Prolific British alternate rock group Radiohead formed in 1985, put out their first album Pablo Honey in 1993 and by 2019 (with releasing nine albums over twenty three years) have sold more than 20 million. Their sound can be unconventional, meditative and stylized but it is consistently them. They never shy away from trying new sounds and feelings, seeing what else works aside from what already has and Thom Yorke’s (lead vocalist) haunting voice strings it all together.
Their music could also be described as cinematic, an adjective that some wouldn’t associate for many 90s bred bands. Filmmakers use them wisely so their songs won’t feel like a repetitive needle-drop but more like a sound that will hold the viewers attention. They can open a film, close one or even play quietly to add more thematic nuance. Radiohead never feels like they will be the band to alarm you of a certain era or slice of time, like how All Along The Watchtower tells you you’re in the Vietnam war or Gimme Shelter‘s permanent relationship with the crime genre. Their music is timeless and catches you by surprise with how well it works in a scene.
They’re considered challenging artists and have become favorites from challenging filmmakers. Seen in memorable films such as Vanilla Sky, Clueless and Baz Luhrmanns Romeo + Juliet however, I wanted to look at Denis Villeneuve‘s Incendies and Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men. In one instance their music is used prominently, another used in-prominently but both are equally as interesting when taking into consideration why and when they’re used.
The opening scene of Incendies with the track “You And Whose Army?“, a choice that distinctly separates itself from the music associated with the Middle East. We first hear the song before we have even faded from black to our opening shot, signaling that it is going to serve a key role in this opening scene. The first shot is an establishing shot of our location: a stripped down and dry look at a Middle Eastern desert. As the camera pulls back, we see a chilling sequence of boys having their heads shaved from a man, with other men standing around him with rifles against their choosing, their body language indicates boredom and repression, a dehumanizing portrait of an inescapable act.
This establishes that this film will be coming from an outsiders point of view and that we are entering foreign territory. Villeneuve has even talked about the decision during the film release: “That first scene is actually the first thing I wrote in the screenplay. “You And Whose Army?” has the kind of emotions, melancholy, and a kind of operatic feeling to it that I wanted to capture in that scene. That song was written in the screenplay since day one and I was always worried that I would never get the rights to it. It’s such a dream to have this song in the movie.”
The song is has an epic feel to it, like the feeling is much larger than the minimalist lyrics may suggest. Yorke’s haunting vocals weaved with the harrowing opening imagery presents an idea of further helplessness, even though we know nothing about what is going on in the film yet. In the film, we do learn that it will become a narrative about investigating. A woman looking for answers about her mom, not a detective but goes through similar emotional pain as one. It is revealed this journey becomes about love, family and truth. “You And Whose Army?” illustrates how alone the main character is, given how much this opener ominously foreshadows this loneliness.
Villeneuve uses Radiohead to showcase the importance and meaning of the first images of the film, a clear indication of the thematic relevance of the song to the film.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Cuaron inserts the song “Life In A Glasshouse” much more quietly in the 2006 dystopian drama Children of Men. So quiet that it’s easy to forget about that there is music being played in the background of the seemingly banal scene (I didn’t even pick up on it on the first time I saw the film). The film is about a procreation drought and the chaos that ensues in result, compared to the song which is about self destruction and the danger that comes from living in a metaphorical glass house. Like a majority of moments in the film, Cuaron packs each scene with layers of meaning and commentary, which is just one reason why it is separated it from most sci-fi thrillers of the 21st century.
What happens in the scene is just small talk between friends, meaningless chit chat like any other day in the bleak, dystopian world. Theo (Clive Owen), who we have seen to be the tired old cynic, goes to his friend Jasper’s (Michael Caine) house and the conversation ranges from weed to current events. Jasper seems to be the only person in Theo’s life who can make him laugh and that he can be himself around since society is crumbling.
“Life In A Glasshouse” can also be in reference to Theo’s own self destruction since the loss of his child and failed marriage with Julien (Julianne Moore), which led to his excessive drinking and misanthropic view of the world. The song ultimately comes back to the old saying “don’t throw stones in a glasshouse”, and that is exactly what Theo and the world around him is doing. They are making an already bad situation even worse by shattering the glass with their stones in which they use as defense.
The specificity of the horns in “Life In A Glasshouse” generates a distortion, like the melody matches with the violence and the unpredictability of the new world they inhabit. The song is so faint that the horns are all you can make out given that they drown out the vocals but the dialogue just barely masks the horns, which have no clear rhythm just like the film plays with sound during the riveting climactic action sequence. In a world deprived of the sounds of children’s voices, the murmurs of alternative rock seem like a miracle in a dry, naked world.
As lead vocalist Thom Yorke puts it, “music is basically like mathematics, only you’re trying to understand patterns – patterns that make you understand what is around you, patterns that help you get through the next day,“. They are challenging artists for complicated films that beg of you to look beyond the surface of what we are presented. Radiohead switches their sound so frequently that it becomes more and more difficult to pinpoint where to utilize them.
The dis-associative choices of their work makes it even more interesting for when they are used in a movie. “You And Whose Army” and “Life In A Glasshouse” would not be assumed to be by the same artist, yet it is this camouflage that makes them unique. There are moments that stand out to you, never becoming a song for a scene just to make it more engaging due to the lack of faith in the actors or direction. Even as Jonny Greenwood (lead guitarist) and Thom Yorke have now seconded as remarkable composers (collaborating with some our finest filmmakers today like Paul Thomas Anderson, Lynne Ramsay and Luca Guadagnino between the two of them), the use of their work in film remains unforgettable.
I love Radiohead and I often consider them one of my favorite bands of all time. They make me think, feel and revisit, just like any great movie. Each album feels like a favorite with every song feeling refreshing and never creating repetition in it’s rhythm. It feels like they never rush through a song to feel as though they should make themselves more accessible as opposed to lingering in a song for complete immersion. No other artist of the modern generation has evoked this feeling like cinema does and it is difficult to see anyone replicating this in the future.