Musical choices are personal for everybody, and for filmmakers more than most. And as 2012 came to a close, multiplexes filled with movies in which directors used music as much as plot and character to tell their stories and put across their artistic visions.
David Chase's Not Fade Away and Judd Apatow's This Is 40 are generational tales whose auteurs spin semiautobiographical sagas in which music is an essential element in the narrative.
In Not Fade Away, the tumult of the 1960s is evoked through the coming-of-age of a curly-haired teenager (John Magaro) who, as director Chase once did, plays drums in a suburban New Jersey rock band.
In This Is 40, the onset of middle age is comically confronted by indie record-label owner (Paul Rudd), who's deluded enough to think that a Graham Parker & the Rumour reunion will be the ticket to financial stability for himself and his wife, played by Apatow's real-life spouse, Leslie Mann.
Along with those two films, the third pop-music-immersed movie of the season -- I'm leaving Les Miserables to the musical-theater lovers -- is Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained.
Compared with the other two films, Tarantino's slave-revenge spaghetti Western is a less-earnest, non-autobiographical work. But it's one in which the filmmaker uses a typically outrageous range of music -- from 1970s singer-songwriter hits to new songs written for the movie by John Legend and Rick Ross -- to make a highly personal aesthetic statement that yields dazzling results.
Of the three movies, Not Fade Away is the one most thick with music. The first feature film by the creator of The Sopranos begins with a scene dramatizing the meeting of American blues- and R&B-loving British teenagers Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, and ends with the Sex Pistols' cover of Jonathan Richman & the Modern Lovers' "Roadrunner."
In between, 40 songs -- or "needle drops" in movie-music speak -- by Bo Diddley, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Robert Johnson, and the Rolling Stones, among others, are used to move the action forward in Chase's film, which has no conventional score.
Using original songs exclusively is rare because it's so expensive. The cable TV drama Mad Men had to cough up $250,000 for the rights to play the Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows." Not Fade Away was able to afford so many classics because Chase hired E Street Band guitarist Steven Van Zandt, who played mob capo Silvio Dante in The Sopranos, as executive producer. "I know some Beatles," Van Zandt told the Wall Street Journal, explaining how he obtained "favored nation" status in acquiring rights at affordable rates.
Twenty-six of the songs in Not Fade Away are on the movie soundtrack (which is available only as a download). A half-dozen are by the Twylight Zones, the respectable garage band fronted by Magaro, which consists of actors who were not musicians until they went through a three-month "boot camp" under the watchful eye of Van Zandt.
This Is 40 also includes actual musicians playing live music, with performances by Parker & the Rumour and country-rock songwriter Ryan Adams. Along with a score by Kanye West producer Jon Brion, Apatow's movie includes lots of music gags. Rudd sings Meat Loaf's "Paradise By the Dashboard Light" during an episode of self-pity, and many jokes are made about the elderly stature of the good-natured Parker, whose celluloid self suffers from gout.
The movie mixes musical genres by including hip-hop and pop songs by Nicki Minaj and others. But the soundtrack album plays it safer, leaning heavily on adult-rock stalwarts such as Paul McCartney, Lindsey Buckingham, and Wilco. It's a pleasant package, but what makes This Is 40 compelling are its laughs more than its tunes.
Along with Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, Django Unchained is one of two major movie releases that address the explosive subject of America's history of slavery. The movies are vastly different in just about every way, including musically.
In Lincoln, Spielberg uses his longtime musical collaborator, multiple Academy Award-winning composer John Williams, who brings in swelling strings to convey triumphant emotion and make sure there's no doubt as to who are the good guys and who the bad guys. Just as predictably, Tarantino is brazenly irreverent in Django, whose fabulously varied soundtrack kicks off with Luis Bacalov's theme song, sung faux-Elvis Presley style by Rocky Roberts, from Sergio Corbucci's 1966 movie Django.
Cutting and pasting, Tarantino pulls Ennio Morricone compositions from the 1970 Clint Eastwood-starrer Two Mules for Sister Sara. And in my favorite musical moment of the movie, Tarantino uses Jim Croce's 1973 hit "I Got a Name" in a montage of bonding bounty hunters during which the former slave Django (Jamie Foxx) comes into his own as a free man.
Digging up and repurposing overlooked gems is a familiar trick of Tarantino's, with music as with actors. It continues to work here, but what's really fresh about the Django soundtrack is original songs. It's a pity the director couldn't find a scene for a song R&B singer Frank Ocean sent him.
But the new tracks that did make the cut -- Anthony Hamilton and Elayna Boynton's defiant soul ballad "Freedom," Rick Ross' rugged rap "100 Black Coffins," John Legend's fabulous revenge anthem "Who Did That To You?" -- are all of the highest order, setting Django apart at the head of the season's notable soundtrack class.