R.E.M.'s announcement on Wednesday that the band plans to "call it a day" prompted tearful recollections from fans about the Georgia group's indelible impact on the world of music over the past 31 years. (Cue "Everybody Hurts.") Less noted has been their impact on the world of movies. Besides appearing on dozens of soundtracks, the members of R.E.M. were instrumental in producing some of the most interesting and innovative movies of the last couple decades.
That R.E.M. were big movie fans is no secret. Their lyrics were filled with references to classic films (including 'Casino,' 'Scarface' and 'Blade Runner') and actors. ("I'm Martin Sheen/I'm Steve McQueen/I'm Jimmy Dean," Michael Stipe sang on "Electrolite.") The 1986 album title 'Lifes Rich Pageant' came from a line uttered by Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau in 'A Shot in the Dark.' The song 'Departure' was an elegy for Stipe's friend River Phoenix. 'Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando and I' imagined a meeting between the actor, Neil Young and Pocahontas. 'Monty Got a Raw Deal' paid homage to Montgomery Clift. And the video for 'Everybody Hurts' features a traffic jam inspired by the one at the beginning of Fellini's'8 1/2.'
Most famously, the band revived interest in the late comedian Andy Kaufman with its 1992 song 'Man on the Moon.' The track helped inspire the acclaimed 1999 Kaufman biopic of the same name, for which R.E.M.'s Mike Mills and Peter Buck composed the score. (The movie's female lead was Stipe pal Courtney Love.) The band's contributions to the soundtrack included the title track, "The Great Beyond," and "This Friendly World," in which Stipe duets with Jim Carrey in character as Kaufman.
Stipe parlayed his musical fame into a couple of minor acting roles in TV and movies, including a supporting part as a railroad worker in Christopher Munch's gorgeous, overlooked black-and-white indie drama 'Color of a Brisk and Leaping Day' (1997). From there, he moved into producing movies, founding the production companies C-Hundred (for short films, videos, public service announcements, and micro-budgeted features) and Single Cell (for more mainstream movies). The former company, founded with filmmaker and occasional R.E.M. video director Jim McKay, released such Sundance favorites as 'Our Song' (a high school drama directed by McKay and starring Kerry Washington) and Tom Gilroy's character study 'Spring Forward' (a two-hander starring Liev Schreiber and Ned Beatty). Single Cell was behind such films as 'Velvet Goldmine' (Todd Haynes' imaginative fantasy about '70s rock), 'American Movie' (a documentary about an amateur horror film director), Mary Harron's celebrated 'American Psycho,'Jill Sprecher's'13 Conversations About One Thing,' and most memorably, 'Being John Malkovich.'
Spike Jonze, who made his feature directing debut on 'Malkovich,' is one of several music video directors who got a career boost into features thanks in part to R.E.M. Another is Peter Care, whose work on several R.E.M. videos (including "Drive," "Man on the Moon" and "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?") and on the band's 1996 concert feature 'RoadMovie' led to his feature directing debut, 2002's 'The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys,' starring Jodie Foster. And of course, there's Tarsem Singh, whose colorful and symbol-laden video for 'Losing My Religion' (which earned the Best Video prize at the 1991 MTV Video Music Awards) led to his career directing such visually overstuffed films as 'The Cell' (2000) and this fall's Greek mythological epic 'Immortals.'
Throughout R.E.M.'s history, the band's music was a favorite on movie soundtracks, going back as far as 1983's sci-fi film 'Strange Invaders,' released the same year as R.E.M.'s first album. Their songs popped up in several Michael Moore documentaries. 'Shiny Happy People' (for moments of joy, sometimes facetious) and 'Everybody Hurts' (denoting epic heartbreak or consolation) appeared so often in movies and TV shows that they became clichés. So did "It's the End of the World as We Know It and I Feel Fine,' often used to lend an ironic jauntiness to scenes hinting at apocalyptic doom (most memorably, during the opening moments of 'Independence Day').
Why did R.E.M.'s music go so well with movies? First, their cryptic lyrics, so widely open to interpretation, can be used to accompany a broad spectrum of scenarios. Second, the music itself (especially with the turn toward a grander, more sweeping sonic palette on 'Lifes Rich Pageant' and the records that followed) lent itself to the swelling emotions of cinema. Finally, their songs literally were the soundtrack to life for many moviegoers who grew up in the '80s and '90s. Listening to R.E.M. can evoke both nostalgia for one's teenage years and the swelling in one's heart of dreams and desires still unfulfilled. Which is why I will leave you with this scene from 'Never Been Kissed,' in which former teen misfit Drew Barrymore gets a second chance to attend the prom with a cute guy, with her elation scored to R.E.M.'s 'At My Most Beautiful.'
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Photo Credit: AP