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Music

From Nick Cave to Steely Dan: 7 songs that would make great movies

@TomTaylorFO

“Music and film are inseparable,” Martin Scorsese once said, “They always have been and always will be.” Sometimes, within music, that boundary is blurred even further as certain songs play out as movies in the playground of the listener’s imagination. The great swirling depth of sonic atmosphere and the words woven on top can stir the mind towards vignettes that put Vittorio Storaro’s lighting to shame and images that prove more vividly textured than a John Singer Sargent exhibition. 

Whether it be the straightforward narrative of the life of a hard-luck hero in an old blues song or some mystic abstract tale from a Greenwich Village folk star who has stepped one toke over the line before putting pen to paper, there is no shortage of songs that tell a story. In fact, scratch that, there is a chronic shortage of great narrative songs these days, the art seems to be dying. 

A perfect way to revive the brilliance of story songs is to revisit filigreed fictional masterpieces of old and see how these five-minute anecdotes could be blown up to the silver screen with all the nuance of the music intact. These gems not only tell a tale, but they render it prose-like with superb accompanying atmospheres so that all a studio would have to do is cast the characters because we’ve already picked the trusted directors who would fit the helm.

7 songs that would make great movies:

‘The Man Who Couldn’t Cry’ – Loudon Wainwright III (dir. Coen brothers)

As arguably the most underrated songwriter of the 1970s, Loudon Wainwright III mastered the art of character studies. Always laden with charm and a sense of depth his best tracks are often comic tales of tragic souls judged without cynicism. 

A case in point is ‘The Man Who Couldn’t Cry’—the story of a poor soul whose life falls apart after his dog got run over, his wife left him, he got sacked, lost an arm in the war, his creative attempts were laughed at, and then he was innocently sent to jail. All the while he couldn’t cry. Then one day, he was shipped to a home for the insensitive and insane. Therein he cried for 40 days and 40 nights until he died of dehydration. If things sound dower, then the diegesis of heaven’s happy ending was always awaiting. From up in the firmament, he watches everything go his way. His creative works are now lauded and he is reunited with his arm and his dog.  

It’s a tale that does what every Coen brothers movie has done to date—it braces the inevitable tragedy of life with the cushion of comedy that allows us to exuberantly laugh in spite of it. Sure the film would be flecked with absurdity but even the average Monday throws up madness that movies often neglect and the Coen brothers could make us cry laughing about a man who couldn’t cry for sadness’s sake until he was welcomed by the laughter of heaven’s grace. 

‘The Strange Case of Frank Cash and the Morning Papers’ – T Bone Burnett (dir. Sam Rami)

In a fitting segue, T Bone Burnett is the movie music maestro who has worked with the Coen brothers on a number of occasions as well as being one of the most respected producers in music. However, his own tunes might be lesser-known but they are no less brilliant. 

The wild rolling melody of ‘The Strange Case of Frank Cash and the Morning Papers’ tells the story of a man who fortuitously happens upon a newspaper that is somehow being printed a day in advance. Naturally, he races to the sports results and makes a killing at the bookmakers only for it all to go awry. And when things swirl out of control for Frank Cash, he takes a postmodernist turn akin to Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions, and Cash calls out the narrator “this guy named T Bone Burnett, he’s been making all of this up”. 

This wild adventurist approach to storytelling seems to have drifted out of cinema amid the stilted recent times since Sam Rami and the late Harold Ramis highwire heydays. Thus, this fun and imaginative tale would surely soar on the big screen as Bill Murray (or Murry adjacent) flits between surreal windfall and comic farce. 

‘Kid Charlemagne’ – Steely Dan (dir. Safdie brothers)

In 1963, the patent for LSD expired. This single admin oversight essentially spun out the counterculture movement in all of its mind-bending phosphorescence, as acid dyed the streets for three legal years. The opening verse of the Steely Dan epic ‘Kid Charlemagne’ draws attention to the psychedelic gold rush brewing in California, as Donald Fagen sings: “On the hill the stuff was laced with kerosene, but yours was kitchen clean.”

There was only one place in the San Francisco valley where you could get acid of that purity — enter the protagonist of the song, the famed LSD chemist Owsley Stanley: the premiere acid man of the east coast. Augustus Owsley Stanley III, to give him his full name, was an American audio engineer by day and a clandestine chemist also by day, night and sometimes morning. Despite being waylaid by trips, his audio experiments proved so vital to the sound of the Grateful Dead that he was essentially a member of the band, building their wall of sound. 

Once the CIA began to crack down on the mind-bent counterculture, the acid king simply shifted production to a lab in Denver, Colorado, and began brightening daydreams once more. His new headquarters were stationed across the street from Denver Zoo and tales are bountiful in the region’s subterranean realms of old acidheads staring agog at a gibbon or some other higher simian and having evolutionary epiphanies whizz into their addled minds, while the caged funky jungle boogie merchants looked on wondering why the hippy who just shat his pantaloons had been staring at them for hours. Surely this farcical folly is a tale fit for the Safdie brothers (or failing that Paul Thomas Anderson).

‘Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)’ – David Bowie (dir. David Cronenberg)

The song ‘Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)’ tracks a heroine’s descent into some darkened psychological oblivion orchestrated by an obscure male protagonist. Perhaps it is a paranoid allegory for the relationship between an addict and the gripping manipulation of a given substance or perhaps it is merely Bowie delving into some dystopian wilderness of wicked fantasy. And strangely, at its heart is an old Kellogg’s Corn Flakes ad campaign jingle.

It was from the blandest cereal on the market that the title for the song and album was taken. The twist was that the cereal went with the slogan “Scary Monsters and Super Heroes” but Bowie’s lurid whims had him thinking of a cunning way to subvert that notion. Rather than pit villains and heroes against each other, Bowie delved into the psychology of a perpetrator, explaining that the song is about “a criminal with a conscience who talks about how he corrupted a fine young mind.”

This combination of weird, kaleidoscopic imagery and the wry twist of a troubled yet ultimately unreliable narrator is the sort of murky psychological depth that the overly straightforward ‘lycra means good guy and dark clothes means bad’ dynamic of modern cinema lacks. And that is a terrain that David Cronenberg has long been the Burroughs-esque king of.

‘In Germany Before the War’ – Randy Newman (dir. Jennifer Kent)

In the all-encompassing depth of Randy Newman away from Pixar, he has rarely ventured deeper than with the song ‘In Germany Before the War’. The track from his 1977 album Little Criminals, charters the grisly tale of Peter Kürten. Kürten’s nickname of The Vampire of Düsseldorf tells you everything you need to know about his blood-lusting modus operandi. He attempted this hideous act on over 40 people, claiming the lives of at least nine between 1913 – 1929. Just to ram the point home, that’s 16 years of neck chomping!

The master songsmith Randy Newman tells his tale as though it was a Peter Süskind novel, imbuing the darkness with poetry. Lyrics like “We lie beneath the autumn sky / My little golden girl and I / And she lies very still,” colour his crimes with a narrative, while the stirring melody and production flourishes add an eerie atmosphere like finely tune crime prose.

This bleak, cloudy atmosphere to Newman’s mix of psychological murk and monochrome history is considered and distant enough not to be overly gratuitous. This is a style that Kent has soared within her filmography, and she would give the madness of Kürten a gripping Babadook hook.  

‘The Mercy Seat’ – Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds (dir. Martin Scorsese)

A man on death row surveying the ways of crime and punishment, death and mercy, God, the hereafter or the nothing at all, is nothing new and never will be. However, rarely has this eternal mental battle been elucidated with such rabblerousing vindication than in the unfurling storm of words that race from the spleen of Cave’s criminal character in ‘The Mercy Seat’.

Martin Scorsese is another artist with a religious bent and he too has crafted his works with an unending biblical overture. Even Goodfellas is tinged with the subtext of hell, proving that he shares in Cave’s mantra: “God is in everything whether I’m mentioning him or not.” 

This kinship and the brooding atmosphere would surely prove to be a blistering adaptation of a song that isn’t a million miles away from a musical Shutter Island. On top of it all, you have the final twist of whether he really did tell the truth.

‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’ – Bob Dylan (dir. Jane Campion)

There isn’t a great deal of narrative to ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’ but what it lacks in plot points it makes up for with Dylan’s sagacious societal wherewithal. Essentially, in his own poetic prose, Dylan tells the tale of how a rich man clubs a servant to death for no good reason. The final punchline to this twisted fable is when the judge slams down the hammer and avows “To show that all’s equal and that the courts are on the level” and “even the nobles get properly handled” only to dish out a “six-month sentence”.

This fiction might not be quite as titillating as some of the wild tales above, but there is enough depth in the subtext for it to ripple with reverberations and reflect back a few important points about the present without ever letting entertainment take the backseat. There are plenty of societal injustices occurring at present and the message Dylan speaks of is sadly more prescient than ever. 

Campion has a history of delving into the past to reflect the present and with Dylan’s vigour and timeless nuance to work with, ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’ would surely be a timely box office hit. 

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