By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist December 11, 2013 at 12:00PM
Given that his films thus far have shown him to have a particularly strong sense of sound as well as visuals, it's no surprise that Ben Wheatley picked out a string of crackers for this year's "Sightseers." The film mixes gut-busting, jet-black low-key character comedy with the "Wicker Man"-ish pagan dread of Wheatley's previous film, "Kill List," and the soundtrack also combines discordant influences to create a surprisingly satisfying whole. Cleverly bookended by two versions of "Tainted Love" (Soft Cell's 1980s re-rub, the EP version that runs into "Where Did Our Love Go," cunningly, with Gloria Jones' 1960s original at the end, with the reprise feeling that much more painful and sincere), it encompasses 1980s power-pop (Frankie Goes To Hollywood's "The Power Of Love," memorably, hauntingly, hilariously appropriated for the final scenes) and Krautrock, courtesy of Neu!, Harmonia and Popol Vuh, and classical composer Edward Elgar. Most unforgettably, there are two versions of Donovan's "Season Of The Witch" that breathes new life into the soundtrack-staple. First, there's Vanilla Fudge's nine-minute psych-freakout cover, followed by a more soulful take by Julie Driscoll. The result is like stumbling around a music festival campfire on a drug freakout, which is entirely appropriate for the film as a whole.
4. "Something In The Air"
For many, there are literally thousands of things they' rather listen to than 1970s prog-psych-folk. But trust Olivier Assayas (whose last film, "Carlos," also had a killer collection of songs) to make it work in "Something In The Air," his tale of revolution and romance in 1970s Europe. Appropriately enough, for a deeply personal coming-of-age tale, the selections mostly come from Assayas' own favorites from his teens, and while he resists smothering the film with music, the likes of Syd Barrett, Captain Beefheart and Tangerine Dream are perfectly evocative of the time and place. British folkie Johnny Flynn (soon to be seen starring with Anne Hathaway in Sundance romance "Song One") contributes a convincing cover of Phil Ochs' "Ballad Of William Worthy," while there are some deep cuts too, most notably Soft Machine's "Why Are We Sleeping?" which scores the film's stand-out sequence. If you want to know what Llewyn Davis would be putting out if he took a bunch of mushrooms and moved to the Paris suburbs, this isn't a million miles away.
3. “American Hustle”
There’s a lot going on under the surface of “American Hustle,” and its wigs, silly outfits and farcical hairstyles. It’s veneer is shiny and colorful, but the soul of its characters are mainly those of people struggling to get by, who want to reinvent themselves to the point that they aren’t leading boring, penniless lives, instead moving towards something more glamorous. And so the film's grifters, Christian Bale and Amy Adams instantly connect to Duke Ellington's classy "Jeep's Blues,” a tune that not so ironically was a time in the jazz man’s own period of sonic reinvention. Many tracks, like the movie’s sheen, are simply groovy, sexy pieces of period music, but how often they connect emotionally is what separates the soundtrack CD keepers from the bargain bin deletes. Tom Jones’ “Delilah” is transformed to an ode to a real and blossoming friendship between Bale and Jeremy Renner’s character (as is the Bee Gees’ ironic "I Started A Joke”), Jennifer Lawrence belting out Wings’ “Live And Let Die” comes from a true moment of “fuck this I’m done,” anger, and Donna Summer’s propulsive, Giorgio Moroder-produced disco classic “I Feel Love” is not only a mic drop explosion of period-piece sexual energy in the movie, it becomes an escapist cri-de-coeur for Amy Adams’ increasingly desperate and boxed-in character. And if you're not going that deep, well, musically the movie includes some terrific '70s cuts by ELO (Jeff Lynne contributed some original music too), America, Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes and a perfectly semi-cheesy, but heartfelt version of Al Green’s “How Can You Mend A Broken Heart?” by the Bee Gees. If “American Hustle" is all about an immersive con from “the feet up” as the characters say, the soundtrack takes the same method-acting like approach.
2. "Frances Ha"
Let's be honest, if "Frances Ha" was made by some twentysomething filmschool hotshot, it'd likely be soundtracked by a host of Pitchfork favorites—it's not all that difficult to imagine the same story set to Vampire Weekend and Grizzly Bear. But while co-writer/star Greta Gerwig might be only just into her 30s, Noah Baumbach has a little more distance, and the film ends up with some rather more unexpected musical choices. The film features classic cuts from legends like Paul McCartney ("Blue Sway," a track we'd forgotten how much we liked until it popped up here), Harry Nilsson ("Mrs Butter's Lament") and T.Rex ("Chrome Sitar"), not to mention the exhilarating, Leos Carax-nodding use of David Bowie's "Modern Love." But then there's the unexpected, and hugely effective disco-soul of Hot Chocolate's "Everyone's A Winner," a brace of classical pieces from Mozart, Bach and Jaubert, and a number of lifts from the scores of Truffaut favorite Georges Delerue (nodding to one of the film's major influences). The closest thing to a contemporary cut is a late number by South African electronica artist Felix Laband, but even that feels like it could have come from any point in the last fifty years. As a result, Baumbach makes a film that could have dated instantly, into something that 27-year-olds will be identifying with a century from now.
1. “Inside Llewyn Davis”
"Everything you touch turns to shit. Like King Midas' idiot brother,” the impregnated Jean (Carey Mulligan) hisses at Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) in the Coen brothers’ 1960s-set folk tale “Inside Llewyn Davis.” You could say Davis was born under a bad sign. That if it wasn't for bad luck, Llewyn wouldn't have no luck at all. But Davis is not only an artist, he's a product of entitled integrity and short-sightedness that goes beyond bad luck. He’s also a bit of an oblivious jerk and perhaps the exemplar of the confluences of fate that decide why people with talent don’t always “make it.” So in the Coen Brothers serio-comic tragedy about failure, being one's own worst enemy and perhaps a little bit of being in the wrong place at the right time, there is no score: the soundtrack is all existing folk cuts mostly performed by Oscar Isaac and the actors in the film that include Justin Timberlake, Mulligan, Stark Sands and Adam Driver and produced by T Bone Burnett, with Marcus Mumford (of artisanal folk outfit Mumford & Sons) as its associate producer. “If it was never new and get never gets old it’s a folk song,” Isaac says in the film and “Inside Llewyn Davis” is full of old folks made anew. The opener is a showstopper of a song (presented two more times in different versions), a melancholy goodbye cut titled “Fare Thee Well,” which is made doubly ironic and dark for the fact, Davis used to sing it with his now-deceased singing partner. The soundtrack to “Inside Llewyn Davis” is much like the movie and the character: authentic, rich, lived-in with wisps of doleful violins, mandolins and banjos that perhaps tell us what we recognize almost immediately--this poor dope is never going to succeed. Songs wonderfully inform character too and aren’t just pretty window dressing. At his big make-or-break audition in Chicago, having undertaken his own little odyssey to get there, the oblivious Davis unveils, “The Death Of Queen Jane” a beautifully sad lament about a woman who dies in childbirth. Performing the integrity-besmirching novelty song, “Please Mr. Kennedy,” causes Llewyn to thoughtlessly tosses his long term royalties aside. Songs brilliantly weave a narrative in “Inside Llewyn Davis,” but they’re also just soulful, dolorous, gorgeous folk songs from a different time and era. As Dylan himself sings his version of “Farewell,” the Coens movie quietly whispers that the times are a changin’; one of these two ships passing in the night is disappointingly heading into waters unknown, while the other is a new hope that’s just about to hit port.
A number of the scores from our list last week were also accompanied by some excellent songs as well. In particular, "Spring Breakers" matched Skrillex & Cliff Martinez's score with some up-to-the minute cuts from The Cool Kids, Nicki Minaj, Waka Flocka Flame, The Weeknd and Ellie Goulding. Elsewhere, "The Great Gatsby" was ambitious, but at best, only semi-successful, and a little disappointing when put against the OSTs to some of Baz Luhrmann's previous films. "About Time" had some decent cuts, not least the Nick Cave song that inspired its writing, while there were a few bangers on the "Fast & Furious 6" release, most notably "We Own It" from 2 Chainz and Wiz Khalifa. And finally, there was some pleasant listening from "The Way Way Back" from Young Galaxy, INXS and Eli "Paperboy" Reed, among others. Anything else you think should get props? Point it out below.