Adam Buxton’s Guide To Pop Music In Film

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After several years of hosting BUG, the British Film Institute’s music video appreciation live show, BBC Radio 6 DJ and podcast king Adam Buxton is taking it to television with Sky Atlantic. Speaking to Dr. Buckles – as his fans call him – Empire learnt more about his love of cinema, and in particular, what pieces of pop music were redefined for him by their use in film. Here are just seven, and if you’ve got any of your own to add, please do so in the comment box below.

A Whiter Shade of Pale – King Curtis

The opening sequence of Withnail & I has this amazing version of Whiter Shade Of Pale – you can find it yourself on King Curtis’s album Live At Fillmore West. It’s a tune very much associated with the psychedelic ‘60s, but brilliantly Robinson uses a relatively obscure version of it, this seedy-jazzy cover which totally sets the scene for the whole film.

It’s so yellowed and smoky itself in a way, that depressing gloomy Sunday afternoon feeling that it conjures in that flat. It’s getting baked. It really transports you, and that’s what you want from a film and a piece of music. Suddenly you’re there in the ‘60s and it’s not swinging and it’s weird, and it’s anxious and worrisome and depressing and British. Scary. Ah man, amazing.

Imagine – John Lennon

Perhaps controversial, but this bit in The Killing Fields with Imagine makes my list. I remember when we went to see The Killing Fields when I was little, and everybody came out of the theatre and said, “That bit with Imagine? Really? For Christ’s sake, that was so cheesy! Such a low blow.”

But the implication seemed to be that they felt violated because it had worked. They all cried because it’s a very moving moment. Schanberg and Dith Pran are reunited, and suddenly this anthem for peace comes on, and it’s very hard not to be moved by it. Then you feel manipulated, and you feel that that’s unfair. But that’s good, that’s not exactly manipulation... maybe it is, it’s just big style manipulation. It just seemed too obvious for many people, I guess. It’s like durr, Imagine, it’s a big movie song. I don’t cry every time I hear Imagine, but I do want to cry when I see it in that film at that moment."

Layla – Eric Clapton

The Layla piano exit in Goodfellas where all the bodies are turning up, that sums up what Scorsese’s really good at when he’s on fire: it’s dignifying these really revolting, grotty worlds with all these basically loathsome people doing all these horrible things. But he makes them seem human and exciting and romantic and just gives some real scope to their lives, and makes it seem epic. It’s just all these crappy mobster bodies turning up. But because of that choice of music – and again, it wasn’t a piece of music, it was a song that everyone knows, but a section of that song that not that many people were familiar with – ah man, it knocks you out.

On the other extreme, you get Casino, which is like a music video for a very tasteful mixtape. It’s totally superficial and he goes too far the other way. It’s as if someone’s trying to do a parody of how Scorsese tries to use music. It’s brilliantly shot, brilliantly acted, but it doesn’t add up to anything at all; it has nothing of the emotional heft of Goodfellas. Wes Anderson also does this, like in The Life Aquatic. Joe [Cornish] loves that film, but for me it was like Quirky By Numbers.

In Dreams – Roy Orbison

The first time I heard a piece of music re-contextualized in a very mind-blowing way was when I saw Blue Velvet and heard the Roy Orbison track In Dreams used there. I was a DJ at the time at a ‘50s diner, as it goes, so I knew the track already, but had always dismissed it, then suddenly you see it in that film and it’s transformed from being this innocent ditty into something much more sinister.

It's a great song, but here it’s the most upsetting piece of music ever, with lyrics that suddenly appear to be written by the most twisted nut-bucket in history. “A candy-coloured clown they call the sandman tiptoes through my room every night…” You’re like, Jesus Christ, what is that disgusting song? It’s not a desirable arrangement to have a candy-coloured clown tiptoeing through your room, but Roy Orbison’s voice is so sweet that you don’t even think about it before you see it in Blue Velvet; you’re like, ah, I love clowns.

Blue Bayou – Roy Orbison

Another Roy Orbison song that’s used really wonderfully is in The Man Who Fell To Earth where Bowie is surrounded by a bank of TVs. It’s that very iconic scene where he’s going to seed on Earth and he’s pissed up on gin and tonics, stirring his G&T with his pistol and channel hopping. And there, they used Blue Bayou by Roy Orbison, which is a very poignant song all about missing home.

So that’s great. I love that. It’s really well used: on the one hand to sum up how he misses home and, on the other hand, how mental he’s gone. It’s mixed in with the noise of all the TVs and everything. But that’s great.

Hurdy Gurdy Man – Donovan

The beginning of the film Zodiac there's Hurdy Gurdy Man by Donovan and that’s very sinister as well. That really is a weird song when you listen to it. It was one of the songs that I skipped on the Donovan Best Of compilation - it’s like, ‘Hurdy gurdy hurdy gurdy hurdy gurdy’... I mean, come on, give it a rest! But in that film, it’s like, wow, this is brilliant! How have I never realised that?

That’s what a good music video does, it re-contextualises the songs. Take a boring song and put a brilliant music video behind it then suddenly you’ll hear it completely differently.

Stuck In The Middle With You – Stealers Wheel

Let’s not forget Tarantino. Most people coming out of Reservoir Dogs went straight to HMV to to buy that soundtrack because pretty much all of it was new to most people, unless they were real hardcore Mojo readers.

Plus it introduced a whole new world to the wonders of Steven Wright, and that’s a very good thing. It’s hard now to remember that moment and how un-tarnished all that music was by the creepy world of advertising and taste profiling. Tarantino’s influence has recently produced a huge load of dog plops, but you can’t take away from him the genius of his original stuff. I’m not saying he himself is terrible, but his imitators are horrific.