Having just watched a film, you leave the cinema or you turn off the TV. As you think over whether you liked it or not, do you break your thoughts down? Why do you feel the way you do? Was it the directing? The editing? The cinematography? The visual or sound effects? Perhaps the soundtrack? What about a particular scene? Was it a dolly shot? A protracted tracking shot? A montage sequence? Any sequence on its own can be beautiful, can be seen as well made. That full force of the sequence though can only be experienced after the build-up to it, and fully appreciated after what comes next. A film is the outcome of dozens, hundreds, thousands of people who have worked on tight deadlines to produce what you watch and listen to. It truly takes a village to make a film!
For the purposes of this article, I decided to write about the soundtracks that played a catalytic role in constructing powerful cinematic sequences. Some are well known, some not so much, and others, potentially unnoticeable to the vast majority. I strongly suggest you watch these films before reading further as my descriptions give away either the ending or important parts of the plot. Regardless of a film’s critical or financial success, despite its popularity, irrespective of the genre of its music, these are few of the films that still give me goosebumps every time I watch them or happen to listen to their soundtracks while contemplating life.
The Last of the Mohicans (1992)
Action / Adventure / Drama
Director: Michael Mann
Music by: Randy Edelman, Trevor Jones
Logline: A family of three trappers are tasked to escort the daughters of a British colonel to safety, while he is at war with the French and the Native Americans.
From beginning to end, The Last of the Mohicans is a series of impactful sequences, making it extremely difficult to choose one that stands out. The film’s main theme plays in numerous scenes, in various versions. Towards the end, the theme plays under the waterfall, when Hawkeye realises that they need to surrender the girls so that they can save them afterwards. Before he jumps through the waterfall’s torrential waters, he grabs Cora tight, looks her in the eyes and emphatically says:
“[…] You stay alive, no matter what occurs! I will find you! No matter how long it takes, no matter how far. I will find you!”
Later on, the not so likeable Major Heyward becomes the unlikely hero sacrificing himself, and Magua and his small army lead the two girls to the top of the steep cliff, while Hawkeye and his family ferociously take out everyone who stands in their way. The film’s theme powerfully accompanies tragic moments, such as when Hawkeye’s brother arrives first, only to suffer a horrible death in Magua’s hands, defending his love. Having lost him, the girl jumps to her own death with her sister watching. Hawkeye’s father unleashes an unfathomable rage in his excruciating pain, brutally slaughtering Magua.
The Last of the Mohicans has not aged a day and, in my humble opinion, remains one of the most remarkable period films ever made.
P.S. Michael Mann is also responsible for one of the most intense cop thrillers ever made, Heat (1995).
Schindler’s List (1993)
Biography / Drama / History
Director: Steven Spielberg
Music by: John Williams
Logline: Oskar Schindler, a wealthy German industrialist, becomes even wealthier during World War II by exploiting Jews, but everything changes when the persecutions start.
As with The Last of the Mohicans, it seems unfair to pick one sequence only. That is because in Schindler’s List, one soul-crushing sequence succeeds the next. Personally though, the one that always brings tears to my eyes is when Schindler and Stern finally have that drink. Two hours and fifteen minutes into the film, Stern, the man behind the scenes, the man who is responsible for the unfathomable metamorphosis of an industrialist womaniser into a philanthropist, the man who categorically refused to have a drink with someone like Schindler, feels that despite how hard they tried they ultimately failed. In that moment of despair, right before Schindler departs, he looks at Stern with a wishful optimism…
Schindler: Some day, this is all going to end, you know. I was going to say we’ll have a drink then.
Stern: I think I better have it now.
The uncertainty of tomorrow and the heart-breaking hopelessness stand in contrast to the feeling of appreciation towards a man who did his best, to save the lives of people he once considered only as expendable means of profit. Steven Spielberg’s directing is accompanied by John Williams’ main theme, making it one of the most powerful dialogue pieces ever made.
I might be writing about soundtracks and powerful sequences here, but the full impact is also the result of Janusz Kaminski’s haunting cinematography, and Michael Kahn’s emotional editing. Needless to say, all four won the golden statuette, and more!
The Mist (2007)
Horror / Sci-fi / Thriller
Directed by: Frank Darabont
Song: The Host of Seraphim, written by Lisa Gerard and Brendan Perry, performed by Dead Can Dance
Logline: When a mist out of nowhere brings with it monsters beyond anyone’s imagination, a diverse group of people in a supermarket must do whatever they can to protect themselves from the monsters or from each other.
The film’s last sequence starts with a group of people escaping from the supermarket. Initially, the supermarket is seen as a place to protect themselves against the monstrous forces, but ultimately it is a prison as dangerous as the mist itself. The reasons that lead the group to escape that place are significant to comprehending the sequence’s tragic irony. Darabont explicitly stipulated to Dimension Films that he will come aboard only if the scripted ending stays as it is.
A father and his young boy, an extremely nice and incredibly good looking lady, a lovely old man and woman manage to escape the supermarket, enter a car and drive off, not knowing how far the mist has spread or what kind of creatures they will encounter. The Host of Seraphim is dark and epic, inspired by Balkan rhythm. The polyphonic singing adds to the mystery of the unknown journey. Tragedy hits immediately, as they drive past a doomed school bus that stood no chance. It continues with the father’s house, where we see the wife cocooned against the house’s wall. They keep moving, not knowing what lies ahead, and the car runs out of fuel in the middle of a forest (music fades out). With eerie sounds gradually closing in, the father takes out a gun with only four bullets remaining, and shoots everyone so they don’t suffer the horrible death others had before them. Having nothing to lose, he comes out of the car ready to meet his death only to see… (music fades in) the army emerging from the mist, prevailing over the few creatures that are left, followed by trucks full of survivors who are then led to a safe place.
Instantly, you ask yourself: If you were him, how would you cope with what you have done?
Time of the Gypsies (1988)
Comedy / Crime / Drama
Directed by: Emir Kusturica
Music by: Goran Bregovic
Logline: A young Romany, in an attempt to save his sister, embarks on a journey of crime with dangerous consequences.
The Romany village celebrates, a young couple finds love, the grandma in front of the campfire weeps for the young couple… and Ederlezi puts everything together like “a midsummer night’s dream.” Full of emotion, joy and tears, Kusturica creates a paganistic sequence on how life was meant to be. A life a Romany can only dream of. The dream sequence becomes the film’s landmark. Ederlezi fades in once more, much later on, with the realisation of how fast life can be cut short, when it’s too late for forgiveness or remorse. Finally, it appears one last time when Perhan’s odyssey comes to an end, and his purpose has been fulfilled.
Time of the Gypsies, the first ever feature film shot in Romany language, had a huge impact on Balkan and Eastern European cinema. Along with the film, the polyphonic soundtrack only added to the film’s myth and spirituality.
Requiem for a Dream (2000)
Directed by: Darren Aronofsky
Music by: Clint Mansell
Songs: Winter: Southern hospitality / Winter Overture
Logline: In the hope that everything will get better, a mother, a son, his girlfriend and their friend can only dream big.
A mother wants to get on her favourite show. The son wants to become a businessman. His girlfriend blindly believes in him. Their friend wants to score big. A huge blow to American society, Requiem for a Dream, from start to finish, keeps pounding on the American dream, the means you need to get there, and the after effects on a collective but also individual level. Drugs, trash TV, superfluous diets, and ephemeral fame unfold aggressively throughout the film, building up to a sequence masterfully pieced together by film editor Jay Rabinowitz, on Clint Mansell’s track Winter: Southern hospitality. During the film’s staccato rhythm, the mother receives intense treatment for abusing diet pills, the son is hospitalised when his arm gets infected due to heroin use, his friend is transferred to a hostile, racist prison in the South, and the girlfriend ends up doing “ass-to-ass” shows for yuppies who stick money to her mouth.
A shockingly effective sequence leads to the film’s culminating denouement which reveals the fate of all four. Winter Overture, the film’s main theme that has been remixed countless times, draws the curtains open and presents to you the results. In an attempt to fulfil their dream “quick and easy,” the mother is institutionalised, the son loses his arm, the friend remains locked up in prison with a withdrawal syndrome, and the girlfriend realises that there is no going back after what she has done. In the name of an illusion we call a dream…
P.S. Ellen Burstyn’s performance is out of this world.
Swing Kids (1993)
Drama / Musical
Directed by: Thomas Carter
Music by: James Horner
Song: Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen
Artist: Ella Fitzgerald
Logline: In Nazi Germany, a group of teenagers who love swing music refuse to join Hitler’s Youth. Eventually, they have to face the unbearable reality of their time.
One of my favourite films growing up! A group of kids going against the tide. And what an inconceivably monstrous tide that was. They go out, listening to swing music, playing it, dancing to it, all together. And as the months pass by, the group of youths gets chewed up and spat out by the monster. It infiltrates their beliefs, spreads like metastatic cancer, eats them from within, and tears them apart.
In the end, after everything is said and done, one of the teenagers, Peter Müller, is alone. No places to go to, no one to go with, no music to play… But this one swing club. Peter decks up and goes by himself, knowing what the stakes are. The singer sings Ella Fitzgerald’s slow tempo Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen. Peter, ready to give it all, holds it, but dances to the rhythm. The singer keeps singing, the pace slowly picks up, and so does Peter. Every couple around him starts dancing faster. Peter starts dancing faster. The singer sings faster. Peter, not acknowledging anyone, dances faster, and faster, and faster… He swings left, right, and centre, on his own, finally releasing years of pain, anger, and sorrow… until Hitler’s Jungen [Youth] invade!
This sequence still has an effect on me, but I have never heard anyone talking about it, nor even mention it. If you watch it, I hope it resonates with you. I hope Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen somehow makes you express yourselves in a way you have never done before.
Hustle and Flow (2005)
Crime / Drama / Music
Directed by: Craig Brewer
Music by: Scott Bomar
Song: It’s Hard Out Here For A Pimp
Artist: Three 6 Mafia
Logline: A hustler who’s constantly been looked down on aspires to become a rapper, and takes every wrong turn to get there.
A man and his aspiration! A man who tries to squeeze a dollar out of a dime and he ain’t even getting a cent. Terence Howard as Djay, Taryn Manning as Nola, and Taraji P. Henson as Shug all give incredibly emotional performances in a drama that could just as well be biographical. And you know what? Recording the It’s Hard Out Here For A Pimp sequence feels real, it gets you as pumped up as Djay is, having actually achieved something for the first time. This is the first step towards his dream. He pours his heart into the song and sees himself as somebody with a purpose. As he raps from his soul, everyone around him looks up to him, and this fulfilment makes him the tallest man in the world.
Djay is no hero, far from it. Mainly due to what he does. What makes the audience overcome the nature of his profession though is his will to succeed, and the way people put him down for it. Isn’t it interesting? When people who have no dreams see you as a failure, you do your best to turn your back on them and raise the bar even higher. When people who have had dreams and breakthroughs see you as a failure, you just want to kick their pompous arse.
No one really has an answer as to why we become what we become in life. But seeing a person giving their heart and soul to achieve something is strong enough to make the audience root for a hustler like Djay.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
Action / Adventure / Fantasy
Directed by: Ang Lee
Music by: Dun Tan
Logline: When a skilful young burglar steals the Sword of Destiny, a swordsman and a female warrior go after her to retrieve it.
A love that never comes to fruition; two honourable fighters whose honour never allows them to tell each other how they feel. When the most precious weapon is stolen, both of them embark on a journey to retrieve it. And so the adventure begins. The journey is adventurous indeed. Li Mu Bai’s and Yu Shu Lien’s quest, unavoidably, brings them as close as they should have always been. They track down their adversary, none other than Jen Yu, a misled young girl who possesses knowledge of mystical scripts.
Just like life itself, unexpected turns lead Mu Bai to save her life from a poisonous needle with the cost of his own. Jen realises the error of her ways and, as fast as she can, hastens to find the antidote. The drums, the erhu, and the violins start playing Farewell, which fades in delicately the moment Shu Lien desperately looks for hope that they will finally be together. She encourages him not to waste his breath and save his strength. But as his life departs, Mu Bai lets his heart speak: “I’ve already wasted my whole life. I want to tell you with my last breath that I have always loved you. I would rather be a ghost, drifting by your side as a condemned soul, than enter heaven without you. Because of your love, I will never be a lonely spirit.”
I believe no further commentary is needed.
The music, responsible for setting the mood and evoking feelings, more often than not, is left out of reviews and critiques. This applies tenfold to songs accompanying particular cinematic moments. They sometimes become the films’ landmarks, yet, they are forgotten even before the end credits. The films mentioned here are not my top five or ten. Jaws (1975), Above the Rim (1994), Dangerous Minds (1995), Friday (1995), Trainspotting (1996), The Color Purple (1987), My Girl (1994), Fried Green Tomatoes (1991), Platoon (1986), Cinema Paradiso (1988), Seven Chances (1925)… all of these (and many other films) contain sequences that are most definitely worth elaborating.
The next time tears come to your eyes while watching a scene, or in a moment you can’t stop laughing, or when you realise your heart is skipping a beat, take a moment afterwards and wonder, what was it that made you feel that way? Music will always accompany our feelings. In cinema, but also in life.
Thank you for reading. Stay safe!
About the author
Konstantinos got into TV and Film production immediately after school. He has been studying and working in this field ever since. In 2011, he won the Nostimon Imar Award (Best Greek Director Abroad) for his short film Ithaca that he wrote, edited and directed. The following year, he donated his documentary Asperger Syndrome: Myths & Reality to the National Autistic Society in the U.K. Konstantinos lives and works in the U.K. as a freelance Video Editor and Camera Operator for corporate videos, fashion shows, and documentaries. He is currently pursuing a PhD in Film at the University of Nottingham and reviewing films on his own blog. He has a podcast on horror films too!