Local author tracks link between film and song

A book cover for 'The Needle and the Lens'
'The Needle and the Lens Pop goes to the Movies from Rock 'n' Roll to Synthwave' explores the connection between film and songs.
Courtesy Nate Patrin

When you hear “Sound of Silence” by Simon & Garfunkel, some of you picture young Dustin Hoffman with a thousand-yard stare. Some songs that weren’t written for the movies wind up inextricably linked to a film, and that changes how people remember both.

Nate Patrin knows a lot about the ties between songs like the “Sound of Silence” and movies like “The Graduate.” Patrin is a music writer based in St. Paul. He’s the author of a new book, “The Needle and the Lens: Pop Goes to the Movies from Rock n’ Roll to Synthwave.” He joined MPR News Host Cathy Wurzer.

Nate Patrin will have a book launch and conversation at Moon Palace Books, Thursday, Nov. 30.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

["SOUND OF SILENCE" PLAYING] Hello darkness, my old friend. I've come to talk with you again. Because a vision softly creeping--

CATHY WURZER: When this song comes on, I am guessing that some of you picture a young Dustin Hoffman with 1,000 yard stare. Some songs that weren't written for the movies wind up inextricably linked to a film. And that changes how people remember both. Our next guest knows a lot about the ties between songs like The Sound of Silence and movies like The Graduate.

Nate Patrin is a music writer based in St. Paul. He's the author of a new book called The Needle and the Lens: Pop Goes to the Movies from Rock and Roll to Synthwave. And he is on the line. Nate, welcome to the program.

NATE PATRIN: Hey, thanks for having me on. Glad to be here.

CATHY WURZER: I'm thrilled you have the time to join us. Thank you so much. You know, I was trying to remember back-- I think didn't you publish a book about sampling in hip-hop at the beginning of the pandemic?

NATE PATRIN: Yes. That was right-- yeah, right around that early phase of that. Yeah. And it was also through University of Minnesota Press. And it was kind of one of those culminations of ideas that I'd been having for a while about thinking about music in terms of the way it's recontextualized. And that was obviously the first idea that came to mind.

And after that came out, I was speaking with my editor and my agent. And we had both kind of been mulling over this idea as a potential follow up. And my agent was like, "Yeah, I'd recently seen Jackie Brown and was really struck with the way that movie used this song by The Delfonics, Didn't I Blow Your Mind This Time as a recurring motif." And that was a catalyst for me to sort of stop and think back about all the times I'd had similar experiences with films.

CATHY WURZER: When you hear The Sound of Silence, you write in the book that the director is listening to Simon and Garfunkel almost nonstop when working on the film and then he realized that they should be the soundtrack. I'm curious, what did he do with music and film that was new at the time?

NATE PATRIN: I mean, it wasn't entirely unprecedented in that there were films both in the mainstream and art house fare, like for instance Kenneth Anger's Scorpio Rising that deployed pre-existing pop songs in a sort of new context that helped serve as a narrative element as well as a sort of artistic flourish.

I think The Graduate really did have fortuitous timing because it hit theaters right at the beginning of the new Hollywood moment. And the major motion picture studios realization that they needed to tap into this new youth culture to kind of stay relevant at a time where there are more traditional fare was starting to struggle at the box office. So you have this real fortuitous streamlining of, OK, here is a youth culture movie that the director, who is at this point I believe Mike Nichols was in his 30s, was still able to hear this connection between his vision of what the movie wanted to be and the audience he wanted to direct it towards. And by listening to this, yeah, this Simon and Garfunkel album over and over, it just really kind of struck him that there is this very distinct emotional connection that really worked with the film's narrative.

CATHY WURZER: Can we hear another example? I think this might be helpful. This is called In Dreams by Roy Orbison.

["IN MY DREAMS" PLAYING] I close my eyes. Then I drift away into the magic night I softly say.

So I love this song. And I remember that David Lynch used it in the movie Blue Velvet, which many of us remember as a pretty dark film. I know that Roy Orbison was not really happy about how it was used at first. But really, it ended up giving his career kind of a boost. How did that happen?

NATE PATRIN: Well, that's pretty funny. That was another sort of happenstance situation. This is David Lynch was riding in a taxi cab while he was sort of getting the idea for the film and still in the writing stages. And he had heard not In Dreams, it was a different Roy Orbison song. But when he heard the song on the taxi cab radio he was like, "I need to go and get this greatest hits album and kind of immerse myself in it."

And he found that In Dreams, which is on that greatest hits, was a very striking, very emotionally intense performance. And that was, I believe, the sort of catalyst for that famous scene and its recurring role in the film where Dean Stockwell is singing it with a mechanic's kind of illuminating his face. And it is simultaneously beautiful and unsettling. And it was such a striking usage of that song that it actually a recreation of that concluded the Roy Orbison Memorial concert.

It was such a strong association. And I think, yeah, Orbison and Lynch did have a bit of a connection after that. Yeah. He did kind of come around. It was-- I mean, he was something of a film buff himself. Like I mentioned in the book, he was the kind of guy who when he wanted to describe what his upbringing was like, he would just point to, oh yeah, the James Dean film Giant. It was like that.

So he did have a very keen sense of how his own art form could sort be incorporated into somebody else's. And yeah. And then, yeah, Lynch actually had a hand in getting his work sort of like reissued and revived. And there was actually a music video for In Dreams that was recorded after the fact that incorporated some of the less disconcerting scenes from Blue Velvet into the video itself.

CATHY WURZER: Today is Joel Cohen's birthday. And I would be remiss if we didn't talk about Joel and Ethan. And you wrote a little bit about their 2009 film A Serious Man in the final chapter of your book. And it features this song.

["SOMEBODY TO LOVE" PLAYING] When the truth is found to be lies. We know the joy within you dies. Don't you want somebody to love?

Of course, Jefferson Airplane with Somebody to Love. Tell us why this song is important to the movie or vice versa.

NATE PATRIN: Well, there's a few different ways that these songs can be used in film. And the three major prominent ways they're generally used is like establishing moments early in the film. You're setting the mood like with The Sound of Silence as the title sequence to The Graduate or The Door is the End in Apocalypse Now.

Then there's placements that fit a similar role as a song in a musical, where it's used to provide a interlude that also uses its mood and its lyrics and performance to kind of help continue to build the world that the characters are in, like Many Rivers to Cross in The Harder They Come early in the film.

But Somebody to Love is a very fascinating example to me because it's a situation where the song itself becomes a bit of a plot point. Where it's-- we see it-- we hear it early on where the protagonist son is listening to it on a transistor radio, which then gets confiscated. And then near the end of the film where the son is preparing for his Bar Mitzvah, the protagonist talks to a Rabbi and trying to figure out why he's been going through such a harsh time in a period of his life.

And the Rabbi, who is supposed to be this extremely knowledgeable source of sage wisdom, just quotes the opening lines to Somebody to Love to him, as you have heard. And in a way, that actually took a very familiar line and brought-- like you might have heard that song hundreds of times, but in that sense where he actually turns it into a philosophical conundrum that really hit.

CATHY WURZER: Wow. I mean, there's a lot here. It's deep. I appreciate this. By the way, if I were to ask you this question with about 30 seconds left, would there be a song that would be in the soundtrack to your life, your daily life?

NATE PATRIN: Oh, wow. There are so many that would be contingent on what mood I'm in. But I have been feeling pretty in-tune with Yo La Tengo lately. They're one of my favorite bands. They're one of the most consistently great rock groups of the last 30 years. And they have this tendency in their songwriting to really nail this feeling of ambivalent doubt and curious uncertainty that's really resonated with me lately.

But if I had to pick one, I'd go for Tom Courtenay, because after all, it's an intersection of music and film just from the other end of the equation. It's a song that name drops Julie Christie and Billy Liar and Eleanor Bron in Help. So maybe there's a companion piece to explore here.

CATHY WURZER: You never know. You never know, Nate. Thank you. I appreciate your time.

NATE PATRIN: Well, thanks for having me on, once again.

CATHY WURZER: Nate Patrin is a St. Paul based music writer. His new book is called The Needle and the Lens: Pop Goes to the Movies from Rock and Roll to Synthwave. It's out this month. And he's giving a talk tomorrow at the Moon Palace Bookstore in South Minneapolis at 6:00 PM.

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