The musical layers of Layer Cake

Hundred of years ago I heard a song. Not just any old song, but a swirling, catchy song with a ringing guitar and great singing. I tried and tried and tried to find the song but my searches were coming up empty. Pre- or early internet days were still occasionally difficult to find music in, it certainly doesn’t feel as at the fingertips as today. Eventually I thought the band was the Cure and suffered through every Cure CD with zero results. One Saturday morning WMMQ was playing the song,I remember it was 1996 ’cause it was just after 9a.m. and I was heading down to WHR to buy a Neil Young ticket for his Broken Arrow tour. The song came on, I called in and asked my friend who was working what song it was. “Oh that’s the Cult – ‘She Sells Sanctuary.’” I bought their Greatest Hits and listened to no other song by the band on that CD. Didn’t need to, “She Sells” is just that great.

While never quite forgetting the song I was shocked a number of years ago to hear it under an early montage in a film. Seeing the song used in such a way made me fall in love all over again, as cliché as that sounds, with the song and INSTANTLY made me love the movie I was watching. Layer Cake (2004), a film I had initially dismissed as being too close to the umbrella of Guy Ritchie (directed by Ritchie producer Matthew Vaughn) seemed on the surface to be one of those new-fangled UK crime dramas that used accents and scenes as something to focus on instead of character. I was wrong. Not being one to throw opinions around I will say that the film is smart, clever, fashionable and paints a portrait of London that I only dream of ever being a part of. I could go on and on, spurting lame poor man’s clichéd attempts at wordplay to describe Layer Cake. I won’t. I’m not that good of a writer. What I will say is that one thing the film truly succeeds at is the use of music within the film.

There are three main and major music beats in the film; three parts where the music is prominent and really establishes a feeling. The first cue is the last cue in the film, a “wrap up” as we see in many films with varied plot points. Set to the lovely and so very foreign singing of the Australian singer Lisa Gerrard. Originally in the band Dead Can Dance (1994’s Toward the Within was a regular record store staple when I started selling CDs so long ago.) Ms. Gerrard has busied herself with mainly soundtrack work the past 12 years. The song “Aria” rises and falls to the plain, exotic sound of her vocalizing. As you listen to the song on its own then listen while the film is playing you really feel the match of the sound of the music and the action on the screen. The piece moves around, lightness, darkness, you feel all these different sensations when listening. Add the visuals and the punch is that much harder, that much more direct, that much more centered on your solar plexus.

Next we find 1993’s comeback hit from Duran Duran’s self-titled release. Yep, Duran Duran. The scene begins with our hero, Daniel Craig, and Kinglsey Shacklebolt from Harry Potter in a diner debriefing. They encounter a man fresh out of gaol who had a history with Craig’s acquaintance. In the background, in a tinny and hissed sound is the song “Ordinary World.” The scene builds, and you don’t know where it will lead. And then there is an explosion — violence, something unexpected. In that instant, the song goes from being in the background to being in the foreground. The first crash brings the guitar solo up right onto the screen and then as the song plays out (and dips out) you wonder if the choice of the music and the song is appropriate. “And as I try to make my way/To the Ordinary World/I will learn to survive.” Given the context of the film the choice of the song, both for the sound of the song and the words of the song make perfect sense.

And with the third film cue we come to the beginning of the film. After the opening montage set, again, over moody instrumental music (FC Kahuna fwiw) Daniel Craig’s XXXX character shuts the door to his flat at night. Pull back and it is daylight. A car waits on the street and XXXX enters the car. The music builds, the car takes off and a sweeping view of the English countryside leads to a zoom in on the car as it approaches the amazing Stoke Park. Out of the car comes Craig and his companion. The walk in, no, they ENTER the building. The take it all in. They look drop-dead cool, that old time sense of glamour that we all aspire to: looking cool, dressing sharp. I think they would have looked that way no matter the song but the whole montage gives me the chills. I knew the song the minute I first watched the film and it was almost as if this song and my appreciation for the song, assured me that I would love the movie. The song, of course, is “She Sells Sanctuary” by the Cult. That Billy Duffy guitar riff that chimes and drives just fits perfectly. I truly can’t think of a better film moment set to music. And it isn’t even the whole song, only running for about half the song’s original length.

Martin Scorcese is probably the first director that comes to mind when I think about song cues in films. Problem is, for me, that his cues are not subtle, rather they club you in the head. In his first film as a director, Matthew Vaughn (or whomever put this together) understood the subtletly about using music in films and how to make the most impact with the littlest bit of song. Oh, and about Vaughn and the UK crime films I sort of lumped Layer Cake into. The first two Guy Ritchie films also use music in a very satisfying way, my personal favorite being Brad Pitt’s entering the ring in Snatch (2000) as the film builds to its close. Here is the link, just watch his arrival in the gym and listen to the music and watch things unfold. Amazing what music can do.

Mike Vincent is a teacher, dreamer, grouch, and runner. He lives in northern Michigan and his favorite Beatle is George Harrison.

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