This article originally ran in April 2016. We’re revisiting in celebration of a slew of Brian Eno’s best work getting re-released on vinyl this Friday.
Whether you know him as the godfather of electronica, Roxy Music and Bowie’s secret weapon, or that really cool beep boop guy with the cats, there is only one Brian Eno. Simply put, he is an experimental icon in the world of music — an avant auteur defined by his idiosyncratic interests and involvements. Eno’s career has been defined by his glorious glam rock, his beauteous digital techniques and tones, and his collaborations with great artists like David Byrne and U2 among many others.
In that spirit, Eno and films were always going to be a match made in heaven. A sonic, ethereal, peaceful, relaxing, chilled-out, becalming, good-vibe-inducing sort of heaven. Besides, the guy did release several albums under the title of Music for Films; for goodness sake, how was Eno not going to find his way to the silver screen? Today, we’re going to reflect (somberly, of course, with a soft pillow in a quiet room if possible) on some of the finest uses of Eno’s music in the movies.
However, before this spiritual journey begins, here are a few quick rules:
01. “Once in a Lifetime”, “Heroes”, U2 songs … all that stuff is out. The track in any respective movie’s got to be “by Brian Eno” in some form. And besides, as fantastic as Bowie and Byrne are, well, their songs are a little played out in popular films.
02. No original scores. Eno’s got 51 composer credits, and sometimes he’s listed as a composer even if he’s just using old tracks. Our list will look specifically at tunes that are either from Eno’s albums or made for a specific soundtrack. So, for example, Me, Earl and the Dying Girl might be on the list because it uses past tracks, even though Eno’s the film’s credited composer.
Eno’s songs all enhanced these films in some way. Whether it was a perfect cue or a tune that simply improved a film on rocky ground, these Eno tracks made movies a little better.
For the best and most blood pressure-lowering results, read this list while listening to Ambient 1.
Senior Staff Writer
Here we have the very first usage of Brian Eno’s music in a motion picture. “Slow Water” opens Derek Jarman’s cult classic about Queen Elizabeth I time traveling to 1970s London and experiencing all sorts of curious things. In a word, the film’s weird, but in that special, experimental, “only in the ‘70s” way. Punk visuals and Shakespearean pageantry collide in Jubilee, and it rides the line between absurdist trash and baffling mystery, but Eno’s elegant, rueful “Slow Water” prepares viewers right at the start for what will be an unforgettable, episodic ride. Eno’s music bonds Jarman’s unclear motivations very early, so while it may take viewers a moment to understand what the hell the film’s getting at, at least Eno becomes a through-line. His music often has a way of doing that.
Eno served as Jubilee’s composer, but the film utilizes existing Eno music from Music for Films. While one can easily argue that his music was ready-made for movies, it’s not just because of the sounds and style. Eno absolutely wanted to get into the biz. 1978’s Music for Films was a masterstroke on his part. Originally concocted as a limited-edition LP in ’76, Eno sent the album to film directors. One can only imagine directors scratching their heads at the elongated and seemingly aimless album. The album had no orchestra, no traditional themes, and sounded at the time decidedly anti-cinematic. The music didn’t elicit direct emotional cues, so much as explored the world of sounds possible within a film. Eno was playing, imagining things with the album. His analogue experimentation on Music for Films proved fruitful for years to come, appearing in several Jarman films, the Breathless remake, and John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow, among many other films.
Good to see Eno’s music getting used exactly as he intended.
Bonus: It needs to be mentioned that “Slow Water” was used again in 1995’s [SAFE] from Todd Haynes. The track is used as reinforcement for main character Carol White’s (Julianne Moore) emotional landscape, and it’s divine.
Shutter Island (2010)
If we’re being real here, Shutter Island is pretty much one of Martin Scorsese’s lamest efforts. A more upfront title would have been, Red Herrings! The Movie. Before The Revenant, this was Leo’s apex of agony porn, complete with dead wife clichés and lead plot points like lobotomies. Fun times all around. The 2010 film was an ill fit for the star and the punk director, but at the very least, the thing had a gothic castle of gloomy tunes that certainly helped. Long-term Scorsese bud and former Band frontman Robbie Robertson served as music supervisor and assembled a moody mélange consisting of John Adam, Gyorgy Ligeti, and sure enough, Brian Eno.
Eno’s “Lizard Point” from Ambient 4 / On Land gave Shutter Island a moody neo-noir vibe. The track was used twice, faintly, but it’s so undeniably Eno in its spacey, near existential style. The song’s a patient, cyclical piece and arguably a strong audio metaphor for Shutter Island’s dead ends and elongated journey. The song doesn’t play as much as it drips, drones, and slowly uncoils itself, adding an eerie quality to Leo’s odyssey through the bowels of a lonely asylum.
Good choice, Robbie Robertson.
“The Big Ship”
Tie: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015) and The End of the Tour (2015)
Witness the Sundance twins. Eno’s epic “The Big Ship” showed up in two 2015 Sundance darlings, literally two days apart. And understandably so. “The Big Ship” was arguably the finest, most elegiac and readily emotional track off of Another Green World. The way the song’s sounds and gradual rise and fade represent a sense of finality and parting ways, it seems less like dumb luck when contemplating the track’s timbre. Really, this was just a funny timing, and better yet, great usage.
James Ponsoldt’s The End of the Tour examined the aura of legendary author David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel). The film treated Wallace like a Midwestern beatnik and guru — a gee-shucks lunk with a dark side who emanated greatness in utterly unpretentious ways. The infinite jester was depicted through the eyes and words of David Lipsky’s (Jesse Eisenberg) memoir about Wallace. The film’s long-term interview narrative is an ephemeral friendship of admiration and envy that obviously, albeit unfortunately, ends with a lovingly placed use of “The Big Ship”. Spoilers are likely here, given that the film’s new:
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s awkward farce of film and first loves, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, was blasted with Eno. The musician was listed as the film’s composer, which is curious given the film’s heavy use of old tracks by him, mixed with classical, often Criterion-influenced score choices, like The 400 Blows soundtrack. The film showed a selfish teen taking baby steps toward empathy through making “bad movies” and learning to consider other people’s problems. It’s edgy YA, to say the least, but it doesn’t undercut the film’s magnificent use of “The Big Ship” as the main hero boy, Greg, presents his final gift of a film to the dying girl of the title. Spoilers ahead:
“Life Is Long”
Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010)
Post-U-Turn Oliver Stone’s just no fun. Nic Cage trapped under 9/11? Rubbish. Non-licensed NFL hyper-drama? Lugubrious. And most desperately, a 23-years-later sequel to that masterpiece about yuppie scumbags, Wall Street? A fairy tale no one expected let alone wanted. Seriously, dirty old Douglas gets to have some undeserved victory lap while The Beef gets all cute with Carey Mulligan. The Big Short and Wolf of Wall Street make for finer business extravagances. But at least Stone had some Eno and David Byrne on hand in 2010.
The original Wall Street had a ton of Talking Heads tracks, with “This Must Be the Place” being the ’87 film’s unofficial theme music. For the follow-up, Stone padded his caustic business fare with five Eno and Byrne tracks straight from their 2008 collaboration, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today. The inclusions felt decidedly Baby Boomer, even a little retro, but the usage was a sort of sneaky throwback to the original film. Again, Money Never Sleeps was a total snooze, that is, unless Eno was on the soundtrack at any given point. Then things were at least a little lively.
“Life Is Long”, casually placed over the opening credits while introducing main characters, made Money Never Sleeps really enjoyable. The track’s like the “Que Sera Sera” of the mid-aughts: an upbeat, melodious anthem for the gospel of getting through the thick of things. But perhaps most impressively, this is a song that makes Shia LaBeouf look, sound, and feel driven. So great job, Eno and Bryne. You made LeBeouf seem natural for a change.
“Energy Fools the Magician”
Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (1979)
Who knew a Corman film would ever consider using Eno?
Yes, everyone remembers Alan Arkush and Joe Dante’s rabble-rousing comedy Rock ‘n’ Roll High School as the film that relied heavily on the Ramones. The punk band appeared not only on the soundtrack 13 times, but they give excusably glorified cameo work for the ages. But the film doesn’t stop there. The music’s a treasure chest of great artists that would cost millions to get permissions from today: Devo, Chuck Berry, Fleetwood Mac, Paul McCartney, The Velvet Underground, Alice Cooper, and more. But, most stealthily, and perhaps most cinematically useful, Brian Eno has four numbers in the movie. “Spirits Drifting”, “Alternative 3”, “M386”, and “Energy Fools the Magician” all sneak in as surrogate scoring. After all, this movie has no composer, which would likely cost too much on a Corman film in 1979.
In particular, the gloomy, doomy “Energy Fools the Magician” from Before and After Science stands out as a great application of Eno’s sound. When a comedy about kids vs. establishment is wall-to-wall rock as the title promises, there needs to be something to offset the rollicking concert stuff. Eno gives the film a clean-and-easy sense of drama when necessary. Is there anything grimmer than Miss Togar’s introduction (Corman regular Mary Woronov), wherein jolly Ramones music uniting students stops and Eno’s “Energy Fools the Magician” starts playing as a villain’s theme? It’s a marriage of Eno’s darker sounds and a movie’s quick need to telegraph a character’s motivations.
Eno’s edgy, hallowed-out sound on “Force Marker” is a perfect item for Heat’s swaggering theatrics and macho aura. “Force Marker” was an original track created for Michael Mann’s crime classic, and Eno’s contributions to Heat were essential. “Force Marker” even made its way into the marketing. While the shoot-outs may have have metastasized into some swinging dick fantasy (and worse, a pubescent Dane Cook joke), there’s no denying the Eno track’s brute strength in the moment. Like, pretend Cook never existed, and remember that the film essentially is a patient, tense slog to a huge heist. Once the film’s centerpiece heist begins, “Force Marker” punches the soundtrack, and it’s like an audio metaphor for meticulous planning, executed in every strong-armed note. Robert De Niro and his seemingly smooth criminals are tightfisted and trigger-ready holding on to their plan. Every Eno beat is like another step for De Niro and crew, and the effect leaves the viewer short of breath. Can their crime go off without a hitch? Eno keeps these guys in step, and he really elevates the material.
Mann’s a notorious tinkerer in the sound booth, but his methods ultimately serve a serious purpose in creating the aural atmospheres of his brooding action and drama films. Mann likes his mood music electronic and rock-influenced. Whether it’s Michael Brook’s tight, ethereal guitars, Moby’s sorrowful piano, or Elliot Goldenthal’s plaintive string soundtrack, Eno fit right in with Mann’s 1995 crew.
“You Don’t Miss Your Water”
Married to the Mob (1988)
Here’s another Eno track custom-crafted for a film. And it’s a cover of all things. William Bell’s swinging Stax track was welcomed to the ‘80s with Eno’s new age soul in Jonathan Demme’s Married to the Mob. It was Eno’s first vocal work in years, and the song is a winning edition to an already eclectic series of songs.
Here’s some quick context. Demme’s taste in music in the ‘80s was par excellence. John Cale and Laurie Anderson composed his ’86 hit Something Wild, and in that effort Demme managed to hit gold from the likes of The Feelies, Big Audio Dynamite, New Order, Fine Young Cannibals, and a ton more. For his ’88 follow-up, Married to the Mob, Demme managed to score new and old songs from Rosemary Clooney, Sinéad O’Connor, Chris Isaak, Ziggy Marley, and, of course, Eno. “You Don’t Miss Your Water” is a total standout. The blend of old-fashioned rock updated through modern sounds and vocals manages to casually hit the film’s crossroads plot. Demme’s mockery of old-timey Mafiosos experiencing awakenings in the form of the go-go ‘80s is captured perfectly in Eno’s cover. The song worked like gangbusters here.
One quick note: David Byrne was the credited composer for Married to the Mob. Geez that Eno and Byrne – just can’t keep these two artists apart.
“An Ending (An Ascent)”
Tie: Traffic (2000) and 28 Days Later (2002)
Steven Soderbergh and Danny Boyle used “An Ending (An Ascent)” from Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks just two years apart from another in their respective thrillers, Traffic and 28 Days Later. Granted, this would not be the first (For All Mankind) or last (The 2012 London Olympics Opening Ceremony, directed by Boyle) time Eno’s “An Ending” would be used in popular media, and there was something especially effective about its uses in Soderbergh and Boyle’s works.
Traffic winds down with police officer Javier Rodriguez (Benicio Del Toro) taking in a kids’ baseball game in Mexico as the music evokes a sense of peace in Rodriguez. In spite of all the horrors he’s just witnessed, and the corruption that he had to navigate, Eno’s “An Ending” literally closes the film out on a cautiously optimistic note. Rodriguez is done, and in his quiet way, feels like he’s managed to overcome hell and transform into an avenging angel in a drug war.
In 28 Days Later, “An Ending” acts as a reprieve. Amidst the blood, the squabble, and insanity of a zombie apocalypse, Eno’s music becomes a needed break as it plays over a lovely picnic for the main characters. It plays with a grim irony, well before 28 Days Later is over, but it doesn’t matter because Eno’s airy track feels so evocative of lost goodness and charitability among people during end times.
“Deep Blue Day”
Note: This clip is rancid, albeit a famous scene, so if poo’s not your thing, maybe skip ahead. Or if it helps, the poo here was made with chocolate, so mind the illusion?
“The Worst Toilet in Scotland.”
Eno’s oceanic “Deep Blue Day” functions as an inspired comic choice in Danny Boyle’s landmark cautionary comedy. Sincere but frankly stupid smack head Renton has to dump out in the worst way, and the toilet he’s stuck with when his bowels un-jam is just nasty. Like, the shitter Boyle and crew crafted looks worse than a thousand port-o-johns on the last day of a big music festival. That’s why Eno’s music arrives rather pleasingly once Renton dives into the dirty can to get his suppositories back. Surreal, sickening, and absolutely unforgettable, this is one of Eno’s best (and strangest) music uses in a movie. “Trainspotting” has one of the very best soundtracks of the ‘90s, and it’s “Deep Blue Day” that sticks out as the most wickedly wonderful inclusion in Boyle’s classic.
Derek Jarman’s Blue is an extraordinarily bold kind of film. There’s 79 minutes of just the color blue onscreen. No, someone didn’t forget to add effects; this is a deliberate work of tonal poetry and reflection. It’s a lovely late-period project, directed with total emotional frailty and commitment and released just a year before his passing. It’s an intimate film, best described as an open-ended meditation. Blue is ostensibly about a man aware of his mortality, allowing his thoughts to be fully displayed in a curiously minimalistic fashion. Jarmon crafts an impressionistic autobiography with sound effects, ambient music, and Tilda Swinton’s lovely voice for narration.
To the ambient music end, it should come as no surprise, given their history, that Jarman used Eno here. Amid the auditory miscellany, “Triennale”, off 1992’s The Shutov Assembly, gives a fluttery, new age sensation. It’s a testament to Eno’s carefully constructed sounds that the song’s usage comes across less like Sharper Image muzak and more like spirits in transit, caught in full audio. Beaming echoes, starry, twinkling tones, and the occasional jungle chirp and gust of wind mark Eno’s track. In Blue, whispers of the track blend in and out between raindrops, sharp strings, deathly violins, and wandering voices, among hundreds of other sounds — always against a blue screen. Eno’s music is used less as a clear marker and more as a mindful integration, true to Blue’s dreamy, deathly experience.