Music is one of the most important aspects of a movie since movies are both an audio and visual form of entertainment. There are different ways that the music can help elevate a scene. A score is used to give instrumental backing. It can be simple background noise used to make travel more entertaining. It could be used to manipulate the audience and help them feel a certain way. Then there are the soundtracks compiled of music with lyrics. Some songs are made specifically for movies while others are licensed. They are very much like scores. They can set a mood or help to give backing sound so that there’s some sort of noise. Then there are soundtracks that end become an essential part of a movie’s story.
This week’s movie, Hudson Hawk, was one where the soundtrack played into what was happening, helping to shape the story. The characters were aware of the music. But there are a few points that must be covered before we can get to where Hudson Hawk fits into the whole soundtrack storytelling topic. There are other, more obvious ways in which soundtracks become a part of the plot, helping to drive the story forward as much as the actions of the characters. A few of the more common ways in which a soundtrack becomes a part of the story will be discussed, before a few movies of note that try something a little different.
The most obvious way in which music can become a part of the plot of a movie is through the standard musical method in which the characters break into song. When sound was first introduced into film, one of the popular ways to provide a feast for the audience’s ears would be to have characters singing. Musicals were huge at the onset of talkies. From the 1930s through the 1960s, beloved films such as The Wizard of Oz, Singin’ in the Rain, White Christmas, and West Side Story came out. Disney’s animation branch has also capitalized on the musical craze throughout the years with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, The Little Mermaid, and Frozen. Three different Disney generations all got musical entertainment.
Musicals provide the emotions of the characters through the songs that they sing. Their lyrics are as important to the story as the actions of the characters. In Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead, the song Slow Fast Food Love was used to show the main characters’ love for one another. Arbie still loved his ex-girlfriend Wendy and wanted to be together with her once again. She still had feelings for him as well. The song presented this in a humourous, slightly offensive way. That’s how Troma does musicals.
Musicals don’t need to rely solely on original songs. There has been a craze, as of late, to have the characters do their own cover versions of popular songs. Moulin Rouge, Rock of Ages, and Pitch Perfect are some of the notable examples of this kind of musical. Pitch Perfect also fits into one of the categories that will come up soon. These movies tell their stories through the songs of other people, taking the lyrics and laying them over the characters’ lives. It’s an easy way to get audiences more invested in the movie since the recognition factor is at play.
They’re in a Band
This is similar in nature to a musical, though structured a little bit differently in terms of the intentions of the songs. Like musicals, the movies are pushed forward through the music. Some of the music might be influenced by the emotions of the characters. Pitch Perfect, for example, was mostly about the acapella group singing songs that other people wrote to move forward in their acapella league. But there were instances where the songs tied into the emotional arcs of the characters, such as in the final performances of both The Barden Bellas and The Treblemakers. The Treblemakers performance closed Benji’s arc of wanting to become an acapella star. He got to shine with a beautiful solo rendition of the song Magic by B.o.B. Likewise, the final performance of The Barden Bellas used Don’t You (Forget About Me) by Simple Minds to show that Beca was opening herself up for other people to care about her.
School of Rock is another example of a movie that had the main characters as part of a band, preparing for a big gig and having their climactic song be a release of emotions. Dewey Finn, the teacher who brought the band of school children together, had the rocking guitar solo that he wanted since the beginning. He also used the song to show up the band that kicked him out, and found his place in the world as a teacher of rock. Lawrence, the keyboard player, proved that he was cooler than he believed, shedding his self-esteem issues through the performance at Battle of the Bands. Finally, there was Zack, the guitar player that wasn’t Dewey Finn. He was forced by his parents to play strictly classical guitar. The climactic song was a rock song that he wrote about feeling oppressed through the musical limitations that were being forced on him. The song premiered in front of an audience that his father was in, allowing him to tell his father his problems through music.
Another way that the “they’re in a band” movies work is that the band is performing songs for the sake of performing them only. The songs might push the stories forward in so much as the band plays a song and the movie moves along after it. The moment is about the band being a band. It’s not about how the characters feel. It might tell you something about the characters, but the song is not an emotional release. Movies like Miami Connection fit this bill. The main characters were part of a band, Dragon Sound, but the movie wasn’t about the band and the music didn’t move the story forward in any significant ways. The story had to do with the main characters taking down a drug ring. It didn’t have to do with their band. The only thing that the songs did was make one of the antagonists more antagonistic.
Finally, there are the biopic movies like Ray, Walk the Line, and Dreamgirls which tell the stories of real life musicians. The music is important to the movies and move the timeline forward because they are the songs that the musicians performed. They are a part of the plot solely because they were a part of that musician’s career.
Once in a while, a movie is released that takes place in a music store. Maybe the movie isn’t about the store, but the store has a major influence over the story. Because of that influence, the music on the soundtrack plays an important part in the narrative. The characters’ lives have to do with sharing music. They share their musical tastes with the audience as they share their musical tastes with the patrons of their shop.
Empire Records was about the people who work in a record store. It took place in the record store on a day where a popular musician was making an appearance. The music that played as part of the soundtrack came from what was played in the store. Sometimes it was played over the stereo. Sometimes it was a television promo for the musician. Sometimes it was the guy running the shop slamming on some drums in his office. Much of the music was being played in the world of the characters and not just placed over scenes in post-production. School of Rock did this style of featuring music through what Dewey Finn played for other people, but because of the band aspect, was included in the band section of this post.
Speaking of Jack Black, he was featured in High Fidelity, another movie that was highly dependent upon the record store dynamic. The main character owned a record store. He and his two employees discussed music and played music for other people. The main character took time to make personalized mixtapes. The songs featured in the store and on the mixtapes were the soundtrack to the movie, making the soundtrack an essential part of the storytelling.
This is similar to the idea of music stores in that the music is being presented to the audience. The movies are essentially about the people running the radio stations, like how the music store movies are about the people in charge of the store. They make the music choices, and the music that gets played is likely to be what is featured on the soundtrack.
A few movies fit into this category. Pirate Radio (also known as The Boat That Rocked) was about a radio station on a ship sailing around the United Kingdom, skirting the broadcasting laws of the country. Pump Up the Volume was about a teen that ran a pirate radio station from his parents’ basement. Both movies obviously featured music since they featured pirate radio stations. It would only make sense that radio station movies play music like any normal radio station that isn’t talk radio.
A movie that twists the radio idea in a unique way is The Warriors. The movie wasn’t about the radio station but the music that played throughout came from a radio station. As The Warriors, a gang in New York, ran from all the other gangs that were trying to kill them, the voice of a radio DJ called out to them. She gave updates on what they did in the city while playing music to help them along their journey. She was the narrator and the soundtrack. It’s a way to use the radio aspect of the movie that hasn’t been done in too many movies or television shows.
Now onto this week’s movie. It isn’t the final movie that will be discussed but it’s an important one to look at. Hudson Hawk (Bruce Willis) was a cat burglar being blackmailed into stealing three different Da Vinci artifacts. Within the artifacts were the pieces of a device that could turn lead into gold. The bad guys wanted to use alchemy to get richer than they already were. It was a crazy story that led to a great action comedy the likes of which aren’t seen very often.
That might not seem like a story that would have a great musical influence. It was a thief doing thief things and getting into sticky action situations that included a chase scene with an ambulance and a gurney. Not very musical, by the sounds of it. The music came from the camaraderie of Hudson Hawk and his partner in crime, Tommy Five-Tone (Danny Aiello). The two friends had a rapport that made them a perfect thief team. It didn’t matter what they were stealing. They could be taking the artifacts that Hudson had been tasked with getting. They could be taking a woman who was being held captive. It didn’t matter. They were a good team.
Part of the reason that they worked so well together was music. Hudson Hawk knew the length of a lot of songs. Tommy could list a bunch of different songs, and Hudson would be able to call out how long each song was. They used this skill to time their heists. Both of them knew the songs that they chose, and Hudson picked one that would give them the perfect amount of time to pull off what they were doing. They synchronized their actions based on the songs and sang them while going about their business. It was a great character beat that was influenced by the soundtrack.
Guardians of the Galaxy
Possibly the ultimate use of a soundtrack as part of a movie’s story came in the two Guardians of the Galaxy films. They are both known for their soundtracks and how well they were used within the movie. People loved the movies as much for their soundtracks as for what happened on screen. The soundtracks gave the movies the vibe that they had and it’s hard to imagine them working as well without the music.
The first Guardians of the Galaxy made the soundtrack part of the emotional crux of the movie. Peter Quill always listened to his music on his Walkman. It began in the 1980s on Earth when he was listening to the mixtape that his mother gave him. She died in the opening scene, and Peter Quill was taken from Earth soon after. His only connection to his deceased mother was the music that she gave him on the tape. He spent most of the movie unable to deal with her death, even as an adult. He loved her and she was gone from his life, as was Earth and anybody he knew back then. These things messed him up pretty good. At the end of the movie, when he was finally able to deal with his feelings about his mother’s death, he opened a gift that she had given to him right before passing away. It was a second mixtape, which would be an essential part of the sequel.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 made the music even more essential to the story. The first movie had a soundtrack of music being important to a person’s life. Peter Quill tried to show Gamora how important music was. His memories of his mother were attached to the music. He saved the galaxy with a song. The second movie took the music even further. The music not only held Peter Quill’s connection to his mother, but it also led to a connection with his father. Other characters asked for Peter Quill’s music to aid them in fighting. The opening credits featured the characters fighting a monster while Groot danced to one of the songs on Peter Quill’s mixtape. Not only that. The music had thematic ties to the characters. One of the prominent songs was The Chain by Fleetwood Mac, a song that came together from many pieces of other songs. It was like how the Guardians were a group of characters coming together from vastly different backgrounds. Fleetwood Mac, at the time, was a band going through relationship troubles and major disagreements with one another. They came together to create a masterpiece album. The Guardians were the same in that they might not always get along but they always came together to save the galaxy. These themes and the fact that the songs were mentioned and desired helped to make the soundtrack essential to the story.
Music tends to be an essential part of filmmaking because of how it accentuates what is happening on screen. Manipulation seems like a cruel word to use when discussing how music can alter a person’s state of mind ever so slightly. But that’s what it gets used for. It helps to convey a feeling so that the audience can better sympathize with what is happening. Sometimes the music is used for more than that. Sometimes it becomes an essential part of how the story unfolds. It isn’t just helping the story along. It is the story.
In the cases of the movies that I’ve written about in this post, the music is more than simple background sound. The music in these movies pushes the story to new places. The soundtrack becomes an important piece of how the story unfolds. The songs become plot points. Hudson Hawk brought the music into the main character’s personality, making it a part of who he was. That’s how important music can be to movies.
These notes aren’t all that important to this post, but they’re here:
- Hudson Hawk was suggested by both @lizziegolucky and @donholio.
- Frank Welker did some work on Hudson Hawk. He also had a part in Anaconda and Mortal Kombat.
- Frank Stallone had a role in Hudson Hawk. We last saw him way back in Terror in Beverly Hills.
- Some of the other movies mentioned in this post were Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead and Miami Connection.
- Have you seen Hudson Hawk? What did you think of it? What do you think about the use of music in movies as a plot point? You can discuss any of these topics in the comments section below.
- There are bad movies out there that I don’t know about. Let me know about the movies by sharing them in the comments or on my Twitter timeline. I’m always on the lookout for movies I might not have any idea exist.
- Sometimes when I’m watching bad movies, I share clips of them on my Snapchat story. You can find me on snapchat with the username jurassicgriffin.
- Next week is Mother’s Day and to celebrate it, I will be watching the third and final holiday movie from director Garry Marshall. That’s right, next week I will cover Mother’s Day. We’ll see how that goes. See you in seven days.