No Academy Awards are given away for best use of music in a movie. They will only hand out Oscars on Sunday for best song and best score, categories increasingly less relevant to how movies are experienced than the way songs are woven in a film's narrative flow.
Three excellent examples of how that is done are competing for best picture on Sunday: Martin Scorsese's The Wolf Of Wall Street, David O. Russell's American Hustle and Steve McQueen's 12 Years A Slave.
While wildly divergent in style and tone, all three strive to say something serious about greed and deceit (if not evil) in American life, and all three use music as a crucial storytelling tool. (Though none of them are nominated in the Oscar music categories.)
The Wolf of Wall Street and American Hustle are the more obvious examples of the modern music movie that's not about music, per se. Each is stuffed to the gills with pop songs. American Hustle digs into 1970s hits like Elton John's "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road," and Wings' "Live And Let Die," (with Jennifer Lawrence mouthing the Paul McCartney lyrics) while not avoiding schlock like America's "A Horse With No Name," and Tom Jones' "Delilah."
"White Rabbit" initially seems to be chronologically out of place, since the action involves a fictionalized retelling of the Abscam scandal of the late 1970s and Jefferson Airplane recorded the original in 1967. But the version that Russell and music supervisor Susan Jacobs used in the film is actually a newly recorded take sung by 23 year old Lebanese-American vocalist Mayssa Karaa.
The key American Hustle track is Duke Ellington's "Jeep's Blues," which plays three times in the film. To Christian Bale's combover king con man, knowledge of Ellington connotes sophistication. Musical taste helps turn to movie's protagonists into a team. He decides Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) is the woman of his dreams because "She knew how to live with passion and style. She understood Duke Ellington."
(Another effective Hustle tune is Steely Dan's "Dirty Work." Sung by David Palmer (not Donald Fagen) on the band's 1972 debut album Can't Buy A Thrill. It plays as Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), Irving and Sydney confidently stride into a room to pull off an underhanded con. It should be pointed out, however, that David Chase beat David O. Russell to the punch: Tony Soprano sings along to the tune while driving in his car in the first episode of Season 3 of The Sopranos.)
Scorsese, who directed The Band's The Last Waltz as well as feature length documentaries on Bob Dylan and George Harrison, is the acknowledged master of making movies with wall to wall hyper-kinetic classic rock soundtracks. (American Hustle, in many ways, plays like a Scorsese homage, down to Bale's DeNiro-esque expanding waistline.) Goodfellas is where it worked best, but he's also done it in Casino and The Departed.
Like many things about The Wolf Of Wall Street - another Leonardo DiCaprio star vehicle, set in the familiar New York financial world, with an ambitious amoral hero rising to wealth and prominence before running afoul of the Feds - its musical attack, packed with lots of Bo Diddley, Howlin Wolf (get it?) and John Lee Hooker, at first seems to be another case of been there, heard that.
In execution, however, is another story. Just as the movie itself sweeps the viewer up in the giddy, rapacious, cocaine and Quaalude rise of DiCaprio's Jordan Belfort and his team of stockbrokers happy to fleece innocent,gullible investors out of their last dollar because - well because how else are they going to get rich? - so the music dazzlingly takes you away.
There's a 16 song Wolf soundtrack out there that's plenty of fun, from Joe Cuba's irresistible Latin boogaloo "Bang! Bang!" to the Jimmy Castor Bunch's "Hey Leroy, Your Mama's Calling You." But the music in the movie, put together with Scorsese's longtime collaborator Randall Poster, includes over 50 songs that were licensed for the movie, such as Cypress Hill's "Insane In The Brain," Malcolm McLaren's township jive "Double Dutch," Sharon Jones' cover of the James Bond theme "Goldfinger," and several funky workouts by jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal. (All of them, from Sir Mix-A-Lot's "Baby Got Back" to 7 Horse's "Meth Lab Zoso Sticker" are listed here.)
The music in Wolf of Wall Street is, more often than not, euphoric, and plays a major part in creating the mood that has made the movie so divisive among moviegoers. Scorsese has been accused of being amoral (if not immoral) for celebrating the indulgences of Belfort and his dwarf tossing Dionysian salesman without serving up enough cautionary tale comeuppance.
Personally, I thought the movie was a way too long non stop adrenaline rush, with too much shouting Jonah Hill and one unfortunate soundtrack decision in the form of Billy Joel's "Moving Out." But for my money, Scorsese's social critique was more pointed because Belfort wronged so many on his way to the top, with little more than a slap on the wrist as punishment. He (spoiler alert) does his minimal time, and lives to sell again. That's the American dream.
12 Years A Slave is a very different kind of movie, but in its own way, even more of a music film than Wolf and Hustle. It's got its own soundtrack too, of course, in this case executive produced by John Legend and following the "music from and inspired by" model where there are a lot more songs on the soundtrack than are actually heard in the film.
That makes sense, since the movie is set in an era before recorded music. But Legend, whose voice is heard as the gospel standard "Roll Jordan Roll," on the soundtrack on a song that is sung in the plantation cotton fields in the film, has done a superb job of putting together a collection of contemporary artists singing blues and work songs that grow out of the Southern African American experience. Two highlights: Texas bluesman Gary Clark Jr.'s sweetly finger-picked "Freight Train" and Brittany Howard of the Alabama Shakes' rugged, severe reading of the unforgiving stomp "Driva Man."
But as good as the 12 Years soundtrack is, more impressive how the movie uses music, often when words are of no use. Chiwitel Ejiofor's Solomon Northrop is a fiddle player whose professional stature as a free man for hire in the North leads to his entrapment. As a free man, his music earns him a comfortable lifestyle, but once transported below the Mason Dixon line, he becomes other men's property.
There, music is used by the slaves to fight off sorrow and appeal to the heavens for succor from worldly cruelty, as in "Roll Jordan Roll." But in a chilling musical moment not included on the soundtrack, it's also turned against them, when the sadistic slave master played by Paul Dano (who works for softer hearted slave owner portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch) forces the slaves to clap and sing "Run N---- Run" in unison to the rhythm of pounding hammers.
Forced to hide his intelligence, Solomon communicates his torture wordlessly, with the pained look in his eyes and an assist from Hans Zimmer's simple score. Throughout the film, Solomon's fiddle grants him a measure of status within the plantation's cruel social structure. His owners don't see him as fully human, but he does have added value to them because he's an entertainer, a musician.
Spotify playlists that go with all three movies are below. The 12 Years A Slave list matches the official soundtrack album. The American Hustle and Wolf of Wall Street lists, compiled by Spotify users Studio13 and Alexia Pepin respectively, pull in many of the songs that are heard in the movie but not on the official soundtracks.