If you’ve seen the trailer for the American version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, you know that Trent Reznor has been very busy with his second career: working on the soundtracks to and scoring major motion pictures. If you are familiar with this very specific oeuvre of Reznor’s work, you’ll know that he is a tremendous advocate of the well-timed and placed cover version, going back to his input for the soundtrack for Oliver Stones Natural Born Killers, which prominently features “Sweet Jane” by the Cowboy Junkies.
Trent Reznor is again working with director David Fincher, with whom he worked on The Social Network (his first shot a score). The first proper Social Network trailer featured a haunting rendition of Radiohead’s “Creep” by the French choral group Scala that also played over the closing credits. That song had already been recorded by the group; Reznor and Fincher just used it effectively. For The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (which hits theaters in November) Reznor went all in, producing and arranging a pounding cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” by Karen O.
So, starting off with O’s take on Led Zep, here are ten of the best uses of cover versions in films, followed by some that go off the rails:
“Immigrant Song,” Karen O, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
The trailer for the upcoming Fincher adaptation of the first book the phenomenally popular Stieg Larson book series is a minute and a half of pure adrenaline. How else to get people’s attention? The most interested audience, those who read the books, already know the story and might have even already seen the trilogy made in the late author’s native Sweden. The trailer teases those who know the the events, with quick cuts timed to the propulsive beat, offering a Cliff’s notes version. And then there’s Karen O’s wail, which is not to be trifled with.
“Life on Mars,” Seu Jorge, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
Wes Anderson makes full use of Brazilian singer and actor Seu Jorge’s talents throughout Life Aquatic, having Jorge’s playing Bowie classics alone with his acoustic guitar and singing in his native Portuguese fully integrated into life aboard The Belafonte. It’s hard to pick just one. “Life on Mars” seems to sum up Zissou’s strange undersea world.
“Hotel California,” The Gypsy Kings, The Big Lebowski
The Dude may have had a “no fucking Eagles, man” rule, but one of the film’s most indelible moments belongs to this cover of the ultimate Eagles song and John Turturro as Jesus Qintana.
Psychotic Aztec, “It’s Delovely,” She’s So Lovely
Nick Cassavetes directed this 1997 film, starring Sean Penn and Penn’s then-wife Robin Wright, from a film by his legendary filmmaker father John. The movie, originally titled “She’s Delovely,” was to take its name from the 1936 Cole Porter tune played by the band in this scene in which Penn and Wright, playing a husband and wife, share a dance at a seedy club. The studio allegedly balked at such an obscure title and thus a fine film was saddled with a rom-com name.
Going to Acapulco, Jim James, I’m Not There
The most transcendent moment in Todd Haynes’ oddball, fractal Bob Dylan biopic might the scene where Richard Gere, playing a Dylan doppelgänger, stumbles across another Dylan doppelgänger — Jim James in full Rolling Thunder Revue-era white-face-paint drag — singing “Going to Acapulco” for all he’s worth. It’s a memorable scene in a great movie, and the My Morning Jacket frontman nails the song.
“Girl, You’ll be a Woman Soon,” Urge Overkill, Pulp Fiction
Nobody does slick sleaze like Urge Overkill. Uma Thurma as Mia Wallace hits play on her reel-to-reel piping Nash Kato’s lecherous reading of the Neil Diamond classic through the house while the much older John Travolta as Vincent Vega has visions of the all things he could do with Wallace (and ll the things his boss would do to him if he did). The whole discussion is moot, of course, when Mia snorts his heroin.
“Love Hurts,” Kim Deal and Robert Pollard, Love and a .45
The 1994 movie Love and a .45 is a completely forgettable camp romp through pseudo-Tarantino territory starring Rene Zellweger before her face became permanently screwed into a lemon pucker. However, somebody had a friend in the music biz, because the soundtrack makes the film worth suffering through. The standout by far though is this take on the Nazareth lighter anthem, originally written by husband and wife country duo Felice and Boudleaux Bryant and first recorded by the Everly Brothers, “Love Hurts” by Pixies’ bassist Kim Deal and Guided by Voices’ Bob Pollard. Deal and Pollard hew closely to the well known version by Graham Parsons and Emmy Lou Harris. This cover-of-a-cover was released first (and only) on the soundtrack for Love and a .45, though it is said to have been recorded during the Amps’ Pacer sessions.
“Jackson,” Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon, Walk the Line
Much was made of the decision to have Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon sing the Johnny Cash and June Carter songs in Walk the Line when the movie went into production. It turns out the two didn’t embarrass themselves — they even won a Grammy, for what its worth — and Phoenix had a chance to show off his pre-faux-hip-hop career stage moves. Why on earth anyone would listen to these versions instead of the originals is beyond comprehension (the soundtrack somehow went platinum), but within the context of the film and the performances, this take on the duet breathes life into the scene that would have been otherwise lost.
“Dead Souls,” Nine Inch Nails, The Crow
Without Ian Curtis and Joy Division there is no Nine Inch Nails, which gives this cover some additional heft. The Reznor version, which sets the goth-rock tone for the comic book adaptation The Crow, is more theatrical and less raw than the Joy Division original. “Dead Souls” finds Nine Inch Nails at the top of its game, coming after Pretty Hate Machine and just before the breakthrough Downward Spiral. The perfect marriage of sound and images also suggested good things things were in store for Mr. Reznor’s cinematic future.
“Wish You Were Here,” Sparklehorse, Lords of Dogtown
This is a fairly straightforward cover of Pink Floyd’s absence anthem. But the gentle melancholic tremor in Mark Linkous’ vocals makes even the sounds of skateboard wheels spinning sound elegiac. Thom Yorke phones in — no, literally, he was on the phone — his part on the full version (which also appeared as a B-Side on the Painbirds/Maria’s Little Elbows EP), though it doesn’t play all the way through over the credits (Social Distortion cuts in with “Story of My Life”) in the movie.
And, then there are those covers that just don’t work out for one reason or another — some of the worst:
“Sympathy for the Devil,” Guns ‘N Roses, Interview with a Vampire
This novelty is notable mostly for being the last sad whimper of Guns ‘N Roses’s (nearly) original line up. It’s fun enough to hear Slash ape Keef riffs, but the rest is awful — from the production that would be more fitting on a Celine Dion cover than a Stones’ to Axl Roses’ yowling, laughing and over-emoting. Slash and Duff may never learn, though. They get honorable mention for the cover of Pink Floyd’s “Money” they recorded several years later as Velvet Revolver for the Mark Wahlberg remake of The Italian Job, this time giving Scott Weiland the honor of massacring the vocals.
All of the I Am Sam soundtrack (with the possible exception of Grandaddy’s cover of “Revolution”)
It seemed like a nice enough idea, probably. Get a bunch of mostly middle-of-the-road contemporary artists to record Beatles covers … because the mentally disabled lead character played by Sean Penn is obsessed with the Beatles. Oscar-winner Penn’s first judgment lapse was not taking the advice Kirk Lazarus gave Tug Speedman in Tropic Thunder. His second was commissioning these covers when he couldn’t secure the rights to the original Beatles’ songs.
“Comfortably Numb,” Roger Waters and Friends (mostly Van Morrison), The Departed
Distracting from a pivotal scene in which Leo DiCaprio’s character puts the moves on his sexy psychiatrist, director Martin Scorsese inexplicably chose to use this version of Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb,” from Roger Waters’ Wall concert in Berlin in 1990. Okay, okay, maybe not totally technically a cover, but the offending bits are sung by Van Morrison. When Van the Man warbles that his “hands feel just like two balloons,” about the only thing you can think is, “Lay off the chips then.”
Lovemonger, “The Battle of Evermore,” Singles
Since we started with Led Zeppelin it seems only appropriate to end with them. Lovemongers was a “side project” of Heart’s Ann and Nancy Wilson created to record this appalling version of the mandolin heavy “Battle of Evermore.” The Wilsons were included on the soundtrack of a movie based in Seattle during grunge’s heyday because they are, um, from Seattle (oh, and Nancy was married to the director, Cameron Crowe, at the time). The Led Zeppelin version might make you think of druids in heavy cloaks or something; the Wilson’s take most reminds you of your aunt drunk at karaoke. But then again, that’s pretty much how Robert Plant comes off these days, too.