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Needle drop: How campy pop bangers are transforming movies

A few recent films bring attention to an underrated movie technique: licensing old music for fresh emotional moments.

Jacob Elordi in Saltburn (2023) IMAGO / Landmark Media

Last year I realised a lot of people were talking about Sophie Ellis Bexter’s ‘Murder on the Dancefloor’ – way too many people for a song that had been off the charts for decades, though it’s a millennial karaoke classic. It was actually back in the charts, and zoomers were talking about it like this moment had never happened before. I was a little confused, but mainly indifferent.

And then I watched Saltburn, a 2023 flick directed by Emerald Fennell, and everything clicked into place. The song is a real centrepiece of the film’s ending. A term often used for this is ‘the needle drop’, an industry phrase basically meaning an instance of licensing of a well-known piece of music. Done right, it can be one of the most exciting aspects of a film.

It’s a moment of release, and creates an emotional tension worthy of tears.

The needle drop is being used (maybe overly) in popular discourse a lot right now. Andrew Haigh’s use of pop band Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s ‘The Power of Love’ in his recent All of Us Strangers has been spoken of with the same nostalgia as Saltburn (albeit more tear-jerking). This calls extra attention to the role of the music supervisor, the sound designer, the composer – those that give the film the sound it needs to form its identity and are so important for a film.

Sometimes a song becomes so synonymous with the film that you can’t listen without imagining that specific scene. It’s particularly well done at the end of Saltburn. The original music video for the song, directed by Dawn Shadforth, follows a plotline in which singer Sophie Ellis Bexter and her dance partner are murdering prospective competition at a dance contest – echoing (without spoilers!) the film’s end tones.

There’s been a lot of talk recently about the sound (or lack thereof) in film and powerful sound design, especially following Johnathan Glazer’s Oscar-winning The Zone of Interest. It’s not always what you see, but what you hear that makes the film so gut-wrenching. But what makes a sonic moment perfect in film? Sometimes it’s in the ironic, the reimagining, the playing with opposites.

When Christian Bale is dismembering a body in Mary Harron’s retelling of Bret Easton Ellis’ masterpiece American Psycho (2000), the fact that Huey Lewis and The News’ ‘It’s Hip to be Square’ is playing as he dances around the task at hand is a brilliant, sadistic moment, much akin to Quentin Tarintino’s use of ‘Stuck in the Middle With You’ by Stealers Wheel in Reservoir Dogs (1992).

Andrew Scott, Paul Mescal, All of Us Strangers 2023. Photo credit: Parisa Taghizadeh/Searchlight Pictures, IMAGO / Picturelux

Wong Kar-wai is known for this approach; muse and superstar Faye Wong covered The Cranberries and Cocteau Twins for his 1994 Chungking Express – there’s a special CD version of the soundtrack where they live on –  and ‘California Dreamin’’ by The Mamas and the Papas also features. But probably one of my all-time favourite uses of music in film is in Claire Denis’ Beau Travail (1999), in which the main character dances to ‘The Rhythm of the Night’ by Corona. It’s a moment of release, and creates an emotional tension worthy of tears.

This month sees two great examples of music creating new worlds on screen. In Pablo Berger’s Robot Dreams (2023), one of my top picks this month, the tragicomedy has no dialogue but one strong sonic element: the recurring iterations of Earth, Wind & Fire’s ‘September’, a song the two protagonists begin to love and which bonds them. And in Todd Haynes’ May December, composer Marcelo Zarvos reuses the score from the great director Joseph Losey’s The Go-Between (1971) and restructures it for the use of the film. The music helps to aid an element of emotional chaos and suspense to the picture, and it adds an intense emotional underworld. Keep your ears perked, moviegoers.