After watching the trailer for Sofia Coppola’s latest film, Priscilla, I took a drive around town. Windows down, shades on, I felt like the protagonist in some brilliant film. “How You Satisfy Me” played just loud enough for people to hear. I tried to embody the dahlia-esque stare of Priscilla Presley, the boyish confidence of Elvis himself. But I do not want to talk about Elvis.

“How You Satisfy Me” is a fuzzed-out ’90s tune by Spectrum, a project of Spacemen 3’s Peter Kember, known widely by his stage name Sonic Boom. It begins with an organ and simple drums that crescendo into a slightly chaotic yet airy repetition of the same six lines. In fact, it goes perfectly with the palpable young lust of Miss Presley, and Coppola is known for pairing edgy rock songs with older time periods, like New Order and Gang of Four in her pastel-palleted-period-piece Marie Antoinette

Music is something that can make or break a film; it provides the sonic landscape through which we view an alternate world. It isn’t new that the two mediums are so interwoven, yet it feels new each time we experience it. It wakes us up, pumps crimson more viciously through our veins, until we feel a little more alive and in tune with the infinite.

Let’s hark back to 1999’s Cruel Intentions, and fast-forward to the ending. Kathryn Merteuil (Sarah Michelle Gellar) looks out at a sea of repulsed faces: her sons-and-daughters-of-debutantes classmates have just discovered, by way of her stepbrother’s incriminating journal, that she is a deceitful, licentious fraud. The headmaster lifts Kathryn’s bony hand, which is clutching a silver cross rosary—full of coke—and disassembles it, the white powder disappearing into the early autumn breeze. A single tear cascades down her cheek and we cut to a very young and very blonde Annette (Reese Witherspoon) driving Sebastian’s 1956 Jaguar Roadster down a seemingly endless New York highway. 

This film served as my sexual awakening, and the anthemic song “Bitter Sweet Symphony” that plays by The Verve will forever remind me of valiance, of defiance, of brazenly shrugging off the overrated and anti-climactic grandeur of The American Dream. Its melancholic string arrangements and dazed, haphazard lyrics lend the song a surreal quality, like one is floating above the chaos of everyday life. Whether The Rolling Stones like it or not, Richard Ashcroft’s delivery and tone make this song indelible.

In Olivier Assayas’ Irma Vep, Sonic Youth’s guitar-heavy “Tunic” plays as Maggie’s world blurs into that of the vampiric character she plays in this film-within-a-film. The camera jolts around nervously, blurring in and out of focus as she manically paces around her mess of a hotel room. Kim Gordon chants in her low, flat, speak-song words that mirror Maggie’s own emotions:

Dreaming, dreaming of a girl like me

Hey, what are you waiting for? Feeding, feeding me? 

I feel like I’m disappearing, getting smaller every day

But I look in the mirror and I’m bigger in every way

Maggie begins to wander around the hotel, giving into her curiosity and peering into the rooms of its interesting characters. The song centers around the life of a young musician ascending to stardom, and the scene itself almost feels like a music video. While the film and the song have different concepts, they are of the same era: one infused with angst, staggering confidence, and the autonomy inherent to bands who found their voice before technology took over every aspect of our lives.

After Sonic Youth’s album Goo was released but before Irma Vep came out, another unforgettable film graced the stratosphere. Wong Kar Wai’s Chungking Express stars the wiry, waifish actress-musician Faye Wong, who also appears on the soundtrack. Her cover of “Dreams” still possesses the ethereal quality The Cranberries had but with a youthful, aching sense of urgency. Wong’s vocals feel like a primal chant, an incantation. The drums are as snappy and tinny as scrap metal found in a junkyard. Faye’s delivery drifts less and has a girlish edge to it. Though in the original release the song plays only at the end credits, Wong Kar Wai’s 2021 restoration has it playing in three places: once about midway through the film as Faye and Cop 663 watch blurs of bodies in a sped-up timelapse walk past the fast food stand she works at; again when Faye is frantically albeit playfully rearranging his apartment donning her carnation pink cleaning gloves and striped babydoll tee; and finally at the end, giving us a trifecta of Faye’s sublime rendition.

Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence stars musicians David Bowie and Ryuichi Sakamoto, a masterpiece about cultural differences and the repression of same-sex desire between prisoners of war in a Japanese camp during World War II. The erotic undertones of obsession and infatuation surface in the score, which Sakamoto composed for the screen. The eeriest of all the scenes happens at the climax. Captain Yanoi (Sakamoto) is going mad and orders the ghastly sick and injured men from the camp’s hospital to report to the field. The men—some amputees, some so thin and pale they’re transparent—hobble out from safety into the glaring sun as droney synths tighten and oscillate, causing the viewer to feel as if they’re trapped inside one of the soldier’s troubled minds. This is just before Jack Celliers (Bowie) bravely risks his life by embracing Captain Yanoi and kissing him on each cheek, causing the captain to seize up and lose consciousness. The music ascends to a triumphant tone, as if love could prevail even after Celliers suffers his ill and disturbing fate. Though Sakamoto never acted again, the scintillating music of this brilliant film by Nagisa Ōshima was Ryuichi’s first film score, and launched his career as one of the best composers of all time. A lifelong friendship between the two rock stars also bloomed, not unlike the novel the film was based on by Lourens van der Post.

Director Les Blank is known for his quirky, refreshing documentary collaborations with artists, artisans, and musicians alike. He worked with the genre-obliterating musical legend Leon Russel on the documentary A Poem is a Naked Person, capturing intimate vignettes of Russel and his band performing, grainy moving portraits of fans, and unnerving metaphors like a snake eating a chick whole during a voiceover in which Russel rambles on about capitalism. The live shows are so moving it’s as if one can taste the brine of sweat dripping from the performers’ backs, smell the earthy aroma of smoke drifting through the crowd. 

My favorite of Blank’s films is a 30-minute short, The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins, that takes place largely in Centerville, Texas, home of blues deity Lightnin’ Hopkins. It begins in the countryside in what could be late spring or summer of 1967, where Lightnin’ and his bandmates perform at a friend’s barbeque. In a casual testimonial, Lightnin’ smokes a cigarette pensively, the glare of his jet-black sunglasses reflecting the lush green landscape behind him. “The blues is something that is hard to get acquainted with, just like death. Now I’ll tell you about the blues, all right. The blues dwell with you everyday and everywhere. See, you can have the blues about that you’re broke. You can have the blues about that your girl is gone. The blues come so many different ways, until it’s kind of hard to explain. But when it’s ever that you get a sad feeling, you can tell the whole round world you got nothin’ but the blues.”

In perhaps the most poignant scene, Lightnin’ plays “Where She Used to Lay” in the living room while Billy Bizor sings and wails on the harmonica. He cries and drops to his knees in hysteria. In the close-ups, we see the sweat beading on his forehead, the raw emotion in his facial contortions, a beauty that makes the stomach drop with that familiar feeling of unfettered heartbreak. From the more introspective scenes like Lightnin’ fishing next to a river, to a rodeo where everyone is dressed to the nines, the short film reminds us that the blues is not just a style of music, nor is it simply a feeling: it is a way of life.

Jim Jarmusch frequently collaborated with jazz musicians John Lurie and Tom Waits. Lurie starred in and wrote the score for the wandering, poetic Stranger Than Paradise

A couple of Waits’ bohemian rhapsodies from his album Rain Dogs were featured in the New Orleans film Down by Law. Lurie and Waits both play—alongside the epic Roberto Benigni—quirky, imprisoned strangers. Lurie also wrote an original score for this black-and-white picture and later featured both Jarmusch and Waits in his television series Fishing with John.

Jarmusch himself is a musician: his band Sqürl toured Europe and the UK earlier this year, performing live scores to films by the celebrated visual artist Man Ray. Sqürl wrote the soundtrack to Jarmusch’s vampire film Only Lovers Left Alive, starring Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston, in what I consider to be one of the most eccentric and realistic depictions of vampire life to date. 

The band’s slowed-down, haunting cover of Wanda Jackson’s “Funnel of Love” features Madeline Follin and feels like a hypnotic Lynchian daydream. “The Taste of Blood” and several other tracks on the album are a collaboration with lute player and avant-garde composer Jozef van Wissem and feel like walking the jagged, medieval streets of a time forgotten. “In Templum Dei” features Zola Jesus, whose vocals sound like echoes one would hear in a dark, cavernous church in Rome, and who looks like she could have been cast in the film herself. Only Lovers Left Alive takes place in the two drastically different homes of the undead lovers: Detroit and Tangier, respectively. 

The dance of cinema and song will continue to compel, inspire, and strike wonder in us. And while many swear that everything’s been done before, that is not at all the case. Even the films we watch over and over, the songs we play on repeat until our speakers get tired can take on new shapes and shades. Nuances reveal themselves to us through rhythm, color, movement; through the waves of emotion that surge and settle. We continue to enjoy the ride—heartache, elation, discomfort, euphoria—time and time again. Every single minute of it.

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