Journey, Sigur Ros, and Music's Lingering Presence

After hitting the shuffle button on my music playlist in the middle of an all night writing marathon, one infused with quite a few energy drinks and several chunks of lemon-cranberry Amish bread, the ticker clicked onto Journey's "Don't Stop Believing". Normally I just cycle through equal doses of indie instrumental and classical, but I felt a little ... saucy, I suppose. Then, something flickered in my brain as soon as those iconic piano notes poured into my stream of consciousness: Monster. A simple, powerful little song about strength and belief in downhome destiny invokes one distinct image: serial-killing Theron, sporting horribly-mangled facial prosthetics, and boy-ish sidekick Ricci liplocked in the middle of a rollerskate rink amid their first kiss.

Now, Monster is an intense and gripping film that's well worth seeing for Theron's highly acclaimed portrayal of a desperate woman plunging into psychosis. However, it's not a piece of cinema that you'd really prefer to play over and over inside your head. Which leads to the other eccentricity behind some sound-based memory; even though that particular kiss scene is the first to pop in my mind, it's a/the more disheartening and disturbing climax that follows suit in the connective memory process. More importantly, it's the kind of scene that can almost ruin a song that isn't even attached to it. The bizarre thing about all this is that it's undoubtedly not the first time this has happened. "Don't Stop Believing", though an '80s song, makes the loops on many different genre radio stations ... and every single time I hear either those piano chords or even the chorus coming from Steve Perry's mouth, the cycle starts over again.

It got me to thinking about what popular, pre-established tunes also remind me of films from the opening. First thought that came to mind was "Colorblind", by the Counting Crows. One again, piano. Every time those notes hum in my ears, the image of that drool-worthy '56 Jaguar Roadster zipping down the sun-drenched highway in Cruel Intentions floats in my head. Another example, a more significant one in my eyes, comes at the conclusion of Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou when Sigur Ros' "Stralafur" echoes in the vast expanses of the ocean. For some reason, the melodic expansiveness of the song’s wide array of stringed instruments and electronic effects hits the tone spot on for that personal revelation. Even the melodic notes of the Cranberries song “Dreams”, covered in Mandarin by actress/singer Faye Wong, ropes together an emotional connection in Chungking Express that leaps right over culture barriers. Now, whenever I hear even the English version of "Dreams", I instantly think of Wong Kar Wai's work of brilliantly roundabout expression.

But it's hard to tell which one has a stronger effect -- the song already rattling around in your internal playlist that pops up in a film’s score, or a particular song you discover for the first time during a pivotal cinematic moment. Oddly, that's how I discovered Sigur Ros in the first place: through the Vanilla Sky soundtrack. Say what you will about Cameron Crowe's reimagining of Abre Los Ojos, but one unequivocal fact is that it carries an incredible handful of musical accompaniments. In particular, the way the mind-blower of a reveal sounds at the end is astounding; riding up an elevator towards his ultimate challenge, Tom Cruise's character plays back the years of his life in a scramble to discover the balance between fact and fiction. Along the way, a remixed version of Nancy Wilson's short two-minute guitar masterpiece "Elevator Beat" plucks in the background. Then, underneath some particularly vanilla skies, Sigur Ros' "Track 4 / The Nothing Song" sweeps in and carries those mangled, Twilight Zone emotions and makes them beautiful. By no accident, both have become some of my more played tracks, especially while writing.

Music speaks to us, both in textual and sensory ways. When it pairs with cinema as a medium, it can be devastatingly emotional. It’s something that can be expected, like in any Cameron Crowe movie, or that can come completely out of the blue, such as the kitschy soundtrack for Garden State. Every musical moment won't be like the "Let Go" kiss or even the bicycle riding scene in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but that’s what gives those scenes gravity -- because moments differ and fluctuate in tonality. There are many voices that music speaks in during film, as many if not more than there are emotions to absorb. However, one of the more amazing things about music in film is its inherent ability to convey comparable emotions to its audience. Directors and composers strive to nail down a specific, uniform emotion that a significant wedge of the audience will comprehend alongside significant scenes. In that, they make songs like "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head" unforgettable, even if you didn't care for the song -- which I didn't, at all.

Of course, there's always the concept of public feeling and individualized emotion that makes us all process everything, including musical accompaniment, in different fashions. Certainly, there's a person somewhere who finds those hard-to-watch and disturbing films like Monster or Irreversible infinitely accessible for return viewings. Hell, because of Clint Mansell's score, Requiem for a Dream remains a resonant yet graphic film that I can return to. Guess it all depends on if there's something that can counterbalance such difficulty, whether it be emotional or organic, that you can identify with inside the film's nature .


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