Ever since the early days of cinema, music has been an inextricable aspect of filmmaking. Just try to imagine Lord of the Rings without its sweeping orchestral score, a Tim Burton movie without darkly whimsical Danny Elfman music punctuating and heightening its Gothic comedy, or a Harry Potter film without the enchanting, haunting “Hedwig’s Theme” introducing us to its world of magic and wonder. There are also, of course, full-on musicals, which tell their stories through the narrative device of having their characters literally burst into song to express their emotions. Other times, however, directors choose to go a subtler route, using a soundtrack that functions in a similar way—commenting on the characters and the action—but without having the characters spontaneously sing in unrealistic situations. The following are a group of films that, although they aren’t technically musicals, feature music so prominently and use it so well that they almost feel like musicals, creating a very similar emotional effect in the viewer.
Baz Luhrmann, a visionary, Australian director, is perhaps best known for his eye-popping musical masterpiece, Moulin Rouge . Even when he isn’t crafting epic rock operas, however, his films are often so musical, it almost feels as if the characters are breaking into song even when they’re not. His ultra-modern and extremely stylized spin on Shakepeare’s classic love story is a perfect example. Rather than going for a realistic approach, as earlier film versions of the play did, he decided to enhance the story’s theatricality. One of the ways he did that was through an audacious soundtrack that juxtaposed Shakepeare’s dialogue with such diverse musical sounds as alternative rock, disco, pop, and actual opera. The film’s best use of music, though, is during the star-crossed lovers’ first meeting. As the two stare at each other through an aquarium of brightly colored fish, the film’s love theme plays in the background, the gentle piano melody making the scene feel like a moment of perfect clarity and quiet beauty, all of the surrounding noise melting away.
As with Luhrmann, famed director Quentin Tarrantino’s films are known for their great soundtracks. None, however, is quite as sublime as the one he put together for his two-part revenge extravaganza, Kill Bill . Starring Uma Thurman as an archetypal character referred to as “the Bride,” the film feels operatic in scope; this is also reflected in its score. As the film opens, Nancy Sinatra’s version of “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)” plays over the credits right before the camera reveals the Bride lying bloodied and beaten, having been gunned down on her wedding day. This is just the first of countless moments in which Tarrantino beautifully unites music and story. Another great example is when the one-eyed assassin, Elle Driver, dressed as a nurse, calmly walks down a hospital corridor, whistling the extremely creepy theme to the film, Twisted Nerve , as she prepares to smother the Bride in her sleep.
Paul Thomas Anderson is yet another great, musically minded director. Magnolia might just be the best example. Set over the course of a single day in California, it tells the story of an interconnected group of people whose lives haven’t gone the way they had hoped. The film feels like a musical because its downbeat yet often optimistic music—written and sung by vocal artist and songwriter Aimee Mann—complements the characters and action so well. Given that Anderson’s script was originally inspired by Mann’s music, this makes a lot of sense. It culminates in the film’s arguably most famous scene when the characters actually do spontaneously burst into song. Each character, wherever he or she happens to be, sings along to her song, “Wise Up,” in a luminous and surreal montage that stands out as one of the few moments in this otherwise realistic film where the everyday gives way to fantasy, albeit in a manner that manages to feel utterly straightforward and naturalistic.
Richard Kelley’s bizarre and dreamlike science-fiction puzzle, Donnie Darko , is notable for a variety of reasons. Its music, however, is one of its most indelible aspects. Largely drawn from alternative hits of the mid-to-late 1980s and featuring such bands as Echo and the Bunnymen and Tears for Fears, the film’s soundtrack manages to simultaneously ground the film in its time period and enhance its surreal atmosphere. A few of these songs are presented in a manner that makes them feel like musical production numbers, the camera swooping in and around the various characters as they pantomime various actions. Finally, its use of Gary Jules’s cover of Tears for Fears’ “Mad World” might be one of the all-time greatest uses of music on film. Just after an important character death causes the other characters to wake up from what might have been a shared delusion and might have been an alternate universe, this song about dreams of death provides perfect haunting accompaniment to the proceedings on both musical and thematic levels.
The quintessential dance film, Footloose could be referred to as a “dance-ical.” Although the characters themselves never sing, they express themselves through dance, which becomes a metaphor for escape from the repressive lives they suffer in the restrictive small, Midwestern town of Bomont. Meanwhile, all of the soundtrack’s songs, which were written for the film, contain lyrics that describe the characters’ situations so closely that, when Footloose was later turned into a Broadway musical, most of the songs made it to the show intact.
These are just a small sampling of excellent films that were made even better and more memorable by great soundtracks—a testament to songs’ ability to enhance a dramatic narrative, whether its characters literally sing them or not.