When Music Elevates The Modern Cinematic Experience

8 Recent Examples Of Excellence In FIlm x Music

Once MTV began to focus more on original programming rather than music videos they progressively dismantled most of their video shows and created an alternate network to appeal to those diehard music fans who still clung to their original aim & mission statement in the Summer of 1996 (M2 AKA MTV2) music discovery began its steady evolution into what its become today.

Internet based P2P sites were bringing the music industry to its knees circa Fall 1999 (led by Napster, Kazaa & ed2k) but we music fans still kept our televisions on MTV, BET & MuchMusic (I had Cablevision between 1991 and 2001. In 2003, Much Music became MMUSA then later Fuse) where we discovered new music that we’d either go out & buy or order from Columbia House or BMG Music Club for pennies on the dollar.

By Fall 1999, M2 had become MTV2 and in hopes of compensating for the fact it was almost impossible to see MTV2 at the time Viacom opted to air/stream the network on the Internet. This helped switch the dynamic of music discovery to a different screen but it would be years before the majority of Internet users got access to cable modems or broadband connections outside of the T1 lines they had in their offices or workplaces. MTV’s airing of original programming had to serve as a delivery system for new music in the stead of videos.

Shows would play snippets or parts of new songs and you’d either see the song listed on the screen as it played or you had to wait then record the end credits on your VCR, pause them and figure out what song it was. Eventually, this became commonplace and this was how we compensated for not having MTV cater to music fans anymore in the early days of their transition.

Another factor was indie film began exploding around the rise of the DVD and the tail end of the Golden Age Of Music Videos (1994-2000). In most of these indie films they’d either introduce you to new music or music you previously never heard before which you’d then immediately search for then download via Napster, LimeWire, Kazaa or ed2k. This was the way things went for years to follow, it only got deeper as more and more Internet users got broadband Internet access, DSL/cable modems and routers thus making it possible to be online 24/7 with high speed access between 2000 and 2004.

By 2004, film was entrenched in not only seamlessly integrating music into it as a means of helping to get the desired emotional investment from the viewer/audience but also as a way to introduce people to music the filmmakers loved. Due to the recent changes in how we were once exposed to music, there was a void and the filmmakers of this era capitalized on it by bridging the gap and bringing the music to people through the medium of film. These are eight films from the past decade where not only were we given a compelling story but we came away with some great music from them as well which further made these wonderful films stick with us:

Garden State (2004)

Garden State was an independent film written and directed by Zach Braff containing the music he was listening to during his first feature’s creation process in the form of a mix CD. The film was screened at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival where it was nominated for the prestigious Grand Jury Prize. Garden State opened in wide release later that July and the film’s soundtrack and score helped it to become a cult phenomenon following it’s rental release. At the 2005 Grammy Awards Zach Braff’s hand selected “Garden State OST” won out over Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill Volume 2 OST” amongst others.

There’s no way to watch this film and divorce the music from it. Chad Fischer and Alexi Murdoch also deserve a great deal of credit for adding to the soul of this film. Incidentally, Alexi Murdoch’s subsequent debut LP “Time Without Consequence” became one of the most frequently licensed by television, film & advertising. Coincidence? I think not.

Once (2007)

“Once” is the tale of an Irish musician who repairs vacuum cleaners and performs regularly on the streets of Dublin as a busker. He encounters a Czech immigrant woman who simply by asking him a series of personal questions makes him rethink his own path in life. She tells him that she is also a musician and helps him find his way, assemble a band and record his original material in professional studio. The music smacks you in the face because it’s so good and it draws you in. You become so engrossed in the main characters’ quest to secure financing for his studio session that you forget that you don’t even have a clue what either his or her names are. I was on my third viewing before I even realized they never said their names.

The reason they both sounded so good together was because they were a band already (and they were also really in the process of falling in love with each other). They were formed as The Swell Season in 2006 to contribute songs to the soundtrack of Jan Hřebejk’s film Beauty In Trouble which resulted in the creation of their self titled LP the same year. This album contained the song “When Your Mind’s Made Up” that might be considered the film’s apex and a favorite from the “Once OST”.

The film was made on a shoestring budget (approximately $160,000 USD) but made close to $21 million USD at the box office. In addition, the film’s soundtrack sold over 200,000 units which is astounding for an independent film soundtrack. When it was all said and done, Once won the 2007 Independent Spirit Award for Best Foreign Film, the song “Falling Slowly” from the film won the 2007 Academy Award for Best Original Song and the soundtrack was nominated for a Grammy Award in 2008 (they lost to The Beatles). Glen Hasgard (The Guy) & Markéta Irglová (The Girl) both still make music and neither have the desire to ever act again but they have a devoted fanbase from the music they made together and separately.

Juno (2007)

Juno stands out to me for several key reasons, first of all the writer used to be a blogger turned novelist (Diablo Cody) that became a screenwriter then a showrunner. Secondly, the film stood out because it was very stylized in a way that echoed Kevin Smith’s View Askew universe x Quentin Tarantino’s work x Joss Whedon’s Jossverse x a younger more cynical Amy Heckerling. The film is not only highly quotable but the actors added so much to the film it was impossible to not be engrossed by it.

When the director Jason Reitman read Diablo Cody’s script he instantly thought of Ellen Page as Juno. As he was assembling the cast he asked Ellen what music would Juno listen to and she responded with The Moldy Peaches. Next Ellen Page played Jason Reitman some songs by The Moldy Peaches, he became enamored with what he heard so he immediately contacted Kimya Dawson for permission to use her songs and also to collaborate on music for the film. The score was done by Mateo Messina who collaborated with Reitman, Page, Dawson and Diablo Cody on what music the characters liked and what best worked for the film. The end result was pure magic.

Both the film score and “Music From The Motion Picture Juno” blew people away and instantly resonated with audiences. Juno was made for only $6.5 million dollars. Several actors took pay cuts just to keep the film’s budget low (Jennifer Garner especially) and at the time Jason Reitman took the job his first feature Thank You For Smoking hadn’t even hit theaters yet so he was a veritable nobody at the time of Juno’s acquisition & pre-production. Juno went on to rake in $231 million worldwide at the box office. The soundtrack hit #1 on the Billboard charts on it’s way to Platinum sales. A motion picture soundtrack from an indie film featuring music by The Moldy Peaches (Kimya Dawson), Belle & Sebastian, Cat Power, Sonic Youth & Barry Louis Polisar went Platinum. In 2008. Shut the front door!

Diablo Cody won Best First Screenplay at the 2007 Independent Spirt Awards and Best Original Screenplay at the Writers Guild Of America, BAFTAs & the 2008 Academy Awards. “Music From The Motion Picture Juno” also won Best Compilation Soundtrack Album For Motion Picture, Television Or Other Visual Media at the 2008 Grammy Awards completing one hell of a haul. When great writing meets great direction meets great acting amplified by great music the final product is cinematic brilliance.

Rachel Getting Married (2008)

Rachel Getting Married, the story of an addict let out of rehab to attend the wedding of her sister Rachel, is one of the most intense films I’ve ever seen in my entire life. This Jonathan Demme directed gem was actually written by Jenny Lumet, daughter of legendary filmmaker Sidney Lumet, celebrated journalist & author Gail Lumet Buckley and grand daughter of pioneer and legendary entertainer Lena Horne. The thing that softened the often unsettling seriousness of Rachel Getting Married was the usage of music and the brilliant performances by the cast which included Anne Hathaway, Rosemarie DeWitt, Tunde Adebimpe (of TV On The Radio), Debra Winger and Bill Irwin.

World renowned Jazz musician Donald Harrison Jr. & respected multi instrumentalist Zafer Tawil were both responsible for the the film’s infectious score and soundtrack which were key in lightening the mood of the project. Jonathan Demme insisted on having musicians (including his son Brooklyn on guitar) play music throughout the film to serve as the score rather than relying on a pre-recorded one. He wanted the music to be spontaneous and organic in order to better fit with the energy of the wedding party. It ended up being the right call as the music of the film really stuck with viewers.

Rachel Getting Married ended up one of the most critically acclaimed films of 2008 and while it was shown on less than 400 screens during its entire run in theaters it made a profit off the film’s initial $12 million dollar budget. Jenny Lumet won several awards for her incredible screenplay, Jonathan Demme was nominated for Best Director at the 2008 Independent Spirit Awards and both Anne Hathaway and Rosemarie DeWitt received many accolades for the outstanding work in the the film. Even to this day it’s hard to find physical copies of the Rachel Getting Married: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack” because it always sells out on Amazon. Can’t say I’m surprised…

Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist (2008)

This film is a mash up of many things, first it’s the adaptation of a novel (by Rachel Cohn & David Levithan), then it’s a modern romantic comedy for indie Rock fans while also doubling as a love letter to New York from the perspective of people from New Jersey. The beauty of Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist is that it contrasts Nick played by awkward everyman Michael Cera (who I just now realized was the male lead in 37.5% of the films I decided to write about in this piece) against the aggressive, boisterous and opinionated Norah played by fanboy favorite Kat Dennings.

Music by Vampire Weekend, Band Of Horses, We Are Scientists, Bishop Allen, The Real Tuesday Weld, Shout Out Louds, Army Navy, Takka Takka and The Dead 60's amongst others made this film special to audiences because it introduced these bands to a generation that didn’t grow up watching either 120 Minutes or Indie Outing on MTV. Nick was a sensitive, emo, indie Rock scene kid with great taste in music that Norah actually fell in love with before she even SAW him. Nick made his ex-girlfriend Tris mixed CD’s (Rob from “High Fidelity made mix tapes…on cassette!). What’s not to like?

The novel was adapted to a screenplay by Lorene Scafaria (it was her first time ever doing so), she went on to write & direct the 2012 romantic dramedy “Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World” (She also wrote two episodes of the highly slept on now canceled comedy “Ben & Kate”). Scafaria (who is also a musician who initially sent in a mix CD full of songs to consider for the soundtrack with the completed screenplay) and the director Peter Sollett (“Raising Victor Vargas”) knew exactly how to blend music in seamlessly with the film (with the help of Linda Cohen, the film’s music supervisor). The duo ended up collaborating years later on the show “Ben & Kate”. Again, there are no accidents.

Ultimately, “Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist” was a success. It was made for only $10 million dollars but generated $33 million at the worldwide box office plus helped to catapult the careers of not only Michael Cera, Katt Dennings & Ari Graynor but also screenwriter Lorene Scafaria and director Peter Sollett. In addition, it introduced thousands of music fans to New York based indie Rock bands. Win win.

Medicine For Melancholy (2008)

Gentrification has never been handled in such a clever way before on film. The first time I saw any film address the gentrification issue in San Francisco was Spike Lee’s “Sucker Free City” back in 2004. In 2008, writer/director Barry Jenkins began screening his film “Medicine For Melancholy” about two Black people who meet by chance at a party and have a one night stand in San Francisco but the film is about so much more than that.

It’s a film about identity, gentrification, the indie music scene and how Black people cope (or don’t) with their diminishing role in a constantly changing environment. Most importantly, it’s not a Hollywood “Black” film that provides a template for how Black people should look or speak. I feel that’s why it being in muted colors that almost approached an early colorized black & white film was a perfect choice. Thank you James Laxton.

The film’s protagonists are Micah (Wyatt Cenac) and Jo (or Angela)(Tracey Heggins). The duo spend a full day together in San Francisco discussing everything from art, film, music, relationships, work and Micah often expresses his frustrations with his present situation. Even when he hides his hurt with humor you can see that his conflicted feelings about his hometown are eating him up inside, only compounded the frustration that he and Jo can’t be a couple.

I am sick to death of the damb “Black” film. Here are two Black people having discussions like regular people do, much like the ones in the previous films on this list. No Kevin Hart. No Mike Epps. No Michael Ealy. No Laz Alonzo. No Terrence J. No Jay-Z or Kanye West songs in the trailer. Please.

The music of “Medicine For Melancholy” helped to set the mood and effectively convey the emotion of the protagonists. Hearing everything from Yesterday’s New Quintet to Oh No! Oh My! to Tom Waits to White Denim to The Changes in this film further illustrated to me that Black cinema has been marginalized and narrowcast to the point we’re surprised when Black people are portrayed as human on screen. They can just exist as people with lives and hopes and dreams (NOTE: The music discussions in this film also sounded far more authentic than the ones in “Brown Sugar”).

Which begs the question, “What DO two Black folks do on a Sunday afternoon?”. The question of identity pops up in the film from the gentrification of San Francisco but for the viewer it’s also relevant due to the constant pigeonholing of Black art in general. “Medicine For Melancholy” was made for only about $13,000 and it almost made $13,ooo in it’s opening weekend. At the end of it’s 80 day run in theaters it grossed over $110,000 while never being shown on more than 7 screens. It’s since gone on to become a cult favorite via Redbox & Netflix. If you haven’t seen it yet, please do so.

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010)

For those unaware, the creator of the Scott Pilgrim franchise Bryan Lee O’Malley named his lead character after a song by the Canadian band Plumtree. “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World” was a tall order seeing as how one film had six graphic novels as source material to draw from, thus making an adaptation even more of a daunting task. The film was co-written (with Michael Bacall (“Project X”, “21 Jump Street” & “22 Jump Street”)), directed and co-produced by British writer/director/auteur Edgar Wright (“Shaun Of The Dead”, “Hot Fuzz”, “Attack The Block” (producer) & “Adventures Of Tintin” (writer)). Their combined adapted screenplay somehow managed to keep the spirit of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s books intact while translating what was on the comic book page into a live action film.

The “Scott Pilgrim” series is about a 22 year old Torontan guitarist/indie Rock fan/comic book geek/video game nerd who also happens to be a fighting game character. Not only were these books a fanboy’s proverbial wet dream but they appealed to both genders and even those who weren’t fans of either indie music, comic books or video games. I don’t know how that’s possible but it happened. The first time I saw a “Scott Pilgrim” graphic novel on the shelf of Newbury Comics a decade ago I shrugged it off. I did that up until “Scott Pilgrim & The Infinite Sadness” dropped in 2006, I saw the title was a play on the classic Smashing Pumpkins album and began reading it. I ended up reading the whole fucking thing cover to cover right there.

I say that because I wasn’t alone in doing so. The majority of “Scott Pilgrim” fans were deeply emotionally invested in the property and they were fiercely protective of it. Bryan Lee O’Malley was hyper aware of this fact and he & Edgar Wright were on the same page during the adaptation process and its film translation to live action since the film’s audience was essentially everyone who attends Comic Con.

Since “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World” is very Torontocentric and indie Rock based it was essential that the music in the film reflect that. Peppered throughout the film are songs by Plumtree, Broken Social Scene, Black Lips, Beachwood Sparks, The Bluetones & Blood Red Shoes, Beck and Metric also wrote and contributed songs to the soundtrack. They also contributed a song as Clash At Demonhead ( “Black Sheep” is sung by Brie Larson whom I also remember as a solo artist).

All of the video game and comic book references coupled with the music were melded together into what seemed like a comic film x video game x musical x romantic comedy. It was definitely covering all of the bases in the Gen X geek culture fanboy/fangirl wheelhouse short of zombies and vampires and all signs pointed towards it becoming a huge box office success. Just one thing…it wasn’t. “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World” is the lone film of the eight I chose to write about that seamlessly integrated music into it and made it resonate with film and music fans alike that could be characterized as a studio blockbuster. For God’s sake, it even has it’s own video game!

The production budget for “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World” fell somewhere between $85 and $90 million dollars. The project’s television, print and online marketing push was huge since it was a Universal Studios film. It didn’t have to be screened at film festivals like Sundance or Cannes to get distribution like the previous films on this list, it was guaranteed already. The film fell short of grossing $50 million at the international box office but it managed became a cult sensation through Redbox and Netflix rentals. “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World” was at the top of Amazon’s DVD sales list during its first week of commercial release in November 2010 and has since amassed close to $30 million dollars in DVD sales.

Bryan Lee O’ Malley and Edgar Wright collaborated in making yet another endlessly quotable cult film that is beloved by Gen X’ers for it’s music which we’ll watch whenever it comes on cable even though we already own it either on DVD, have it saved to our DVR’s or have it as a mp4 or avi file on a flash drive currently plugged into our laptops, gaming systems or TV’s. That is quite an accomplishment in this day. Trust me on that.

Drive (2011)

Ryan Gosling’s role as a laconian wheelman/professional stunt/precision driver is augmented by the haunting soundtrack which features music by Kavinsky & Lovefoxx, College & Electric Youth, The Chromatics, Desire and a score expertly executed by Cliff Martinez (“Sex, Lies & Videotape”, “Traffic”, “Narc”, “Wonderland”, “Havoc”, “The Lincoln Lawyer” & “Spring Breakers”). The combination of the “Drive Original Motion Picture Soundtrack” , the slick cinematography (courtesy of the virtuoso work of Newton Thomas Sigel) and overall styling of the production (down to the cool scorpion jacket) could’ve easily overshadowed the film (a la “Sucker Punch”) but the tone, pacing and intense action scenes prevented those things from overshadowing the film. Instead, all of the elements blended together perfectly.

“Drive” was originally a short novel by James Sallis which was adapted for the screen by Hossein Amini (“Killshot”, “Shanghai”, “Snow White & The Huntsman” & “47 Ronin”). It was directed by influential writer/director/auteur Nicolas Winding Refn (“Pusher” trilogy, “Bleeder”, “Bronson” & “Only God Forgives”) and made on a shoestring budget of between $13 — $15 million dollars even though it looked like it cost as least three times as much to produce. The film was so engrossing that I saw it multiple times before I realized the main character (referred to as The Driver)’s name is never once uttered in the film (same thing happened with “Once”, remember?).

It was clear this was a special film based on the overwhelming response it received at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. Not only did the premiere screening yield a 15 minute standing ovation from the audience but Nicolas Winding Refn won the coveted Best Director Award. It was clear that “Drive” would end up being a unique and influential film once it went into wide release. Needless to say, the film landed a distribution deal and hit theaters stateside in September 2011.

The word spread about “Drive” once it hit theaters through social networks. Fans went on about the film’s aesthetic, music and The Driver’s apparel. Shortly after the film opened, people were selling scorpion jackets all across the Internet. In addition, the songs from the film were being shared all across Twitter and Facebook, especially “Nightcall”, “Under Your Spell” & “A Real Hero”. At the close of “Drive”’s opening week in theaters it had almost made its initial budget back. The finished box office run boasted a worldwide gross of over $78 million dollars, including DVD sales it has since topped $100 million. The “Drive Original Motion Picture Soundtrack” sold briskly on iTunes as moviegoers saw the film and immediately purchased the soundtrack afterwards because it haunted them.


Films and television have certainly moved up several levels in the music discovery chain over the past 15 years but if the music doesn’t perfectly complement the film or enhance the cinematic experience it won’t resonate with either the viewer or the music fan. Our emotional attachment to the art further intensifies our connection to it. This is how fans are born. Do it sucessfully again and you’ll have repeat customers.

Dart Adams is a music journalist and lecturer who resides in Boston. He was recently chosen to receive a lifetime achievement award for Least Amount Of Fucks Given, alas he wasn’t present to accept the award since he didn’t give a fuck that he won. Dart maintains that the Spread Gun from “Contra” is the greatest weapon in video gaming history and he wishes he owned the The Glaive from “Krull”. Follow him on Twitter and Medium.

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