Beatles Songs And Movies, A Beautiful Marriage

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This post, contrary to what this picture may imply, is not about Beatles songs in their OWN movies, but rather about Beatles songs in OTHER movies.

Music and movies are more intricately connected than we often give them credit for. Music may exist perfectly fine on its own without any attachment to a movie, but a movie would not be a fraction of its final product without accompanying music to set a mood. Music alone can give a movie scene a lighthearted tone, an eerie mysticism, or an inspirational spirit, even if the actual footage and dialogue used in the scene is the same regardless of the music choices. It also makes a difference to the audience whether the song is well-known or not, as the sudden appearance of a classic rock song, for example, in a movie is likely going to create a different reaction among an audience than a modern indie track.

It’s no surprise to me that many movies over the years have famously featured Beatles songs. The Beatles’ lyrics, especially for songs such as “Eleanor Rigby” and “A Day In The Life,” tell stories akin to how a movie strings together a narrative about characters, places, and hardships. This makes their songs well equipped to accompany movie scenes.  In addition, many opening riffs to Beatles songs are so iconic that the audience immediately recognizes them, adding a sense of familiarity to a scene in a movie that, by endearing itself to the audience in this way, allows the audience to sympathize with or relate more to the character in question than they may otherwise. I am more knowledgeable about music than I am about movies, but several notable examples of this beautiful marriage between Beatles songs and movies come to mind, which I’ll share with you here. Feel free to comment with any additional examples that may be close to your heart.

Baby You’re A Rich Man- The Social Network

This is one of the more critically acclaimed uses of a Beatles song in a movie that I can recall in recent memory, and with good reason. This song, which was originally directed by the Beatles towards their manager Brian Epstein regarding his hedonistic lifestyle, fits in perfectly to question Mark Zuckerberg at the end of this movie. If you’ve never seen The Social Network, during the scene with this song, Mark Zuckerberg is sitting in a conference room, on the cusp of Facebook’s truly explosive breakthrough into mainstream culture that is about to make him a billionaire. However, the movie ends (spoiler alert? this has been out for several years…) with him being put in his place by his constant refreshing of his friend request to his ex-girlfriend, and by this song playing in the movie’s background. I love how the song speaks directly to the listener, asking “How does it feel to be one of the beautiful people? How often have you been there?” The way the scene is shot, it seems like the song speaks directly to Zuckerberg. It’s a sharp critique of upper-class social life that remains relevant today, as do so many Beatles songs. I’m glad to see that an underrated song like this one received well-deserved attention for its feature in The Social Network, an excellent movie in its own right.

Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight- Sing

This is a more lighthearted addition to this list, which warrants a place mostly because of Jennifer Hudson’s incredible voice. I loved the movie Sing largely for how it celebrated an unbridled love for music, theater, and the arts in general. This song features in both the beginning and end of the movie, initially as a rather diva-esque moment for Jennifer Hudson’s character, and later as a satisfying moment of closure for the characters after the emotional roller coaster that they have all gone through. I cannot recall another animated movie in recent memory that used a Beatles song in as effective moving a manner as this one. Especially near the end of the movie, when the heartfelt characters are finally having their moment in the sun and singing their hearts out, I teared up a bit as this song played again in the movie’s background. Songs such as this from the second half of Abbey Road have a unique power to signify closure, in my opinion because they were among the last songs on the official last Beatles album. I always associate this song with the end of that fantastic album, and featuring it at the beginning and end of a heartwarming movie such as this created a familiar sonic pleasure for myself, and hopefully for other Beatles fans at the movie theater.

Because- American Beauty

Despite being the major Beatlemaniac that I am, I honestly don’t think I noticed that the version of this song in the movie is actually a cover, sung by Elliott Smith, until I looked it up. It sounds nearly identical to the original Beatles version, minus the instrumentation present on the Beatles’ version. This particular Beatles song is known for being one of their most beautiful and also most haunting songs, with which I completely agree. It perfectly complements the themes of the ultimate banality of American suburban life, and also the remarkable qualities present in every aspect of our lives, that this movie features. I find American Beauty a bit scary at times, especially at the very end, and this song plays perfectly into the slightly eerie tone of the entire movie.

Twist And Shout- Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

This is one of my favorite scenes in one of my favorite movies of all time. The marriage of song and scene here perfectly captures the universal appeal of the Beatles and how they manage to bring diverse crowds together all over the world, nearly 50 years after they split up. One thing interesting about this scene is how it begins with just Ferris singing along on the parade float, but gradually the entire crowd joins in until the entire street is singing along, young and old, to this classic song. This also illustrates to me the power that Ferris wields throughout the movie to bring people together who may have never associated with each other before, such as his sister Jeanie and Charlie Sheen’s character in the police station. “Twist and Shout” also captures the carefree, happy-go-lucky spirit of the entire movie that defines Ferris’s free spirit on his day off. Out of all of the iconic scenes in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, this scene stands out as perhaps the most iconic precisely for the use of this song.

All You Need Is Love- Love Actually

Last, but certainly not least, is a wonderful scene from another one of my favorite movies, which is perhaps the most literal interpretation of a Beatles song on this list. This scene, like American Beauty, features a cover of a famous Beatles song, this time by a joyful choir in the church during a wedding ceremony. I love how the traditional organ music after the couple exchanges vows quickly segues into the opening chords to “All You Need Is Love,” which begins an even more ceremonious rendition of the song when groups of instrumentalists suddenly stand up from their pews and play the song’s familiar riffs, in my opinion one of the most charming parts of this entire enchanting movie. I love most how delighted Keira Knightley’s character is by the whole affair, though frankly I don’t blame her. If I was surprised on my wedding day with a gospel choir singing a Beatles song, I think I’d react similarly. Anyway, this short scene always sticks out to me as a particularly effective use of a Beatles song  to communicate the message most prominent throughout their musical catalog: love.

Notice how I did not include any songs from the movie Across The Universe, a 2007 movie which featured entirely Beatles songs and which I have not seen. I’ve heard mixed reviews of this movie in particular, and I’ve also only listened to several of the tracks from the movie, which are all sung by cast members. From what I’ve heard, I don’t really love these versions of some of my favorite songs, though perhaps in the context of the movie they leave a different impression. But that’s for another blog post to hash out.

I may do a sequel to this post in the future if I think of any more movies I love that feature Beatles songs, or if a new movie comes out with a Beatles song I love. That’s all for now!

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What Makes a Song Good?

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George clearly contemplating the writing process, with guitar in tow

Today I’d like to discuss a topic that’s been coming to my mind recently as I’ve listened to Beatles songs and other songs alike, and that is, how do we as music listeners actually decide why a song is good or bad? The most important thing to remember here is that there really is no objective measurement of “goodness” or “badness” of a song. You can pretty much conclusively determine if someone is a skilled or unskilled piano player, but it’s a bit more murky to extend that level of objective analysis to judging the quality of an entire song. Of course, there are certainly songs I think are better than others, so here are a few points of comparison between songs and some examples to support that, both from the Beatles and from other artists I admire.

One point that’s recently been floating around in my mind is the idea of “good” songs balancing vocal and instrumental melodies. That is, the melody of the instruments is as important to the beauty and structure of the song as the melody of the vocals. This is assuming we’re discussing traditionally structured “pop” songs here, not 11-minute long instrumental jams. I hate to sound like a grump, but I find that so many modern pop songs have little instrumental substance and it’s all about highlighting the singer and their impressive growl or sky-high vocal riffs. There’s something about a song that has, say, an interesting opening guitar riff, melodic vocals, and other scattered instrumental breaks that just feels more complete to me. Songs like this also communicate that the quality of the song is what is most important, not the singer’s vocal talent. There’s a distinct, noticeable difference to me between a song that exists to celebrate beautiful, thoughtful music and a song that exists for a singer to show off how high they can belt.

Both categorizations have their place in the music industry, but the Beatles were musicians first and foremost and wrote songs that nearly always fall into the former category. Take “Eleanor Rigby,” for example. The staccato strings are really the iconic part of this song, not the Beatles singing. They sound great, obviously, but this song is a fraction of its final self without George Martin’s incredible string arrangement. Luckily Beatles fans are blessed with an officially-released instrumental version of this on the Anthology 2 album, and this may be the finest example of a Beatles song in which I actually prefer the solo orchestration to the complete song. There’s just so many interesting things to notice when you listen to only the string part, so many percussive strokes and instrumental counterparts, and it conveys the message of the song’s lyrics almost as well as the singing itself. But the complete song itself is what I highlight as a perfect example of a song that values its instrumentation just as much as its vocals.

In case that all weren’t enough to celebrate, it’s just over 2 minutes long and it feels perfectly complete. The song doesn’t thematically or instrumentally need to be any longer. There are no wasted notes here; they all contribute to the moving final product. The song’s inherent structure is so well-thought-out that it carries the beauty of the song all by itself. The more I listen to “Eleanor Rigby,” honestly, the more I marvel at it. It’s quickly moving up my list of favorite Beatles songs.

Another Beatles song that demonstrates their mastery of vocal and instrumental balance is “Here Comes The Sun.” This song features such a delicate, airy acoustic guitar part that I do wish there were an official version of just the instrumental parts without any of the Beatles’ vocals. It also features a lovely string arrangement, but rather than that being the star of this song, the interplay between the strings and the guitar combine to support the beautiful vocal part. “Here Comes The Sun” is absolutely a George Harrison masterpiece that is quickly becoming my new favorite Beatles song, mostly because the guitar is soothing and relaxing. I once heard a rare version of this song that features an additional overdubbed guitar solo, but I felt that it overpowered the rest of the song and did not mesh with the existing acoustic part. “Here Comes The Sun” is simply perfect and musically balanced the way it is.

In general, I feel that with songs I really admire, I could take out the vocals entirely and listen to only the instrumental backing and I’d love the song just as much. One example of a non-Beatles song that perfectly fits this description is “Sultans of Swing” by Dire Straits. The separated, choppy, yet beautifully melodic guitar part always hooks me from the second that the song comes on the radio. I really do feel that this song would function almost as well as a wholly instrumental song. I say “almost” because I do also feel that part of the reason the guitar here is so enchanting is because of how it counters the vocals by providing continual instrumental breaks throughout the song. These “breaks” wouldn’t exactly be breaks if they were not broken up by an intervening vocal part, now would they. This song, unlike the previous two, does not feature any sort of orchestration. Its notable instrumental part is almost strictly guitar, but the guitar here has a life of its own and  beautifully carries the melodic weight of the song so that no additional instrumentation is necessary for the song to feel complete.

Slightly unrelated, but this song also directly connects to the Beatles by featuring a lyrical reference to “guitar George” who “knows all the chords” and “doesn’t want to make them cry or sing.” There’s a chance this isn’t intentionally referring to “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” but it seems more likely than not. After all that, I’m actually not 100% positive that this is a Beatles reference, but given that George Harrison is by far the most famous rock guitarist named George that I can think of, I’ll stick with this theory until proven wrong. Perhaps the guitar part throughout this song is meant as an ode to George’s carefully crafted Beatles guitar parts, which would certainly  explain why I love the song.

Much of the Beatles’ legend rests on their reinvention of the very idea of successful pop songs, and as this blog continually states, I do believe that they are still the masters of crafting songs with incredible attention to vocal and instrumental balance. However, they also epitomize the magical formula that I find takes a song from average to excellent, and that is a balance between highlighting vocals and highlighting instrumentals. It doesn’t necessarily have to be split 50/50, but I do feel that songs with a celebrated instrumental part, like the songs all mentioned above, possess more overall beauty than songs without.

I could go on and on about Beatles songs that feature a beautiful balance between vocals and instrumentals, and how this is also present in wonderful songs by other artists, but I’ll save that for another post. Until then, continue braving the long, cold, lonely winter and finding sunshine in your favorite songs.