Anachronistic: belonging-to-a-period-other-than-in-which-it-exists. Anachronistic soundtrack: the sexiest kind of film score.
Almost every movie uses its soundtrack to create emotion, feeling, tone, and texture. Historical films usually involve music the same way they do costumes: to help transport us to another land and another time. They might stick carefully to the music of the period, or incorporate a soundtrack that helps invoke a particular unit of history class.
Often, though, telling the artistic truth requires deviating from the exact historical facts. Here, I’m focused specifically on films where the music is conspicuously NOT from the time period portrayed. Are historical characters interacting with modern music? Is it on in the background while they’re going about their day? Are they dancing to it, or perhaps even singing it? Anachronistic soundtracks are used to jar and excite the viewer, to add a sense of surrealism, surprise, and style. Here are my 5 top period pieces that use modern music to time travel. They’re ranked by artistic audacity (how surprising it was to hear this music in that film).
5. Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
Annie Lennox composed “Love Song for a Vampire” for this 1994 Dracula movie directed by Francis Ford Coppola. It stars Winona Rider and Keanu Reeves (wild, right?). On the one hand, this is a theme song, so it matches and is drawn from the film perfectly. Still, Dracula is set mostly in the 1800s, and the entire rest of the film soundtrack is composed by Wojciech Kilar, a classical music composer. Most of the soundtrack is clearly intended to further invoke the particular setting of 1800s Transylvania. In fictional pieces set in factual time periods, it is usually crucial to stay true to the chronology, since there are fewer historical events to ground you. But Annie Lennox’s song is recognizably not from the 1800s: her voice is distinctive, and it is a dramatic but non-operatic piece.
Still, there is nothing that could create the kind of eerie, melancholy, and gothic vibe of Bram Stoker’s Dracula quite like Annie Lennox. Their relationship in this movie is as singular as the song. “Love Song for a Vampire” is crucial to the film’s cult success and lasting power.
4. Inglourious Basterds (2009)
Quentin Tarantino has a tendency towards revisionist history: Django Unchained, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and Inglourious Basterds are all period pieces that involve significant historical revamping. Usually this is for the purpose of enacting some sort of immensely satisfying revenge story. Inglourious Basterds is set in the 1940s, during World War II, but the soundtrack is expansive. It includes tracks by traditional film composer Ennio Morricone as well as a variety of other genres, including some music by Billy Preston and other funk musicians. (Django Unchained also has a combination soundtrack full of spaghetti western music, James Brown, and 2Pac, so this is quite a theme for Tarantino.) The most significant instance of musical anachronism involves the song “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)” by David Bowie. It surges loudly during the getting-ready-for-revenge scene as the main character, Shoshanna, gets dressed, and discusses plans with her lover Marcel.
“See these eyes so red,” sings Bowie as Shoshanna streaks red on her face.
The music is so intimately involved with this scene that it feels present, noticeable. But while the diverse soundtrack shapes the tone in each part of the movie, it is not especially confusing or surprising: Tarantino has already made it clear that he is not aiming for historical accuracy.
3. Marie Antoinette (2006)
Marie Antoinette is set in the 1770s and largely tries to stay true to the historical facts, but director Sofia Coppola makes the excellent choice not to be confined to period music. Marie Antoinette and her friends never dance to pop songs, but 1980s new wave music is used to emphasize the decadence in this already wildly decadent piece. Bow Wow Wow’s “I Want Candy” is probably the most prominent piece of music in the film. It is used the same way that “Perfect Day” is used in Legally Blonde, or that “Suddenly I See” is featured in The Devil Wears Prada. Contextually, this makes a lot of sense: for all its differences, Marie Antoinette is still a 2000s movie, and the choice here to have a shopping montage is both predictable and very necessary. The song is particularly perfect for this movie because it has both sexual innuendos and childish charm. It mimics exactly the juxtaposition of Queen Marie Antoinette herself: she is frilly and floofy and so, so naive.
Coppola allows the characters to talk while the music plays in the background, which brings them closer to the music than if it were a silent montage. Kristen Dunst coos over the song as she’s touching the confectionary costumes. And all this is over decadent shots of shoes and jewelry, and plates of strawberry-chocolate eclairs, champagne bubbling over the edge of the glass.
2. The Great Gatsby (2013)
The Great Gatsby is famously set in the roaring 1920s. To invoke the wildness and debauchery of the time period, Baz Luhrmann incorporates a soundtrack including Amy Winehouse, Jack White, will.i.am, and Beyoncé. The theme song is “Young and Beautiful,” composed for the film by Lana del Ray, who has a marvelously original and recognizable voice. There is no mistaking the contemporary slant to the music of this period film.
This ranks as a little more outrageous than the Marie Antoinette soundtrack, because this one is composed almost entirely of well-known pop songs and artists. “I Can’t Stop”, in particular, is just so modern and electro-pop. It evokes a club atmosphere, emphasizing the amount of debauchery going on. All of this works to disorient us.
A man outside is playing trumpet at the same time as this party scene, which further emphasizes the possibility that these characters could be listening to the song. The trumpeter solos to Flux Pavilion (who would have been decades from birth at this point in time!). Our main characters, too, are dancing to the modern music we are hearing.
1. Moulin Rouge! (2001)
Moulin Rouge! is another Baz Luhrmann film. Apparently this man commits all kinds of chronological sins? As a movie-musical, of course the music is going to be front and center. But the use of anachronism in this film is still unprecedentedly miraculous. It is set in 1900, and yet the musical numbers include Madonna’s “Like a Virgin,” “Roxanne” by the Police, and “Your Song” by Elton John. Each number helps to do justice to both the historically-based characters and the music itself: neither comes out of this deal at all cheapened or shortchanged. I could not possibly pick the best or most conspicuous song of the film. All of them are used to transmit nuances of emotion in ways we might not have been able to understand if Luhrmann had used period music. Below is “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend,” our introduction to Satine. This song reminds us of Marilyn Monroe so that we are able to more easily understand Satine’s position in society. She is dripping in satin and decadence, and she is desperately sad but we don’t know it yet.
I’ve noticed something about most of these historical dramas that use modern music. They are highly surreal, colorful, bright, often stylized. The director wants to plant an image in your head. These songs help the film to do the thing that pop songs do best: capture a memory and ask you to hold on to it.