Film music is how we most often remember some of our favorite films. Whether it is the two deep cello notes of “Jaws”, to the adventuring conjuring tunes from “Pirates of the Caribbean”, to the soft legato melodies of Frodo’s time in the Shire in “Lord of the Rings.” Great scores can make an otherwise uneventful scene seem exhilarating, tense or emotional.
However, orchestral scores aren’t the only way to score.
Many filmmakers have used popular pop, rock, jazz, metal and electronic tunes as score for their films, be it for only a moment, a full scenes, or even entire films.
Quentin Tarantino is no stranger to this, using tunes like “Stuck In The Middle With You” by Stealers Wheel to add contrast in a gruesome scene, and using “Misirlou” by Dick Dale for the Title Sequence for “Pulp Fiction” to establish the mood and energy of the film.
James gun has also used pop songs from the 60s and 70s in the series “Guardians of the Galaxy”, with the ‘Awesome Mix’ providing a retro feel to the film as well as implying an narrative element regarding Chris Pratt’s ‘Star-Lord’.
Robert Zemeckis also used pop music in his “Forrest Gump”, in which “Fortune Son” by Creedence Clearwater Revival is played when Forrest goes to Vietnam, as the anti-war song is historically often associated with the Vietnam War.
Even the directors of the HBO series “Westworld” used already established songs, such as Sound Garden’s “Black Hole Sun” and The Rolling Stones’ “Paint it black” in reimagined honkey-tonk versions, to not only suit the western theme of the show, but to re-enforce the idea that the world they live in is fake.
When using pop songs in film, the director needs to understand the most important methods of melding pop music and film. You either direct the scene to suit the song, or choose a song that will suit the scene. Your song and scene should blend seamlessly; the song should be absolutely perfect for the scene.
Like what Edgar Wright has shown in his latest film “Baby Driver.”
Edgar Wright is a British Director whose catalogue includes films like “Shaun of the Dead”, “Hot Fuzz” and “Scott Pilgrim VS The World.” Noticeable traits in all of his film include fast paced action, snappy dialogue and small themes and motifs that foreshadow or link together different events. However, Wright always relies heavily on the inclusion of music within certain scenes. In “Scott Pilgrim VS The World”, a large chunk of the film’s score consists of indie rock (following the theme of the indie music scene of the narrative) as well as synth-heavy 8-bit tunes (reflecting the video game motifs throughout the film.) His recent film takes a new approach, with most of the crucial scenes being underscored by already released pop and rock songs, from a variety of genres.
“Baby Driver” tells as story of ‘Baby’, a skilled get away driver (Ansel Elgort) who is working off a debt to an powerful crime lord (Kevin Spacey). The film itself contains Edgar Wright’s signature blend of fast humor, slick editing, engaging characters, and most importantly, a great soundtrack. Many describe the soundtrack itself as almost another character in the film, as Edgar Wright has painstakingly constructed the various scenes in the film to revolve around the songs. Put it simply, the film wouldn’t have its signature charm without its varied soundtrack.
Another key note about the list of songs that comprise the soundtrack is that while each of them are varied in their tone and style, they work in the context of the story and have been implemented is such a way that they don’t seemed tacked on in any sense. Wright’s direction has allowed for an Café Jazz song to play, followed later by a thumbing rock song, followed later by a 90s rap song.
Here are the ways in which pop songs can be implemented into a film in order to enhance the meaning or effectiveness in a scene, and how Baby Driver achieved that.
Minor spoilers ahead, but I will try not to give anything away.
1. Syncing with an action scene.
A score behind an action scene is designed to enhance the intensity of the scene, and also make the action flow. In some sense, it is supposed to give the scene a sort of rhythm. In films this is usually achieved through the implementation of loud burst of orchestral sound in heavy hitting moments of the action, reducing the dynamics and texture in moments for the action to breathe, and syncing the flow of movements to suit the music.
Baby Driver, being an action movie, choreographs its action set pieces to suit rhythmic, often obscure songs. The opening scene of the film is synced to the bombastic and ever shifting rock song “Bellbottoms” by The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, with it’s twangy guitar, driving drums, thundering bass, Orchestral string jabs, obscure and over the top vocals and constantly changing structure and tempo. It sets the scene perfectly with the car chase scene occurring on the scene, with each new section being synced with a new problem for our protagonist.
This technique also appears later on in the film during a shootout scene, with each bullet shot, reload click and explosion being synced with the Latin-Flavored Rock ‘n’ Roll song “Tequila”. This gives the scene quirkiness, while also making the overall shootout seem more intense and entertaining.
Narrative wise, these songs are coming Baby’s IPod, which gives the scene the feeling that everything is being experience from Baby’s perspective.
2. Establishing a mood
A vital role music plays in film is to help convey and communicate a certain emotion to the audience. Pairing emotional music with an emotional scene engages the audience to sympathies and feel sad for the character on screen. Pairing a slow walk in a haunted house with the sound of high-pitched violins creates a sense of tension and makes the audience feel uncomfortable.
Baby Driver effectively uses different pop songs at various points in the film to establish the moods for particular scenes. In a scene in which Kevin Spacey’s Crime Lord character runs through the quick and slick plan for a heist, the upbeat Jazz Piece “Unsquare Dance” plays in the background, with its mix of buzzing double bass, loud claps, quickly improvised piano licks and odd time signature. This fast paced song establishes the quick pace of the scene and causes the audience to pay attention. It also harkens back to films that would use similar music to this in heist planning scenes, such as “Ocean’s Eleven.”
This again arise in a scene later in the film, in which Baby is having an internal battle between his morality and his duty to a heist occurring at that time. This is also paired with that fact that the job is starting to go very wring. As he struggles in his predicament, the song “Intermission” by Blur plays. It’s carnival tone colour, paired with its gradually increasing tempo, congregation of obscure sounds and gradual crescendo over the course evokes a sense of unease in the audience, as they can see and feel that everything is starting to unreal and go horribly wrong.
3. Subtly convey the main character’s emotions
Alike the last technique, music can be a communication of particular emotions to the audience, which in turn gives a greater insight into a character’s inner workings. If somber piano music plays in the background of a close-up of a character, the audience understands the main character’s despair. If the sound of elective guitar feedback slowly builds on a character, the audience understands the growing anger in the character.
Baby Driver’s use of this technique is subtler, as Wright inputs songs with the lyrics and meaning of songs being a focus to convey the emotion. In a sense, they act as almost a sort of ‘Easter Egg’. In a scene in which Baby is stuck in a car, being interrogated by the main villains of the story, the car radio plays “Nowhere to Run” by Martha Reeves & The Vandellas. In the song, the lyrics include “Nowhere to run to baby, nowhere to hide,” which ever slightly hints at Baby’s sense of discomfort being in that car, and how he feels trapped.
Another scene in which this occurs is towards the end, in which Baby is going to go save his love interest from danger. When he enters the location, the radio is play Barry White’s “Never, Never Gonna Give You Up”, which is a love song about how one aims to make their love feel happy and how they’ll never abandon them. This song’s message reflects the way Baby Feels about his Love interest, while also creating a contrast with the emotions of another character in the film, in regards to his love’s fate.
4. Acting as a motif at several points in the film
In a regular score, a motif is played a various points in the piece, often going through multiple changes through different incarnations. Motifs are also heavily used in film scores, with a film’s signature melodic line often snuck into a score as a way to connect scenes and characters, or to add a sense of familiarity in a piece. This is often scene is films with very reconcilable themes, including James Bond, Pirates of the Caribbean, and the Original Superman.
Baby Driver uses the same songs at different points in the film, as a way to harken back to a unrecognized but important scenes, to establish a character trait, or to connect a feeling or emotion between scenes.
Warning, the following examples will contain spoilers of the ending of the film, so proceed with caution.
In a scene in the first half of the film, the heist member ‘Buddy’ (Played by Jon Hamm) asks Baby about what his “Killer Track” is, to which Baby says “Brighton Rock” by Queen. Buddy compliments Baby, saying how much he loves the guitar solo in the song. Later, in the climax of the film, in which Baby is fighting an unhinged Buddy, Buddy steals a car and plays “Brighton Rock” on the Radio, shouting how it’s his “Killer Track”. This motif makes the audience remember that scene from earlier in the film, and how the characters have changed so much of the course of the film. Plus, the guitar solo acts as the perfect soundtrack to the fight that ensues.
A motif song also appears in the form of the placement of different versions of the song “Easy”, originally by The Commodores. The song originally plays after Baby has finally fully paid his debt to Kevin Spacey’s ‘Doc’ about midway through the movie, as he walks away from a car from his recent heist. The song again plays at the very end of the film, when Baby and his Love are on the run, following the climatic battle with Buddy. Baby wakes up to hear a version of “Easy”, sung by his late Mother. This song signifies the supposed end of the adventure for our main character, and by having this song play in these two particular scenes, it is meant to convey a sense of finality and completion for Baby. While it is short lived the first time the song is played, the second time Baby closure, and the happy ending he’s been dreaming of.
The film “Baby Driver” is a prime example of how Pop music can be an effective and entertaining substitute for a regular film score. Not only that, it also shows how using premade songs can also, in some cases, by a more effective use of music in a scene that an original score.
If you haven’t heard the Soundtrack to “Baby Driver” or seen the movie, I highly recommend both, as it is a great jukebox listen and a great watch too.
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