The use of published music in mainstream cinema has been a divisive instrument since the days of 2001 and Easy Rider. It can be a powerful tool, and make for some awesomely memorable (or memorably awesome) moments. One could even argue that there are some films that have nothing else to offer but an expert use of music.
But the horrible truth is, yes, sometimes it can be lazy. Sometimes it can be inept, obvious, and/or just wrong. And it's never the fault of the song - the songs themselves are generally fine; sometimes they're great. This is just a study in oil and water - calling attention to flubs in mood, theme timing, editing, and universal human emotion. Here's ten examples from each of us.
1. The Departed, "Gimme Shelter"
It was between this and Flight. The latter somehow seems more forgivable, maybe it's because it's easier to believe that Zemeckis can be kind of a dope sometimes. But I can't really make any excuse for ol' Marty Pills, and I don't think he can either. Whether he'd heard it recently from a car in New York traffic, or he just considers it to be his trademark, the biggest gaffe is how it's used twice in the film, both in very clumsy, un-Scorsese-like ways; much like a spoof of his films in the caliber of the Date/Epic/Disaster Movie people. Yes, that bad.
2. American Gangster, "Across 110th Street
Much like my Flight complaint, I thought, "Has Ridley Scott seen any films or heard any music in the past 30 years?" Quentin Tarantino has famously said something along the lines of, "Once a song is used in a movie, it can never be used in another." Ironically, much of the Jackie Brown soundtrack and score is lifted from other movies.But it's less ironic that he has excuses for his choices, because he's a filmmaker with a philosophy. Ridley doesn't strike me as a director with a philosophy, so when he uses this song over a sequence of Harlem residents "shootin that dope," it's possible he doesn't take Jackie Brown or the film of the song's namesake into account, and just made a laughably obvious choice. Because God knows there were no other soul/funk/R+B songs to choose from in the 1970s...
3. The Wedding Singer, "Everyday I write the Book"
In a movie full of inept song usage, it's hard to pick just one. Furthermore, picking on an Adam Sandler comedy is like picking on the smaller, weaker kid - it's just unfair. But, you know when they're just askin' for it, then it's fun to be the bully. Though, that may be unfair. Nevermind that this is from the director of The Waterboy - this crime is committed in even the most "prestigious" of films: underuse of songs. Which, in its own way, is still misuse. If you wanna use a snippet in a music montage of many songs (like Scorsese at his best) then that's one acceptable thing. Otherwise, if you paid for the song, use it! At least two choruses if you can, because when you use a song, it's all about the song (especially when the movie itself is weaker than the music).
4. Rock Star, "Once in a Lifetime"
I haven't seen this whole movie - it seemed generally upsetting. But that's alright; I needn't see the entire film to know that, if nothing else, the use of Talking Heads in a hair band/glam metal story is wrong wrong wrong. It also showcased how Jennifer Aniston is, unsurprisingly, incapable of doing the Nicholson/Cuckoo's Nest/facial study thing.
5. Argo, "Sultans of Swing"
This is like The Wedding Singer thing - if you buy a song, use it.
6. Zoolander, "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go"
For me, Ben Stiller has two sides:kind of okay, and sucking real bad. All of Zoolander is like that personal embarrassment you feel when you watch a comic die onstage. But the embarrassment turns to anger when it becomes personal. Apart from being particularly unfunny, the "Wake Me Up" sequence uses a song I like just to make fun of it. A song that, in the hands of someone with a bit more talent, could be much more effective and notable.
7. The Devil's Rejects, "Fooled Around and Fell In Love"
Just another example of, "Eh, already heard it in these other movies."
8. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, "Sweet Home Alabama"
Obviously I refer to the 2003 remake, not the original 1974 version. The 1974 version wouldn't need a 1974 song about Alabama to signify that it was the 1970s. And in Texas.
9. Batman, Soundtrack by Prince
On their own, the songs are fine. Prince is fine. And between 1985 and 1995, Tim Burton was great at nothing if not creating his own world - a world different, separate, and distant from our own. Perhaps not even one, but several. Many. And for some reason, in the dark, gothic Gotham world of Batman, the only music that exists is Prince (?) It's just that it doesn't fit the way Tom Jones fits in Edward Scissorhands. It's dated (in the bad, wrong way). Whether Tim was for it or against it doesn't make it better or worse. It just is, and we have to live and deal with it, and single-handedly gives the Nolan franchise a leg up.
10. Dirty Dancing, "Hungry Eyes"
I like the song. I'm indifferent towards the movie. The problem, as bitchy as it sounds, lies within the timliness of it. Not that I disapprove of contemporary pop in period pieces as a generality or a gimmick. It's the fact that, a song that sounds so much like 1987 is used as source music, on a radio, in a movie that takes place in 1960-whatever. That's why I don't mind the "Time of My Life" song in the movie all that much, because Bill Medley's voice better recalls and connects to that era. Eric Carmen, not so much.
1. Last Days, "Venus in Furs"
Most of my anger at the use of this song comes from jealousy. It's repeated and completely contrived use has wiped it off the table to ever be used in cinema again. For shame.
2. Son of Sam, "Fernando"
If you've ever seen Son of Sam, then you know what I'm talking about when I say that the opening scene with the use of this song is absolutely enthralling. Then you gotta sit through three hours of confused plot and poor acting. This song use is the worst set-up in film history.
3. Watchmen, "Hallelujah"
This song is one of the most inspired and melodic songs in the history of music. It more than irks me that they used this as a fucking punchline.
4. Almost Famous, "Tiny Dancer"
I'm desperately trying to focus on how completely inane and embarrassing this scene is and not mention that upon first viewing of this movie in the theater, and as this scene occurs, my personal life changed for the worst for nearly a decade. I've since sold my copy of the dvd, and even though I am one of the biggest Elton John fans, every time I hear it played, I literally get physically ill.
5. Elizabethtown, "My Father's Gun"
I'm purposely following a Cameron Crowe picture with a Cameron Crowe picture to make a larger point. Mr. Soundtrack really doesn't know shit about song usage. This scene is supposed to invoke tears but really makes you laugh out loud.
6. In America, "Desperado"
In America could be its own negative review. Instead, I'd just like to point out how uncomfortable you're made to feel while watching this child actress prance around on stage singing the fucking Eagles.
7. Stepmom, "Ain't no Mountain High"
There is nothing silly or endearing about a family torn apart by divorce and terminal cancer.
8. Addams Family Values, "Addams Family Whoomp"
Tag Team's back again with another wet fart to end an otherwise underrated comedy.
9. Practical Magic, "Coconut"
The only reason I watched this movie as a teen was the hope of seeing some Kidman boobies. This scene, in which she dances in her jammies, is as close as you get. Instead of making you wet, it really makes your vagina crawl up inside yourself and feel shame for her and you.
10. Mrs. Doubtfire, "Dude Looks Like A Lady"
Is it just me or is it just a tad too pointed to use this song in a movie about an insane Tranny father. Maybe, like with Stepmom, Chris Columbus was trying to make light of a very real and frightening situation.