discussion of the use of popular music1
Mini dissertation in Music and the Moving Image 2 (May 2000)
by Ollie Kluczewski2
In the year 2000, the exclusion of 'popular music' in the film medium is almost always the exception. With every new release that arrives at the cinemas (American Beauty, The Talented Mr. Ripley), we as an audience expect, that popular music (of some description) will be presented in conjunction with the visual images. With this in mind it is surprising to note then, that very little in terms of academic material (in relation to other forms of popular culture) has been written about how and in what way popular music functions in film. This point of view is also suggested by some of those working within the medium of film. Director Martin Sorcrsese states "the subject of popular music in motion pictures has been largely neglected in film studies – which is surprising, given its overwhelming importance".
In acquiring reading material for the project, two books were particularly of use: Romney's Celluloid Jukebox (1995) and Mundy's Popular Music On Screen (1999). Both approach the subject from a historical perspective, offering reasons for the evolving use of popular music in the film industry. Romney and Mundy assert that the relationship popular music shares with film is often underrated and more problematic than it initially appears. Other points of reference include Prendergast (1992), who for all his useful insights into the development of film music, only briefly mentions popular music in film, and even this reference is written in terms of reactions to the use of popular music as it rose in prominence during the 1960s.
The main aim of my project is to contribute towards a greater understanding of popular music in film. I readily acknowledge that this is a vast forum to work in and realise that a comprehensive view of this subject cannot be achieved here. By focusing on one film I will hopefully be able to focus my ideas and conclusions in a coherent fashion but at the same time offer comparisons with other films and music.
The motivation behind choosing Easy Rider can be considered under two headings. Firstly there is the internal use of the music. It features an exclusive contemporary rock soundtrack and contains no original scoring. Secondly, there is the external implications of the film: Where can we place it in a historical context? Does the choice of music directly relate to the social climate of the time? These are some of the questions I aim to address. I will also be looking at the precursors of Easy Rider as well as the influential aspects of the film and how it compares to the modern day reception of popular music in films, commenting on its position within the music and film industries.
To understand how the music functions in Easy Rider, it is essential that we first discuss the ideologies that underpin the narrative. The story follows two bikers (Wyatt and Billy) played by Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper (Hopper directed and co-wrote the script with Fonda). After completing a successful drug deal at the Mexican border, the bikers decide to head for New Orleans in time for the Mardi Gras. On route they encounter a whole range of people, some willing to accept them and some openly rejecting them. After spending time on the road, in jail and partying in New Orleans, the characters are murdered by a couple of identifiably 'backward' farmer-types. As a narrative structure this is not at all a complex story but it is not intended to be. The journey embarked on –both physically and mentally- can be read a metaphor for the understanding of youth culture and the changing perceptions of this culture. It is also an assessment of different people's attitudes to change. The dialogue of the film is full of slogans and sound bites that direct the audience towards this stand point. An example is when George Hanson (Jack Nicholson) tells Billy: "they're not afraid of you. They're afraid of what you represent".
The "they" in question is obviously the older generation. The rise of the teen culture in the mid. 1950s and the ascension of this culture as a dominant force during the 1960s, provoked many discussions and assessments of the "generation gap" (a terms first coined by sociologist Margaret Mead). As a piece of art, Easy Rider comments on this 'gap'. The film is essentially about misunderstanding, about contemporary social tension, about young and old, old and new. David Zinman writes of the late 1960s:
It was an era of social protest. Young people rebelled against the values of their parents, rejecting the traditional path of school, career and marriage. Instead they created their own counter-culture – typified by long hair, casual clothes, communal living, drugs and rock music.
Easy Rider is more than just a teen angst film about rebelling against the older generations. A couple of scenes from the film illustrate this point. (1) Billy and Wyatt drive to a farm and ask the owner if they can fix their bikes in his barn. The farmer accepts and invites the bikers to stay for lunch. Looking around the farm, at his house, his family, Wyatt tells the farmer: "It's not every man that can live off the land you know. Do your own thing in your own time – you should be proud".
(2) The riders arrive at a hippie commune. We see that the residents are attempting to grow their own food, make their own products and be self-sufficient. Billy and Wyatt soon become uncomfortable with the atmosphere of commune and return to the road. The scene does not really promote the hippie ideal but nor does it discard it. I interpret the film as questioning how much further can such ideals of living and views on society actually go. It asks whether or not such ideals — in 1969 — were coming to an end. Kermode goes as far to suggest that the film is an "evocative document of a dying decade".
Both the scenes in question illustrate some of the tensions apparent in the film. It is not simply about indiscriminate rebellion. A more appropriate reading suggests that Easy Rider is about reacting to restrictions of personal freedom and attempts to oppress individuality. Through this interpretation of the film's underlying ideology, we are allowed to look at the function of the music. In Easy Rider the function of the music is to enhance and bring into focus the ideologies of the film. All the music used is rock music of the time, of 1968-69 (see appendix 1 for full track listings). It is important that we note the music is not just '1960s pop', it is specifically 'late '60s rock'. This informs the audience that the ideologies being presented are of the 'now' and help represent views on the current status quo. Romney writes that "pop music can serve as a film's memory, instantaneously linking it with its audience, tapping into a nostalgic past or fixing the film firmly in the future".
The choice of material is also striking. The producers chose tracks for their content as opposed for their popularity at the time. As well as established acts such as the Byrds (Wasn't Born To Follow) and The Band (The Weight), the soundtrack also features underground American garage bands such as the Electric Prunes (Kyrie Eleison). The use of less known bands gives the film an added pungency and freshness, which over the last thirty years has contributed significantly its 'credibility' as an 'alternative classic'.
In addition to the music, the lyrical content of the songs also adds to the cohesion of the film's structure. The opening track 'The Pusher' by Steppenwolf opens with the lines "I've smoked a lot of grass, lord I've popped a lot of pills" but discourages the use of hard drugs (an apparent sentiment of the flower power generation). It could be interpreted that this song is used to suggest that through hard drugs the innocence and idealism of the '60s counter-culture was gradually being eroded. This is immediately followed by 'Born To Wild' and 'Wasn't Born To Follow', songs dealing with personal freedom and the search for oneself and adventure.
The relationship between the visual cues acts as a consistent line right through the film. The final song of the film (as the credits appear) is 'Ballad Of the Easy Rider' (performed by Roger McGuinn), the only song used that was written exclusively for the film. The song contains the lines "all I wanted was to be free and in the end that's how it turned out to be". The lyrics here take on a certain ironic flavour, for we have just been shown Billy and Wyatt being killed. The combination of the sudden and shocking end to the film with and irony of the concluding song, symbolise the end of innocent era and the actual and metaphorical death of the 1960s:
"In the end the young people failed to realize their goal of a new society… Easy Rider became the symbol of their ephemeral movement".
The use of rock music in a contemporary stance was by no means first found in Easy Rider. The films of the mid. 1950s offer us an interesting insight into the use of this music. With the 'creation' of rock 'n' roll in 1955 and the increasing prominence of teen culture, it seemed that it was only a matter of time before film-makers began to bring issues such as rebellion and juvenile delinquency to the screen.
As an institution, Hollywood had perpetuated their own views of juvenile delinquency from the late 1940s. In City Across The River (1949) for example, views on young people are central to the plot but it has to be stated that these relate to youth almost as a passing phase, something which can be understood and subsequently controlled by the authoritative figures. With the release of The Blackboard Jungle (dir. Richard Brooks) in 1955 the cinema audience and the Hollywood establishment were presented with an alternative take on the rapidly emerging 'teenager'. The film asserts that teenage culture is not something that can be easily understood and controlled by the older generations and it is not something to be ignored. The rebellious undercurrent of the film is played off against attitudes towards education and schooling.
The Blackboard Jungle is widely considered as the first 'rock' film. This is quite an interesting perspective considering that only one rock 'n roll song is used in the film, that being Bill Haley's 'Rock Around The Clock' (heard over the opening credits). Although only one song was used, its effect in the film and its repercussions were tremendous. The film proved that rock music could be used in films to produce dynamic and dramatic effects. The influential nature of the film is summed up by Mundy who writes:
"Exploitative as it is, The Blackboard Jungle points the way towards the power which the combination of popular music and the screen continues to exercise today."
Through this film, rock music became synonymous at the cinema with youth rebellion and the ever-widening generation gap. The Blackboard Jungle acted as a catalyst for the use of rock in film and in the following the years, cinema exploited the use of this music. Releases from 1956 alone included Rock Around the Clock (dir. Sears), Shake Rattle And Roll (dir. Cahn) and Don't Knock The Rock (dir. Sears). The fact that these films were made in such a short space of time indicates the power rock music had taken on in reflecting, underlying and even symbolising social tension and change. Upon these three films Romney states that "what is significant about this limp but seminal trio of rock movies is that although none of them could be called 'good' films their musical content is so quintessentially representative of a critical moment in youth history – the birth of the teenager".
As the use of popular music became more frequent, Hollywood and the major film production companies began to exploit its use, considering it as having commercial potential. An early incarnation of this was the 'rock musical' exemplified by the Elvis films of the late 1950s and early 1960s (Love Me Tender –1956, Jailhouse Rock –1957). The British film industry also had there own take on this film genre with notable landmarks including the Cliff Richard vehicle, Summer Holiday (1962) and the Richard Lester directed films A Hard Day's Night (1964) and Help (1965).
Although A Hard Day's Night uses popular music in a more sophisticated way i.e. Beatles' songs are used as underscore and as source music, and the songs are also orchestrated in places, the music is still 'imported' onto the screen: it is the songs themselves that create the narrative which in itself is a series of musical sequences. Such examples offer us significant differences with Easy Rider. Although similarities can be noted (in Easy Rider) with earlier rock films (how it underlies the social atmosphere, how it creates an ambience and specific time period), the execution of the music in the film and its integration into the narrative are radically different. To begin with it can be seen that all the rock songs selected for Easy Rider appear as pure underscore, never as source music. There are no band performances in the film and non of the characters become musically 'active' (i.e. playing live instruments).
Although the rock music doesn't function as source, it is fascinating to look what music is used for this function. One scene in particular is worth commenting on. As the bikers approach New Orleans, they stop in a town somewhere in the South. They enter as small café and are watched by the locals (including the sheriff) who openly insult Billy, Wyatt and George about their long hair and scruffy looks. Reading this at face value we might expect that if any was to be used, it would be country music of some description. The use of this music would enhance the location and provide a contrast to the dominant rock sounds that we have become accustomed to by this point in the film. What is actually used is mid. '60s soul music, coming from a jukebox. The function of this music can be interpreted in several ways: By using soul music the film could be saying that popular culture is invading every part of America even these archaic parts of the country, and the desire to restrict popular music hasn't worked. On the other hand it could be said that by using rock against a mid. '60s soul sound, the soul music is rendered old-fashioned, especially when compared to the ultra contemporary songs that are used. It is debatable whether or not the film is saying that the social changes of the 1960s were so rapid, that even soul music, when heard in this context, appears out of date for 1969.
Throughout the whole film, the rock tracks are inextricably linked to the road scenes Apart from one track (Kyrie Eleison by The Electric Prunes), all the underscore is used to accompany the characters on their motorbikes. The function taken on here is to equate the freedom of the open road with the perceived freedom of the ideologies associated with rock and the 1960s counter-culture. Several of the songs themselves have an internal drive and sense of movement. Apart from the obvious lyrical content, Born To Be Wild expresses urgency through its tempo (130 bpm), its rhythmic guitar chops contained in two-bar phrases and use of solo drum fills, using semi-quaver rhythmic patterns. Even the spaces and pauses filled with the vocal refrain of Born To Be Wild add to the motion and anticipatory nature of the song.
Just as Born To Be Wild expresses the sheer exhilaration of being on the road, Wasn't Born To Follow and The Weight emphasise the laid-back nature of their journey. This is noted both in the lyrics and the textures of the music. The visual accompaniment to Wasn't Born To Follow makes use of mickey-mousing. On the lines "wondered through the forest" (15 min.13 sec. into the film), the riders actually wonder along a road that cuts through a forest. The lyrics of The Weight also suggest a sense of freedom, relaxation and communal spirit: "take a load off Annie, take a load for free". The 'jangly' guitar textures (exemplified with the Byrds' 12-string rickenbacker guitar sound) also add to the mellow and idyllic ambience felt at this point in the film.
of three songs all contribute towards the audience's understanding of
what is being associated with the rock music. Movement plays a major part
of this association but more specifically, it is mobility and the
realisation of mobility that form more important associations. In the
film, it is the motorbikes (later described by Hanson as "super machines")
that symbolise freedom. They act as an outlet for the desires of Billy
and Wyatt, allowing them to travel and explore, both in a geographic and
Such themes have on many occasion found their way into youth films. An example of this is The Wild One (1956) directed by Laslo Benedek. This film about an aimless biker gang can be seen as a direct precursor of the 'biker film' genre and even the 'road movie'. A common theme of the 'road movie' is exploration; both of place and of self. Strong parallels can be drawn with Easy Rider here. With this in mind I began to look into any similarities with biker and/or road movies produced around the time of Easy Rider. The films The Wild Angels (1966) and The Glory Stompers (1967) are two examples. Like Easy Rider these biker films were independently produced with a low budget (Easy Rider itself was made for $400,000 and grossed ten times that amount). They also share rebellion against authority as a common theme. The music for these films includes rock music but not in the exclusive manner of Easy Rider. As a soundtrack, The Wild Angels uses idioms of rock such as fuzz guitar. It could be argued that these films didn't make the transition to the mainstream due to their lack of a convincing musical soundtrack. Although this is a valid point it fails to comment on the strength of the script, acting, directing and production.
At the same time as investigating the similarities within a certain genre i.e. the 'biker film', I thought it would be interesting to see if any films of the 1960s adopted a similar approach as Easy Rider in terms of their use of rock music within the film. Stylistically, Zabriskie Point (directed by Michelangelo Antonioni) offers several similarities. Released in the same year, it has a similar approach to rock music both in terms of its consistent use throughout the film (underpinning the narrative) and its particular track selection. Artists featured include Pink Floyd, the Rolling Stones, Patti Page and The Youngbloods – all contemporary rock performers from the late 1960s. The sleeve notes to the soundtrack album of Zabriskie Point simply state:
The Graduate (1967) directed by Mike Nichols is another example of how popular music functions as a consistent force throughout the film. The line of musical thought is more straight than in Easy Rider or Zabriskie Point, due to the fact that an exclusive Simon And Garfunkel soundtrack is used throughout. As in Easy Rider, the Mike Nichols film uses the songs and the mood they create, (in this case the acoustic folk tracks invoke an air of sombre cool) as a cohesive lubricant that both reflects the emotional content of the film as well as connecting the different strands of the narrative. In The Graduate, repetition is used often to achieve this. An example is where Hoffman's character goes in search of his girlfriend at the college campus. The various scenes are accompanied by repeated phrases from Scarborough Fair.
So far I have looked at Easy Rider's musical function in a historical and comparative context, as well as looking at how the music functions internally to support the narrative and ideologies. In relation to these last two points I have considered the film as a whole. What I now aim to is offer a more detailed look at specific parts of the film. To what extent are the visual movements (the camera shots, the panning, the film editing) equated with musical movements (the rhythm and tempo of the songs, the vocal phrasing)? I wanted to see just how synchronised the action and music were, and if the synchronisation used had any historical resonance. The following is a cue sheet of Easy Rider (from 04:26 to 08:45 in the film). This time frame includes the songs The Pusher and Born To Be Wild.
It can be seen from this cue list that the music and the visual images are highly integrated, more than I expected before looking at the film in detail. The close synchronisation of music and the moving image is much more striking than in for example, The Graduate. In Easy Rider the use of music in this way shows many similarities with music video. Although an area of research in its own right, a discussion of music video and its relationship to motion pictures is a relevant and appropriate tangent to take at this point.
The early 1980s is an interesting period of history to look at due to the creation of MTV, first transmitted on August 1981 in the USA. Upon the early 1980s, Mark Kermode writes that "the relationship between pop music and film throughout this heady period was clearly symbiotic from a marketing standpoint". The symbiosis referred to by Kermode is essential to our understanding of how the music and film industries are integrated. It also raises questions concerning the art/commerce dichotomy and the problematics of using popular music in films.
With the arrival of MTV, film companies were presented with a base from which to promote and advertise their 'cultural product'. If a song was used in one of their films, and that song was successful i.e. it made the singles charts, then the video (given large amounts of air) would provide free advertising and act as a trailer for the film.
Record companies also saw massive commercial potential in getting one of their artist's songs into a film. As MTV provided the film companies with 'trailers' for their new releases, the cinema allowed the record companies to reach audiences for a relatively long period of time (the length of a film) while their attention was focused on the film. An example from the early 1980s is An Officer And A Gentleman (1981). Although the underscore is written by Jack Nitzsche, the song 'Love Lift Us Up' (co-written by Nitzsche) is used often through the film. The song and the film were both hugely successful. For the single (that reached the Top Twenty in 1982) a video was produced which mainly consisted of footage derived from the film. In this instance, video is used as a "primary marketing tool".
With the rise of MTV into a cultural zone, (coupled with technological advancements in film editing techniques), the 'pop. music' video, functioning as a marketing tool, also influenced television. Miami Vice (1984-87) is a landmark example of this. Although it has a completely different set of agendas, the function of popular in the series has similarities with Easy Rider. These include the use of a contemporary soundtrack and the involvement of highly synchronised audio/visual sequences. Producer of the programme, Michael Mann, commented that:
The intention in Miami Vice was to achieve the organic interaction of music and content. Sometimes and episode would be written about a song.
The pilot episode is a good example to illustrate how the music works in Miami Vice.
The Phil Collins song 'In The Air Tonight' is used, particularly when Crockett (Don Johnson) is driving on the streets at night. The song instantly suggests the mood of the character at that specific point (i.e. reflective) as well as contributing towards the contemporary feel and mid. '80s settings and styles. The pilot show actually projected the Phil Collins song into the charts and after this, record companies gave Michael Mann complete autonomy in choosing records for the show. The example given here highlights just how much the record companies relied on video/film for extra publicity and promotion. This is yet how example of how popular music can contribute significantly to the overall effectiveness of the 'moving image'.
Although more explicit in the 1980s, popular music as marketing tool did not originate from this decade. As we have already seen, the major production companies were quick to jump on the 'rock 'n' roll 'bandwagon' after the dramatic effects of The Blackboard Jungle. The films from the late 1960s also offer us a fascinating look at the commercial use of popular music. What is interesting about The Graduate and Easy Rider is that the choices of music were made independently (by the directors) from the production companies. Although this is true, soundtrack records of the films were released. Both these films were highly influential in establishing the 'rock soundtrack album' as a major commercial enterprise. Prendergast suggests that by the late 1960s there was a definite divide between original score music and popular music soundtracks. In reference to The Graduate Prendergast writes:
'Now, it seemed, not one pop tune was enough; there must be a collection of pop tunes which, incidentally, create a nice record album.'
His opinion could be interpreted as cynical but what he is referring to is the misuse of popular music; a use that has no real integration or relationship with the visual images. In fairness he goes on to say that the music of The Graduate "works very well aesthetically, but the success of the picture and the accompanying sound track created a host of musical imitators".
Prendergast's comments underlie the problems that face both the reception and use of popular music within a film. The creation of the rock soundtrack as a commercial weight within the marketing of music, has both positive and negative attributes. The positive is that the music itself can contribute towards the effectiveness of the film and the negative, relates to the notion that it has not been used creatively, and the decision for its inclusion has been more commercial that artistic. Once again this refers to tensions within the art/commerce divide. The current state of film soundtracks informs us not only how important the release of the soundtrack is but also the complexities involved with the use of popular music. In 1999 Mundy wrote: "'the cultural and the commercial have become increasingly inseparable."
In comparison to the use of music in Easy Rider there seems to be less autonomy in terms of the directors use of popular music, with the film production companies having a significant say in the choice of music. A reason for this is the modern organisation and structure of global entertainment industries. Companies such as Universal have control over a large percentage of record and film releases, so it is in their interest to maximise the commercial integration of the two. Upon this degree of synergy, Mundy writes:
One way of describing this merger is as 'vertical integration', with the global companies seeking to control every area of production and release. In his work Global Television: An Introduction (1997), Barker describes the 1995 film Last Action Hero as an example of this:
"This Schwarzenegger 'blockbuster' was made by Columbia Pictures, owned by the Sony Corporation. The soundtrack came from CBS, also owned by Sony and it was screened in cinemas with digital sound systems made by Sony. In addition, Sony produced virtual reality and video games based on the film."
In this instance, the use of popular music in the film, and its subsequent appearance on the soundtrack, was clearly influenced to some degree by its commercial viability.
The profitability of the 'pop soundtrack' grew rapidly throughout the 1990s and in many cases actually generated more commercial success than the film itself. There is also the situation of the 'multi-release' soundtrack. It is no longer the case that one soundtrack is released; as many as three separate albums can appear in the shops: (i) The Original Motion Picture Score, (ii) Songs From The Original Motion Picture (iii) Songs Inspired By The Original Motion Picture. An example of this third category is the Dead Man Walking (dir. Tim Robbins -1995) soundtrack, featuring only one song used in the film.
The conclusions to be drawn from the project can be separated into two categories: how the music functions within Easy Rider and what the implications of this use are. In relation to the first category, the music serves to enhance the prevailing ideologies of the film; ideas of counter-culture, youth rebellion and reflections on what being young in 1960s America actually entailed. By using a contemporary rock soundtrack, the film can be easily identified with a certain time period and attitude. The music almost works as a narrative itself, with the songs suggesting the varying moods of the film at different points in the film. For example, 'The Pusher' provides the listener with the context by which the journey derives from and 'Born To be Wild' emphasises the freedom of mobility and the search for adventure. In more ways than I originally thought, the music of Easy Rider, is highly integrated into the film, both in terms of its aid to the narrative and its synchronisation with the visuals.
It is fair to say that the function of the music in the film has been highly influential. The film was released at a time when the idea of the 'pop' soundtrack was gaining momentum, both artistically (in being used to suggest an ideology or culture) and commercially. The success of the Easy Rider soundtrack illustrates just how effective the use of popular music can be in a film.
The project has given a valuable insight into the use (and misuse) of popular music and the various motivations behind including songs in a film. In Easy Rider and the other films I have studied, the music forms an integral part of not only how we receive but also understand the film but "perhaps cinema and television have always been as much about sound and vision, had we but analysed them properly".
Order of songs as they appear in the film:
1. 'Popular song' would have been a better term since 'popular music' also covers film underscore, etc. However, many Anglophones, including Kluczewski (despite Polish ancestry) and several of the film and pop buffs he quotes, still confuse 'pop music' with 'popular music' [tutor's comments].
2. This is no perfect essay: referencing is a bit slack, some turns of phrase are rather awkward and the layout is not always clear. Nevertheless, the content and ideas are valuable, particularly Kluczewski's demonstration of metric cutting in the title sequences to Easy Rider (see Table) [tutor's comments].