The Art of the Needle Drop
A survey of iconic soundtrack moments throughout cinema.
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When someone says "movie music" or "soundtrack," you probably think of your favorite original score. Maybe John Williams' iconic work on Star Wars, E.T., or Jurassic Park, for example. Something you can hum, something that instantly takes you to a moment in cinema.
What many people don't realize is that there is a major difference between a film's "score" and a film's "soundtrack." A score consists of original music specifically composed for the film. These pieces often work together with recurring themes in order to create a unifying soundscape for the film. Think about Hans Zimmer's work on Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy, or Howard Shore's work on the Lord of the Rings films. Soundtracks, on the other hand, do not consist of music that was composed specifically to complement the film. A film's soundtrack is made up of preexisting songs that you're likely to hear on the radio. These songs are played at specific moments throughout the film, and are often referred to as "needle drops." Think Quentin Tarantino, who up until The Hateful Eight used needle drops exclusively in favor of original scoring.
While needle drops are beloved by many, filmmakers often catch a bit of scrutiny for using an already established song in favor of a piece of original scoring. This year featured two perfect examples with Suicide Squad and War Dogs. Both films received some criticism for relying too heavily on needle drops to convey meaning. For example, when Amanda Waller (an evil woman) is introduced in Suicide Squad, the Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil" is the music cue of choice. The criticism of this moment is that the song is a little too on-the-nose, screaming out, "Hey! This is a bad person!" Maybe some original scoring here would have been a bit more subtle and better set up Waller as a character. The trend of obvious needle drops in favor of scoring continued a few weeks later with War Dogs, a film that used Iggy Pop's "The Passenger" for a travel sequence and Gram Parsons' "Ooh Las Vegas" for, well, a Las Vegas scene.
Despite this recent criticism, needle drops can be just as, if not more, effective than original scoring. Take the use of "Goodbye Horses" by Q Lazzarus in The Silence of the Lambs: As Buffalo Bill does his infamous dance, staring into the camera, the song thumps along with the character's squirmy twists and turns. It seems unlikely that any sort of ominous score could possibly lend the same creepy tone created by the use of an innocent pop song. Or take "Stuck in the Middle With You" during the torture scene in Reservoir Dogs: This scene works because we don't expect Mr. Blonde to be enjoying an upbeat tune as he mutilates a police officer.
People love music. We form connections with songs, and associate them with specific thoughts, feelings, and moments. Filmmakers need to use this to the advantage of their films. A good needle drop doesn't aim to be trendy or overly-explanatory; a good needle drop aims to make us feel something. This video is a collection of needle drops that work well within the soundtrack of a variety of films. Watch, listen, and feel.