April 2, 2020 by Joshua Stegall 

Since 1927, when technology allowed for the synchronization of sound and motion picture, music has been an essential element of Hollywood filmmaking. Whether the film includes pop music, originally composed works, or selections from the classical repertoire, it is virtually impossible to find a movie entirely devoid of music.

Some of the most iconic moments in film expertly utilize music to enhance the emotional experience of the viewer. Moments such as Dorothy wistfully singing “Over the Rainbow” in The Wizard of Oz or the thunderous sounds of the London Symphony performing the Imperial March in Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back would be rendered significantly less impactful without the accompanying music. Many beloved movies make use of orchestral music to enrich the viewing experience, and while some of this music is composed specifically for the film, many recognizable films ingeniously utilize music from the classical repertoire!


Chariots of Fire (1981) – Gilbert and Sullivan Operas


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The 1981 British Historical Drama, which won four Academy Awards (including Best Picture), depicts the inspiring and true lives of Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell. Both students at Cambridge, the athletically gifted pair trains to compete in the 1924 Olympic Games. Each of the film’s protagonists contends with formidable personal challenges; Abrahams is a Jewish man at a time when anti-Semitism was openly tolerated in European society, and Liddell wrestles with his faith and devotion to the Church of Scotland. Throughout the course of the film, they forge a beautiful friendship, and their climactic victories in the Olympics are representative of a great triumph of the human spirit.

The film, set in the 1920’s, takes places at the height of the British Empire. During this time, Great Britain became the single largest empire in all of recorded human history. A time of heightened nationalism and patriotic pride, the operas of Gilbert and Sullivan were enormously popular during this time. Composer Arthur Sullivan and librettist W.S. Gilbert produced some of the most well-loved English operas during the Victorian period that have endured as treasured British cultural heirlooms. Chariots of Fire uses songs from five Gilbert & Sullivan Operas to effectively set the scene and bolster the film’s historical authenticity. The film features well known tunes from H.M.S. Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance, The Mikado, The Gondoliers, and Patience. Furthermore, the works of Gilbert and Sullivan impact the plot of the film directly and explicitly. Abrahams finds a refuge from the anti-Semitism of Cambridge in the university’s Gilbert and Sullivan club, and he falls in love with a soprano who performs in Gilbert and Sullivan operas.

Utilizing English opera music also provides a delightful contrast with the music composed for the film by Vangelis. The original score prominently features synthesized instruments, and the dichotomy of musical idioms from the 1980s and 1880s creates a new-yet-old atmosphere which builds a sense of both familiarity and realism.


Quantum of Solace (2008) – Puccini, “Tosca”


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In the thrilling 2008 British spy film, the debonair protagonist James Bond (the esteemed Agent 007) aims to thwart the nefarious schemes of the fictitious global terrorist organization “Quantum,” which plans to stage a coup in Bolivia and topple the government. While tracking down a high-ranking member of Quantum, Bond is led to a performance of Puccini’s opera Tosca. The performance serves as the backdrop for a secret Quantum rendezvous that Bond attempts to infiltrate, and the gripping music sets the scene for an exhilarating gun-fight sequence.

First performed in 1900, Puccini’s Tosca is one of the most heart-wrenchingly dramatic works ever composed. The intensity of both the plot and the music make Tosca among the most well-known works in the operatic repertoire. The events of the 3-act opera are set in 1800 amidst Napoleon’s invasion of Italy, and this tale of passion, love, and jealousy adds a powerful layer of meaning to the subtext of Quantum of Solace. Furthermore, parallels can be drawn between the two works with regard to themes of impossible love, treachery, loyalty and governmental overthrow.


Get Smart (2007) – Beethoven, Symphony 9 “Ode to Joy”


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This 2007 comedic spy-parody features Steve Carrell as bumbling-yet-endearing secret agent Maxwell Smart. The film, which subverts many common tropes of the genre, builds toward a climax which takes place at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles where a nuclear bomb is rigged to detonate at the conclusion of the final movement of Beethoven’s 9th symphony. The final scene is an electrifying race-against-the-clock that culminates in agent Smart tackling the conductor before the piece can reach its conclusion.

Heralded as a crowning achievement of Western civilization, Symphony No. 9 was the final completed symphony of German composer Ludwig van Beethoven. As a deaf composer, the very existence of Symphony No. 9 represents an enormous triumph of the human will, and the piece concludes with the famous “Ode to Joy,” featuring full orchestra, choir, and vocal soloists. The scope of the symphony is monumental, and its presence in Get Smart enhances the finale of the film considerably!


Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile (2019) – Mozart, “The Magic Flute”


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The 2019 film explores the sinister and unsettling life of Ted Bundy, an American serial killer who ruthlessly claimed the lives of more than thirty young women during the 1970’s. Bundy, though, was not a person that ostensibly appeared capable of such atrocity; he was intelligent, charming, well-spoken, and many women (alarmingly) found him to be quite handsome. The role of Ted Bundy was, controversially, played by Zac Efron; this casting decision was, alas, an artistic choice meant to reinforce the disturbing truth that the individuals capable of the most heinous offenses are often those we least expect.

The film uses Bundy’s relationship with Liz Kendall as a framing device through which to tell the story of Bundy’s capture and prosecution. Bundy and Kendall, for several years, shared an idyllic life together, and Kendall had no substantial reason to regard him as anything other than a loving partner. Eventually, though, mountains of damning evidence surfaced, and it’s as though the proverbial rug was ripped from underneath her. She is horrified by the mere notion that her lover could be capable of such monstrosities, and she is likewise confounded by the sudden realization of how her love has blinded her. Following Bundy’s conviction, Liz visits her former lover in prison and demands the truth. Bundy, for the first time in the film, acknowledges his terrible crimes, and the audience can unmistakably see Kendall’s horror as her ‘world’ comes crashing down around her.

During this climactic moment, composers Beltrami and Smith borrowed one of Mozart’s most famous melodies: The Queen of the Night Aria from his opera The Magic Flute. Sung by a soprano voice both in Mozart’s original and in the Beltrami & Smith adaptation, the menacing, virtuosic, and grandiose aria has been used extensively in film, radio, television, and advertising. The recognizable melody is imbued with a certain air of sophistication and refinement, and the difficulty of the music necessitates great prowess from the performer. In Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile, the melody itself remains intact, but the tempo (the speed at which it is preformed) is greatly reduced. Most performances of the aria ‘clock in’ at around 142 beats per minute, but in this film, the speed is drastically reduced to roughly 88 beats per minute. Additionally, the composers created a new piano accompaniment for the soprano melody which differs harmonically from Mozart’s original orchestral accompaniment. The result is an eerie, disturbing, and uncomfortable experience for the listener. With this selection of music, the scene almost feels as though it is some sort of ‘nightmare sequence.’ This, of course, is appropriate for the moment when Kendall realizes that the allegations against her former lover are in fact true. The melody, beautiful with any accompaniment provides the viewer a sense of the tainted catharsis which Kendall feels onscreen. As tragic and revolting as the killings were, they were over, and the viewer (along with Liz) is finally given a sense of (rather unsettling) finality and conclusion.


Pretty Woman (1990) – Verdi, “La Traviata”


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In this cinematic classic, Julia Roberts plays Vivian, a “woman of the night” who attracts the attention of businessman-playboy Edward. After recently parting ways with his significant-other, Edward enlists the help of Vivian to assume the role of pretend-girlfriend. Despite both of their intentions to maintain a strictly impersonal relationship dynamic, they soon begin to become emotionally attached to one another. In one of the film’s most emotionally moving scenes, Edward takes Vivian to see the San Francisco Opera in a performance of Verdi’s La Traviata. This profoundly moving scene brings Vivian to tears – presumably along with much of the film’s audience!

The title of Verdi’s 1853 Opera translates to “the fallen woman,” and the opera shares immense thematic connections to Pretty Woman. As Verdi’s compositional career unfurled, he began to shift his attention away from romanticized biblical or historical operas and focused his creative energy on constructing realistic and gritty (for the time) depictions of the world. The narrative of La Traviata focuses on the prostitute Violetta who, like Vivian, falls in love with a man of high standing. The opera is a visceral and raw account of human passion that bears strong resemblance to Pretty Woman.