My favorite uses of “mood music” in television and movies

I recently rewatched the season finale of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and was struck by one particular scene, in which an FBI agent and a SWAT team move in to arrest a terminator, not knowing exactly what they’re dealing with. The scene is set up very well, and is very ominous, and is made even more so by the use of a Johnny Cash song as “mood music” for the soundtrack.

Many movies put a lot of effort and funding into composing an original score, but often the appropriate choice of an already existing tune can be even more effective. I thought I’d put a list together of my favorite uses of “mood music” in movies in television shows; feel free to add your own favorites in the comments.

  1. “When the Man Comes Around”, Johnny Cash: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. As I said, this one worked really well. The SWAT team is preparing to bash in the door of a seedy motel, which the viewer well knows will result in their utter destruction. “When the Man Comes Around” is a simple, dark song which works well as accompaniment: it is pretty much a description of a Biblical apocalypse, which fits well with the theme of the series. (Incidentally, the series is quite good, if you haven’t seen it.)
  2. “Ode to Joy”, Ludwig von Beethoven: Die Hard. Die Hard is unquestionably one of the best, and most enjoyable, action movies of all time, unmatched by even its sequels. A large part of the appeal of the film is that it is simply fun: even when McClain’s life is in danger, you’re still enjoying yourself. If you watch a ‘behind the scenes’ with the director McTiernan, you find that this was one of the guiding philosophies in making the movie. The choice of “Ode to Joy”, which is a musical theme throughout the movie, was keeping in line with this philosophy.
  3. “Stuck in the Middle With You”, Stealers Wheel: Reservoir Dogs. “Torture you? That’s a good idea. I like that.” Quentin Tarantino is a master at using “mood music” to highlight a dramatic scene. None is more cringe-inducing than Mr. Blonde torturing a police officer, dancing around him to the sweet sound of Stealers Wheel. The cheery, festive sound of the song is a horrifyingly ironic contrast to the graphic torture occuring on screen.
  4. “In-a-gadda-da-vida”, Iron Butterfly: Manhunter. In-a-gadda-da-vida often makes the top of “worst songs ever” lists, and though I like the song, I have to admit the assessment is justified. The incomprehensible title comes was supposed to be “In-The-Garden-Of-Eden”, but popular tradition holds that the lead singer was drunk during taping and the words became horribly slurred. The song is easily associated with drugs and madness, which made it the perfect accompanying track to the climactic scene of Michael Mann’s film Manhunter. Manhunter was the first film adaptation of Red Dragon, about a FBI profiler’s attempt to get Hannibal Lector to help him track down a serial killer. In the climactic scene, the killer has his next victim in his house, and turns on Iron Butterfly on his stereo as the FBI gathers outside for a raid. I cannot listen to the song anymore without hearing the sound of breaking glass just before the drum solo.
  5. “You’re no good”, Betty Everett: House. House, the low-key low-budget horror comedy, tells the story of writer and Vietnam vet Roger Cobb, who moves into his late aunt’s haunted house to work on his next book. Cobb is plagued by increasingly bizarre apparitions, including one which appears first as his ex-wife, then as a hideous monster, then again as his ex-wife after he’s killed her, and finally again as a hideous apparition. Cobb finally gets the best of the monster, and as he carries the dismembered remains to bury in the back yard we’re treated to a cover of Betty Everett’s classic song, “You’re no good.” This is a nice example of “mood music” filling a comedic role.

This is all of the examples of effective “mood music” that came to mind; does anyone have any other favorites? As I’ve said, feel free to leave them in the comments!

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5 Responses to My favorite uses of “mood music” in television and movies

  1. Blake Stacey says:

    Yeah, Manhunter totally warped that song for me — just like how after watching Se7en, I can’t see those little plastic pine-tree air fresheners in the same way, ever again. The way I “read” the movie, I thought that the villain of Manhunter was using “In-a-gadda-da-vida” to torture his next victim, the blind woman played by Joan Allen.

    Good choices all around.

    The people who made Shaun of the Dead hung a lampshade on the whole idea of mood music and soundtracks when a jukebox set on random shuffle came up with an ominously apt Queen song at just the right/wrong time. I think a film-studies person would describe this as an instance of diegetic sound filling the role normally taken by extra-diegetic music.

  2. Babs67 aka the fiancee says:

    Blake – you are so right on with the Shaun of the Dead soundtrack! I heard that Queen song on Dancing with the Stars this season and couldn’t get past the incongruity of thinking of zombies breaking into an English Pub while watching two people do the tango!

    I’m sure there is a similar scene in Hot Fuzz, I just can’t think of it. I’ll have to go back and watch it. Plus, I get to see that tasty treat Simon Pegg!

  3. Personal Demon says:

    Um… just about every movie that Stanley Kubrick ever made. Or does classical music not count?

  4. Babs67 aka the fiancee says:

    Dr. Skullstars – can you go in and correct my html and changed “passed” to “past”? I was so excited thinking about Simon Pegg I couldn’t type…

  5. Babs67: fixed it for you! I also fixed your italics… And stop looking at Simon Pegg!!! 🙂

    Blake: Excellent choice in Shaun of the Dead! Now that you’ve mentioned it, I think that the particular scene in question was one of them that I thought about long before I decided to write the post, and totally forgot about it.

    PD: Classical music must count, since I included Die Hard. I should’ve thought of 2001 as an ultimate example of this.

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