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The Power of Needle Drops: How Strategic Song Choices Shape Storytelling

By Chris Wells
Feb 13, 2024
6 minute read
A film reel magically releasing notes into the air

The right music can transform any filmmaking project from mediocre to unforgettable. The magic of a needle drop—a moment when a pre-existing track perfectly syncs with a scene, setting the mood or conveying emotion without original music—is unparalleled.

This technique not only enhances the scene's impact by tapping into the audience's existing connections with familiar tunes but can also introduce them to new, unexpected tracks, enriching the narrative in surprising ways. 

I've always been fascinated by music's transformative power in storytelling, whether it amplifies the scene's emotion or the profound silence speaks volumes in itself. Today, I'm excited to share some of my personal favourite music moments from films and video games, a collection that has deeply influenced my view on storytelling.

Let's dive into these examples, not as an all-time best list, but as a source of inspiration for your creative journey.

Sonic Signposts

Needle drops are most often used to evoke cultural memories and define a film's historical context, or sometimes just to helpfully remind you when they are set.

These can also work in retrospect. After the initial cult status of movies like Saturday Night Fever, its quintessential 1970s Bee Gees-dominated soundtrack permeated the culture to become emblematic of the decade as a whole. 

Even for all of us born decades later, with a few guitar twangs, we know where we are and, more importantly, when we are. 

The king of using music to anchor us in time is Paul Thomas Anderson, whose masterpiece Boogie Nights is an almost non-stop barrage of era-specific songs in almost every single scene that spans over a decade. 

If you haven't seen Boogie Nights, you should, as it's legitimately one of the best films ever made. In the later scene below, notice how from the music, you instantly know what era it is set in before you even register the more low-key costume and production design.

For bonus amazingness, just watch and appreciate the incredible increase in tension with the sound editing as the fireworks and music blend with the off-kilter acting performances for a slow ramp to a level of discomfort that feels unbearable before exploding into a crescendo of violence.

Warning: Clip below contains drugs, swearing, violence.

I just love the way the music traps you in that scene with the characters, locking you in that room with them. No headroom. No silence to escape to. It somehow makes that ramping tension even more powerful. It's masterful filmmaking from a director who was just 27 years old.

Using too familiar era-specific music can also be a double-edged sword and fall into parody. Family Guy shows the incessant use of Fortunate Son in Vietnam films.

This also opens up an opportunity to be deliberately anachronistic for incredible effect, like Sofia Coppola’s brilliant Marie Antoinette.

She blasted 18th-century Versailles with 80s new wave and post-punk hits—a jarring yet oddly perfect match. It perfectly embodied the film's themes of rebellion, isolation and clashing eras. Whether historically accurate or not, the music in "Marie Antoinette" remains a testament to the power of sound to transport, provoke, and redefine a historical narrative.

The Movie Soundtrack Effect

Guardians of the Galaxy is famous for its needle drops, so much so that it’s part of its DNA, with ‘quirky,’ ‘fun,’ older songs being introduced to new audiences that old curmudgeons like me can grumble and say I knew Mr Blue Sky way WAY before Groot danced to it (AND PEOPLE CALLED ME LAME FOR LIKING IT BACK THEN).

Childhood trauma aside, a wonderful positive of using especially older music in modern blockbusters is introducing audiences to tunes they may not have heard before.

In the first games of the titular Hunger Games, the song used is, in fact, an obscure analogue track from the 1970s, titled "Sediment", composed by experimental electronic music queen Laurie Spiegel.

Its haunting vibe is not only a powerful addition to an already intense scene but its inclusion was for many people (myself included) a doorway into an otherwise criminally unknown artist.

A discussion about how needle drops revive interest in older songs is not completed without the topic of Bohemian Rhapsody. The song was originally just a hit song from the 1970s but regained popularity on the 90s charts thanks to the success of a little Saturday Night Live spin-off movie.

The Right Song At The Right Time 

Back to Guardians of the Galaxy. Not only did it have Fun music for its Fun scenes, but it also had significant emotional depth, and it used licensed music in those scenes exceptionally well.

My personal favourite use of this is with the tremendous Cat Stevens song Father & Son, whose general vibe, even if you’re not listening to the lyrics, already matches the feeling of loss from the scene at hand, but once you really listen to the words Yusuf is singing and you see how much it synchronises with what’s on camera, it creates something far greater than the sum of its parts, and I cannot listen to the song without crying like a baby.

If you haven’t seen it and have no interest in Marvel films, I still strongly recommend giving the Guardians films a go.

I will also say that I truly believe this is the best ending of any Marvel film. Ever.

Yes, even better than Infinity War.

Don't @ me.

Another more on-the-nose moment of the song lining up with the film's scene is the end scene of The Matrix, the triumphant sounds of rage against the machine's guitars telling you to wake up just like Neo did.

Even without any further context of the film, you know that he woke up. He's pretty badass, and you should probably wake up, too.

I really love musicals. I love the heightened reality of them while still exploring grounded emotions and the strange dissonance that often happens in my brain watching them. I especially love it when the dancing happens, when the choreography is particularly impressive. So with that in mind, here is a clip from a British zombie film.

Edgar Wright would later hone his excellent ability to time things to needle drops in films like Baby Driver, but it’s the sheer wacky bloody bizarre contrast of the happy tone of Freddy Mercury as an old man Zombie is beaten with pool cues in perfect time. Yet nobody ever questions the reality of this because it’s so damn entertaining.

In any piece about needle drops, you are contractually obligated to talk about Scorsese, and I’ve decided to go for one of the common ones, but gosh darn it, is it, not perfection?

I had, in fact, not heard the full seven minutes of Layla or know the full story behind Derek and the Dominos before I had seen Goodfellas.

This is the song as you may know it in it’s full Dad Rock Glory: 

Scorsese only uses the triumphant second half of the song to attack the audience's brain with the heavy juxtaposition of that and the montage of rotting dead bodies. 

Warning: Spoilers and rotting dead bodies below:

It uses that dissonance to depict the triumph of Jimmy Conway while also highlighting the loss experienced by Henry Hill as he begins to feel the instability of his world.  Even if you don't know who Eric Clapton and Jim Gordon are, you can still sense their presence throughout the film. The history behind it is constantly FELT from the screen and speakers, blending beautifully with the story unfolding into this profound miasma of awesome. It simply wouldn’t be the same if it were done with a score. 

A Sneaky Videogame Bit

I had to include one videogame moment that, for me, happened many years ago that I still feel has been chased ever since by developers everywhere.

In the Western video game masterpiece Red Dead Redemption, you are forced to hunt down and kill an old gangmate. After hours and hours of hijinks, you miss him seconds away as he escapes to Mexico, forcing your journey to continue south.

As you go to cross the border for the first time, the other sounds start to fade away slightly, and out of nowhere, José González’s Far Away starts playing. As if perfectly capturing your exasperated feeling at that exact moment in the game, playing you off as you ride your horse across the unforgiving landscapes.


It was a moment that hadn't really happened in videogames at that point, a poignant needle drop that occurred as you played, as you moved your character across the world, the music and the moment was yours and yours alone.

Many other games would try to create a similar scene, and some would succeed, but none quite as powerful as that first moment in the OG Red Dead.

Special shoutout to the TEARS scene in Max Payne 3 (same developers) for introducing me to one of my favourite bands of all time, HEALTH.

Conclusion

Needle drops demonstrate the profound power music has over the way we perceive the world and how we can use music to craft our stories. A well-timed song choice transforms a scene, imbuing it with layers of meaning while potentially playing with moments from our cultural memory. Through music, films can transport us through time without a title card or even costume or production design. It can challenge expectations and resonate on emotional wavelengths beyond dialogue or imagery alone.

Though the examples I've highlighted merely scratch the surface, I had so many more I wanted to talk about. I really could write like 20 of these kinds of posts. I didn't even cover anything in TV or Tarantino - the two Ts! If you have any of your own, please write about this in our forum or on our subreddit.

As technology propels visual mediums to ever-more spectacular technical heights, may we never overlook the ability of a perfectly timed tune carried by a compelling narrative to move us in ways no CGI ever could.

The next time a tune comes on and teleports you to that perfect cinematic moment, take a breath and appreciate the magnitude of events in the world that lined up to give you that feeling. That's the magic of a good needle drop.

This is all to say I really still can't ever listen to Under Pressure again without weeping uncontrollably. Thanks Aftersun.

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