Thursday, August 8, 2013

Riske Business: Music & the Movies with Special Guest Mark Ahn

In the best collaboration since Russell Crowe and Meg Ryan in Proof of Life, Mark and I sat down to discuss our thoughts on music and movies. You could say Mark is even Taken by the topic. I’m Taken, 2.

What is Your Favorite Soundtrack?:

Mark: I really love the Lost in Translation soundtrack with all of that haunting My Bloody Valentine stuff. I’ve found that I generally really like Sofia Coppola’s music sensibility. I also really like the one for Reality Bites, which captures that specific space and time and the sense of boredom those characters have. I like some moments from the Batman Forever soundtrack; that U2 song "Hold Me Thrill Me Kiss Me Kill Me" is a total guilty pleasure. Seal’s "Kissed by a Rose" is probably the best song off of that soundtrack, but Seal freaks me out with his scars --the ones on the inside. I like Jonny Greenwood’s work on various movies, the Chemical Brothers’ soundtrack for Hanna, Daft Punk’s Tron Legacy, and The Matrix soundtrack, especially Rage Against the Machine’s "Wake Up." Run Lola Run really sticks out as well; we’re lucky to have a director like Tom Tykwer who is good enough to compose his own music and understand how it can propel a narrative forward. The Scott Pilgrim vs. The World soundtrack has some great original stuff and got a certain type of concertgoer just right.

Adam: Good call on Reality Bites evoking a specific space and time. I listened to it again and it felt good to be all 1994 for a little while. Back in ’94, I was all about The Crow soundtrack, but I also owned the cassette tape for The Flintstones, so what do I know? "Hold Me Thrill Me Kiss Me Kill Me" is so not a guilty pleasure -- it’s just good. Remember the cartoon music video? Oddly enough, Batman & Robin has a GREAT Smashing Pumpkins song in it – it’s so good it’s on the soundtrack twice and was used in the trailer for Watchmen. The Matrix also has a really good Marilyn Manson song called "Rock is Dead" that made me a fan of his music. That’s one thing that’s great about soundtracks – you could have an artist you don’t like just crush a single in a movie and all of the sudden you’re a fan of that artist. I think I’ll always come back to Stop Making Sense as my favorite, but a case could be made for Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, Purple Rain, Magnolia, Good Will Hunting, Saturday Night Fever, Control, Death Proof, Kill Bill and Django Unchained. I like the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack a lot too, mostly for sentimental reasons, including a shared love of The Bee Gees with my mom. We even went to see a Bee Gee’s cover band together – twice!

Mark: I’m surprised that Quentin Tarantino didn’t pop up on my own list more, but those picks are awesome. I can listen to that John Legend song "Who Did That to You?" all day.

What music score gets you worked up?

Mark: The soundtrack for The Mission makes me feel every emotion at least once in the movie. It’s one of those movies where you go from ecstasy to crushing sadness to paralyzing fear to resigned acceptance all within two hours. Cloud Atlas does that to me also. Parts of the soundtrack from the Fellowship of the Ring are beautifully poignant, especially the parts where the – SPOILER - characters die.

Adam: I still haven’t seen The Mission. I feel bad. But I really love that Cloud Atlas score too. It’s very moving. For me, the theme in Platoon is DEVASTATING. It makes me super cry-face. That music stuck to me like glue. Whenever anything bad happens to me in life, I hear that theme. For example, the Portage closes – Platoon theme, I’m running late for work – Platoon theme etc. I like the end credits theme from Jurassic Park so much that I want be buried to it (after the Platoon theme of course). On a lighter note, the Bill Conti music from Rocky is still great, and his music from The Karate Kid is no slouch either. I really like the song "After Today" from A Goofy Movie – not a joke. It pumps me up. It take me back to the point in high school I realized I was popular and not just a dork. It was THE BEST. I really like Stevie Wonder's end song from the underrated Jungle Fever called "Feeding off the Love of the Land." Claude Debussy’s “Clair De Lune” playing at the end of the movie Tokyo Sonata is also incredible, even more because of the buildup to what led to that moment. The fact that "Clair De Lune" is in Twilight makes my soul sad. Cue Platoon theme.

Mark: "Clair de Lune" is a delightful little piece of music; I mostly remember it from close to the end of Ocean's Eleven. Speaking of Twilight, some of those songs and musicians are good. Thom Yorke and Bon Iver had songs on the one of those soundtracks; who knew?

Adam: I really like the song "Decode" by Paramore from Twilight. What’s happening to us?

What is your dream musician-director pairing?

Mark: I’d love to see the Arcade Fire do a soundtrack, because their music is so emotional and taps into a sense of place. I was really excited that their music was in the trailer for Where the Wild Things Are even though it didn’t show up in the movie, which was disappointing, but the music in the movie by Karen O. is still great. And I know they retired, but there’s no doubt in my mind that LCD Soundsystem could make a killer soundtrack.

Adam: You like a lot of granola/Whole Foods bands, Mark. I need to hear more of LCD Soundsystem’s stuff. I own their concert movie on Blu-ray, but haven’t watched it yet. I would have really loved to see Tupac do something with Michael Mann, similar to Wang Chung’s work from To Live and Die in L.A. Fiona Apple should do a PT Anderson movie soundtrack. Every soundtrack song she’s done is killer, such as "Across the Universe" from Pleasantville or "Dull Tool" from This is 40. Tokyo Police Club in a Sofia Coppola movie (even though Phoenix is kind of her house band at this point). Go watch the trailer to a movie called Tokyo and you’ll see what I mean. Bruce Springsteen and Kevin Costner need to collaborate at some point for a movie called America.

Mark: I’m all for Fiona Apple, although Jonny Greenwood seems to be Anderson’s musician-at-large for now. How dark would an Apple/Anderson movie be? I would really love to see a movie use some iconic hip-hop in more than just the end credits. I’m reminded of the moment in Pineapple Express where they play Public Enemy’s “Lost at Birth.” Thug life, indeed.

What do you see as the advantage of having a single artist dominate the soundtrack for a movie?

Mark: Part of it is the novelty, and the thematic strength. A lot of people would point to Aimee Mann’s work on Magnolia as an example of this working really well. When I listen to her songs from that soundtrack, I’m immediately taken back to that movie, and even that space where I was really into singer/songwriters like her. I kind of wish that a single artist being given this kind of control would happen more often with non-electronic composers, even though I like Daft Punk. I would hazard to guess that a lot of bands or artists would see working on a soundtrack as lesser work than their own stuff.

Adam: I hope your last point isn’t true. There are some artists that take too long in between albums, and I almost feel like soundtracks could help get them going because some of the work is already done (i.e. there’s a base to start from). To that point, I think the advantage is that it’s like having a second director. It’s a second point of view to the material. Sometimes it’s amusing because the two points of view are almost at odds with one another; like the musician "gets" the movie more than the director, like in The Bodyguard. Magnolia is one for the ages - it’s an open wound of a soundtrack. Into the Wild is also very good because the protagonist in that movie is hard to figure out at times and Eddie Vedder’s music puts you in the place where you can empathize a bit better. Also, Aimee Mann’s Magnolia music is good ironing music. When I was in high school, I had depression issues for a time. My best way of getting to a place where I felt more composed was ironing clothes to music like Fiona Apple or the Magnolia soundtrack. True story.

Mark: I love this idea of the music/musician being a second director, that it’s adding a meta-layer of meaning, instead of just a subtext. It puts a lot of pressure to use a really good song!

What song do you never want to hear in a movie again?

Mark: I love the anthems, but I don’t ever need to hear any Rolling Stones, or The Who, or Hendrix, or anything from someone that is so big that some lazy filmmaker uses it as shorthand for something else. That doesn’t mean that these songs are off limits, but I think we’re getting to the point that those might be off-limits. Also, although it’s not as well-known, "Judy is a Punk" by The Ramones feels really overused.

Adam: A lot of low budget horror movies use music from famous horror movies. Would You Rather used the ballroom music from The Shining, and it’s super jarring because it so belongs to The Shining. Sushi Girl used “Diamonds Are Forever” and I thought, “No, use something else!” I almost turned the movie off. In those cases, the music is not used for any type of purpose except to name drop the fact that the director has also seen that movie. "All Star" by Smash Mouth. Never again. No version of “Halleleujah” ever again, unless it’s over a sex scene like Watchmen, because that’s funny. Also, any movie about the '60s can’t use "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" anymore.

Mark: When you say “The Lion Sleep Tonight,” you are instantly injecting “o wimoweh, o wimoweh” into everyone’s brain like a virus. I think more people need to get on board with the idea of ironically using songs during sex scenes.

Adam: “O wimoweh” is Dutch for "leave your wife," surprised you didn’t know that. Speaking of ironically using songs for sex scenes, the Toy Story soundtrack is ripe with choices for that use.
Maybe not a movie question, but what was the album or song that signaled you were really getting into music?

Mark: When I was in junior high, I went to Sam Goody to get Depeche Mode’s Violator and picked out the cassette tape from the rack and bought it. That was probably the first time I was intentionally buying something for myself. Also, that’s when I happened to be living in Southern California, which was right when Guns ‘N Roses was the biggest band in the world and West Coast hip-hop was on the rise which is all a part of what I grew up with. Grunge bands were really big in high school and I bought Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, and caught up with U2. Rock music is the first thing I gravitated towards, it’s probably the biggest part of my musical DNA.

Adam: I knew I needed Bad by Michael Jackson. I grew up in a house with a lot of MTV, and whenever there was a Michael Jackson video on, I was dancing. I also had a Showbiz Pizza album, but my cousin Melissa tore the album cover in half. I was like Pei Mei – inconsolable. My sister eventually said “Forget it Adam, it’s Chinatown.” There was also the Mousercise album but I dropped it on the floor accidentally and it broke.

Mark: Maybe what prepared you to dance to the King of Pop was all that Mousercise. Bet you didn’t even think of that. I sure wish I hadn’t.

What was the first movie where you noticed the soundtrack while you were watching it?

Mark: Forrest Gump – definitely noticed the music, but not in a good way. Even though I generally liked the movie, the music was way too on the nose. Even as a teenager I thought “This is the song I would have used for this scene,” and that’s not a compliment.

Adam: Willow – I think that’s when I noticed that a score could do a lot of heavy lifting. Willow really works for me and a big reason is that the score is so energetic and heroic. It causes me to furiously masturbate.

What is your favorite way that filmmakers use music?

Mark: Not when it hits you right on the head and is obvious. A really egregious example that sticks with me is in Sucker Punch when Baby Doll is scrubbing the floors or something and she’s sad and they play the Smiths’ song “Asleep.” We get it, life sucks for her. It’s as if filmmakers sometime forget that it’s not just music playing but we can see the pictures too. I think this is why I’m partial to classical themes, where it’s not as intrusive. For example, I like it when they have a specific theme for a character, like in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The single note with the cello in The Dark Knight for the Joker is another good example. Great use of music shouldn’t tell me what I should be thinking.

Adam: I like it when the music chosen for the movie acts as subtext, like in Good Will Hunting where the Elliott Smith music shows how sad Will is, which is not what he’s showing to everyone. I also like when it’s a character anthem, like that swaggering Bee Gees music in Saturday Night Fever, when Tony Manero is in his element and able to express who he really is at heart. I also LOVED, LOVED, LOVED in This is the End when they play "I Will Always Love You." It’s so sweet, and it shouldn’t be. It goes past being ironic and becomes a moment that means everything. It’s my favorite movie moment of 2013.

Mark: That’s the best use of Whitney’s music in a movie, by far.

Favorite pop music, hip hop, classical and electronic movie music pieces?

Mark: Electronic – Cloud Atlas, M83’s “Outro” was prominent in the trailer (although I forget if it made it into the movie), is one of those glorious songs that make you feel everything, and makes me want to revisit that movie. The score from Run Lola Run is terrific because it’s literally driving the story forward.

Classical- Ennio Morricone’s score from The Mission is one of my favorites. The score from Tree of Life has some fantastic classical pieces.

Pop – Even though it has "Judy Is a Punk," I really like Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums score.

Hip Hop - Boyz N The Hood really sticks, but I think is more memorable for the movie than the music. I think Bulworth might actually have a better soundtrack. 8 Mile is probably the best hip-hop soundtrack, but Eminem isn’t my cup of tea. I like it when hip-hop is actually applied to actual life situations, when the music just kind of goes with the flow of the “normal” life of the movie. Let’s not talk about The Great Gatsby.

Adam: Classical – Loves the music in 2001: A Space Odyssey and also from Barry Lyndon.

Electronic – The Vangelis score from Blade Runner, the Goblin score from Suspiria, and I didn’t like the movie at all, but I liked some good songs in Only God Forgives. They’re in the trailer, so you can just watch the trailer.

Link: "Knights in White Satin" by The Moody Blues, used near the beginning of Halloween 2.

Pop music – Rob Zombie movies use pop music in really interesting ways, especially Halloween 2 and The Lords of Salem –e.g. the Velvet Underground songs. Zombie is Tarantinto-smart about pop music.

Hip-hop – I really like the music from movies like Love Jones, Brown Sugar and The Wood, where it’s “urban” music but pretty chill, very low key.

Mark: Stanley Kubrick doesn’t always gets the credit he deserves for the music in his films. I totally forgot about Cliff Martinez! His stuff in Drive was great, and is probably the only accessible thing about Only God Forgives.

Favorite movie/music moment(s) from a recent movie that might be under many people’s radar?

Mark: The ending of Before Sunset, when they’re listening to Nina Simone and Julie Delpy’s character is talking about how cute Simone is in concert. Delpy and Ethan Hawke are just talking about how they love music as the moment is getting prolonged because Hawke’s character Jesse has to get on a plane. Then Celine starts dancing around and imitating Nina Simone‘s voice and delivers one of the best closing lines in movie history. It’s so great. The other one is maybe too obviously important in the movie, but in Safety Not Guaranteed, where Mark Duplass is serenading Aubrey Plaza by the campfire. It comes out of nowhere and the song is really good.

Adam: A few come to mind. The Jon Brion score at the end of ParaNorman is really something. It’s kind of hopeful but also still sad and haunting, which I think is appropriate for the title character. The closing credits song for Seeking a Friend for the End of the World called "This Guy’s in Love with You" by Herb Albert & the Tijuana Brass is a perfectly placed piece of music. I love how Jeff Nichols’ Mud uses "Help Me Rhonda" by The Beach Boys as basically a thesis statement for the movie itself. Lastly, -SPOILER FOR- The Place Beyond the Pines, the last scene where a character rides off on his motorcycle and the Ennio Morricone song "Ninna Nanna Per Adulteri" plays. It’s so sad and feels like the movie gods are giving an opinion about what is happening in the narrative.

Mark: I need to go re-watch that scene; I totally don’t remember the music from that part. I like the Bon Iver song that plays in lots of the trailers. I hate it when the songs from the trailers that seem appropriate to the tone of the film don’t end up in the movie.

In closing, let’s ask each other a stupid question.

Adam: Mark, would you go see a movie called Honsou and Gretel – Which Hunters? (like they’re confused who the villains are)?

Mark: Yes, a thousand times yes.

Mark: Adam, if you were to cast a “teenager” movie with exclusively actors who are over 55, who would you pick?

Adam: John Travolta, Richard Dreyfuss, Harrison Ford, Rene Russo. I could go on forever.


  1. "We're Going to be Friends" at the beginning of Napoleon Dynamite is probably the best part of that "movie" and does a good job of setting up whatever tone and/or theme loosely might be there.

    For some reason that was the first movie song that popped into my head.

    Sign me up for Which Hunters!

    1. I also forgot to mention that I'll only watch it if it's Djimon Hounsou.

  2. I couldn't really notice much about the end credits music for Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, I was so pissed at having wasted two hours and a Redbox fee on that trash. Carrell and Knightley are talented actors, but possibly the worst screen couple ever. Contrast with the similarly-themed and plotted Miracle Mile, with a wonderful couple in Anthony Edwards and Mare Winningham, and a splendid Tangerine Dream soundtrack.

    Also, a true soundtrack for the ages: Silvestri's The Mummy Returns. Transportingly lush and fantastical.

    1. I didn't love Seeking a Friend overall but the last 30 minutes really worked I thought especially the last scene leading into the closing credits song.

      Just curious, you seem to really like The Mummy series. Are they faves of yours? I like the first one and I have some affection for how crazy the third one got. Mummy Returns left me cold.

  3. Really great column, guys. I just want to toss in there that Clair De Lune always reminds me of Frankie & Johnny, a movie I am a total sucker for, and because of that I smile every time I hear it.

    1. I'll have to give Frankie and Johnny a chance. I've almost watched it about 50 times.

  4. As far as my favorite movie soundtrack songs, here's some of my favorites:

    -"The Ice Dance" by Danny Elfman(Edward Scissorhands)
    -"The Gael" by Trevor Jones(The Last of the Mohicans)
    -"You Are So Beautiful" by Joe Cocker(Carlito's Way)
    -"Guilty" by Gravity Kills(Se7en)
    -"Across 110th Street" by Bobby Womack(Jackie Brown)

    Also, can there be moratorium on any cover of the Eurythmics "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of this)" in any future movies or trailers? I love the Marilyn Manson cover, but the use of it in movies/trailers has become lazy.

    I was THIS close to putting "Decode" on my "Songs from Movies that I Love but Probably Shouldn't" list.

    1. Paramore is hit or miss for me but when they hit, they HIT.

      And yes x100 for Across 110th Street

  5. "Sweet Dreams" is a great candidate for retirement. I just looked it up and that one's in "Sucker Punch," too. Geez. I didn't realize that movie committed so many music party-fouls.

    1. Go easy on Sucker Punch. I'd take that over Man of Steel any day.

  6. For single artist soundtracks I'll throw in Badly Drawn Boy's About A Boy album. For compilations, Breaking the Waves. T-Rex, Tull, AND Bach? Yes please!

  7. Arcade Fire (the two "leaders," anyway) did write a movie score to Richard Kelly's The Box. The movie is...not for everyone (I like it), but the score is incredible and easily one of the best things about it.

    1. Totally didn't know that, and I started "The Box" but only got about 10 minutes into it. Thanks for the rec.

  8. @Erich - Forgot about the About A Boy soundtrack. I really like that one :-)

  9. @Adam: It's of course nowhere close to the best movie I've seen, but if I had to choose just one flick to represent my personality, say, to someone who'd never met me, The Mummy would be it. I do think that, on its own terms, it's a perfect entertainment, without a wasted or misplaced line. And the Goldsmith score is also terrific, albeit not as fun and colorful as the Silvestri one.

    The Mummy Returns aggravated me for a long time. I find the costumes, sets, music, cinematography and cast (Weisz especially) completely wonderful, and I think the story is actually pretty unique and special in the way it contrasts the true love of Rick and Evelyn with the mere lust of Imhotep and Anck. That said, it's full of useless scenes and set pieces, horrible character sabotage of Jonathan, a frankly creepy reincarnation subplot, and a live action Jar Jar. I eventually made a fan edit called Year of the Scorpion that cuts out several subplots, scads of cringe-inducing moments, and fully half the running time while preserving virtually all of the above strengths, so I'm pretty darn happy with that, but I never want to see the full Mummy Returns ever again.

    And I'm entirely indifferent to the third, no-Weisz one.

    1. I now want to look up this fan edit you speak of. Thanks El Gaith!

    2. @Mark: Nice! I have no idea if it's still online, but you can shoot me an email at if you'd like to discuss it further. :)