I enjoyed my film classes so much last semester that I decided to take the second part to one of them. To celebrate, I thought it would be fun to make a list of all my favorite scenes in movies where there is violent imagery shown while happy, upbeat or otherwise ill-fitting (in the conventional sense) music is playing. Some I disqualified because the music wasn’t exactly “happy” to begin with (“Goodbye Horses” in Silence of the Lambs, “Where is My Mind?” in Fight Club). So if it makes you winch while tapping your feat, it’s probably here.
Dirty Harry: “Row Your Boat” and the bus hijack
Dirty Harry – “Row Your Boat”
When the Scorpio killer hijacks a busload of children, he attempts to keep them placated with a round of “Row Your Boat.” Their song takes on a new meaning when he starts beating the children who complain, all the while yelling at them to “keep singing!”
Noteworthy because… of how the music and actions are because of, and in spite of, each other. Scorpio is beating the kids because they aren’t singing, and they aren’t singing because he’s beating them. And the kids who are still trying to sing drive in the shock of the scene.
M: “In the Hall of the Mountain King” and child abductions
“In the Hall of the Mountain King”
Fritz Lang’s German-language film M centers around a child abductor/murderer who whistles the infamous tune “In the Hall of the Mountain King” when luring in children. It’s creepy as hell. Plus, the song is fitting for the movie, given that in Peer Gynt, the play from which it is pulled, this song is during a child’s escape from a wicked king and some trolls. The song might not be the most “happy” of the list, but I included it because I’ve long had an affinity for the tune and it’s coupled with one of the scariest crimes out there.
Noteworthy because… of how creepy the child-abducting Peter Lorre is before we even see his face. It’s a call that lets the audience know danger is in the air. Whistling “In the Hall of the Mountain King” to a German mother in 1931 would produce more fear than more than humming the Jaws theme to a swimmer in 1975.
Goodfellas: “Atlantis” with the bar beating
What a kooky scene, huh? Donovan has always struck me as a rather disconnected musician, writing music that seems to not be tied to any events or times. How weird is it, then, that his song “Atlantis” plays over the bar fight in Goodfellas, a scene which forces you to watch as each blow is delivered. The chorus to the song is so spaced-out and dreamy that it almost affords you the ability to ignore the violence and see it as a beautiful act — not unlike Henry Hill, who wishes he could distance himself from the impending murder. Nice trick there, Scorsese.
Noteworthy because… it’s so not what you’d expect. Martin Scorsese is one of the directors who I feel best integrates familiar pop songs into his music, calling attention to them in a constructive way. You immediately notice the dissonance between the action and the music, but you just as readily accept that it fits in an inexplicable way.
American Psycho: “Hip to Be A Square” with an axe murder
Huey Lewis and the News’ “Hip to be a Square”
Here’s an unusual one. We see Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) murder Paul Allen with an axe while Huey Lewis sing a song “not just about the pleasures of conformity and the importance of trends.” I say this one is unusual because it’s the only one that completely removes all the horror of the scene for me. Bale’s moonwalk in preparation for the murder is hilarious, as is his pre-axe-in-the-face cry of “Hey, Paul!” Watching him prepare the axe and raincoat while Allen is waiting on a chair with newspaper all around him is just too funny. Easily one of the best scenes in a great movie.
Noteworthy because… it achieved everything it needed to. This scene was the one that made audiences see how sick Patrick Bateman was, but it’s also the one that still makes me laugh myself silly.
See the rest of the list below
A Clockwork Orange: “Singing in the Rain” with assault and rape
A Clockwork Orange
“Singing in the Rain”
This is (as far as I know) the only one where the happy song was not originally intended to work against a violent scene. IMDB’s trivia section for A Clockwork Orange tells us that Kubrick was unhappy with how conventional the rape scene was going, and asked Malcom McDowell if he could dance. They tried it again with McDowell improvising dancing and singing this song, “because it was the only song he knew all the lyrics to”
Noteworthy because… it lets us know just how far gone Alex is. However, unlike American Psycho, there’s nothing here but horror. Not even McDowell’s fancy footwork and a nice melody can distract the viewer from the vicious rape and assault taking place. The song and dance take this scene from evil to inhuman.
Kill Bill: “Nobody But Me” with dismemberment
The Human Beinz – Nobody But Me
Oh how I laughed and laughed when I saw this in theaters. “Nobody but Me” was one of my favorite songs to dance to as a kid, so imagine my delight when it was put over a scene where Uma Thurman breakdances and cuts off her assailants’ arms and legs.
Noteworthy because… it, true to Tarantino form, manages to splash in some humor amid the violence without removing the audience from the scene before us.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: “Story of a Soldier” with Tuco’s torture
The Good, The Bad and the Ugly
“Story of a Soldier”
This is one of the few times where the characters are aware of the contrast going on. In the Good, the Bad and the Ugly (which is regarded as a sacred relic around our house), the bandit Tuco is taken off in a union prison camp and tortured for information. To mask his screams, a band of prisoners is ordered to play this song. The prisoners know what’s going on, however, and are distraught over their situation. At one point the fiddle player is overcome with grief to the point where he can no longer play.
Noteworthy because… it’s just so sad. I’ll admit that I’d have little sympathy for Tuco in this scene if it wasn’t for the choir. Ennio Morricone is a flat-out genius and easily one of the best film composers ever. No wonder Radiohead, Jay-Z, Morrissey and RZA have all looked to him for inspiration.
The Godfather: Church Music, Baptism and Murder
In spite of a couple early organ flourishes that seem pulled from bad dramas, this is a great example of religious music crossed with violent scenes. As we see and hear Michael Corleone assuming the role of the godfather of his sister’s child, we are presented with the various deaths of other mafia heads.
Noteworthy because… it works. We hear the baptism of his godson in water, but we see the baptism of New York in blood. Fantastic contrast.
Goodfellas: “Layla” piano coda with dead bodies
Derek and the Dominos – Layla piano coda
The piano outro to “Layla” is so beautiful that it’s hard to believe they didn’t split it into a separate song and have two perfect songs. Now combine that breathtaking emotional impact that the coda gives you and combine it with the murders of mafia men all across a city and see what you’ve got. The result is a scene that plays out their deaths as something more akin to being asleep than being viciously murdered. Even when the men are trash compacted, they look at peace thanks to the music.
Reservoir Dogs: “Stuck in the Middle with You” with ear cutting
Stealers Wheel – “Stuck in the Middle with You”
The granddaddy of them all. Certainly not the first film to contrast horror with lighthearted music, but for sure the one that did it the best. I remember watching in horror as a young teenager, unsure what exactly Mr. Blonde had in store for the hostage policeman when he turned on the radio to one of my favorite childhood songs and started dancing around the warehouse. This is one of the few scenes that made me feel the tension almost as much as the character in danger must have.
Noteworthy because… it’s flawless. Everything about this is perfect. Mr. Blonde’s half-shuffling dance beforehand gives us time to realize that he’s probably the last person you’d want to be at the mercy of; he’s a true psychopath. Similarly, the feeling of terror is elongated by his trip to the car to retrieve gasoline, during which we can no longer hear the song and — just for a second — forget that Marvin is still tied to that chair. Then, just as you’ve almost completely started to focus on what’s outside, Blonde opens the door and we see Marvin duct tapped to the chair just as Stealers Wheel begs seeming on the behalf of the cop: “please…please…”