Five of the Best Needle Drops in TV

Sometimes a piece of music can make or break a scene, or even the whole episode…

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

Writing original music is difficult. Writing original music for as many as 22 episodes of TV, often with a very tight turnaround – plus a memorable theme tune – is very difficult. So why not just make life easier for yourself, whack a few familiar songs over the visuals and head home early?

Well, assuming that’s a genuine question and not a knowingly obnoxious intro for a listicle, perhaps because it’s not as simple as that – and not just because licensing other artists’ music can be prohibitively expensive. There is a great deal of skill in a good needle drop; a really carefully selected, well-timed, cleverly-edited example can transform a scene, magnifying the emotion, teasing out thematic undercurrents, perhaps acting as an ironic counterpoint. Sometimes it can entirely re-contextualise both the music and the visuals.

Overuse the device, however, and it becomes painfully obvious that you simply don’t trust your scenes to communicate the correct emotions – see for example Smallville’s habit of ending every episode with an awkward heart-to-heart between Clark and Lana while the latest lump of licensed sad sack college rock festered in the background, trying desperately to fill in the blanks.

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Here, in no particular order, are five excellent needle drops from the last couple of decades of TV (and one pretty bad one). This is by no means an exhaustive list, so please do share your own favourites – or howlingly bad examples – in the comments. Warning – some spoilers may lie herein.

Buffy The Vampire Slayer, ‘Becoming, Part 2’

Full Of Grace by Sarah McLachlan

Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s taste in licensed music wasn’t always 100 per cent on point, particularly in the early seasons; let’s pour one out for the many rightfully forgotten alt-rock bands who enjoyed extended cameos at the Bronze. When they got it right, though, they got it very right – after all, as Pixar would later demonstrate with Toy Story 2, if you want to traumatize a generation, a little Sarah McLachlan goes a long way.

Full Of Grace soundtracks the epilogue of the emotionally shattering finale of an emotionally shattering season, as Buffy chooses to leave Sunnydale after being forced to kill her lover-turned-nemesis Angel. Part of its impact comes from the fact that it follows nearly ten minutes of non-stop, fantastic orchestral scoring from Christophe Beck: epic battle music, then an extended reprise and resolution of Close Your Eyes, Buffy and Angel’s love theme. Transitioning smoothly from the aching Close Your Eyes to the contemplative strings of Full Of Grace maintains the melancholy mood while also giving the audience some space to breathe, as we absorb what we’ve seen and witness the toll it has taken on our heroine.

Pointedly, as well as being separated visually from her friends and family, Buffy has no dialogue in this scene – it’s basically just all the other characters asking ‘Where’s Buffy’. Full Of Grace effectively acts as her dialogue, expressing the devastation burning behind her numb, haunted expression. It’s not subtle – the lyrics state that “we haven’t seen the sun for weeks” (she goes out at night a lot, y’see) and refer to ‘strength’, ‘courage’ and ‘darkness’ – but McLachlan’s fragile vocal and the elegiac string arrangement ensure that it hits hard.

“I never thought I could feel so low” – yeah, me neither.

Breaking Bad, ‘Fifty-One’

Bonfire by Knife Party

While Breaking Bad’s moody original score was undoubtedly excellent, its licensed soundtrack was also an embarrassment of riches, packed with forgotten classics and unknown gems. This example might not be the first that springs to mind, as it’s not necessarily a great piece of music – yer dad would probably dismiss it as ‘just noise’ – but it’s an interesting one because of how director Rian Johnson uses the music to both amplify the on-screen action and tell us something about Walter White’s current mental state.

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Having leased his son a flashy car and traded in the stolid family wagon for a muscle car of his own, all that really happens in this scene is that Walt and Walt Jr. drive their new rides back to the White residence, park in the driveway and sit there revving the engines, soundtracked by the cartoonishly aggressive drumstep of Bonfire. The camerawork and editing, however, are hyperactive, choppy, almost arch in their stylisation, very different from the painstaking, ultra-controlled approach that tended to characterise the show. It’s as though we’ve briefly left the episode and been flung into a rap video.

And while it’s hilarious and entertaining, the visuals and music also communicate a lot about where Walt is at this point. Metaphorically speaking, he is well and truly getting high off his own supply, ignoring his wife’s advice to keep a low profile, embracing the role of drug kingpin, convinced of his own invincibility. Both his actions and the way Johnson chooses to shoot and edit the scene show that our protagonist is out of control … and while it’s certainly fun to watch, it also clearly indicates that everything is going to go quite spectacularly to shit before long.

Person Of Interest, ‘Deus Ex Machina’

Exit Music (For A Film) by Radiohead

The late, much-missed (among the select few who actually watched it, that is) Person Of Interest was very, very good at needle drops. In fact, this isn’t even the series’ only spine-chilling use of Radiohead. It’s the best, though, don’t @ me.

Season three ends with our plucky, deeply weird heroes losing, and losing hard. Having failed to thwart the evil plot, they are forced to go on the run, and we are shown the ramifications of their defeat in montage, soundtracked by a mournful monologue from Amy Acker and one of the most apocalyptic songs in the Radiohead canon.

Inspired by Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet and appearing on an obscure indie album called OK Computer, Exit Music (For A Film) is mostly a long build-up, from hushed strumming and whispered vocals to a climax of punishing fuzz bass and anguished howling. It’s perfect for an extended montage, and director Chris Fisher and editor Mark Conte make the most of it, telling a complete and devastating mini-story in less than five minutes as the villains consolidate their power and Team Machine disappear into the shadows. As a bonus, some of the lyrics are fairly apropos – “now we are one, in everlasting peace” could describe evil mastermind Greer’s attitude to being ruled over by an all-powerful artificial intelligence (to which we of course respond “we hope that you choke”).

Interestingly, several other shows have since made similar use of this song, from Black Mirror to Westworld. For my money, though, none have deployed it as effectively as Person Of Interest. There is no shortcutting here, no scrambling to fill in the emotional blanks. The scene would probably still work with no music at all, coming as it does at the end of a brilliantly structured season; all Exit Music does is take the dread and desperation already present and dial it up to 11.

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Six Feet Under, ‘Everyone’s Waiting’

Breathe Me by Sia

Speaking of dialling the emotions up to 11, you’d be hard pressed to find a finale as tear-jerking as Six Feet Under’s. And while it’s undoubtedly a perfect ending to the story being told, it’s also a perfect microcosm of a series obsessed with life, death, love and all that weighty business.

The music, a heart-rending song from Sia’s early career, before she became the chart-topping bellower of Chandelier, is technically diegetic, played on a CD in Claire Fisher’s car as she leaves home for a new life in New York. As well as making sense as a cathartic choice for a frequently angsty character, the song’s build from plaintive piano chords to soaring strings is a gorgeous backdrop for Claire’s journey across America and the various flash forwards showing her and her family’s journeys through their lives, to their inevitable deaths.

Put a foot wrong with a scene like this, and the whole thing comes crashing down. But everything, from the song choice to the acting to the editing, to the mixture of bittersweet, peaceful, randomly upsetting and even humorous deaths granted to a cast of characters with whom we’ve spent five seasons, is brilliantly judged and executed. I’ve seen it described as ‘manipulative’, which seems an odd accusation – isn’t all entertainment manipulative? Surely it’s all just people trying to make you feel stuff?

And honestly, if you didn’t feel stuff here, you probably need a white screen and some black text of your own.

The Americans, ‘Pilot’

Tusk by Fleetwood Mac

The Americans frequently made skilful use of found music, with many contenders for best needle drop, from Peter Gabriel’s Games Without Frontiers in the season one finale to Phil Collins’ In The Air Tonight later this very episode. Tusk certainly isn’t the most thematically relevant; there’s not much going on in the lyrics to analyse (unless you wanted to really stretch and suggest that “Why don’t you tell me who’s on the phone” refers to Paige Jennings’ suspicions about, um, who her secret spy parents are speaking to on the phone *crickets*). It’s period appropriate, at least, having been released in 1979, two years before this episode is set.

Mostly, though, this is an example of the ‘wouldn’t it be cool to use this as the soundtrack to a fight scene’ school of needle droppage, and why not? The version used here is an extended remix, audaciously re-edited to fit the peaks and troughs of the sequence, bursts of vocal, horn and guitar popping up in unexpected places, always driven by that iconic pounding percussion. As both a statement of intent – welcome to our show, this is how we do things, get on board – and as a propulsive soundtrack for an exhilarating chase and a badass fistfight, it works like gangbusters, a hugely confident opening for one of the best shows on TV in recent years.

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And a… less good one..

Birds Of Prey, ‘Devil’s Eyes’

All The Things She Said by t.A.T.u

Pretty much everything about this scene, from the hair styles to the lighting to the gratuitous slow motion to the use of t.A.T.u’s anthem of alienation (and titillation) All The Things She Said, date the episode to a single afternoon in early 2003, so it was basically already out of date before it even aired. More to the point, this is a perfect example of whacking a recognizable song (it came out about six months before this episode) over your action to communicate a certain vague … something… that the action, as shot, isn’t delivering.

There’s not really anything to connect the music and the visuals thematically – beyond the fact that, I guess, all the things Harley Quinn said are running through Helena and Barbara’s heads – and the song, particularly this awkwardly edited version, just doesn’t particularly work as fight music. Which is a shame, because some of the choreography is actually quite good.

Rest in peace, Birds Of Prey, we hardly knew thee.