Fifteen years ago tomorrow, America first saw a heartbroken Hugh Grant walk through Notting Hill to the sad strains of Bill Withers in, well, Notting Hill.
Richard Curtis, that self-styled purveyor of big British emotions on screen, didn't direct Notting Hill, but he did write it. In fact, no matter who ends up directing his movies, a Richard Curtis-penned movie becomes his whether he directed it or not. So due apologies to Roger Michell, Mike Newell, Sharon Maguire, and Beeban Kidron, but if it walks and quacks like a
duckface Richard Curtis movie, a Richard Curtis movie it is. Beyond his skill with a screen romance, one of the calling cards of a Richard Curtis movie is its affinity for pop music underlining emotional moments. The music in Curtis' movies is something like the movies themselves: sentimental, lovingly cheesy, and widely appealing. The songs as deployed almost always hit the thematic nose right on the head, are unabashedly populist, and yet are bound to make you smile or tear up.
So in honor of the anniversary of the film in which a girl (Julia Roberts) stood in front of a boy (Grant) and asked him to love her, we've decided to highlight the best music cues from Richard Curtis movies.
In no particular order, because love knows no logistical constraints...
Movie: Notting Hill (written by Richard Curtis)
Song: "Ain't No Sunshine"
Artist: Bill Withers
Scene: Movie star Anna Scott (Julia Roberts) has left bumbling (but adorable!) travel bookseller William Thacker (Hugh Grant) after their tryst becomes the subject of tabloid speculation. Thacker is, naturally, very sad, so he strolls through his neighborhood while the mournful tune plays.
Effectiveness: The song, as many in Curtis movies do, conveys the emotions on the screen almost too perfectly. As William walks, the seasons change around him, so it is quite literally "not warm when she's away." By the time the song ends it's sunny again in Notting Hill, meaning that William will soon encounter Anna again, and the movie will have a happy ending. The scene itself is aesthetically beautiful, though, so no complaints here.
Movie: Love Actually (written and directed by Richard Curtis)
Song: "Both Sides Now"
Artist: Joni Mitchell
Scene: Emma Thompson's Karen assumes her husband (Alan Rickman) is giving her a beautiful necklace, but that's his gift for the office seductress, so he gives Karen Joni Mitchell's Both Sides Now CD instead. Now, Joni is undeniably great, but that's a crappy (and rather depressing) gift to get from your husband, particularly when the implications of who that necklace went to become so clear. Karen ducks into the bedroom to have a devastating silent cry while the somber, world-weary re-recorded version of the song plays.
Effectiveness: Well, if you don't cry during this scene, you probably don't have a human heart. Mitchell's song is about how, even with knowledge and experience, you can still feel helpless, and Thompson absolutely conveys those emotions as she grapples with the realization that her husband is or is considering cheating on her.
Movie: Pirate Radio (written and directed by Richard Curtis)
Song: "So Long, Marianne"
Artist: Leonard Cohen
Scene: Yet another scene of heartbreak! The song begins as Carl (Tom Sturridge), a young man on the pirate radio ship, finds his love interest Marianne (Talulah Riley) in bed with another man. And yes, her name is actually Marianne. He mopes around to the song, while his friends eat biscuits around him.
Effectiveness: Really, it's the biscuit-eating that makes this one. The song is an obvious pick, since Carl is lamenting the loss of a character named Marianne, for goodness sakes! But the moment is saved as Carl's mood suddenly transforms as he watches his friends garble down biscuits. Cohen does, after all, sing about crying and laughing.
Movie: Four Weddings and a Funeral (written by Richard Curtis)
Song: "But Not For Me"
Artist: Elton John singing George and Ira Gershwin
Scene: The classic Gershwin tune — as sung in true '90s fashion by John — opens the movie, scoring the main characters getting ready for the first wedding of the film.
Effectiveness: Essentially, this is the movie's thesis statement. Hugh Grant's Charles is constantly attending ceremonies of love, but finding no love for himself. You know, save for Duckface, and then Andie MacDowell. [Criminally, YouTube does not have its Four Weddings clip game where it needs to be, so we must work around.]
Film: About Time (written and directed by Richard Curtis)
Song: "The Luckiest"
Artist: Ben Folds
The Scene: Bookending the movie, "The Luckiest" makes its greatest impact in the final scene of the movie, when Domhnall Gleeson's character comes to accept the perfect imperfection of his extraordinary ordinary life. In a scene similar to the ending of Love Actually, we get shots of people just going about their days.
Effectiveness: First of all, the most honorable of honorable mentions go to Ron Sexsmith's "There's Gold in Them Hills," used so beautifully during the day that Gleeson chooses to re-live the same way, and t.A.T.u.'s "All the Things She Said," which is period-appropriate and bizarre during the New Year's Eve scene. As for Ben Folds, because it recurs at different points in the movie, "The Luckiest" accumulates meaning, and by the end, it speaks to everything we've seen with Gleeson, his wife (Rachel McAdams), his kids, his family (particularly Bill Nighy as his dad). It's a beautiful song that apparently inspired Curtis before he even wrote the movie.
Film: Love Actually
Artist: The Pointer Sisters
The Scene: British prime minister (Hugh Grant) just got finished giving the president of the United States (Billy Bob Thornton) a good talking-to, at a televised press conference, in defense of his proud nation and also more specifically for the crime of hitting on the aide he has a crush on. Because love, actually, is all around, even when we should be focused on international politics. Anyway, it's a huge win for the PM, and with his popularity in the UK surging, he decides to take a victory boogie around 10 Downing Street.
Effectiveness: Look, you try sitting still when the Pointer Sisters are doing their thing. The very infectiousness of the song is the whole point here, and even the embarrassment Grant shows when he gets caught dancing is a small price to pay. And for a movie that's all about how we are but a slave to our emotions, "Jump" reflects that rather nicely.
Film(s): Bridget Jones' Diary and Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason (both co-written by Richard Curtis)
Song(s): "It's Raining Men" and "I Believe in a Thing Called Love," respectively
Artist(s): Geri Halliwell and The Darkness, respectively
The Scene(s): Dreamy Colin Firth finally takes it to cad Hugh Grant in the middle of a rainstorm in the first Bridget movie. Dreamy Colin Firth takes it to cad Hugh Grant in and around a fountain in the second Bridget movie. A fight scene so crowd-pleasing, they had to give it to us twice.
Effectiveness: Richard Curtis didn't direct either of the Jones films, but he did co-write the screenplays, and they both use music cues in very Curtis-like ways. Particular props go to using the Geri Halliwell "It's Raining Men," which is not superior to The Weather Girls' original, but which is decidedly more British.
Film: Notting Hill
Song: "Gimmie Some Lovin'"
Artist: The Spencer Davis Group
The Scene: Hugh Grant realizes he was a complete idiot for dismissing Julia Roberts just because he had some dumb hurt feelings, so he and his friends (including a pre-Downton Abbey Hugh Bonneville, a pre-In the Loop Gina McKee, and Rhys Ifans as the world's worst roommate) all pile into the care and race towards Julia's press conference, though the crowded streets and roundabouts of London.
Effectiveness: "Notting Hill" is full of songs that both your mom and your dad can agree on, and whose parents wouldn't be able to agree on the dulcet tones of Stevie Winwood? The song is all up-tempo urgency, but with the comforting pep to tell you that everything is going to work out, don't worry. Also, countless bonus points to the fact that the great romantic gesture in this scene is Max (Tim McInnerny) insisting that his beloved Bella (McKee) join the caravan, wheelchair and all.
Film: Notting Hill
Artist: Elvis Costello
The Scene: After the thrilling car chase to get to Anna's (Julia Roberts) press conference at the Ritz, Will (Hugh Grant) makes his romantic overture in front of a hundred reporters, still in character as a writer from Horse & Hound magazine. Anna accepts, and Costello's cover of the Charles Aznavour song, recorded for the film, kicks in over a final montage of Will and Anna's wedding, kids, and happy relationship.
Effectiveness: It's deployed pretty perfectly. We're waiting on tenterhooks for Anna's response, even though we're sure she'll say yes, the second that song kicks in, we know the whole thing is sealed up. The subsequent montage is a pure Richard Curtis happy-bomb. Everyone ends up in a happy couple! Everything is beautiful!
Film: Four Weddings and a Funeral
Song: "Chapel of Love"
Artist: Elton John
The Scene: Another cover of a well-known hit to accompany another closing montage, which again shows pretty much every character in the ensemble ending up coupled and happy, even more meticulously than Notting Hill. The funniest pairing is the devastatingly cool Fiona (Kristin Scott Thomas) and Prince Charles; the remaining unmarrieds are Charles (Hugh Grant) and Carrie (Andie MacDowell), who have decided they're sick of weddings.
Effectiveness: Perfect. John dials up the energy on his cover of the Dixie Cups' classic, the end pairings are a good mix of funny and sweet, and you exit the film with a bounce in your step. No wonder Four Weddings was a word-of-mouth sensation.
Film: Bridget Jones' Diary
Song: "All By Myself"
Artist: Celine Dion
The Scene: Our opening credits play as Bridget, clad in pajamas, watches Frasier and sings along glumly to Celine's cover of the Eric Carmen song, building to its huge emotional climax, air-drumming and lip-syncing like a pro. The message here: Bridget is sad and single. Get it?
Effectiveness: It's maybe a little too on the nose. Bridget Jones has all the hallmarks of a Richard Curtis movie, but even though his fingerprints are all over it, it's even broader than his original works. The opening works, but how could it not? It's set to one of the most famous songs about loneliness.
Film (uh, TV episode): Doctor Who, "Vincent and the Doctor" (written by Richard Curtis)
The Scene: In the Curtis-scripted Doctor Who classic, the time-travelling Doctor whisks tortured artist Vincent Van Gogh into the future to help him understand that his work, unappreciated in his own time, will be universally lauded after his death. Is it cloying wish fulfillment? Sure, but that's exactly what Doctor Who is for, and Curtis isn't about to re-write history: the emotion of the moment doesn't prevent Van Gogh from succumbing to his demons and killing himself later on.
Effectiveness: The scene is powerful enough that almost any music cue would work, but Athlete's "Chances" is a nice, quiet little pop-indie song that helps coax your tears along.
Film: By Chance (written and directed by Richard Curtis)
Song: "Wuthering Heights"
Artist: Kate Bush
The Scene: Just when it looks like David (James McAvoy) has finally reached his limit with neurotic Simon (Domhnall Gleeson), Simon chases after David in the rain, and David realizes that just because they come from completely different worlds — he a university librarian; Simon a famous, glass-closeted stage actor — they can't simply throw their love away, no matter how bumbling and disastrous it was at their engagement dinner when their mothers (Kristin Scott Thomas and Emma Thompson) revealed they'd once shared a scandalous holiday while at university.
Effectiveness: The world had waited a long time for Richard Curtis to deliver a gay love story, and he did not disappoint. And while Kate Bush might seem like an odd choice for a mainstream romantic comedy, the song not only paid off the recurring Bronte references throughout the film but also reached an emotional crescendo when Simon and David kissed in the rain. [Criminally, YouTube has no clips from this movie, as it has neither been written, cast, filmed, or conceived of yet.]