Montage Song Selection 101: The Good, Bad and Truly Bizarre

Warning: Reading this column may result in earworms – i.e. songs that get stuck in your head and play repeatedly, despite all attempts to forget them. You have been duly warned.

Irony is a concept that people often confuse with simple bad luck, which can also look a lot like what irony actually is. I was reminded of this when I saw the trailer for “Ouija: Origin of Evil,” which uses the Herman’s Hermits’ cover “I’m Into Something Good” (actually by Earl Jean). Because the movie is about a young girl whose mother conducts séances, somehow gets possessed, and wreaks havoc on all who know her, it was safe to assume the choice was (genuinely) ironic. Most songs in movies, however, play it straight; if your character is in drag, haul out Aerosmith’s “Dude Looks Like a Lady,” or if your characters have just won the Big Game, put on Queen’s “We Are the Champions.” But sometimes song selections are made with real flair, making the viewer admire how neatly its message dovetails with the movie’s.

So here are five songs used in a particular movie scene which get it right.

1. Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” – The boombox scene (and the earlier car sex scene) in “Say Anything.”

Why it works: Obviously, it’s hard not to be moved by John Cusack’s willingness to bare his heart and let Ione Skye know how much he loves her. Even a girl who broke up with him by giving him a pen has to reconsider her decision.

2. Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me” – The ending of “Stand By Me.”

Why it works: The narrator (Richard Dreyfus) is narrating how he never had friends quite like the ones he had at age twelve, even though he soon became distant from two once school began, and later on, as an adult, his closest childhood friend was killed in an accident. The contrast between the young main character (Wil Wheaton) returning triumphantly from a trip with his four friends and what is going to happen to him is heartbreaking.

3. Joe Jackson’s “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” – The montage of Cameron Diaz dating Matt Dillon in “There’s Something About Mary.”

Why it works: Matt Dillon’s character is pretty awful, but for whatever inexplicable reasons, Cameron Diaz likes him. I believe the song was written years before the movie, but the lyrics fit like a glove.

4. Geto Boys’ “Damn It Feels Good to Be a Gangsta.” – Montage in “Office Space” in which Ron Livingston, among other things, comes intentionally late to work, removes a door knob that has been giving him electric shocks, and pulls down his workspace partition so that he can see out the window.

Why it works: Throughout the film, there are clear indications that the two white main characters are racist in some ways. Witness the opening scene where the white guy, who has been bopping along to a rap song in his car, dives for the door lock when he enters a “bad” neighborhood. While the film is (mostly) sympathetic to the plight of three main characters, who risk being downsized from their job, it still has parts where they are the subjects of mockery, even gentle. The scene in which Ron decides he doesn’t care what his boss thinks and proceeds to break every rule he can is a combination of both.

5. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony – Montage in “Dead Poets Society.”

Why it works: It’s based on a poem by Schiller called “Ode to Joy,” and it plays during the scene where the young main characters experience the joy of learning/spreading their wings under the guidance of their teacher (Robin Williams).

And here are some that left me scratching my head.

1. Enya’s “Orinoco Flow” – The rape scene in “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.”

Why it’s odd: I first heard “Orinoco Flow,” when it was used in a Sesame Street segment montage. Though it’s a New Agey song, definitely not pop or rock, it got occasional air time on the radio during the eighties. It’s a song about – well, the Orinoco Flow; nowhere is there any allusion to rape. Perhaps whoever chose it was being clever in some way I did not get, a possibility I am willing to entertain.

2. Cyndi Lauper’s “She Bop” – One of several bullying flashbacks in “Never Been Kissed.”

Why it’s odd: The song is about masturbation, as you can tell from allusions such as “going blind.” It’s pretty straightforward. (But at least, they didn’t go with the even more explicit DiVinyls “I Touch Myself.”)

3. Chumbawamba’s “Tubthumping” – One of the several bar scenes in “The Brothers Grimsby.”

Why it’s odd: It isn’t if you just take it as a bunch of enthusiastic football (soccer to Americans) fans partying in a pub in Great Britain. However, the part where Sacha Baron Cohen sticks a lit firecracker where the sun doesn’t shine and runs around leaves the viewer with an image that is hard to forget, even though the song is straightforward and upbeat.

4. The Belle Stars’ “Iko Iko” – Opening scene of “Rain Man,” in which it’s established that Tom Cruise’s character is a rather sleazy sports car dealer.

Why it’s odd: According to Wikipedia, the song is about Native Americans. Not guys who still have unresolved father issues and believe their brother who they haven’t seen since childhood, was actually an imaginary friend.

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