A Book Review by Jonathan Monovich.

An astute study of notable ‘needle drops’ and the progression of the practice over the last sixty years.”

While music is an integral part of film history, Nate Patrin’s study commences with the pop music of Scorpio Rising (1963). This decision is deliberate as his book, The Needle and the Lens: Pop Goes to the Movies from Rock ‘n’ Roll to Synthwave (University of Minnesota Press), is an astute study of notable “needle drops” and the progression of the practice over the last sixty years. These inclusions of preexisting music as an associative mechanism are of particular interest to Patrin. In his book, he considers both the established memories viewers have with the music pre moviegoing and the newly formed connections that develop with the music after hearing it used in a filmic context. Patrin uses his experience as a professional music critic with a genuine love for the subject, which makes this study an entertaining read.

Patrin focuses on movie/song pairings to lead each chapter’s investigation of the needle drop’s evolution. Serving as the catalyst for Martin Scorsese’s revered soundtracks that would trail, Kenneth Anger’s short film, Scorpio Rising, revolutionized the way post-modern filmmakers approached their musical selections. Turning to teenage record collections and rock ‘n’ roll radio hits, Anger’s film is one of the earliest to needle drop as a strategic device in shaping the film’s tone. The music’s presence, perfectly fitting and intentionally ironic, helps structure the style and sensibilities of Anger’s vision. While Anger created a frenzy with the film’s controversial imagery, Scorsese was fixated on his strong use of music as a liberating means of expression. Given Scorpio‘s exploration of biker culture/iconography and its focus on defiant young men, Patrin chooses to concentrate on the film’s playful anthem—“He’s a Rebel” by the Crystals.

Transitioning from the experimental to the mainstream, Patrin explores the youth’s influence on New Hollywood and the crucial soundtracks of two of the most iconic films of all time: The Graduate (1967; see top image) and Easy Rider (1969). Patrin sees Simon & Garfunkel’s compositions as a perfect partner for Ben Braddock’s (Dustin Hoffman) constant anguish, stemming from the confusion that comes with the unknowns associated with transitioning from youth to adulthood. As it relates to Mike Nichols’ vision in The Graduate, “the Sounds of Silence” is concerned with the emotional essence of its protagonist rather than the narrative. As for Dennis Hopper’s tale of a damaged counterculture and unrealistic freewheeling delusions, Patrin argues that the sounds of Steppenwolf serve as a critique of the protagonists’ careless, crash and burn lifestyle. Given that Easy Rider acknowledges the unattainable dreams of the 60s were quickly turned into nightmarish reminders of reality, Hopper’s musical selection serves as an early example of the power of music/film’s ability to evoke social commentary.

Like the filmmakers he admires, Patrin perceptively examines the context in which these films and their music were released. By elaborating on the backstories, origins, and culminations of these pairings, Patrin succeeds in concocting a well-rounded collection of essays. While he credits the capability of music in cinema, he also concedes that some films actually end up being overshadowed by their music. This would be the case with the midnight movie The Harder They Come (1972), the disco staple Saturday Night Fever (1977), and the hip-hop fueled Krush Groove (1985). All three films were made at key transitionary pop culture time periods, but the scheduling of their releases led to different impacts. A commonality that Patrin sees between these three films is that, despite Hollywood’s occasional lag time with capturing subcultures, their soundtrack albums proved there was a sizeable market for taking the enjoyment of movies’ musical playlists home with viewers.

Like the filmmakers he admires, Patrin perceptively examines the historical context in which these films and their music were released.”

Arguably, the most notable soundtrack album of all is American Graffiti (1974). George Lucas’ ability to capitalize on the nostalgia of his younger days in an authentic manner and simultaneously capture the zeitgeist of American youth helped create a genre onto itself. Comprised of forty-one standout hits, American Graffiti’s soundtrack uses songs like “Do You Want to Dance” by Bobby Freeman diegetically through the characters’ car radios as they cruise throughout the night. Patrin connects that the diegetic use of music via car radio was later famously used in the opening of the music centric comedy—Wayne’s World (1992). Mike Myers and Dana Carvey’s joyride, headbanging to Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” is undoubtedly one the most fun moments of the film. Having already directed The Decline of Western Civilization (1981), Suburbia (1983), and Dudes (1987), Penelope Spheeris was the perfect choice for incorporating music into the direction. Paired with two of Saturday Night Live’s finest goof balls, the scene perfectly encapsulates the joys of listening to music with your friends in the confines of your car. Patrin even reveals that Myers insisted upon the inclusion of the operatic Queen classic as it was a tradition to listen to the song with his friends as teenagers in Toronto. Interesting tidbits like these are prevalent throughout The Needle and the Lens.

Enter the Needle Drop: Scorpio Rising

Whereas Spheeris transitioned from music documentaries and videos to feature films, Patrin also appropriately discusses the work of music video directors turned directors like David Fincher, Jonathan Glazer, and Hype Williams with his highly stylized cult classic Belly (1998). The use of Soul II Soul’s “Back to Life (However Do You Want Me)” in the film’s preliminary moments is cleverly analyzed as being a music video in itself. Alex Cox, director of Repo Man (1984), followed a reverse trajectory as a film student turned director whose fandom for music would later lead the tragic punk biopic, Sid and Nancy (1980), and music video gigs. Cox’s brilliant choice in incorporating the music of the Los Angeles hardcore punk scene, including the Circle Jerks and Black Flag, as the musical interests of Otto (Emilio Estevez) in Repo Man even arguably saved the scarcely released film. The timely popularity of the music created word of mouth, and the soundtrack album convinced Universal to expand the film’s distribution.

While some of the needle drops in these films are premeditated strokes of genius, others are divulged by Parin to be coincidental miracles of movie magic. For example, he discovers that the use of the Doors’ “the End” to open Apocalypse Now (1979), among the most iconic scenes of the film, was originally planned to be used for its conclusion. “This Bitter Earth” in Charles Burnett’s monumental independent film, Killer of Sheep (1978), Patrin sees to be an example of a filmmaker’s adaptability in creating one of the most emotionally poignant on screen interactions between husband and wife. For the haunting use of Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams” for Blue Velvet (1986), Patrin deciphers that songs can develop completely new meanings through the creative minds of filmmakers like the master surrealist David Lynch. Regardless of the background, the use, or the impact, Patrin’s constructed assortment of significant music moments in movies is eclectic and covers key highlights of the field.

Wayne’s World (1992): SNL Meets Freddie Mercury

Amidst Patrin’s focused outlooks on specific song/film pairings, he weaves in other brief notable soundtrack varieties within the chapters, given that many others could have been used interchangeably. For example, the maestros of the needle drop, Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson, could have entire books written about their music selections alone. Their song choices are all tied to unforgettable sequences that turn to different elements of their films’ thematic complexities. The chapters on the Delfonics’ “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time)” in Jackie Brown (1997) and Elliott Smith’s “Needle in the Hay” in The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) could have easily been replaced with the other memorable songs from these films.

There is a tight framework at play in Patrin’s book, and it was likely difficult to arrive at his final selections as evidenced by the supplementary outro of twenty-four additional needle drops. Given the possibilities of the topic, a second volume would work quite well. After all, some film soundtracks, like The Big Chill (1983), are so richly vast they require multiple albums. With that being said, the book aptly concludes with College & Electric Youth’s “A Real Hero” from Drive (2011). The synthwave song paired with Nicolas Winding Refn’s stylish film as the finale excellently ties together Patrin’s commendable work, as the film was influenced by Scorpio Rising—one of the needle drop’s originators.

Jonathan Monovich is a Chicago-based writer and Image Editor for Film International, where he regularly contributes. His writing has also been featured in Film Matters, Bright Lights Film Journal, and PopMatters.

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