Sunday, July 31, 2011

What is the "Magical Music Cue"?

          People tend to geek about the scene in The Royal Tenenbaums where Gwyneth Paltrow exits a bus to the tune of Nico's "These Days." I enjoy it too. The image of Margot Tenenbaum moving in dream-like slow motion toward the audience is supplemented perfectly by the song, and it is usually one of the three musical moments of recent films that people my age cite as being their introduction to the power of music in cinema. The other two moments include, inevitably, Requiem for a Dream's "Lux Aterna" sequence composed by Clint Mansell and Fight Club's "Where is My Mind" Pixies finisher.

         This fact has actually turned into something of a game. I've gotten into the habit of asking fellow movie-lovers their favorite movie-music moments. 9 times out of 10, if the person is under 25 and over 18, it is one of the three scenes mentioned above.

         Of course, there are exceptions. Some people might mention one of the many worthy sections of I'm Not There, or perhaps the Urge Overkill "Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon" lip-synch in Pulp Fiction. Or maybe even the Walter Carlos Moog-fest of a Clockwork Orange score (most notably the opening shot). All perfectly good examples, I must say.

         But examples of what? Well, obviously, music in cinema. But something more, too. They're not just examples of music in movies, but they're examples of "Magical Music Cues". "Magical Music Cues", as they're sometimes called by film historians, present themselves as totally emotional, tonal, and supplemental moments that detach themselves from the film in order to stir the audience in a specific direction.

        If this definition is difficult to wrap your mind around, and you haven't, for some reason or another, seen any of the previous examples, try checking out this perfect example from Vincent Gallo's Buffalo '66, a film I more-or-less shrug about.

       As you can see, once the music is placed into the aural foreground, all hope for plot progression is thrown out the window, and the audience is just left with a stylistically jarring and emotionally compelling image. There is a marriage. The visual and audio artistry is merged into a sort of dance, each piece perfectly supplementing the other.

      Some films try to have these moments but fail to make the marriage a faithful one, with the music sometimes cheating on the image with the actors, or perhaps a special effect.

      You may think this sounds crazy, but try to remember one of these shocking infidelities: the painful use of any song at any point in Peter Jackson's horrendously clumsy The Lovely Bones (specifically the use of The Hollies' "Long Cool Woman" in what is supposed to be a heart-wrenchingly dramatic sequence where Susie's brother almost dies), the poor man's golden era singing of Liza Minnelli in Martin Scorsese's unfortunate New York, New York, and of course the nauseating display of sentimentality at the end of Pay It Forward with "Calling All Angels" by Jane Siberry.

      All of these examples of lousy attempts at "Magical Movie Cues" are by filmmakers who may have felt their films were lacking some sort of emotional punch. The good cues are designed to jump-start audiences emotionally and inspire them. I mean, basically the entirety of Baraka is one long musical cue. People tend to dig that movie. They get emotionally attached to it. Why? Because that marriage is admirably healthy.

      A recent example of a successful cue (I'm going to keep mentioning this film forever, so you'd better not get tired of it) is the use of Zbigniew Preisner's "Lacrimosa" in Terrence Malick's mesmerizing creation of the universe segment of The Tree Of Life. The perfect combination of sound and sight. A totally overwhelming piece of cinema.
     In addition to The Tree of Life, some more examples of my favorite cues include, in no particular order:

  • The "Wise Up" scene in Magnolia
  • The Ry Cooder "Cancion Mixteca" piece during the super 8 sequence in Paris, Texas
  • The Nick Cave "O' Children" sequence in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1
  • Club Silencio, all of Club Silencio, in Mulholland Drive
  • "In Heaven" in Eraserhead
  • Raging Bull's Intermezzo
  • Leonard Cohen's "Stranger Song" opening sequence in McCabe & Mrs. Miller
  • Daft Punk's "The Grid" in Tron: Legacy
  • Glen Hansard's "Say it To Me Now" in Once
  • Michael Brook's "Best Unsaid" in Into The Wild
  • Nick Cave's "Song for Bob" in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
  • James Rado's "Aquarius" in The 40 Year Old Virgin

What are some of your favorite "Magical Music Cues"? What are some of your least favorite? Let me know in the comments section or on Facebook.


  1. I think all of Tron Legacy is a "Magical Music Cue"

  2. I can’t believe I’ve never thought about this topic before, considering how much I love fan-made music videos. I like the name you gave it, “Magical Music Cues.” For sure the Club Silencio scene would be on my list of favorites.

    Here are some others that I could think of (it was harder than I thought):

    1. When Kim dances as Edward sculpts the ice statues in Edward Scissorhands set to Danny Elfman’s delicate and beautiful “Ice Dance.”

    2. The very intense and climactic face-off in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly with Ennio Moriccone’s “Il Triello.”

    3. Near the end of Juno when Vanessa first sees the baby set to Cat Power’s “Sea of love.”

    4. Watchmen’s opening credits set to the perfect choice of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They are a-changin’”

    5. After the heartbreaking loss in the final game in Friday Night Lights accompanied by the somber “Sonho Dourado”

    6. The final scene of Kung Fu Hustle when Sing is reunited with Fong punctuated by “Zhi Yao Wei Ni Huo Yi Tian.”

    Although, I admit I'm not completely sure if all of these count, heh. As for my least favorite, I can't seem to think of any. There is a long scene from Southland Tales where Justin Timberlake's character lip syncs to The Killers' "All these things that I've done", that didn't impress me to much though it was well done.

    Anyway, very cool article. :)

  3. I have been searching for discussions of just this and imdb discussions never touch it really.
    I hope you keep this page going, because it's hard for me to remember cues from the past (especially if I didn't already know the piece of music) but would like to be able to talk about them as they come up for me.
    I have one of those 'lost cues' in mind; a movie where I rewound several times to hear a particular high chord at a moment of change and emotion; I was deeply impressed by it and then forgot all about it. Now, can't remember which film it was.

  4. To Unknown I had that same experience with one particular chord - and now not knowing what movie it was! Maybe we had this moment with the same movie.