In the article “Bad Movies With Great Soundtracks,” I mentioned something called anachronism, specifically in regards to Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. By definition in the World English Dictionary, “anachronism” is the representation of an event, person, or thing in a historical context in which it could not have occurred or existed. While it is a term that is most often used when people incorrectly reference something from a specific time period (i.e. wrongly stating an artist’s time period in which they worked), it has also been used to label a type of film motif.
Anachronisms are quite common in modern cinema, often cited as factual mistakes through the story or, even better, seen as items used in the film that were not even invented yet at the time the movie is set. But on the lighter and less noticeable side, soundtracks are as guilty but much more entertaining, especially when it’s done on purpose. And there are more films that do this than you know!
Most often, these soundtracks utilize the formula of period pieces combined with today’s modern music, but it’s not always true. Let’s take a look at some popular anachronistic soundtracks in films, shall we? You’ll notice that many of those movies and soundtracks classified as such come from repeat offending directors.
MOULIN ROUGE! (2001)
This popular musical, directed my Baz Luhrmann, tells the tale of poet Christian (Ewan McGregor) and his romance with Moulin Rouge courtesan Satine (Nicole Kidman), all while a jealous duke also lays claim on the beautiful entertainer in turn of the century (1900s) Paris. The “love triangle” concept is nothing new; however, the way that the film incorporates its visual and musical elements – called a “pastiche-jukebox” musical – is something worth noting. It wasn’t nominated for eight Oscars, including Best Art Direction, for nothing.
From start to finish, this film is filled to the brim with a variety of 20th century songs and references. Most notable is the underlying The Sound of Music plot that the story follows, which, of course, includes the eponymous musical number. Beyond that, songs like “Lady Marmalade,” Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Madonna’s “Like A Virgin,” The Police’s “Roxanne,” and Elton John’s “Your Song” are all covered by actors in the film, as well as other musical artists for the movie’s soundtrack. The “Elephant Love Medley” in the film is also an epic congregation of – you guessed it – some of the best-known love songs from the modern era.
THE GREAT GATSBY (2013)
As the first in line of repeat offenders, Baz Luhrmann is once against revamping old stories and adding a new flair. The classic account of a lovelorn millionaire, as told by his war veteran neighbor, stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, Tobey Maguire, and Joel Edgerton in this beautiful remake. Similar to Luhrmann’s previous claim to fame, The Great Gatsby is both visually and musically stunning. Before the film even came out, the Gatsby soundtrack was turning heads.
Retaining the tones of the roaring 1920s (think jazz and brass instruments) but adding hip-hop and other modern sounds, The Great Gatsby is actually a very successful anachronistic soundtrack in my opinion. Featuring music by Jay-Z (with Kanye West and Frank Ocean), Beyonce, Lana Del Rey, Gotye, will.i.am, Fergie, and Alicia Keys, as well as covers of an Amy Winehouse song and a U2 song, this film takes many of today’s most popular artists and makes them incredibly appealing, even when placed in context of decades past. The only song that is relatively of that time period was Louis Armstrong’s cover of the Fats Weller song, “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” that was released in 1929. It is still anachronistic, however, in the fact that the majority of The Great Gatsby is meant to take place in 1922 New York City, including the scene in which that song was played. Close, Baz, but still slightly off.
A KNIGHT’S TALE (2001)
A personal favorite of mine in which a knight’s squire creates a new identity for himself after his master dies, A Knight’s Tale stars the sorely missed actor Heath Ledger and Shannyn Sossamon in the times of lords, ladies, and knights in shining armor. Inspired by The Canterbury Tales, it’s hard not to fall in love with this Brian Helgeland directed tale that involves jousting, rivalry, and romance. The real telling point of the film, though, is its music.
As the film that actually introduced me to soundtracks of this kind, A Knight’s Tale contains some fantastic classic rock songs against the backdrop of medieval times. I mean, when a film starts right from the opening credits with a Queen song (“We Will Rock You”), you know it’s going to be good. Followed throughout the film with songs like David Bowie’s “Golden Years” (during one of my favorite scene in the entire movie), plus Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Eric Clapton, Sly and the Family Stone, Rare Earth, Thin Lizzy, and AC/DC, I might even go so far to say that A Knight’s Tale puts other anachronistic soundtracks to shame. However, I have actually heard a rare few people that didn’t like the combination. Sad, but true.
My first question with this one is: who else besides me knows about this movie? I’m a 80s film nut, but I feel like this one is lesser known than a lot of the others of the era. Starring Michelle Pfeiffer, Matthew Broderick, and Rutger Hauer in a role that will absolutely make you fall in love with him, Ladyhawke, directed by Richard Donner, is another tale of knights and the beautiful ladies that loves them. Because I secretly hope that you will watch this film and discover its inner workings yourself, I will just say that it involves a thief in 12th century Europe (Broderick) that escapes from a dungeon, who then befriends a Captain (the knightly kind, played by Hauer) that himself shares a secret with the lady of the story. Add a dose of spells – or in this case, a curse – and you’ve got yourself this intriguing 80s fantasy flick.
Since the time of its release, Ladyhawke has received guff for its soundtrack, being called “dated” by reviewers on Rotten Tomatoes, let alone “the worst soundtrack ever composed” by Rob Vaux of Flipside Movie Emporium. It’s a bit expected though when your film’s entire sound is comprised almost entirely of synths. Something typical of movies that have come out of that decade, but I guess everyone’s not a fan like I am.
Only a few days after the release of Ladyhawke, another synth-filled film premiered. Legend, starring Tom Cruise (and his almost unibrow) and Mia Sara (the actress who plays Ferris Bueller’s girlfriend Sloane), this fantasy – like unicorn involved fantasy – film directed by Ridley Scott pits light against dark in a battle of good versus evil. Tim Curry’s demonic “Lord of Darkness” seeks to destroy light by killing the last unicorn, as well as marry the fairy princess Lili (Mia Sara). But forest boy Jack (Tom Cruise) is having none of that.
From what I remember about Legend, the majority of the music is synths, though it definitely adds to the ethereal direction of the film. There are apparently two different versions of Legend, with soundtracks by either Tangerine Dream or Jerry Goldsmith depending on which one you see. I couldn’t even tell you the difference; I don’t even know which version I saw.
QUENTIN TARANTINO FILMS
To cover this one more quickly, Quentin’s films get lumped together because, you guessed it, he is a repeat offender like Baz Luhrmann. While his anachronisms aren’t necessarily an entire soundtrack’s worth, critics definitely approve of his musical uses.
As you probably already know, Tarantino’s most recent success, Django Unchained (2012), is an absolute hit. Jamie Foxx, Kerry Washington, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Samuel L. Jackson round out the all-star cast in this film about a freed slave and his journey to rescue his wife from a plantation owner, with the help of a German bounty hunter. While tracks by John Legend and Rick Ross are anachronisms worth mentioning, it is the use of Jim Croce’s “I Got A Name” that shines in this ode to spaghetti westerns.
A second use often mentioned amongst anachronistic lists, Tarantino’s 2009 film Inglourious Basterds – the “killin’ Nazis” movie starring Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz again, and Diane Kruger in a tale coinciding with that of a vengeful theatre owner played by Melanie Laurent – is one that provides equal amounts humor and gore. David Bowie’s “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)” provides the perfect track for a pivotal scene in the film despite the World War II setting. But it just goes to show that you can’t go wrong with David Bowie.
Finally, throughout both Kill Bill Volume 1 and Volume 2, Tarantino uses the reverse of the familiar “past time period/modern music” formula that all of the films on this list utilize, and instead places voices like Nancy Sinatra and disco/rockabilly tunes in the world of Beatrix Kiddo in the 2003 and 2004 films. While some people might say that this is just a typical film soundtrack and is not at all special, as many films these days put old songs in new movies (“Hooked on a Feeling” cover by Blue Swede used in the trailer for upcoming Marvel film, Guardians of the Galaxy, being absolutely fantastic), I think Tarantino proves to viewers that, no matter what kind of music is used and no matter the era it originates – anachronistic or not – it has the power to add dimension and narration to the films we love. Or, in the case of most of these films, it is the aspect of movies that make them sound incredibly cool.
BONUS: For television watchers, AMC’s Mad Men also has a place on this list. Season two, episode six of the show – an episode titled “Maidenform” – a montage of the actresses getting ready is accompanied anachronistically by the song “The Infanta” from The Decemberists, despite the show being set in the 1960s. It is a rare occurrence to include non-decade tunes on the show, so this has been dubbed “carefully deployed” by viewers and critics alike.
Similarly, film-wise, a Gnarls Barkley song [“Run (I’m a Natural Disaster)”] is seen in X-Men: First Class, also set in the 60s.
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