There is much argument against using pre-existing music in film, Ian Garwood noting three potential problems with the pop song: obtrusiveness, cultural relevance, and distance from the narrative (103-106). It is believed that lyrics and cultural connotations can distract from the action, but it is my belief that these elements only aid narrative. By examining the cinematic functions of the soundtracks of O Brother Where Are Thou? (2000) and Marie Antoinette (2006), I will argue that using pre-existing music in film is actually more effective than a score composed specifically for a film.
Film theorist Claudia Gorbman notes that film scores have “temporal, spatial, dramatic, structural, denotative, [and] connotative” abilities” (22), and it is my belief that pop music is just as economical in forming character, conveying setting, and furthering plot. The historical significance of O Brother Where Art Thou?’s authentic bluegrass/gospel/old-timey soundtrack captures the ethos of the Depression Era deep South more effectively than music scored by a modern composer. Marie Antoinette’s punk/New Wave soundtrack would seemingly distract from the setting, as it employs music that originated two centuries after the French queen’s reign. Yet these modern rock lyrics and instrumentations remove Marie from her 18th-century Versailles setting and paint her as a relatable teenage girl with whom a modern audience can empathize.
At first glance, the pop soundtracks of O Brother Where Art Thou? and Marie Antoinette are diametrically opposed, as the first is steadfast in its realistic dedication to the historical time period while the second is an irreverent interpretation of a historical figure. Yet both employ expertly curated soundtracks of pre-existing music to breathe believability and authenticity into the diegetic worlds of their respective films.
Dudasik, Margaret, "Genre as Bait: Using Pop Soundtrack as Narrative Counterpoint or Complement" (2013). Honors College Theses. 127.