Film/TV: Cheesy music for a haunting effect?
July 5, 2008 12:45 PM   Subscribe

Looking for examples in film/tv where music that might normally be considered "cheesy" or "corny" is used to create an incredibly dramatic, memorable, even haunting scene/atmosphere...

I'm thinking mostly along the lines of 70's and 80's music, but anything cheesy qualifies. The examples that inspired the question are:

In Nip/Tuck, a there are many instances of this style. One is the use of Art Garfunkel's "All I know" in the season 2 finale (seen here, particularly the last minute and a half.) Another good one is the dream scene in Season 2 using Carly Simon's "You're so Vain." Some Billy Idol songs also fall in this category, as do many other of the tunes played during the surgery scenes. Finally, Todd Rundgren's "Can We Still Be Friends" (seen here nsfw) is a great example. This scene is almost plagiaristically similar to the one in which the same song is used in the movie Vanilla Sky, another excellent example of the type of scene I'm looking for.

In Donnie Darko, the use of several Tears for Fears songs fall into this category, although here I'm thinking not about a particular scene but about how the soundtrack affects the atmosphere of a movie as a whole. Echo and the Bunnymen's "The Killing Moon" seen here also fits in this way. Last, the Sparkle Motion dance scene with Duran Duran's "Notorious," which is cut together with scenes of Donnie burning down the guy's house.

I don't want this to be confused with, for example, Tarantino's annoyingly exaggerated music choices.

So, I'm looking for more examples of this style - and, is there perhaps a term that describes it in any way?
posted by TSGlenn to Media & Arts (47 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
The intro to "The Twilight Zone"?
posted by orthogonality at 1:04 PM on July 5, 2008

Blue Velvet... although I don't happen to think Roy Orbison is corny or cheesy myself.
posted by Rykey at 1:08 PM on July 5, 2008

Hmm, I'm having a little difficulty figuring out exactly what you are trying to pin down here, because I don't think all those musical choices are "cheesy" or "corny." Sure, they are retro, and occasionally ironic, but to my ears that doesn't make them all "cheesy," just older. There are tons of movies that make use of older songs in this way. Can you clarify a bit more about what it is that differentiates these scenes in your mind from other movies that make use of old music?
posted by litlnemo at 1:09 PM on July 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

In the pilot for Twin Peaks, there is a bar fight to a cheesy 50's-sounding ballad sung by Julee Cruise. To me, anyway, the "whoa-whoa-whoas" over the pointless violence engendered feelings of gloom and hopelessness unequalled in the rest of the series.

I know you don't want to hear about Tarantino-isms, but his juxtaposition of Bobby Womack's "Across 110th Street" and Pam Grier's resolute tears near the end of Jackie Brown is also a great example of what you're looking for.

I don't know of a one-word term for this in English. You describe instances of both diegetic and non-diegetic, and one instance of diegetic switching (in Donny Darko). It's just good, effective editing.
posted by infinitewindow at 1:11 PM on July 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

What about "Bicycle Built for Two" as sung by HAL in "2001: A Space Odyssey?"
posted by np312 at 1:17 PM on July 5, 2008 [2 favorites]

I've always thought the music in Raising Arizona to be a little over-the-top, but perfectly suited to the feeling of the film.
posted by phunniemee at 1:19 PM on July 5, 2008

A Clockwork Orange: Singing in the rain.
posted by grippycat at 1:27 PM on July 5, 2008

Veronica Mars, season 1 episode 19, has a scene involving Dean Martin's 'That's Amore'. Maybe more hilarious juxtaposition than haunting, but it's great.

Actually, season 1 episode 20 uses Tommy James + the Shondells' 'Crimson + Clover' to genuine haunting effect.
posted by carbide at 1:35 PM on July 5, 2008

The Millennium episode A Room With No View uses this ultra-corny music to quite creepy effect.
posted by the duck by the oboe at 1:43 PM on July 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

Quentin Tarantino used Stuck in the Middle to great effect in Reservoir Dogs as the background music playing on the radio while a cop is tortured and mutilated. Steven Wright is the voice of the DJ.
posted by dinger at 1:43 PM on July 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

In Lola Rennt (Run Lola Run), a futile and tragic robbery getaway is punctuated with a cheesy American song. (The rest of the movie is techno music and german-language).
posted by cowbellemoo at 2:02 PM on July 5, 2008

"Girl, Interrupted": The End of the World. It's played during the scene when Winona Ryder discovers Brittany Murphy's body.
posted by invisible ink at 2:03 PM on July 5, 2008

Good Vibrations, also in Vanilla Sky. I heard an interview with Cameron Crowe where he said he thought it came off a little forced, but I thought it was great.
posted by abcde at 2:04 PM on July 5, 2008

There's a very tense scene in Boogie Nights, near the end of the film, that is set to Rick Springfield's "Jessie's Girl". Here it is.
posted by mr_roboto at 2:07 PM on July 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

Mulholland Drive is another excellent Orbison/Lynch marriage.

How about the ending (SPOILER!) of Dr. Strangelove, what was it? "We'll Meet Again"?
posted by Sys Rq at 2:14 PM on July 5, 2008

The Sopranos did this a lot, I think.

What about American Psycho, where Patrick kills to the tune of Huey Lewis and the News' "Hip to be Square"?
posted by pised at 2:18 PM on July 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

Chicago's "If You Leave Me Now" in Three Kings...

Think they use other easy listening music in the film but that's one I remember
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 2:32 PM on July 5, 2008

The Mickey Mouse Club song at the end of Full Metal Jacket.

Seems like there are a lot of Kubrick movies mentioned here.
posted by number9dream at 2:40 PM on July 5, 2008

There's also The Girl From Impemina used towards the end of the Blue Brothers (according to Wikipedia it's also used in Hitman but I've not seen that)
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 2:41 PM on July 5, 2008

Yeah, I don't get what you mean by cheesy/corny either, and I know you say "no Tarantino," but "Bang Bang My Baby Shot Me Down" in "Kill Bill" was used to chilling effect.

And I'm just rewatching "Juno," and the childlike lyrics of Kimya Dawson are perfect for that film.
posted by GaelFC at 2:51 PM on July 5, 2008

There's wall-to-wall Wang Chung in To Live and Die in L.A.
oddly enough, it holds up surprisingly well.
posted by porn in the woods at 3:24 PM on July 5, 2008

phunniemee, I love love love the bluegrass Ode to Joy at the beginning of Raising Arizona.
posted by infinitewindow at 3:33 PM on July 5, 2008

The fight scene between Johnny Rico and Zander in Starship Troopers, set to a Mazzy Star soundtrack - not quite sure if it's cheesy or haunting, but it was definitely incongruous and memorable.
posted by grippycat at 3:37 PM on July 5, 2008

How about Mulholland Drive? There are parts of that movie that would come off practically cheery, if not for the haunting synth-heavy soundtrack. The thing is, I'm pretty sure that the soundtrack by itself would sound cheesy and 80sesque, but as the soundtrack, it has a huge effect on how you perceive the film. I think Inland Empire also does the same thing.
posted by malapropist at 3:48 PM on July 5, 2008

I'm not sure if this counts, given the subjective nature of cheese and corn, but the song "Goodbye Horses" by Q. Lazzarus will forever now be associated with the welling horror of a transvestite serial murderer tucking his junk back between his legs and saying, "Would you fuck me? I'd fuck me. I'd fuck me hard" as he eyes himself in the mirror and his well-moisturized and soon to be skinless captive sobs in his basement pit. I don't think the song was cheezy on its own back then, but it was an 80s song so maybe it's what you're looking for. That was a seriously haunting and horrific atmosphere. Sticks with you so vividly that I know I don't have to name the movie.
posted by Askr at 3:48 PM on July 5, 2008

Seems like a lot of David Lynch stuff's already been mentioned, and here's one more: in Twin Peaks, Leland Palmer plays Louis Armstrong's version of "What a Wonderful World" just as he's about to brutally murder Maddie.
posted by ROTFL at 4:20 PM on July 5, 2008

It's from a play rather than film/tv, but is novel enough that I thought it warranted sharing. A recent production of Titus Andronicus played "Teddy Bear's Picnic" over the woods scene, where (spoilers, since it's a less read play?) after other murders, the play's most innocent character is brutally raped and mutilated.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 4:52 PM on July 5, 2008

Jarhead, one of the opening scenes new recruits are hazzed to the sounds of "Don't worry be happy"
posted by nola at 5:12 PM on July 5, 2008

The repurposing of the song "He Needs Me" from Popeye, sung by Shelley Duvall, for Punch-Drunk Love is extremely poignant and weaves throughout the film significantly. Considering it's from a failed live-action cartoon movie soundtrack, that is.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 5:36 PM on July 5, 2008

Final scene of "All That Jazz"--which features the song "There's No Business Like Show Business"
posted by pushing paper and bottoming chairs at 5:50 PM on July 5, 2008

Philip Seymour Hoffman and Camryn Manheim dancing to Air Supply's "All Out of Love" in Happiness. You could argue it's over the top, but that permanently changed how I hear the song.
posted by gnomeloaf at 7:47 PM on July 5, 2008

"I Can't Stop Loving You" by Ray Charles plays at the climax of Metropolis (the 2001 Osamu Tezuka anime version).
posted by Rora at 9:40 PM on July 5, 2008

Whenever the Stones' 'You can't always get what you want' plays in House, like the end of the 1st season. Though I'm sure I'll be whipped for calling the Rolling Stones cheesy, but darn, it's always incredible moving.
posted by oxford blue at 10:07 PM on July 5, 2008

There's a very tense scene in Boogie Nights, near the end of the film, that is set to Rick Springfield's "Jessie's Girl". Here it is.

I thought of the same scene, but that's Sister Christian, not Jessies Girl.
posted by Pollomacho at 11:28 PM on July 5, 2008

The entire Six Feet Under series used music very effectively. The last season as a whole is an excellent example of how the music cemented the mood. I cannot listen to some tracks (Arcade Fire's "Rebellion (Lies)" and Sia's "Breathe me" come to mind) without being instantly transported to the building sense of dread I first experienced when watching that seaon.

I always felt that the use of Explosions in the Sky on the soundtrack for Friday Night Lights was definitive of that movie's heart and soul.

Sofia Copolla's Marie Antoinette uses a very anachronistic soundtrack that helps the audience to understand the main character's humanity. A modern soundtrack lets us see the young girl who grew up to be the Queen of France.

The Royal Tannenbaums soundtrack featured a lot of strange interludes, including quite a bit of indian music as I remember.
posted by Seppaku at 12:45 AM on July 6, 2008

My all-time favourite example of cheesy music used to powerful emotional effect is Lars von Triers's Breaking the Waves. There are two versions, apparently, but in the one I've seen, the (bleak, harrowing, amazing) film is intercut with chapter cards - a static image of scenery - accompanied by Elton John's Your Song. (There's another version that has a different song for every chapter card, but I don't think it's as effective.) I've never like Elton John, but Lars von Trier endowed Your Song with genuine emotional resonance for me, a feat I would have thought impossible.
posted by hot soup girl at 4:27 AM on July 6, 2008

Yes, seconding hot soup girl with Elton John and the title cards in Breaking the Waves. Although it's not accompanying film action, I think the effect is more like what the OP is interested in than some of the other suggestions (not to slag!).

God, there is something on the tip of my tongue...
posted by Beardman at 10:56 AM on July 6, 2008

The Lost season 2 premiere: Mama Cass - Make Your Own Kind of Music.
posted by nervestaple at 11:30 AM on July 6, 2008

I would say the entire soundtrack of Boogie Nights.
posted by brujita at 12:44 PM on July 6, 2008

Wall-E uses a couple of cheesy songs from Hello, Dolly! to great effect.
posted by twistofrhyme at 1:32 PM on July 6, 2008

Touched on already, but Sopranos in particular threw this down at the end of the finale.

To me, the Platters' "Twilight Time" will always bring back terrifying memories of the X-Files episode "Home". It's a marginally creepy song anyway...but it's a lot more creepy with that X-Files context.
posted by crinklebat at 10:52 PM on July 6, 2008

Whoa, crinklebat. That reminds me in turn of the X-Files episode about the Peacock family, with Johnny Mathis's "Wonderful Wonderful" playing as they climb into the trunk of the car to make another monster. Oooh, it gives me chills.
posted by seancake at 5:32 AM on July 7, 2008

Hah! Just found out that was the very same episode in fact, "Home". A very haunting and creepy episode, thanks to the romantic old tunes.
posted by seancake at 5:56 AM on July 7, 2008

You might be interested in the Ironic Nursery Tune entry over at TV Tropes.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 8:56 AM on July 7, 2008

(I like this question.)

The girl group song-and-dance sequences in Suicide Club (sort of like Sparkle Motion, only much better IMO), and perhaps the song sung by Genesis in the same film. There are probably other scenes in the film that do the same thing, but I'm too scared to look those scenes up on youtube, at the moment (staying up alone at night...).

& the kitchen scene in the first Final Destination movie.
posted by aielen at 2:59 PM on July 10, 2008

Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World" over the bombing and murder scenes in "Good Morning, Vietnam".
posted by tzikeh at 11:45 PM on July 13, 2008

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