Stanley Kubrick was as groundbreaking a director as he was consistent, directing 13 movies that range from good to masterful. Those films covered numerous genres and demonstrated there was almost nothing Kubrick couldn’t do, from large-scale historical epics, to darkly comedic satires, to dystopian science-fiction, to horror, and even to crime-thrillers.
His unique style and bold visuals have been praised to the moon and back, but his ability to select the perfect music to accompany his various films deserves more recognition. He sometimes had original music composed for his movies, and sometimes used pre-existing songs, but either way, his soundtrack choices were often brilliant, as the following examples will hopefully demonstrate.
10 “Title Music from A Clockwork Orange” in ‘A Clockwork Orange’ (1971)
It’s pretty easy to call A Clockwork Orange Kubrick’s most controversial – and perhaps boldest – film. It adapts the 1962 novel of the same name, and presents a particularly bleak future where criminals run rampant, and the State finds itself resorting to dramatic and psychologically damaging measures in its endless endeavor to prevent crime.
Its use of music is one of the things that makes it a one-of-a-kind movie, as it incorporates both traditional classical music and various pieces of classical music that have been reworked electronically by composer Wendy Carlos. The simply titled “Title Music from A Clockwork Orange” is one of the most effective examples of the latter, with the haunting reworking of “Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary” by Henry Purcell instantly establishing the film’s eerie and menacing tone.
9 “Also sprach Zarathustra” in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (1968)
2001: A Space Odyssey still feels as though it could be futuristic, even though it’s now technically set in the past. It spends most of its time in the titular year, showing humanity exploring space and everything that lies beyond the boundaries of Earth, though its prologue memorably takes place in the distant past.
It’s this segment – that shows humanity’s evolution – which includes one piece of music so memorably that it’s hard to hear it and not think of 2001: A Space Odyssey. That music is “Also sprach Zarathustra” by German composer Richard Strauss, with its slow build and eventual explosion of sound being the perfect aural accompaniment to humanity’s descendants discovering how to use tools for the first time.
8 “We’ll Meet Again” in ‘Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb’ (1964)
Stanley Kubrick made plenty of good movies before Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, but it was this 1964 film that stands as arguably his first masterpiece. It’s a satire about the Cold War, with a chaotic plot following numerous characters who are all trying to prevent an imminent nuclear war from breaking out.
While it’s very funny, it also gets serious when it needs to, and that’s especially true of the film’s hauntingly powerful final scene. The closing montage is underscored by Vera Lynn’s 1939 song “We’ll Meet Again,” which was often associated with the Second World War, and in Dr. Strangelove, also gets linked to a hypothetical, potentially even more destructive war.
7 “Singin’ in the Rain” in ‘A Clockwork Orange’ (1971)
If the menacing opening scene of A Clockwork Orange and its title music don’t establish how horrifying the movie will be, the subsequent scenes will leave little doubt among viewers about what kind of movie this is. The first 10 to 15 minutes depict the protagonist, Alex, and his “droogs” going on a crime spree, causing havoc, destruction, and physical harm wherever they go.
The most distressing scene in this sequence is the home invasion, which shows the beginning of a brutal attack on a writer and his wife, and then implies it only gets worse after the scene cuts. The fact Alex is casually singing “Singin’ in the Rain” throughout makes it all the more unnerving. It’s a horrific scene to watch, but it’s hard to forget, and it uses the song in an entirely different way to the 1952 musical that uses it as its title track.
About halfway through Full Metal Jacket, the Vietnam War film turns on its head and becomes something completely different. The first half follows a group of recruits as they train in boot camp, and the second half follows a handful of them once they make it to Vietnam and find themselves in actual combat.
The transition between the first half and the second half is jarring, but it’s undoubtedly memorable. The boot camp sequence ends in a very dramatic way, there are a few seconds of black screen, and then viewers are suddenly transported to the streets of Da Nang, with the use of “These Boots Are Made for Walkin'” by Nancy Sinatra making it feel even more abrupt. It’s a shock to the system, sure, but at least it’s undeniably memorable.
5 “The Blue Danube” in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (1968)
The one piece of music in 2001: A Space Odyssey that rivals “Also sprach Zarathustra” would have to be “The Blue Danube,” when talking about music that has become synonymous with Kubrick’s sci-fi masterpiece. It was composed by Johann Strauss II just over a century before 2001: A Space Odyssey came out, but it’s hard to hear it now without thinking about the film.
It’s a piece of music that suggests wonder and grandeur, and it perfectly accompanies some of the film’s most astounding special effects sequences. It’s the kind of music that also adds to the film’s (mostly) optimistic and wide-eyed look toward the future.
4 “March from A Clockwork Orange” in ‘A Clockwork Orange’ (1971)
Like the similarly named “Title Music from A Clockwork Orange,” “March from A Clockwork Orange” is another piece of classical music given an electronic reworking by Wendy Carlos. In this case, it’s a futuristic-sounding spin on Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Ninth Symphony, Fourth Movement.”
The famed German composer is a big part of the film, being referenced by protagonist Alex, and being featured in the soundtrack at numerous points, with both electronic and non-electronic versions being used. “March from A Clockwork Orange” is particularly memorable for its use of distorted vocals, and the fact it’s featured in the film more than once, including in a record store scene, and a scene where Alex is subjected to the infamous Ludovico technique.
3 “The Faithful Soldier” in ‘Paths of Glory’ (1957)
Few anti-war films are as unflinching or powerful as 1957’s Paths of Glory. It’s set during World War One, and follows the aftermath of a disastrous trench warfare battle that sees three soldiers being put on trial for cowardice, effectively as a way to punish the entire group of soldiers involved in the offensive.
Like any good anti-war film, it doesn’t end on a happy note, and memorably features a young woman singing a German folk song called “The Faithful Soldier,” which brings a group of previously rowdy soldiers in an inn to tears. Interestingly, it’s sung by Christiane Kubrick, who married Kubrick a year after Paths of Glory came out, and stayed married to him until his death in 1999.
2 “Waltz No. 2” in ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ (1999)
Kubrick went out with a bang by having Eyes Wide Shut be his final film. It might not be his most popular, but it’s one of his most distinct, and its complex, mysterious, bizarre, and sometimes darkly funny story about infidelity and underground secret societies arguably feels like the kind of thing his whole career was building to.
It also demonstrated that right until the end, Kubrick knew how to pick music for his movies, clearly seen by the film’s use of “Waltz No. 2” by Dmitri Shostakovich. It perfectly accompanies the mysterious yet maybe even darkly playful tone of a movie that manages to be both oblique and intoxicating all at once, and it works well as a sort of unofficial theme for Kubrick’s final film.
Kubrick wasn’t content to only have one piece of music feel jarring in Full Metal Jacket. Just as “These Boots Were Made For Walkin'” feels unexpected at the halfway point, so too does “Paint it Black” by The Rolling Stones hit suddenly and quite abruptly at the film’s end, right after its bloody and haunting climax.
Even further, between the bloodshed and The Stones, there’s a scene of the soldiers singing along to “The Mickey Mouse March” while fires rage in the background. It’s an understatement to call it all a bold ending to a bold war film, and having all these elements feel surprisingly coherent is something few directors besides Kubrick could ever do.
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