It’s an especially backward-looking time at the movies, a fairly fact-based one, and, best of all, a musically rich one. I spent this “holiday time” decade hopping through screenings and DVD screeners, making my way through a sea of crazy clothes, wild hair (including at least one complicated comb-over), and memorable music. Some old, some new, here are the songs that help to make six of the best films around a must-see.
1. Steely Dan, “Dirty Work,” American Hustle
Wait a second, you’re thinking. So you build it up and then lead with Steely Dan? Well, yes. Because as much of a trip as all the music in David O. Russell’s madcap Abscam comedy is — from ’70s chestnuts like “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” “I Feel Love,” and “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” to “White Rabbit” in Arabic — the real winner is one that didn’t make it on the soundtrack album. “I don’t wanna do your dirty work, no more” sings one of Becker and Fagen’s lesser-known tunes, at the perfect moment: as the trio of Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Bradley Cooper saunter through New York’s Plaza Hotel, en route to a sting operation that goes hilariously wrong.
2. Romeo Void, “Never Say Never”, The Wolf of Wall Street
Well over a decade after Abscam there was another kind of dirty work at play, and Jordan Belfort played it well — for a while, anyway. And although Martin Scorsese’s three-hour bacchanal, with Leonardo DiCaprio at his amoral best, is mostly set in the freewheeling ’90s, the soundtrack mines from all over the place. There’s Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightning,” Sharon Jones being Bassey on a cover of “Goldfinger,” and this New Wave nugget from 1982 that delivers sax and sex in the form of the immortal line, “I might like you better if we slept together.” In the case of Belfort, that would seem unlikely.
3. Tegan and Sara, “Shudder to Think,” Dallas Buyers Club
Hard partying in the ’80s was another matter, and another real-life story that involves comeuppance and redemption is that of Ron Woodruff, the HIV-positive cowboy turned activist whose story is told in Dallas Buyers Club. He’s affectingly played by Matthew McConaughey, but the real plaudits have gone to Jared Leto as a transgender fellow patient.
Leto’s other job these days is of course fronting alt-rock luminaries Thirty Seconds to Mars. So it’s strangely appropriate that a film that takes place in the dark times when Ronald Reagan refused to acknowledge that there was a thing called AIDS sports music from present-day indie-alt-ville. Airborne Toxic Event, My Morning Jacket, Portugal. The Man, and 30STM themselves all turn up, along with this bubbly synth confection from Tegan and Sara. Close your eyes, and it might feel like 1985. Only, you know, without the ignoring-a-growing-pandemic part.
4. Eric Clapton, “Lay Down Sally,” August: Osage County
Some fight to stay alive, others would seem to be on a fast track to self-destruction. As Violet Weston, the often monstrous, pill-addled, cancer-stricken Oklahoma mother of August: Osage County, Meryl Streep is on a tear. A heartland cross between King Lear and Long Day’s Journey into Night, no one in Violet’s fragmented clan is safe from her abuse, and the funeral dinner scene alone, in which she goes after one family member after another, and which ends in a knock-down-drag-out with her daughter (Julia Roberts), is worth the price of admission. But Violet does have her moments of calm, and they’re often accompanied, as they were in Tracy Letts’ play that spawned the film, by Eric Clapton’s twangy “Lay Down Sally” from 1977. No explanation is ever given for Violet’s connection to the song, but Slowhand himself has said that the tune was inspired by his Oklahoman bandmates. As a side note, “Lay Down Sally’s” B side was “Cocaine.” Not that Violet would find anything appealing in that.
5. Karen O, “The Moon Song,” Her
Back to the present. As the single A-list filmmaker of the past 20 years most associated with indie-rock culture, Spike Jonze had no need to rifle through record racks to come up with the music for his inspired latest, Her. He only had to go hit up his friends. Besides, if any film ever called for the contemporary, it’s one about a human being (Joaquin Phoenix) getting soft on software. So on board jumped Jonze’s pals Arcade Fire to score the thing, along with indie maestro Owen Pallett. The soundtrack includes AF’s “Supersymmetry” from Reflektor, The Breeders’ “Off You,” and an electronic, serpentine “Cleopatra in New York (Zim Zam Mix)” from Nickodemus. But it’s this song from Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Karen O (at her sweetest) that’s emerged as the film’s signature. There’s even a version of the song performed by Phoenix and Scarlett Johanssen, who provides the voice of his OS girl. Simple, acoustic, and at once intimate and distant, “The Moon Song” says all you need to know about the relationship at the heart of Her: The fact that it will never be “real” doesn’t mean it’s not real.
6. Justin Timberlake, Oscar Isaac, and Adam Driver, “Please Mr. Kennedy,” Inside Llewyn Davis
A bunch of movies this season feature great music. Only one deftly and heartbreakingly illustrates the eternal struggle of life as a musician — Inside Llewyn Davis. The latest from Joel and Ethan Coen — the brothers’ most empathetic work to date — is set in the folkie downtown New York of 1961. But it’s no easier, a half century later, for uncompromising, willful, and sometimes obnoxious artists like Lleywn — brilliantly played and sung by Oscar Isaac — to “make it”. On the other hand, there are those guys who seem to have an effortless knack for crowdpleasing, like Jim, Llewyn’s commercial counterpart, played by a man who himself has hardly ever had a misstep, Justin Timberlake. JT is only in a couple of scenes, but leaves an unforgettable mark with this bit of novelty folk pop in which an astronaut pleads with JFK not to send him into the great beyond. Timberlake takes the lead, Isaac harmonizes and Adam Driver provides a deep-voiced “Outer….Space!” One of many memorable moments in a remarkable film — even if you do half expect Justin to break character, look to camera and sing, “Bring it on down to Folkie-viiille!”