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Music critic and writer Patrin looks back at 50 years of pop music in films

Book cover for writer and music critic Nate Patrin's new book, "The Needle and the Lens." Right, photograph of the author Nate Patrin.
Craig VanDerSchaegen
University of Minnesota Press
Nate Patrin, music critic and author of The Needle and the Lens.

Minnesota writer and music critic Nate Patrin examines the history of pop songs in films in his new book "The Needle and the Lens."

Have you ever wondered how a certain pop song makes it into a movie?

Think of the 1967 movie The Graduate. What’s the first song that comes to mind? How about Easy Rider (1969)? Wayne’s World (1992)?

Music critic Nate Patrin examines the past 50 years of film to show the strong and memorable relationships between pop music and movies in his new book The Needle and the Lens: Pop Goes to the Movies from Rock ’n’ Roll to Synthwave.

Patrin is a longtime music critic whose writing has appeared in publications such as Pitchfork, Stereogum, Spin and his hometown Twin Cities, late alt-weekly City Pages. His first book Bring That Beat Back: How Sampling Built Hip-Hop was named a best music book of 2020 by Kirkus and Rolling Stone.

In a recent What We’re Reading interview, Patrin talked with KAXE / KBXE staff librarian Tammy Bobrowsky about his new book.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Tammy: When you're using a popular song in a movie, there is a group of people who have heard that song and already have an association with it versus a group of people who haven't heard that song before. Can you talk about the difference — what are each getting out of hearing that particular song in a particular film?

Nate: One example I like to think of is The Harder They Come (1973). That film was a lot of peoples' (at least in the United States) introduction to reggae music. And the catch with that was that it was a lot easier to get the soundtrack than it was to see the movie. The movie was kind of a midnight movie for a while — a limited release. But the soundtrack, which was one of the first really successful albums on Island Records, sold like hot cakes.

"I think that the way a song can have that immediate and blunt emotional impact can work well as comedy, as well as horror, action, romance or pretty much any other genre."
Nate Patrin, Minnesota writer and music critic

You could get it everywhere. It was a road trip staple in my family. So by the time I saw the movie, I was very familiar with the entire soundtrack. It was a kind of a moment where I was able to finally see where these songs fit in the narrative of the film. And for other people, I'm sure that seeing the film for the first time was their introduction to this entire genre of music. So, they have a different association.

Tammy: Is there a song that you think is just really overused in movies?

Nate: Yeah, I remember even when I was a kid: “Okay, how many times are we going to use James Brown's ‘I Got You (I Feel Good)’?”

I wrote about Easy Rider for the book, but I chose to write about “The Pusher” instead of “Born to Be Wild” because I think one of the reasons “Born to Be Wild” got so overused is because it hit as a sort of funny little nostalgic counterpoint that people could use ironically. It's this real tough biker rock anthem, but we can use it to score a little kid wreaking havoc or something kind of silly like that.

Although, I will say it had very effective usage in Albert Brooks’ Lost in America. If you haven't seen it, it's one of the funniest gags that riffs off the whole Easy Rider ethos.

Tammy: So, you're touching on a good point: not only is music used to create an atmosphere or to create a mood, but music is often used as just a gag. The needle drops and then that song is kind of the punchline.

Nate: One of my favorite recent examples was in Megan, where this evil android robot girl goes on a rampage and they put on this really sleazy late ‘70s disco song “Walk the Night” by the Skatt Brothers. That's kind of like a gag in itself, even though it also just really works because it's just such a startling kind of moment.

I think that the way a song can have that immediate and blunt emotional impact can work well as comedy, as well as horror, action, romance or pretty much any other genre. There's a genre for every song and a genre for every film. And when you juxtapose those two in a way that either streamlines the two or sets up a funny clash, it can really be a powerful thing.

Tammy: In your book, you talk about when films really did start using popular music more. Do you have a sense for how music has changed? Do you think musicians create songs a little differently now because of the popular use of popular music?

Nate: That's one thing that struck me when I wrote about the movie Drive and the whole synthwave movement that kind of coalesced around that film’s whole aesthetic. A lot of that really is kind of “driven” (no pun intended) by musicians who really visualize themselves as making their own kind of music as cinema. It's no coincidence that one of the real big cultural touchstones for the scene is John Carpenter, who's famous for both.

"Goodfellas, I think, is where he really peaked in those terms, because of that scene starting off with Harry Nilsson's 'Jump Into the Fire.'"
Nate Patrin on Scorsese's use of music in movies

So I think people, especially when they're working in instrumental forms of music, have this sense of wanting to evoke something very specific using an abstract sort of means.

Tammy: Do you have a favorite movie where you just ended up loving what songs they chose and how they ended up using those songs in the movie?

Nate: I think just to focus on one is really hard. I didn’t do a dedicated chapter on Martin Scorsese, but I did put him in the bonus section because he's sort of the patron saint of this whole exercise and I don't really need to belabor it — you know how good he is.

But Goodfellas, I think, is where he really peaked in those terms, because of that scene starting off with Harry Nilsson's “Jump Into the Fire.” Scorsese and his editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, really put together something that was the closest any movie’s suite of adapted songs ever got to feeling like an actual DJ. Because it cuts back and forth with this really impeccable timing and it just mixes and transitions and doubles back. It’s perfectly timed for maximum impact instead of just letting the songs play out and putting some breathing in between. It feels like something that can't actually exist without this particular interplay of music and film.

Nate Patrin’s book The Needle and the Lens: Pop Goes to the Movies from Rock ’n’ Roll to Synthwave is published by the University of Minnesota Press.

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Tammy works at Bemidji State University's library, and she hosts "What We're Reading," a show about books and authors.