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How needle drops have created some of the most iconic movie moments

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

A lot of movies and shows go from good to great when you drop in one crucial ingredient.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BORN TO BE WILD")

STEPPENWOLF: (Singing) Get your motor running.

RASCOE: The needle drop - like "Born To Be Wild" by Steppenwolf in the movie "Easy Rider" or "Fool Of Me" at the end of "Love & Basketball."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FOOL OF ME")

ME'SHELL NDEGEOCELLO: (Singing) You made a fool of me. Tell me why.

RASCOE: What makes those songs and so many others so effective? Rico Gagliano joins us now. He's the host of the "MUBI Podcast," which just wrapped up a series on famous needle drops in films. Welcome to the show.

RICO GAGLIANO: So lovely to be here. Thanks for having me.

RASCOE: What makes for a particularly good needle drop?

GAGLIANO: So many things. I feel like the thing that I have learned in doing this series is that there is something ineffable about it. I've asked several directors in the series why they put certain songs into their films at a certain moment, and a lot of them couldn't tell me, I mean, beyond the obvious, which is that they love the song. It evokes something within the scene.

But I would also say, well, there's two things. The best needle drops work in one of two ways. One is when you've got a movie where not much is being directly said, where you've got characters that don't talk a lot or characters that have buried a lot, and the needle drop is doing the speaking for them. And a great example of that would be the movie "Aftersun" - came out last year. It got a best actor nomination. And that movie ends by using Queen and David Bowie's "Under Pressure."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNDER PRESSURE")

FREDDIE MERCURY AND DAVID BOWIE: (Singing) Pressure pushing down on me, pressing down on you, no man ask for.

GAGLIANO: The director, Charlotte Wells, told me that moment comes as close as she gets in the movie to telling you what's actually going on emotionally for these characters. And then I think the other is when you're using a song that seems to have nothing to do with the scene that you're watching, and it adds a layer of complexity.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ATLANTIS")

DONOVAN: Atlantis sent out ships to all corners of the Earth. On board were the 12.

GAGLIANO: And Scorsese did this all the time, especially with, like, his fight scenes or sequences of violence where suddenly, he'll put over top of it what seems like an innocuous or out-of-left-field pop song. And I'm thinking, off the top of my head, there's a horrifying scene in "Goodfellas" where a mobster gets a real beatdown from some other mobsters, and in the background is Donovan's "Atlantis."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ATLANTIS")

DONOVAN: (Singing) Way down below the ocean where I wanna be...

GAGLIANO: It just gives it that extra layer of complexity. I think those are two ways that the best needle drops work - for me, anyway.

RASCOE: Is there a song that you love where a movie changed the way you hear it?

GAGLIANO: So I'm a child of the '80s and '90s and I grew up with Tears for Fears.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEAD OVER HEELS")

TEARS FOR FEARS: (Singing) Something happens, and I'm head over heels. I never find out...

GAGLIANO: And I've known their song "Head Over Heels" my entire life. But when I saw it in the movie "Donnie Darko," there's a montage scene where the camera floats both in slow motion and in kind of fast motion through a 1980s-era high school.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEAD OVER HEELS")

TEARS FOR FEARS: (Singing) Throw it away. Throw it away.

GAGLIANO: It's something about the nostalgia of it that just made me realize how gorgeous that song is and how kind of elegiac it is.

RASCOE: I also think that you can have music that elevates a movie that maybe is not a great movie, but the soundtrack is out of this world. I think of "Belly," that intro with "Back To Life," the - kind of the a cappella version...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BACK TO LIFE")

SOUL II SOUL: (Vocalizing).

RASCOE: ...Is amazing, right?

GAGLIANO: That's an insane scene with the black light.

RASCOE: With the black light and the way that comes - (singing) steady. Are you ready?

It's crazy, right? Like...

GAGLIANO: It's really good.

RASCOE: But is the movie great? You know, look.

GAGLIANO: That movie is, like, kind of - stylistically, that movie is incredible. It's...

RASCOE: It's incredible.

GAGLIANO: But it's almost so visually insane that you're not quite sure what's going on sometimes.

RASCOE: Yeah. The plot's a little bit (vocalizing). But that's an example of a needle drop that's punching above its weight. Do you have any others of your mind?

GAGLIANO: Oh, man, people are going to kill me for this. Millennials especially, are going to kill me for this - but "Empire Records," which has this amazing '90s soundtrack.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TIL I HEAR IT FROM YOU")

GIN BLOSSOMS: (Singing) I didn't ask. They shouldn't have told me. At first, I laughed, but now...

GAGLIANO: But the movie - I feel like there were a lot of movies in the '90s that were made because you could get a soundtrack...

RASCOE: Yeah.

GAGLIANO: ...With, like, a bunch of hits on it. And I don't know if that's really what was behind that film. But I do think that that soundtrack is maybe a tad better than the film.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TIL I HEAR IT FROM YOU")

GIN BLOSSOMS: (Singing) From you, hear it from you...

RASCOE: That's Rico Gagliano, host of the "MUBI Podcast" - that's M-U-B-I - and their newest series, "Needle On The Record." Thanks so much for being with us.

GAGLIANO: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TIL I HEAR IT FROM YOU")

GIN BLOSSOMS: (Singing) I don't want to take advice from fools. I'll just figure everything is cool until I hear it from you, hear it from you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
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