What a Needle Drop Means in Movies
It is peculiar to ponder upon the origins of the film industry, where movies were devoid of any sound. Filmmakers had to rely on live musical accompaniment and placards appearing on the screen at regular intervals to convey important plot points to the audience. However, the emergence of “talkies,” which incorporated music and dialogue into films, presented moviemakers with a fresh and highly effective storytelling tool.
In today’s modern movies, there are numerous audio elements at play. The film score, usually performed by an orchestra, sets the tone throughout the majority of the movie. Dialogue and sound effects are utilized to enhance the visual storytelling, creating a three-dimensional experience for the audience. Additionally, there is a practice known as the Needle Drop, which we will explore in this article.
What exactly is a Needle Drop? Imagine watching a movie that is progressing steadily when suddenly, the scene’s mood changes as a song starts playing onscreen. This song can either be playing in the background or be an integral part of the scene. This moment is what we refer to as a Needle Drop – when a filmmaker incorporates a pre-existing song to enhance the atmosphere of specific sequences in their films. The term itself alludes to the old-fashioned record players that used a needle to generate music by physically dropping it onto a disc record.
Prominent modern filmmakers, such as Edgar Wright and James Gunn, frequently employ needle drops in their works. Gunn’s talent for selecting the perfect retro song has been instrumental in giving the Guardians of the Galaxy films a distinctive personality compared to other space-based movies within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Television shows also utilize needle drops to great effect. An iconic example is the scene in The O.C. where the main character shoots someone, and Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek” begins playing in the background. This particular moment was humorously parodied on Saturday Night Live, becoming one of the internet’s earliest viral memes on social media.
Needle drops are not a recent phenomenon in commercial filmmaking. Directors have long recognized the power of popular songs in films. Think back to John Cusack’s character holding up a boombox playing Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” in 1989’s Say Anything… or Kevin Bacon leading his high school in a lively dance rendition of Kenny Loggins’ “Footloose” in the 1984 movie of the same name. Going further back, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey features several iconic needle drop moments, incorporating compositions from renowned musicians Richard Strauss, Johann Strauss, György Ligeti, and Aram Khachaturian to create an otherworldly, epic atmosphere that surpasses human comprehension.
With the advent of the internet age, creative freedom in selecting songs for movies has expanded beyond filmmakers. Now, any movie enthusiast with an internet connection and basic editing software can create musical mashups using scenes from different films. This phenomenon has become a barometer for measuring audience interest in a movie – the more memes, Vines, and musical TikTok edits a film generates on social media, the more buzz it generates.
In a way, these musical memes and mashups can be seen as fans taking control of the movies and shows they consume, repurposing the footage to express their own creativity. It parallels how filmmakers use pre-existing songs in their movies to create needle drop moments of artistic expression. Thus, the circle is complete.
However, some critics argue that needle drops can be a lazy form of storytelling, making things too obvious and on the nose. For example, the use of Badfinger’s “Baby Blue” in the final scene of the critically acclaimed TV show Breaking Bad, as Walter White meets his demise, has been criticized as an overt choice that adds nothing new to the narrative. Ultimately, opinions on needle drops come down to personal taste. What may seem trite and obvious to one person could be fresh and interesting to another. It is up to the creative forces behind the movie or show to decide which songs best align with their desired story.
It is essential to consider the perspective of the musical artists who create the songs featured in films. This is where needle drops can become complicated. For instance, Frank Sinatra famously refused to allow Martin Scorsese to use his song “My Way” in the film Goodfellas. Similarly, numerous artists declined permission for their songs to be featured on the hit TV series Glee, leading to conflicts between the show’s creators and these well-known artists. It is not solely the filmmakers’ decision to determine which songs become part of a film’s musical legacy. Musicians also have the right to choose which films align with their signature sound.
Occasionally, serendipitous moments occur when artists grant permission for their songs to be used in movies. One heartwarming example is when Jack Black personally convinced Led Zeppelin to allow their song to be showcased in his film School of Rock.
In conclusion, needle drops have become a powerful tool for filmmakers to enhance their storytelling through the inclusion of pre-existing songs. While some may criticize this technique as a lazy form of storytelling, it ultimately comes down to personal taste. The relationship between needle drops, filmmakers, audiences, and musicians is a delicate dance that shapes the cinematic experience.
It’s strange to think about now, but when the film industry started, movies did not have any sound. Filmmakers had to make do with live musical accompaniment and placards popping up on the screen at regular intervals to let the audience know about crucial plot points. Then came the “talkies” with music and dialogs included in the film, and suddenly moviemakers had a brand-new and highly effective means of telling their stories.
There are many audio elements to modern movies. There is the film score that plays over most of the movie, usually performed by an orchestra. Various dialogue and sound effects to give the visual storytelling a three-dimensional feel. And sometimes, a practice known as the Needle Drop, which we will be exploring in this article.
What Is a Needle Drop?
Say you’re watching a movie, and it’s chugging along at a steady pace. Suddenly the mood of the scene changes when a song starts playing onscreen. The song could be in the background, or it could be a part of the scene. But in either case, what you have just experienced is a needle drop moment, where a filmmaker uses a pre-existing song to add to the atmosphere of certain sequences in their films. The term is a reference to those old-timey record players that operated by literally dropping a needle onto a disc record to generate music.
Some prominent modern filmmakers who often use needle drops in their works are Edgar Wright and James Gunn. Indeed, Gunn’s canny ability to add the perfect retro song to stories is a major reason why the Guardians of the Galaxy films have such a standout personality compared to the rest of the MCU and other space-based movies.
Television shows are also not immune to the effects of a solid needle drop. Like the scene in The O.C. where the main character shoots someone, and immediately the song ‘Hide and Seek’ by Imogen Heap starts playing in the background. The moment was later hilariously parodied on SNL by The Lonely Islandin one of the internet’s earliest memes to go viral on social media.
Are Needle Drops New?
The needle drop technique is nothing new in commercial filmmaking. Directors have long been aware of the power of a popular song in films. Remember John Cusack’s character holding up a boombox blasting out ‘In Your Eyes’ by Peter Gabriel in 1989’s Say Anything…? Remember Kevin Bacon leading his entire high school into a spirited dance rendition of ‘Footloose’ by Kenny Loggins in the 1984 movie of the same name?
Going further back, some of the most iconic needle drop moments occur in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kubrick mixes compositions from several famous musicians including Richard Strauss, Johann Strauss, György Ligeti, and Aram Khachaturian to underline the sense that you are watching something alien, epic, and beyond simple human comprehension.
The Age of Internet Mashups
It’s one thing for filmmakers to decide on particular songs that they wish to include in the narrative of their movies. But the internet age has allowed this creative freedom to reach pretty much any movie buff with a broadband connection and basic editing software. That is why you can see so many musical mashups of different movie scenes on YouTube.
Indeed, a modern indicator of audience interest in a movie is often seen as a function of how many memes, Vines, musical TikTok edits the movie can generate on social media. In a way, such musical memes and mashups can be viewed as fans taking control over the movies and shows they consume, and re-purposing the footage from such content for their personal creative expression. Sort of exactly how filmmakers use pre-existing songs in their movies for needle drop moments of creative expression. And thus the circle is complete.
A Played Out Trope?
Needle drops are a good way to get audiences hyped for a scene by adding a familiar and well-liked song into the mix. But there are some critics who argue that this is a lazy form of storytelling that can make things too obvious and on the nose. For instance, one of the most critically-acclaimed TV shows of all time, Breaking Badends with its main character Walter White dying from a gunshot wound while ‘Baby Blue’ by Badfinger plays in the background, to underline the already perfectly obvious connection between Walter and his special brand of blue crystal meth.
The argument made by critics is that this kind of needle drop moment can be creatively unsatisfying at best, or at worst, can seem like shoe-horning a popular song into a story just to appeal to a particular demographic. Of course, such opinions ultimately come down to a matter of taste. What might seem like a trite and obvious song choice to one person might be fresh and interesting to another. In the end, it’s up to the creative forces behind the movie or show to decide what kind of songs they want their story to be associated with. Like when Matt Reeves was directly inspired by Nirvana’s ‘Something in the Way’ while writing The Batmanand later incorporated the song into the movie.
Not Every Needle Drop Is Welcome
So far we have talked about the relationship with needle drops of filmmakers and audiences. But what about the musical artists who make the songs in the first place? This is often where a needle drop moment can get tricky. For instance, Goodfellas editor Thelma Schoonmaker once revealed that Frank Sinatra flatly refused to allow director Martin Scorsese to use his song ‘My Way’ in the movie. Similarly, a number of artists refused to allow their songs to play on the hit TV series Gleewhich led to a whole behind-the-scenes kerfuffle between the makers of the show and many well-known artists.
At the end of the day, it’s not just the filmmakers who get to decide which song will be a part of their film’s musical legacy. Musicians also have the right to decide which kind of cinema can carry their signature sound. And sometimes, when the planets align in just the right way, you get a heartwarming moment like when Jack Black personally convinced Led Zeppelin to allow him to showcase their song in Black’s movie School of Rock.