills fits within the artistic intent of the film. Take the three films from last year previously mentioned. Inside Lleywn Davis centres on a folk singer in the 1960s, so having modern-day folk singers work on the songs makes sense as a means of adding credibility to the story and setting. Her requires music that induces feelings of both sadness and joy, so bringing a band in whose first album was titled Funeral makes sense.
With The Great Gatsby, the modern music is fundamental to the modern style that the film itself takes on. By tying their music and musician choices into the intent of the film, these three films all put their popular music and musicians to good, substantial use.
However, in some cases, recognizable music is used for no purpose other than being recognizable to audiences.
For example, the recent film The Nut Job has a scene where the characters all dance to “Gangnam Style” alongside PSY’s likeness which indicates some level of collaboration. Keep in mind that the film takes place in 1959. Is this some kind of insightful observation of how the film as a whole reflects the satirical nature of the song? No, it’s there because people know that “Gangnam Style” exists and might enjoy the reference regardless of ‘point.’ While this is harmless, if a bit irksome, it requires no artistic effort in making the popular music seem relevant. It’s placed within the film for mass appeal and in ten years will be completely baffling to future audiences.
Bringing popular musicians into film poses many risks, but when it is used properly, it can be just as effective as any composer. When directors understand the impact and effect of the musicians they hire to work on their films, they can extract meaning that a more traditional composer and orchestra may not be able to, as well as reaffirm the artistic identity of the director themselves.
Whether it is Jay-Z or Arcade Fire, it is always interesting what these artists can bring.