The Riff-Off in the fuzzy, giddy slice of pure pop genius that is “Pitch Perfect” isn’t necessarily the most spine tingling number of the a cappella flick (“Right Round” by The Treblemakers) or the most impressive (The Bellas final mash-up), but it is the most important music moment in terms of the film’s story. The Bellas assemble their motley crew of misfits and rejects, and meet up with the other groups in an empty pool (always an empty pool) for their Riff-Off: a game of vocal wordplay involving stealing songs from another group by jumping onto a particular word. The Treblemakers and Bellas trade blows on Rihanna’s “S&M” (sung, interestingly, by the song’s writer Ester Dean), Salt n Pepa’s “Let’s Talk About Sex”, Boyz II Men’s “I’ll Make Love to You,” and Foreigner’s “Feels Like The First Time,” but when Beca (Anna Kendrick) jumps in with Dr. Dre’s verse from STONE COLD MOTHERFUCKING CLASSIC “No Diggity” by Blackstreet, it’s the pivotal moment of the entire film. She’s finally, finally showing some gumption, ditching the cool kid attitude and proving not only her musical chops, her gangsta cred and her ability to bring something fresh to the tired Bellas set list. Each member of the group gets to display her quirky personality and skill visually within the number (Rebel Wilson grabbing her tummy on “got game by the pound” = idol status), and it’s the true moment of their cohesion as a group, even if the film takes a frustratingly long time to get back there. And seriously, who can resist “No Diggity”? Guaranteed, that moment in the trailer of Kendrick singing the hook a cappella all alone in the pool sold that movie instantly.
Critics at the Cannes Film Festival are a hardened bunch. Usually jet-lagged, weary, sleep-deprived and perhaps a bit standoffish as world cinema’s finest try to impress, it speaks to the skill of Jacques Audiard that his repurposing of Katy Perry’s “Firework” left nary a dry eye in the house. So how on Earth do you make a ubiquitous, throwaway pop hit into one of the emotional turning points of a film? You do the work. The first time we hear the song in the film it’s part of the Marineland show that winds up leaving Marion Cotillard’s trainer Stephanie paralyzed from the waist down. She then essentially shuts herself off from the world, but buoyed by the attentions of Matthias Schoenaerts’ Alain, she starts to come out of her shell. Indeed, when she eventually rolls herself out onto the sun soaked balcony it’s like she’s starting life anew, and as she goes over the hand and arm movements that she used with the whales, Audiard slyly pumps “Firework” into the background, slowly rising in volume. Stephanie isn’t just coming to terms with her past, and perhaps saying goodbye, she’s also claiming her future. Out of context -- and we don’t recommend watching the below unless you’ve seen the movie -- it’s not quite as powerful. But in the film, given the hard road we’ve take with Stephanie to this point, “Firework” literally explodes in your heart, the first upbeat, sugary note of hope in the story, and we dare you not to reach for the nearest Kleenex box.
“Shut Up and Play the Hits,” the unimpeachable documentary that charted the final show of cooler-than-cool electro-pop outfit LCD Soundsystem (at Madison Square Garden, no less), was one giant music moment; a singularly uplifting, dance-your-pants off experience. But if there’s one truly transcendent moment in the bulk of the documentary, it’s when the band performs the second part of “45:33,” joined onstage by comedian/musician Reggie Watts. “45:33” might be the most esoteric part of both the concert and the documentary (it was an unbroken running mix that LCD mastermind James Murphy made for Nike and iTunes), but it quickly became the highlight of both. Watts, in his trademark T-shirt and suspenders, rocking a mile-wide afro, engaged in an amazing vocal tête-à-tête with Murphy, even though the portion of “45:33” only consisted of a handful of lyrics, adding some wonderfully sweet soulfulness to the proceedings. Like the rest of “Shut Up And Play The Hits,” this moment is both spirited and melancholy, deeply dance-able and strangely emotional. And when the section of “45:33” ends and “Sound Of Silver” starts up, you realize that the band may be done but the party will never, ever end.
Hands down the best moment in the overlong, poorly paced and exhausting “Skyfall” belongs to songstress Adele and designer Daniel Kleinman, who turn in a smashing theme and sequence combo after several diminishing returns. Relying largely on Adele’s vocals and sparse orchestration, the song is a throwback to old-school themes without feeling tacky or hung up on past glories. Kleinman, on the other hand, breaks with tradition a bit, the visuals suggesting nothing less than the shattering of the Bond mythos, a spiritual death and funeral proceedings for the spy icon. It’s an elegiac tour de force, interplay between light, shadows and mirrors, as the blood rains down from the sky and dragons lurk across the screen. It’s such a strong entry that it makes the plodding film that follows all the more of a disappointment.
While it might look on the surface like an homage to silent cinema akin to "The Artist" (and it is, in a way), the charms of Miguel Gomes' glorious "Tabu" go much deeper than that, particularly in its second half, a dialogue-free, magic realist forbidden romance set in colonial Africa... some time in the middle of the 20th century. As with Gomes' other films, pop music pays a big part of the film, most notably a gorgeous Portuguese-language cover of "Be My Baby" that proves to be the crucial link between the film's first and second half. Much of these song moments come courtesy of Mario's Band, the snappily-dressed group that hero Ventura, and his best friend Mario, belong to. Ventura is sleeping with the beautiful Aurora, married to a powerful local man, and is starting to reach the end of his tether. At a local party, Ventura drums along to a mimed, deeply anachronistic version of "Baby I Love You," the Ramones' cover of the Phil Spector hit. The band lined up alongside a half-empty swimming pool, as if to drive home the chasm between Ventura and Aurora, who dances on the other side. It's a great reminder of a somewhat overlooked track by the seminal punk band, and is one of those times when it makes perfect sense, historical accuracy be damned.
Sarah Polley’s sophomore effort “Take This Waltz” pops with expressive color and music throughout and takes a lot of wonderful wide and creative swings. One of those risks is an ambitious sequence demonstrating the passage of time wherein a camera circles the room and a couple that have cheated and start anew, span time and eventually fall into the same dull routines that led them to stray in the first place -- all of it set to Leonard Cohen’s titular song. But this sensual picture about marriage, love, infidelity and grass-is-always-greener restlessness is also heartbreaking. And an unlikely song, “Video Killed The Radio Star,” which does have its minor key lament of loss and change in it, represents heartache and longing. Michelle Williams’ Margot takes a trip with with her illicit paramour (Luke Kirby) to a theme park and in a moment of elation and bliss, they joyfully go on an amusement ride. But later on, when the pair have long-cemented their affair and relationship malaise has set in, the mockingbird Margot goes back to the amusement park to take the ride. Alone and on her own, she closes her eyes and lets the wind blow through her hair and the music boom in her ears. It’s a devastating scene, Margot on the ride, trying to chase and reclaim that fleeting romantic bliss she once felt. It’s in that affecting moment, we know Margot will sadly, always be chasing a never lasting feeling.
Judd Apatow’s “This Is 40” has a terrific and memorable score by Jon Brion that fits the mood and tone of this family-in-crisis drama, a little bit funny, a little bit serious and a little bit sad. But the highlight piece of music in “This Is 40” is another Brion-assisted piece: Fiona Apple’s “Dull Tool,” specifically written for the film. Without giving away too much of the film, the song hits at the apex of crisis, as an angry and frustrated Pete (Paul Rudd) goes for a cathartic bike ride in Los Angeles that borders on suicide run, chaotically weaving in and out of traffic. We won’t spoil how it ends, but it’s a fast-paced and aggravated scene, and Apple’s pounding and choleric “Dull Tool” is the perfect aural diatribe for Pete’s little tantrum-y joyride.
-- Rodrigo Perez, Kevin Jagernauth, Katie Walsh, William Goss, Mark Zhuravsky, Drew Taylor, Oliver Lyttelton