2020 Needle Drops

The Letterboxd crew celebrates the best bangers in 2020 films, from Birds of Prey to David Byrne’s American Utopia.

Every year is a good year for music in movies but, for some reason, 2020’s music cues have stuck with us a bit harder than usual. Gemma Gracewood, Ella Kemp, Jack Moulton and Aaron Yap interrupt their holidays to compile a Letterboxd Spotify playlist of their favorite needle drops of the past year. The conversation below contains mild spoilers.

GG: First off, how do we define a ‘needle drop’? Do we need to define a needle drop? Isn’t it obvious?

EK: I feel like it’s a definition that we can spin so many different ways.

GG: There are iconic soundtracks, and then there are specific music moments in movies, where the film itself isn’t necessarily filled with wall-to-wall bangers à la Pulp Fiction or Trainspotting. Needle drops can happen in both. Ella, I enjoyed your description in your 50 favorite music cues piece for The Quietus: “There are fewer pleasures greater, at the movies, than the moment a perfect track starts at a perfect moment, and the marriage of music and film creates an entirely new beast, a work of art in that new connection alone.” It reminds me of Ekwa Msangi’s view, in her recent Letterboxd interview, that music is “the third language” in film.

EK: Perhaps the most vivid 2020 example would be in the masterpiece that is Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, bursting at the seams with songs and needle drops. ‘Ja Ja Ding Dong’ is one of many original songs that do the job very well, but ‘Song-A-Long’ is the only real needle drop: a record-scratch moment where something you thought you knew appears in a new context, and the marriage is perfect.

GG: With Eurovision in mind, then, what are the rules here? How many bangers is a film allowed to have in our playlist? How will we choose between ‘Silly Games’ and ‘Kung Fu Fighting’ for Lovers Rock?!

EK: In a normal year I would say one banger per film, but considering that 1) so many films were snatched from our clutches this year and 2) the films that were released were unusually generous in terms of just how many bangers we were given, I would say that anything goes.

JM: I’m highly in favor of Lovers Rock getting the one exception here.

EK: Well, yes, but, then… Palm Springs will fight about it.

AY: A vote in favor of throwing rules out of the window—we’ve had enough rules this year.

GG: With those very loose parameters agreed on, let’s launch into it. Who wants to start at the beginning, all the way back when cinema’s main problem was the original title of Birds of Prey?

EK: Remember seeing movies on the big screen? I saw—draws breath—Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) in the cinema and was so wonderfully entertained and charmed by all of it. Yes, it’s flashy and violent and energetic and all those good things but it’s also loud, and is very clever with its volume. A personal standout moment is Jurnee Smollett-Bell fully arriving as Black Canary as she sings ‘It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World’. Obviously the meanings couldn’t be more on the nose, but the fact that Smollett-Bell’s voice is so elegant and powerful, perfect for a character whose greatest weapon is her voice, just elevates this way beyond any easy wink to camera about how the women are in charge now. There’s just no denying the beauty and power in this musical moment.

Jurnee Smollett-Bell as Black Canary in Birds of Prey.
Jurnee Smollett-Bell as Black Canary in Birds of Prey.

GG: If we’re talking on-the-nose lyrics that work spectacularly well, I still haven’t recovered from the two music cues performed by Sidney Flanigan in Never Rarely Sometimes Always. There’s the ‘He’s Got the Power’ opening song, which sees Flanigan’s Autumn alone on her high-school stage, acoustic guitar, glitter, pearls, a Pink Ladies-inspired jacket, performing an edgy cover, near the top of her vocal range, of a usually upbeat doo-wop tune about a guy who makes her do things she doesn’t wanna do, but she adores him anyway. (Watching on is Sharon Van Etten as Autumn’s mother, adding extra grit if you’re a fan, which I am.)

Later, much later, after the much-written-about “never, rarely, sometimes, always” scene, Autumn and her cousin Skylar hit a Midtown karaoke bar while killing time before their bus home from New York City. In a much more comfortable register, Autumn confidently nails another 1960s hit, Gerry and the Pacemakers’ ‘Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying’, while Skylar works on earning their bus fare home. There’s so much going on in a scene that really consists of just two or three shots. The lyrics are superlatively spot-on, and I truly do hope that 2021 will bring joy for every girl and boy.

Sidney Flanigan as Autumn in Never Rarely Sometimes Always.
Sidney Flanigan as Autumn in Never Rarely Sometimes Always.

JM: Since we’re talking about needle drops that are performed by movie characters, can I talk about the build-up to the big needle drop in the finale of One Night in Miami? Leslie Odom Jr.’s Sam Cooke is treated as entertainer first, artist second, with Kingsley Ben-Adir’s Malcolm X spending much of their shared screen time encouraging Cooke to use his platform—one popular among whites—for the greater good. When Cooke finally delivers ‘A Change is Gonna Come’ on The Tonight Show, thus defining his career from that point forward, the impact is tenfold and the film finds its magic in the nick of time.

If Odom Jr. is a future Best Supporting Actor winner, this scene will go down as his showcase (and ultimately free of the goodwill from Hamilton’s afterglow). Yes, a civil change did come in the years after the song’s 1964 debut, but we obviously still have a long way to go. And yet, there’s something reflective in the way this moment is about the responsibility of powerful Black voices, and how this idea is executed by director Regina King is profound. It definitely hints without much subtlety that One Night in Miami is but a whisper of what’s to come from her in terms of using her own platform to encourage others to further spread the message. It’s possibly the year’s most important and historic needle drop.

GG: Obviously we need to talk about Steve McQueen’s Small Axe collection, specifically Lovers Rock—a film that’s all about literal needle drops.

JM: ‘Kung Fu Fighting’, I think, is the most essential needle drop in the film because the song, even if nostalgic, has become such a novelty tune, but within seconds McQueen brings back the fresh and exciting communal atmosphere that song creates and is famous for. And it is a subversive moment, because we anticipate Lovers Rock to be comprised primarily of the deep cuts that were coming fresh from Jamaica at the time—but then they drop this one-hit-wonder disco banger that we used to listen to all the time as kids, so it has this sardonic playful tone that’s just pure, non-judgmental joy. It cuts through the tension bubbling outside the house with immediate mock fighting, everyone free to show off their best moves without a sincere threat. You’re already in the door, but the moment the song starts is the film’s true invitation to party down and let loose.

On the Lovers Rock dance-floor.
On the Lovers Rock dance-floor.

GG: And then there’s the a-cappella singalong to Janet Kay’s ‘Silly Games’—

JM: —which is foreshadowed with the women singing it while they cook during the party prep.

GG: When that sublime scene happens, it’s a glorious feeling as a viewer—not only because house parties are currently dangerous to our health, but also because we’re witnessing a film’s cast and crew give everything over to this improvised moment, and they’re able to do so because they have created the perfect conditions to let it happen. I adore watching a crew that’s in the zone. What is the opposite of a ‘drop’? Is there a term for the euphoric romanticism that these slower dance-floor moments create? Peaking, I guess? In this scene, I also recognized a thread that runs all the way back to Cassandra’s ‘Thank You For the Many Things You Have Done’ in the 1980 film Babylon, another music-soaked movie about West-Indian Londoners. And, in a way, the ‘Too Late to Turn Back Now’ dance-floor magic in BlacKkKlansman. (Which reminds me to shout out Spike Lee, the OG needle-drop king, who represented this year with a pair of Marvin Gaye tunes in Da 5 Bloods.)

AY: Sadly I have yet to experience that Lovers Rock euphoria, but would consider the two big drops in Thomas Vinterberg’s Another Round closest to the feeling than any other movie I’ve seen this year. Danish pop outfit Scarlet Pleasure’s ‘What A Life’ sends the film off perfectly to an explosively cathartic and hopeful finish—aided in no small part by Mads’ glorious dancing. But I almost prefer the slinky way The Meters’ ‘Cissy Strut’ (literally a needle drop) shifts the film to its next level, ushering Mads and his teacher pals into one hot boozy mess of a night to (mis)remember. Bob my head I did.

GG: I want to shout out the folk whose job it is to craft a soundtrack that elevates a film. Music supervision is some kind of insane superpower. Supervisors need to know everything about music—not just what’s been, but what’s coming. They get clearance for the best songs, often on tiny budgets (weirdly, there’s no industry standard for the price of music in films, and the budget rides on some mysterious “favored nations” math), and it’s more often than not about relationships. They also make suggestions about who should cover a song, if they’re not using the original, and in doing so, they have the power to launch new artists with a perfect needle drop. They revive careers, and make stars of unknowns. In the upcoming documentary about the Dawn Raid music label, there’s an amazing story about the use of the song ‘Swing’ by Samoan-New Zealand hip-hop/EDM star Savage in Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up, which changed everything for Savage. It literally changed his life. Basically, somehow, music supervisors exist in the swirl of the zeitgeist, even though a film may be a year or two from release.

EK: Music supervisors have really pulled out all the stops this year. One of my favorite romantic scenes was seeing ‘Honey’ by Robyn pop up in Levan Akin’s gorgeous And Then We Danced—to which he credited music supervisor Jen Malone when we chatted about the film last year. What I loved was that the song really hadn’t come out that long ago, so it always feels particularly visceral and alive to me to recognize a song that, first of all, is incredible, but also so fresh in my mind that it feels like we very much exist in the same reality as these characters. Especially considering the boys in Akin’s film are exploring their sexuality and Robyn’s music has helped so many people come to terms with theirs, and the lyrics of her song are also felt in the golden light that colors the scene in the film. It’s such a special moment that you can tell comes from the very simple fact that everyone holds Robyn so close in their hearts, and you just know when it’s the right fit. I’m so glad it paid off.

AY: Also, a quick shout-out to Babyteeth for dropping Vashti Bunyan’s wistful ’70s folk gem ‘Diamond Day’—a song that seems like it should be overused in twee indie coming-of-age flicks, but as far as I’m aware, hasn’t quite got there yet.

JM: And to The Nest, for giving us the gift of Carrie Coon in a club letting it all go to Bronski Beat’s ‘Smalltown Boy’.

Promising young woman and man dance in a pharmacy.
Promising young woman and man dance in a pharmacy.

EK: I feel like the best and most satisfying needle drop moments happen when you have no idea they’re coming—I had seen everyone talking about a Paris Hilton moment in Promising Young Woman but this scene still totally caught me off guard and I miss it whenever I’m not watching it. I can’t say I knew ‘Stars Are Blind’ off by heart beforehand, but I do now. Is it a banger in its own right? I honestly couldn’t say, as whenever I close my eyes I now see Carey Mulligan and Bo Burnham dancing around a pharmacy in shades of baby pink and blue while the most adorable romantic montage I’ve ever seen in my life plays through the honeymoon stage of their relationship. It’s so cheesy and everyone knows it, but it hits such a rare sweet-spot in being uncool, self-aware, glassy-eyed and rosy-cheeked without a dash of cynicism. It’s romantic and silly and so perfect—and for a film with so much bite, it feels like gold dust, a stroke of genius.

JM: There was one needle drop in 2020 that was 32 years in the making. It’s much less about how good the song is (it’s not very), but rather what this moment meant to a beloved franchise and its iconic characters. I’m talking about ‘Face the Music’ from Bill & Ted Face the Music. When Bill & Ted 3 was teased ten years ago, it became clear that their destiny had not been fulfilled in Bogus Journey’s coda. And so, in 2020, Bill and Ted are still hunting down the song that will save the Universe. Switching the mission from themselves to their daughters is a good way for original authors Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon to write around Bill and Ted’s goofy incompetence, and by adding contributions from the world’s greatest composers (Mozart, Kid Cudi, et al), they more than compensate for the imagination required to live up to the song’s grandiose promise. The climactic song (performed on my local freeway of all places!) is deliberately a mixed bag. It has to be—it’s the best-case scenario for too many cooks. But it’s the final ingredient, when Bill and Ted don their guitars at the last second—with a nod of approval from Jimi Hendrix—that delivers rock ’n’ roll’s promise to save the universe, ’80s style.

David Byrne’s American Utopia.
David Byrne’s American Utopia.

GG: There are many more songs on our playlist that we could talk about, but since we’re supposed to be on holiday and this is a no-rules competition, can I finish by nominating David Byrne’s American Utopia as the overall 2020 winner for most best needle drops?

JM: You probably need to choose at least one song from that Broadway sensation to talk about.

GG: Fine, then it can only be the cover of Janelle Monáe’s ‘Hell You Talmabout’. Say their names.

The Best Needle Drops of 2020

Where the movie version is unavailable, we have included the original. Enjoy the full playlist on Spotify.

  • Charlie XCX—‘Boys’ (Promising Young Woman)
  • Paris Hilton—‘Stars Are Blind’ (Promising Young Woman)
  • The Weather Girls—‘It’s Raining Men’ (Promising Young Woman)
  • Bee Gees—‘Stayin Alive’ (Undine)
  • Janet Kay—‘Silly Games’ (Lovers Rock)
  • Carl Douglas—‘Kung Fu Fighting’ (Lovers Rock)
  • Toots & The Maytals—‘Pressure Drop’ (Mangrove)
  • Bronski Beat—‘Smalltown Boy’ (The Nest)
  • Gerry & The Pacemakers—‘Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying’ (Never Rarely Sometimes Always)
  • Patrick Cowley—‘Megatron Man’ (Palm Springs)
  • Kate Bush—‘Cloudbusting’ (Palm Springs)
  • Sam Cooke—‘A Change is Gonna Come’ (One Night in Miami)
  • Marvin Gaye—‘Got to Give It Up’ (Da 5 Bloods)
  • Marvin Gaye—‘What’s Going On’ (Da 5 Bloods)
  • Doja Cat—‘Boss Bitch’ (Birds of Prey)
  • Jurnee Smollett-Bell—‘It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World’ (Birds of Prey)
  • The The—‘This Is the Day’ (Love and Monsters)
  • Wyld Stallyns—‘Face The Music’ (Bill & Ted Face the Music)
  • Angel Olsen—‘Mr. Lonely’ (Kajillionaire)
  • Tears for Fears—‘Everybody Wants To Rule The World’ (Tesla)
  • Travis Scott—‘The Plan’ (Tenet)
  • Cast—‘Song-A-Long’ (Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga)
  • Dido—‘White Flag’ (Bad Education)
  • Aurora—‘Running with the Wolves’ (Wolfwalkers)
  • Bonga—‘Mona Ki Ngi Xica’ (Farewell Amor)
  • Moby—‘In This World’ (Bad Education)
  • Robyn—‘Honey’ (And Then We Danced)
  • Pet Shop Boys—‘Always on My Mind’ (Matthias et Maxime)
  • Kid Cudi—‘Pursuit of Happiness’ (The King of Staten Island)
  • The Meters—‘Cissy Strut’ (Another Round)
  • Scarlet Pleasure—‘What a Life’ (Another Round)
  • Vashti Bunyan—‘Just Another Diamond Day’ (Babyteeth)
  • Janelle Monáe—“Hell You Talmabout” (David Byrne’s American Utopia)
  • Aretha Franklin—‘(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman’ (I’m Your Woman)

Further Reading


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