Top 11 Musical Moments in Alex Gibney Films
Academy Award winner Alex Gibney has a new film in theaters, which for 2010 always seems to be true. Counting his compelling segment of the Freakonomics adaptation, Client 9: The Eliot Spitzer Story is his fourth feature film of the year (the other two being Casino Jack: The United States of Money and My Trip to Al Qaeda). And like most of Gibney’s documentaries, it’s fascinating, timely, and makes brilliant use of music.
“When I start a film,” Gibney says, “I start developing a huge list of songs that seem relevant to the mood, or to the scene, or sometimes even to the character. On Enron I was collecting songs for each of the individual characters as we went, and it formed a big menu. Then we see that certain songs are appropriate for certain moments, that work with the images, and so on. So it’s very much an organic process, and it starts even before the shooting.”
Paste asked Gibney how he’s able to get so many big-name songs from so many big-name artists in his films. “Over the years, we’ve worked out a strategy and that’s to get on our knees. We go out to them and we hope to convince them of the quality of the project and to have them sign off. And then we have a favored-nations deal, so everybody gets paid the same. And if the film does well, they do well.”
Here’s a list of ten of our favorite musical moments from Gibney films, along with a few comments from the auteur himself:
“Back Door Man,” Howlin’ Wolf — Casino Jack and the United States of Money
After introducing Jack Abramoff with Howlin Wolf’s "Spoonful, "Gibney raises the ante with an even more appropriate Howlin’ Wolf song for him.
GIBNEY: In Jack, you have a guy who is full of brio, and that song that song, too, is full of swagger. (Singing) “I’m your baaack doooor man,” you know. There’s not a lot of shame in that song. And that’s one of the things I think that makes it fun. Howlin’ Wolf is one of my favorite blues singers and we got to use two of his songs in Casino Jack. Which was fun not only because it was Howlin’ Wolf, but because it seemed so gutbucket using that music for Jack Abramoff, this relatively sheltered white Jewish lobbyist.
“I Smell a Rat,” Buddy Guy — Casino Jack and the United States of Money
It’s a choice that should be too obvious for exterminator-turned-Congressman-turned-disgraced-ex-Congressman Tom DeLay. But it’s perfect.
GIBNEY: If it had just been a play on the word rat, it would have been kind of silly and superficial. But it has that swagger. What I love about it so much is that blistering Buddy Guy guitar solo over all those shots of Tom DeLay saying “Let’s cut this agency! Let’s cut that agency! Throw ‘em all out!” There’s this tremendous swagger that you feel in the blues that Tom DeLay is all about. I mean, he is from Texas. The music is taking a character position. I like doing that. It’s often done in composing, like Sergio Leone in Once Upon a Time in the West, where each character has a theme.
“Burning Down the House,” Talking Heads — Casino Jack and the United States of Money
As the Gingrich revolution takes over the House of Representatives, the eerie sounds at the beginning of the song are the perfect accompaniment for our entry into this Brave New World. Then the energetic verse kicks in, but the lyrics undercut it with a cautionary “Watch out, you might get what you’re after.” And Neil Volz, our Everyman on the road to ruin, appears onscreen just as David Byrne asserts “I’m/an/or/di/na/ry/guy/Burning Down the House!” Sheer brilliance.
GIBNEY: Very often the lyrics kind of key into the story, like a Greek chorus. But at the same time, the mood of the music has to fit. There’s a lot of things going on at once in that song. “Yeah, man, we’re going to burn down the House!” At the time, that was the attitude. But at the same time, there’s this sense of foreshadowing what is to come.
“Piece of My Heart,” Big Brother and the Holding Company – Gonzo: The Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson
The most beautiful and heartrending choice on the list. As the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago erupts into violence and Hunter S. Thompson and much of his generation lose the last of their innocence, Janis wails at the injustice of it all.
GIBNEY: There’s something about the way the band moves that song. It’s a classic blues song in the sense that it takes great pain and makes a kind of an anthem out of it. It’s so big and brassy and unapologetic. It’s speaking of this anguish, taking a piece of my heart, but doing so in a way that is brash and cynical but doesn’t lose any of the raw emotion of the moment. And there’s something about that where the pain is so evident, but the pain is screamed in this defiant way. And as you see the billy clubs falling on people’s heads in Chicago, it’s almost like a battle cry as well.
“What’s He Building in There,” “Straight to the Top,” “Temptation,” and “God’s Away on Business,” Tom Waits – Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room
Tom Waits serves almost as an unofficial narrator as four of his songs make the film, each with uncanny appropriateness to its moment.
GIBNEY: The first song is “What’s He Building in There,” which is a spoken song about some weird scientist who seems to be building something in a basement laboratory in the neighborhood. And that’s one of themes of the movie too – what are those guys at Enron building? And it sets the tone early, because it asks a very simple and direct question, but in a darkly comic way. And that song is kind of a rock and roll combined with Brecht-Weill kind of thing. And what he’s doing is mocking what’s going on, but at the same time he’s investing himself in the heart of the matter. And what he and Brecht and Weill talk about so often is prostitution, or the sort of dark side of striving to get ahead at all costs. And Tom himself suggested the song for the end of the film, “God’s Away on Business,” which is absolutely the perfect ending.
“If I Ruled the World,” Kurtis Blow, and “Steamroller,” James Taylor — Client Nine: The Story of Eliot Spitzer
Has to be the first time in the history of film (and possibly in the history of recorded music in general) that these two have played back to back.
GIBNEY: I have to say, I really love that, that it was so eclectic. The Kurtis Blow really is fun, and yes, going into James Taylor is great. I do love the variety in the film. The score maintains a very consistent tone. The score in some of the other films was meant to have an eclectic vibe, but in this film it has a very unified tone which the other music can play against.
“New York, New York,” Cat Power – Client Nine: The Story of Eliot Spitzer
All of Gibney’s films have inspired choices for their opening songs, but this one is especially striking as Chan Marshall coos the Sinatra standard seductively.
GIBNEY: For me, the one that was a real touchstone. I always thought it was like Samson’s song sung by Delilah. There’s of course the muscular version sung by Sinatra that we’re all familiar with, but she sings it in such a sexy way that it’s kind of like the siren song. And it undermines that powerful masculinity, which of course is also what happens in the story. I listened to a lot of Cat Power throughout the making of the film.