Book Review: “Pop Goes to the Movies” — All in the Needle Drop
By Adam Ellsworth
This volume is a study of what can happen when two art forms engage in a mutually beneficial conversation.
The Needle and the Lens: Pop Goes to the Movies from Rock ‘n’ Roll to Synthwave by Nate Patrin. University of Minnesota Press, 264 pages, $19.95.
Movies have always had music. Even when the films were silent, sheet music was provided with the reels so a pianist seated in the theater could play along to the images flickering on the screen. As technology improved, the soundtrack was heard through speakers: iconic scores and classic songs have been written specifically to embellish the emotional power of motion pictures.
“Needle drops,” on the other hand, are a different matter. These are the tunes that weren’t written for a film. Months or even years after their release, a director came along and said, “This is the song I need in my movie.”
Think “The End” in Apocalypse Now or “Bohemian Rhapsody” in Wayne’s World. These are just two of the needle drops examined in Nate Patrin’s excellent new book on the subject, The Needle and the Lens: Pop Goes to the Movies from Rock ‘n’ Roll to Synthwave. 16 of these calculatingly serendipitous music/movie combos are explored in chapter-length depth. An additional 24 are covered — briefly — in the book’s closing section.
The films selected for full chapter treatment span decades, from 1964’s Scorpio Rising to 2011’s Drive. Some are classics, some are beloved, and some, like the 1972 Jimmy Cliff vehicle The Harder They Come or the 1985 Run D.M.C.-starring Krush Groove, are not particularly good motion pictures. But they sure have some great tunes.
The Needle and the Lens is compelling, even when it’s focused on films of lesser quality. Still, the book is at its best when it dives into movies that can stand on their own, yet you find it impossible to imagine them without a perfectly deployed needle drop. For example, the use of “The Sound of Silence” by director Mike Nichols in 1967’s The Graduate serves as the most famous example of this. Someone who has never seen the movie, but is familiar with its plot, would likely assume Simon & Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson,” the tune named for Anne Bancroft’s adulteress character, would be the central song of the film. Instead, it’s the duo’s chart topper from 1965 that carries entire scenes in the movie, despite that it was very obviously not written for The Graduate, or any other film for that matter.
Patin points out that this is one of the “great artistic legacies of the soundtrack to The Graduate: a song didn’t have to be about the plot to advance the plot — or gain insight into a character’s inner workings. [Dustin Hoffman’s character] Ben’s emotion-masking ennui was the perfect setting for “The Sound of Silence” to make the film’s subtext into text, and its usage in multiple contrasting moments of film editing proved that the right juxtaposition could bring out resonant, evocative elements in a song that might not have been clear before.”
It’s worth lingering on the ending of that passage. As Patrin correctly points out, the film is not the only beneficiary of a great needle drop — the song, and sometimes even its singer, can also take on reinvigorated meaning and new life.
David Lynch’s use of “In Dreams” in 1986’s Blue Velvet, for instance, was without question one of the major contributors to Roy Orbison’s late ’80s career revival. The early-’60s star, who’d had hits with “Only the Lonely (Know the Way I Feel),” “Crying,” and “Oh, Pretty Woman,” had pretty much become a nostalgia act before the ’70s had even begun. It looked as if the ’80s weren’t going to be any different. Then Lynch took Orbison’s operatic ballad and made it the song of choice for a couple of psychopaths (portrayed by Dennis Hopper and Dean Stockwell) to play after they’ve delivered two separate beatings on Kyle MacLachlan. The first use of the song is especially iconic. Lynch shows Stockwell, lit from below by a mechanic’s light that doubles as a microphone, lip-synching to a cassette of the song as Hopper watches, quietly mouthing the words himself. Until the latter is struck by what Patrin superbly describes as a “psychosexual mental break” and turns off the tape.
Initially, Orbison didn’t like the way Lynch utilized “In Dreams.” He’d been encouraged by friends to see Blue Velvet and was put off by what he saw — one of his greatest creations put to considerably disturbing use. On a second viewing, however, Orbison came around. “I really got to appreciate not only what David gave to the song and what the song in turn gave to the film,” he told Nick Kent, “but how innovative the movie was, how it really achieved this otherworldly quality that added a whole new dimension to ‘In Dreams.’ I find it hard to verbalize why, but Blue Velvet succeeded in making my music contemporary again.”
In short, Blue Velvet wouldn’t be Blue Velvet without “In Dreams.” But after 1986, “In Dreams” also wouldn’t have been “In Dreams.” And Roy Orbison, who over the next few years was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, co-founded the supergroup the Traveling Wilburys, and starred in the TV special Roy Orbison and Friends: A Black and White Night, might not have been Roy Orbison without Blue Velvet.
Patrin is not the only critic to notice the multidirectional power of a well-placed needle drop: it enhances a film, while at the same time the placement deepens, perhaps even transforms, the meaning of the preexisting song. But The Needle and the Lens is the first work to examine the symbiotic relationship between the two mediums so thoroughly. The result is an engaging book that isn’t really film or music history, though it’s a worthy addition to both of those libraries. This volume is a study of what can happen when two art forms engage in a mutually beneficial conversation. In the case of movies and music, it’s a dialogue that’s been well worth having.
Adam Ellsworth is a writer, journalist, and amateur professional rock and roll historian. His writing on rock music has appeared on the websites YNE Magazine, KevChino.com, Online Music Reviews, and Metronome Review. His non-rock writing has appeared in the Worcester Telegram and Gazette, on Wakefield Patch, and elsewhere. Adam has an MS in journalism from Boston University and a BA in literature from American University. He grew up in Western Massachusetts, and currently lives with his wife in a suburb of Boston. You can follow Adam on Twitter @adamlz24.