Stuck in the Middle With You – Reservoir Dogs (1992)

Arguably the scene which launched the career of director Quentin Tarantino. A moment of extreme violence, where we see much less than we think we do, played out with sinister cheeriness to upbeat 70s hit Stuck in the Middle (With You) by Stealer’s Wheel.

Juxtaposing cheery pop tunes with unsettling visuals isn’t new, check out Scorsese or Kubrick, for example – but in this scene QT uses the device to stunning, brutal effect.

Mr Blonde’s (Michael Madsen) psychopathic credentials have already been established before the moment he says: ‘Alone at last’ to hapless, helpless cop, Officer Nash (Kirk Baltz). Already bloodied, bound and gagged to a chair in the stark warehouse hideaway of the colourfully named gangsters, Nash’s predicament is dire, and about to get considerably worse. Reservoir Dogs Mr Blonde The use of the music, played via the fictional radio station Super Sounds of the Seventies brilliantly ramps up the terror and disturbing atmosphere in the scene.

Mr Blonde’s sense of fun, his playful dancing to the music as he casually waves the razor in his hand serves only to convey the helplessness of his victim, his muffled screams and pleas drowned out by the incessantly upbeat song. We know something awful is coming, Mr Blonde using the rhythm of the song to almost circle his prey, to demonstrate he can do what he likes, when he likes.

And then, as he draws in, so the camera moves away, the sound of the song and the screaming of Nash mingling as we look at a badly painted sign which reads: Watch Your Head. 

You Can’t Always Get What You Want – The Big Chill (1983)

The faintly melancholic tone of this Stones classic is used to near perfect evocative effect in Laurence Kasdan’s ensemble piece about a group of thirty-something friends re-uniting for the funeral of one of their own, lost to suicide. 

Symbolic of a notion that things were once better than they are now, the song is one of the indicative symbols of lost time and lives that have changed and drifted from the hope and ambition that burns brightest in youth (the use of Marvin Gaye’s I Heard It Through The Grapevine over the opening montage an equally powerful motif).

Used as a bridge from church to wake the song plays a fittingly morose send-off, at the same time offering insight into the characters left behind. An eclectic group held together through a shared youth, facing up to middle-aged life and the fact they may not and may never, get what they want. But will they get what they need?

The Sound Of Silence – The Graduate (1967)

A tale of two scenes here, Simon & Garfunkel’s melancholic call of the night perfectly framing the opening and ending of Mike Nichols subtly subversive classic of youthful malaise and, ultimately, rebellion.  

The song introduces us to recently graduated Benjamin Braddock (a young and brilliant Dustin Hoffman) and in the time it takes for to play out do we feel his pain. His journey through the airport, still and sombre – symbolically carried along on the moving walkway, as though unstoppably propelling him to a destination over which he has no control.

Punctuating the movie to reflect the changing predicaments of Benjamin’s life; the song is a wistful soundtrack to Benjamin’s growing frustrations.

A man clearly at odds with the choices with which he seems presented. The movie is held up as a beacon of youth rebellion; the clean cut Benjamin railing against the authority figures represented by parents and their friends. This, of course, is most explicitly demonstrated through his affair with Mrs Robinson (the brilliant Ann Bancroft) although the real rebellion arguably comes in his defiance against her, as he dates her daughter Elaine (Katherine Ross) and thus puts into motion events that will unhinge the domestic order.

Which takes us to the finale and the real triumphant use of the Sound of Silence. The young lovers breaking the shackles of their parents, fleeing the wedding in a moment of blissful youth rebellion. The unbearable middle-class oppression finally giving way to a joyous ‘Screw You’ moment as Benjamin and Elaine run from the church, laughing and panting, clambering onto the bus, the comical site of a girl in a wedding dress and the boy with his coat flapping around, giggling among the onlookers of stern older passengers.

And then the music plays: hello darkness my old friend, I’ve come to talk with you again, it sings, as we focus on Benjamin and Elaine’s faces, the disappearing mirth and a painfully enigmatic ending.

the graduate

The Graduate | Dir: Mike Nichols | 1957 | MGM

Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head – Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid (1969)

It’s an odd interlude in the cat and mouse central act of this classic 60s Western; a moment of romantic innocence in the middle of this cowboy action movie with the distinctly rebellious core.

Butch (Paul Newman) captures a few flirtatious moments of joy with Etta (Katherine Ross – again!), girlfriend of his partner in crime, Sundance (Robert Redford). As Butch goofs around on a bike, showing off like an adolescent trying to attract the attention of the pretty girl, the scene is played out to the sound of B.J. Thomas, singing the Burt Bacharach penned Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head.

Played deliberately upbeat, with a soft-focus playfulness. The song and the scene is implicit in its notion that these are the people for whom to root, yet also providing enough to hint at rougher times ahead; the rain may be falling, but our heroes will keep on smiling – to the bitter end.

It’s pure 60s symbolism; the rebel heroes sticking it to the man with a sense of free love, at one with the world and out to make it with a smile and a sense of hope. And, as with odd companion piece Easy Rider, the foreboding underbelly of an optimism ultimately doomed.

Hip To Be Square – American Psycho (2000)

Anyone who’d read the Bret Easton Ellis satirical novel about the shallow, consumerist and narcissistic culture of 80s Wall St, would have struggled to imagine how it could possibly be filmed in a way which would encapsulate the spirit of the book. After all, the real genius in the novel comes from the almost unbearably list-like pattern of certain passages, espousing everything from a Witney Houston song to morning grooming rituals; interspersed with moments of astonishing, equally unbearable passages of extreme, graphic violence.

The brilliance of director Mary Harmon’s vision of the book is to blend the tropes together; resulting in a bitingly satiric movie of pitch-black humour.

And none more so than in the Paul Allen (Jared Leto) murder scene. A searing examination of the superficiality, myopia and artificiality of this ultra-monied yuppie world, Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) is at once ridiculous and terrifying as he recites a vapid monologue of Huey Lewis and the News while the prophetic lyrics of their hit song (Hip to be Square) blasts on the stereo; all the while meticulously preparing to kill Allen, sitting oblivious on the couch.

In similar vein to the torture sequence in Reservoir Dogs, the upbeat pop tune jars with the painstaking build-up to brutality. However, there’s more at play here, mixing the humour and horror to hit the perfect satiric note. Bateman’s character is at once shallow and false and hints to the vague sense that nothing we are seeing is real, while the careful attention to keeping his suit clean works in stark contrast to the rage filled violence and blood-lust. Because, in Patrick Bateman’s morally skewed world (to say the least) appearance is everything.


Layla – Goodfellas (1990)

The brilliant instrumental change two-thirds of the way through Derek & the Dominoes rock classic provides Scorsese with perfectly symbolic musical accompaniment to signify juxtaposing changes in the drama. As the song drops down a gear and moves into a more languid pace, on-screen the tension ramps higher.

A wonderful mix of music and montage from Scorsese at his peak, the scene is a brutal portrayal of the world in which Henry (Ray Liota), Jimmy (Robert DeNiro) and Tommy (Joe Pesci) inhabit.

From a litany of poorly disposed corpses to Jimmy’s carefree glee in the coffee shop, Scorsese leads us towards Tommy’s ‘being made’ ceremony, offering insight through visual and narration about the ritualistic culture at play – the camaraderie among criminals, the sense of family and loyalty and belonging. But as the scene moves on and the music plays out, so there is something in the narration that suddenly seems amiss; and by the time you realise, the veil is shocking removed, revealing the hollow, ugly truth of their existence.