Wagner to Britney Spears: Musical Mischief and Violence on Film

TURN on either of The Guardians of the Galaxy soundtracks and listen. You can feel the flow of the film moving through each bouncy track. James Gunn’s jovial and cohesive tone harnessing the energy of retro tracks to add another gallon of rocket fuel to this inter-galactic fun ride.

There are some filmmakers, however, who cannot resist disturbing such a musical flow with a more divisive selection. Directors who pair the moving image with a song to create a symbiosis rather than a consonance. To unsettle expectation and give entirely different context to the images on the screen. A technique that is especially striking when dealing with scenes of violence, often transforming them in unexpectedly revealing or mischievous ways.

Lynne Ramsey is a master of constructing such devilish sequences. In her latest film, You Were Never Really Here, she pairs CCTV footage of a hammer-wielding hitman brutally taking out security guards to the doo-wop sounds of Angel Baby by Rosie & The Originals. A soft love song given a new bloody and seedy context.

Ramsey has used music to similarly subversive effect in her previous work. In Morvern Callar, she turns a Scottish supermarket into a surreal, almost-alien setting with the playing of Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood’s psychedelic 1967 song Velvet Morning. Likewise, in We Need To Talk About Kevin, Eva’s uneasy trip down the street on Halloween is matched with the upbeat notes of Buddy Holly’s Everyday. Eva’s troubled eyes are in direct contrast to Holly’s knee-slapping tune.

Stanley Kubrick was also fond of subversive musical choices. The nihilistic image of Major Kong (Slim Pickens) riding an atomic bomb in Dr Strangelove (1964), signalling the end of the word as we know it, was ironically given sound by Vera Lynn’s spiritually optimistic World War Two tune We’ll Meet Again.

In Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, the Trashmen’s song Surfin’ Bird is completely out of place alongside images of destruction and war. Perhaps just as the young men – and by wider extension the US do not belong in this confused war.

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The lunacy of Surfin’ Bird in this setting is underlined further with the chilling tritone score that signals the brutal ending to the first half of the film still ringing through our mind. Innocence has died with Pyle and we have entered a realm with Surfin’ Bird’s levels of delusion.

Coppola also channelled the insanity and absurdities of modern war into his selection of music. The triumphant and dominating sounds of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries, matched to disturbing images of Americans gleefully gunning down innocent civilians in Vietnam, is one of the most memorable moments of Apocalypse Now (1979).

The evocation of Wagner’s grandeur is, of course, ironic as these men kill in the name of finding a beach to surf on. It should not be lost that Wagner was one of Hitler’s favourite composers – and the men’s actions in this scene are shown to be more fascistic than liberating and heroic.

Such pairing of psychotic, bloody actions with discordant music can also be seen in Mary Harron’s American Psycho. Patrick Bateman kills Paul with an axe while listening to – and explaining the cultural meaning of – Huey Lewis and the News’ Hip to Be Square.

Australian psychos dance to Cat Stevens’ Lady D’Arbanville and The Moody Blues’ Nights in White Satin in Ben Young’s horror Hounds of Love. Two creepy recontextualising of songs that you will find hard to forget.

Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992) follows a similar path with Stealers Wheel’s Stuck in the Middle with You. Yet the soft rock – and anything but soft violence – takes a brief pause as we head outside to be greeted by the sounds of birds and children. A taste of the tranquil surroundings before Stealers Wheel fades back in and we step back into Tarantino’s violent mind.

You certainly would not expect Britney Spears’ pop ballad Everytime – a down-tempo and heartfelt response to ex-boyfriend Justin Timberlake’s Cry Me A River – to be coupled with a montage of gun violence and robbery. But Harmony Korrine’s brash and cleverly subversive Spring Breakers gives us this unexpectedly brilliant mixture, one that shows the 90s MTV generation living out their parents’ worst nightmares.

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The divisive use of music will continue to be a tool of the bold filmmaker.

Just earlier this year, Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri used the spiritual sounds of Monsters of Folk’s His Masters Voice to voice Dixon’s violent outburst following news of his colleague’s death. The saintly music may display Dixon’s emotional self-justification, yet his brutal actions are in direct conflict with the gentle, caring sways of the song.

We are so accustomed to a barrage of violence on the big-screen that framing a scene with such jarring or unanticipated music choices can make it stand out. It can also add new layers or provoke a reaction that betrays the images on screen – would we find humour in the Spring Breakers’ robbery montage without Britney Spears’ pouring her heart out in Everytime?

When done correctly, this type of pairing makes for mischievous and unforgettable cinema. Music in sync – or provocatively out of sync – with film.

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