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Lady Bird, Dave Matthews Band and the films that give corny songs new life

Saoirse Ronan in Lady Bird.
Listening to Crash Into Me by Dave Matthews Band … Saoirse Ronan in Lady Bird. Photograph: Allstar/A24

Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut, Lady Bird, has been polishing careers since its initial US release last November. Best known for starring in Roseanne, Laurie Metcalf has confessed that she’s exhausted by the attention she has garnered from playing Lady Bird’s stricken mother; the film has earned Saoirse Ronan her second Academy Award nomination for best actress (the first for Brooklyn in 2015); and put the cherry atop Timothée Chalamet’s Call Me By Your Name victory lap. But Lady Bird has also shone a light on an unlikelier recipient: namely the Dave Matthews Band and their 1997 single, Crash Into Me, which plays during two pivotal moments in the film.

In its heyday, Crash Into Me didn’t want for commercial recognition. It reached No 19 in the Billboard Hot 100 and earned a nomination for best rock vocal group performance at the 1998 Grammys. Critics were less favourable, sneering at its banality – and by the time a hip new wave of bands including the Strokes, White Stripes and Yeah Yeah Yeahs redefined US rock at the turn of the millennium, soft-rockers such as Dave Matthews Band looked decidedly old hat. (Plus their crisp sheen had been a major beneficiary of the CD era, which was being shattered by P2P file sharing.)

That’s the period in which Gerwig sets her film – her protagonist’s 2002-03 high school senior year. Despite news footage of the Iraq war playing in the background of a few scenes, Lady Bird (the self-appointed sobriquet of 17-year-old Christine McPherson) wishes she lived through a more interesting era, and has posters of early-90s feminist punk trailblazers on her bedroom wall. She’s a girl out of time, a situation illustrated beautifully by the twin revelations she experiences when Crash Into Me starts playing on car radios at two different emotional crossroads. The strangeness is heightened by Crash Into Me’s fairly dodgy lyrics about an obsessive voyeur ogling a girl through a window, but it just adds to Gerwig’s message: you can’t deny your truth, no matter how uncool.

In tribute to Lady Bird rehabilitating Crash Into Me, Guardian writers have selected their favourite marriages of cheesy songs made new by classic movie scenes.

Tom Cruise as Jerry Maguire.
Tom Cruise as Jerry Maguire. Photograph: Allstar/Tristar Pictures

The song: Tom Petty, Free Fallin’
The film: Jerry Maguire

Remember Jerry Maguire driving down the road while singing his head off to Free Fallin’? Try to forget. You can’t. It’s impossible because it’s the perfect fusion of 80s pop with Hollywood pathos. Jerry is prematurely celebrating securing the signature of the No 1 NFL draft pick, Frank Cushman, AKA the Cush (played by Jerry O’Connell) after shaking hands on a deal with his duplicitous “I don’t do contracts” dad, Keith. It’s the deal that will bring him back from the brink. The memo-writing idealist only went and did it! But he should have known things were going to go pear-shaped when he shifted his radio dial – via the Rolling Stones and Juice Newton – and landed on the chorus to Tom Petty’s power ballad. Petty wrote the song in an attempt to make ELO’s Jeff Lynne laugh. “I thought I was just amusing Jeff,” Petty admitted in 2016. “But then I got to the chorus of the song and he leaned over to me and said the word free-falling.” Poor Jerry. No wonder he was about to get done over. Free Fallin’ isn’t his triumphant moment, it’s a warning from the radio about the dangers of trusting people called Keith and songs inspired by bearded prog musicians. Lanre Bakare

The song: Peter Gabriel, In Your Eyes
The film: Say Anything

It’s not a surprise that the former Rolling Stone journalist, Cameron Crowe, would have such a great feel for music in his movies. It’s more of a surprise, though, that he would appreciate that kind of cheese you imagine would drive most music journalists to don hazmat suits. Peter Gabriel’s In Your Eyes is one of the cheesiest ballads of the 80s, at least up there with Patrick Swayze’s She’s Like the Wind, which is why I love it. And so, apparently, does Diane Court, played by Ione Skye, because she tells Lloyd Dobler (John Cusack, duh) to listen to it after the first time they have sex: “Listen to the song, it’s a really good song,” she says. And she’s right! It’s so good that even after Diane dumps Lloyd and he turns up outside her house, holding a boombox playing the song, you don’t think: “That’s a creepy thing to do, standing outside your ex’s house playing a song you two once had sex to.” You think, “That’s a really good song!” Hadley Freeman

The song: Neil Diamond, Sweet Caroline
The film: Beautiful Girls

Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline seems bound up with communality. It’s almost impossible to imagine listening to it on one’s own: it’s so obvious, so devoted to rushing to the chorus that it doesn’t leave much space for the private interpretation. Which is what makes its use in the ensemble comedy Beautiful Girls so perfectly judged.

The set-up is easy enough: our ensemble gather in their hometown bar. Timothy Hutton, playing a small-time musician home from New York City for his high-school reunion, takes to the bar’s piano and starts vamping. One of his buddies sits alongside him, whispers in his ear, and the pair start picking out the opening chords of Sweet Caroline. Slowly, the rest of the friends join in – and they join in the way real people do: not wholly in time, not wholly in tune, but the way people sing when they are with those they love and are happy. A “cool” song would not have worked here: movies are meant to show not tell, and Sweet Caroline shows us the bond between these friends. It makes me smile every time I see it. Michael Hann

Jon Heder as Napoleon Dynamite.
Jon Heder as Napoleon Dynamite. Photograph: Moviestore/Rex Shutterstock

The song: Alphaville, Forever Young
The film: Napoleon Dynamite

Forever Young is easy to snigger at. Released in 1984, it’s very much of its era. The music deals in the billowy, ponderous, synth-y pop-rock sound that was the coming thing that year; the lyrics come fraught with worry about imminent nuclear war, as all pop lyrics in 1984 were legally obliged to do. There’s an unwitting pathos about it, arising from the sense that English was not the first language of whoever wrote the words: “I don’t want to die like a fading horse.” And yet, deployed during the prom scene in Napoleon Dynamite – an all-too-recognisable riot of bad clothes, awkward dancing and fumbled romantic hopes – it feels really poignant. In 1984, there probably were slow dances at proms soundtracked by the song, and the chorus probably sounded like an affirmation of youthful self-belief. Here, it’s turned on its head: you hear the chorus, watch what’s happening on screen and the cumulative effect is a shudder at the memory of teenage life’s ghastliness. Alexis Petridis

The song: Kenny Rogers, Just Dropped In
The film: The Big Lebowski

At the risk of angering Americans, it must be put on record that Kenny Rogers is not cool. Sorry. If you duet with Dolly Parton and she’s the one with the least distressing cosmetic surgery, you’ve got problems. But The Big Lebowski is cool. Adored by a cult-like sect of acolytes, it’s a meandering stoner comedy that unspools its quiet brilliance over dozens of viewings. One sequence sees the film’s toke-happy hero, The Dude – who is, to this day, the only person besides Terry Crews to sound cool referring to themselves in the third person – Mickey Finned into oblivion. He then embarks upon a vision quest involving bowling, Julianne Moore, lots of legs and Kenny Rogers. And it works perfectly. “I pushed my soul in a deep dark hole, and then I followed it in,” Rogers purrs – a sentiment with which many of the film’s more herbally relaxed viewers can surely identify. Just Dropped In is far too cool to be a Kenny original, obviously (it was written by Mickey Newbury), but here, for three lysergic minutes, Kenny is the dude. Luke Holland

Beau Travail, 2000.
Beau Travail, 2000. Photograph: Moviestore Collection/Rex Features

The song: Corona, Rhythm of the Night
The film: Beau Travail

This plays over the final scene of Beau Travail, Claire Denis’s 1999 masterpiece. The preceding 90 minutes have told the story of Galoup, played by Denis Lavant, a soldier in the French Foreign Legion who seems to be in a happy enough groove with his work: someone who draws energy from the rigour of drills and physical betterment. His regimen – both physical and emotional – is spun off course by the arrival of newly recruited Sentain, and Galoup sets about engineering his downfall, even death. But why? Jealousy at Sentain’s popularity – or confusion at his feelings for this smooth, beautiful man?

The film hums with suppressed desire and rage, and it is music that eventually provides a vent. Things don’t end up the way Galoup would have liked, leading to the final enigmatic scene. He stalks impetuously around a nightclub dancefloor before erupting into a wildly athletic, unhinged set of moves. As he dances, he pauses, before letting the music infect him again: this is a man learning to listen to himself, and answer. Is he letting off steam? Is he remembering happier times, or daydreaming of an alternative reality in which he can truly be himself? Is he rejoicing in the dreadful clarity before suicide, or even in some kind of purgatorial disco?

Whatever the case, the scene showcases the heartbreaking, transcendental beauty of Rhythm of the Night, one of the true musical masterpieces of the 1990s. In using rudimentary Europop production, Corona smuggle this sad, yearning song on to the dancefloor; this switches it from passive to active, synthesising and enriching its melancholy into something truly potent. “Won’t you teach me how to love and learn?” runs one lyric. Galoup finds his deepest desires given voice by a spectral diva, and Denis’s genius is to obscure the true nature of this awakening: is it in this life or the next? The greatest ending in cinema, given life by the greatest moment in Europop. Ben Beaumont Thomas

The song: Stealers Wheel, Stuck in the Middle With You
The film: Reservoir Dogs

Although hardly the cheesiest song ever written, this Dylanesque 1973 hit penned by Gerry Rafferty and schoolmate Joe Egan of Paisley, Scotland, had become best known as a cheery regional radio staple before its use in Quentin Tarantino’s violent 1992 thriller Reservoir Dogs gave it a new identity.

Originally penned about alienation at a music industry party, the lyrics make an eerily perfect fit for the infamous ear-slicing scene in which a gangster, Mr Blonde, graphically tortures a police officer, who is strapped to a chair: “Well I don’t know why I came here tonight/ Got a feeling that something ain’t right/ I’m so scared in case I fall off my chair …”

Before the movie, the song was an amenable enough toe-tapper, but once you’ve heard it in the film, it’s impossible to listen to it again without picturing Blonde’s macabre penchant for natty dance steps, accompanied by blood and gore. Dave Simpson

The Stealers Wheel scene from Reservoir Dogs – video

The song: Rick James, Superfreak
The film: Little Miss Sunshine

“She’s a very kinky girl,” the song starts, as seven-year-old Olive Hoover starts slapping her bottom on stage at the beauty pageant. “The kind you don’t take home to mother.” Then she starts stripping. People leave in disgust. Her parents look on, aghast. In the climactic scene of Little Miss Sunshine, Rick James’s Super Freak is horribly, inappropriately amazing.

This cheesy bit of 80s funk, a song even James described as “silly”, becomes an anthem of the misfit (though by “freak”, he meant a sexually experimental woman). Olive is not a beauty queen – she has jam-jar glasses, a child’s pot belly. With the overtly sexual lyrics, and choreography by her strip-club-loving grandpa “who showed me these moves”, it’s too much for the pageant judges, who can’t see anything wrong with the other heavily made up and yes, sexualised, young contestants.

I’m not sure the song needed redeeming, exactly (its late creator is another matter – the troubled and flamboyant James, accused of torture, served jail time for falsely imprisoning a woman). But the film reintroduced it to people who thought MC Hammer had come up with that brilliant bass line. Emine Saner

This article titled "Lady Bird, Dave Matthews Band and the films that give corny songs new life" was written by Guardian music, for theguardian.com on Monday 12 February 2018 02.05pm

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