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Five times Radiohead made films better with their music

The romance of music and film is one of the finest love stories around. Just like bed and breakfast or fish and chips, this audio-visual duo has been an award-winning partnership since the dawn of time. The relationship between cinema and music can be traced by historians right back to the amphitheatres of ancient Greece and Rome.

Humanity has clearly always been aware of the deeply emotive impact of audio-visual experiences, as the number of times music and acting have come together over the course of history is innumerable. Since the advent of film at the onset of the twentieth century, the relationship between it and music has been explored extensively. The number of iconic films that equally classic scores or soundtracks have matched is dizzying. 

Auteurs such as Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick and Michael Mann have all been masters of putting music to film. In fact, the latter’s use of green and blue and an atmospheric soundtrack in his 1986 masterpiece, Manhunter, exemplifies the meaning of diegetic. Moreover, Hitchcock and Kubrick were early masters in western cinema of understanding the impact of music in augmenting a visual experience. 

If we cast our minds back, many classic examples spring to mind. Tim Burton’s work with Danny Elfman has been a defining element in establishing his unusual cinematic universe, and Hans Zimmer’s work in the blockbusters of Christopher Nolan and Ridley Scott have majestically matched their director’s visual expenditure.

Furthermore, Steven Spielberg’s long partnership with composer John Williams has been nothing short of ground-breaking. In fact, Williams’ contribution to cinema has been so impactful that franchises such as Harry Potter and Star Wars would not be the same without their iconic audio reference point. 

Of course, outside of film, there exist many musical acts whose music can best be described as cinematic and whose work has gone a great way in enlarging the impact of cinema. One would argue that the definitive example of cinematic music is Radiohead. Initially teasing their cinematic journey on their sophomore album, The Bends, in 1995, the band built on this sentiment with each release. Come 1997, with the release of what many regard as their magnum opus, OK Computer, the band would truly heed their cinematic clout and even explicitly mention it with ‘Exit Music (For a Film)’.

Following the turn of the millennium, Radiohead would utilise technology to craft cerebral and forward-thinking music. Of course, this adherence to constantly pushing the boundaries has earned them many fans from across life’s spectrum, including in cinema. Most famously, they have a long-standing relationship with celebrated American director Paul Thomas Anderson (PTA), with the colourful director even filming a couple of the band’s music videos. On the flip side, Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood has returned the favour by penning the award-winning soundtracks to some of Anderson’s best-loved films, including The Phantom Thread, Inherent Vice and There Will Be Blood.

However, there have also been countless occasions where other filmmakers have used Radiohead’s music to a great effect. This is a trend that shows no signs of abating, as it seems everyone agrees that Radiohead and cinema are a match made in heaven. 

Join us then as we list the five best moments Radiohead made films better. 

The moments Radiohead made film better

Children of Men – ‘Life in a Glasshouse’

Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 sci-fi action thriller is widely respected as a brilliant film. Not only is it hailed as the best film of 2006, but it is revered for its cautionary twists and visceral camera work, namely its single-shot sequences. Starring Clive Owen and Michael Caine, the hit was equally as inspired by Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange as it was Pink Floyd’s 1977 album, Animals.

Considering it was taking partial inspiration from such a classic album, who can be surprised that the film utilises music to a brilliant effect. Cuarón’s use of sound and music perfectly captures the film’s themes of dystopia, social unrest, loss and global infertility. Using a wide range of music from King Crimson to Aphex Twin to Kode9, the film continues to find new fans owing to its use of music.

However, the film’s stand-out audio-visual pairing comes when Radiohead’s ‘Life in a Glasshouse’ from 2001’s Amnesiac is quietly played amidst the banal chit-chat between Clive Owen’s protagonist Theo and Michael Caine’s weed dealer, Jasper. As Theo tries Jasper’s new strain of weed, the two discuss the world’s impending doom. The use of the song perfectly matches the distortion/disassociation felt by Theo as the effects of the green plant coarse through his veins when he curses: “fuck me, that’s strong”. The unhinged melody of Thom Yorke’s vocals and the horns sliding atonality match the film’s suspicious themes and the feelings embodied by its characters. 

Incendies – ‘You and Whose Army?’/’Like Spinning Plates’

Canadian director Denis Villeneuve is a self-proclaimed number one fan of the Oxford outfit. He has used Radiohead in two of his films, 2010’s Incendies and 2013’s Prisoners. It was in the former that his use of Radiohead really caught our attention. His inclusion of ‘You and Whose Army?’ and ‘Like Spinning Plates’ in the middle-eastern based drama, Incendies, has now entered a somewhat classic bracket. 

The film’s opening scene uses ‘You and Whose Army?’ to such a great effect that the two are almost now inextricably linked. Critic David Ehrlich wrote that the film expertly “exploits Radiohead tracks for the multiplicity of their meaning, empowering the image by dislocating viewers from it”. Villeneuve even admitted that he had written the song specifically into the script of the emotive drama to make it clear to the viewer that it would “be a westerner’s point of view about this world”.

The haunting montage of the film’s introduction, backed by the subterranean feel of the song, will stay with you for days. 

Clueless – ‘Fake Plastic Trees'(Acoustic)/ ‘My Iron Lung’

This entry is so 1995. The inclusion of Radiohead’s acoustic version of their 1995 hit ‘Fake Plastic Trees’ perfectly captures the ubiquitous alternative spirit of the era. This contemporary take on Jane Austen’s 1995 classic novel Emma, is hailed as an iconic coming of age comedy for many reasons.

One of these reasons is its self-awareness. “Yuck! The maudlin music of the university station” is what Alicia Silverstone’s protagonist Cher proclaims to herself as the downbeat redux of the melancholic original is played. The song and film are definitive reflections of the era, and together they make a classic coupling. Radiohead were, at the time, considered one of the hottest alt-rock acts around, a moniker they would do everything in their power to ditch over the coming decade. But that doesn’t make their inclusion here any less poignant.  

The song soundtracks the everso nineties conversation between Cher and Paul Rudd’s Josh about being “cool”, something that today seems laughably outdated. Flannel shirts et al., the ‘Dinner with Josh’ scene is a classic throwback to a bygone era where pop culture was at its height. Radiohead also pops up in the film again with their classic grower, ‘My Iron Lung’. 

Vanilla Sky – ‘Everything In Its Right Place’

The 2001 American sci-fi-come-psychological thriller by Cameron Crowe is an ambitious yet incoherent take on the original Spanish film, Alejandro Amenábar’s 1997 offering, Open Your Eyes. A fast mixture of science fiction, warped reality, and a sprinkling of romance, its most memorable part is its opening. 

The opening scenes are a visual montage brilliantly matched by the icy futurism of Radiohead’s ‘Everything In Its Right Place’ from 2000’s Kid A. Crowe’s then-wife, Nancy Wilson, who scored the film, said she spent nine months working on the film’s music, which was done through experimentation with sound collages. She said: “We were trying to balance out the heaviness of the story with sugary pop-culture music”. 

Wilson managed this to a great effect in the film’s introduction. 

Featuring Tom Cruise amongst the urban iconography of New York, the repetition of the line “open your eyes” is a perfect nod to the film’s dystopian and unconscious themes, set out effectively by Radiohead’s hypnotic masterpiece. 

Romeo + Juliet – ‘Talk Show Host’

Originally released as the B-Side to Radiohead’s 1996 single ‘Street Spirit (Fade Out)’, ‘Talk Show Host’ was popularised by Baz Luhrmann’s inclusion of it in his cult classic Romeo + Juliet in October that year. Although Nellee Hooper remixed it for the soundtrack, its inclusion is nonetheless effective.

‘Talk Show Host’ is a brilliant song in itself and in the way that it bridges that gap between The Bends and OK Computer, just as ‘Blow Out’ had done in hinting what was to come on The Bends after Pablo Honey. The trip-hoppy feel of the song perfectly matches the hazy, modern film adaptation of Shakespeare’s classic tragedy. 

The beat is slow-burning, and it reflects the hedonism inherent to the film and the era in the mid-nineties. It wraps you up in the excitement of the romance between our star-crossed lovers. 

Thom Yorke‘s lyrics also capture the modern spin on the destructive war between the Montague and Capulet families: “You want me? / Fucking well come and find me / I’ll be waiting / with a gun and a pack of sandwiches.”

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