With apologies to American Graffiti, Mean Streets, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and Dazed and Confused, Boogie Nights is my favorite “awesome scenes set to equally awesome songs” movie. I can’t think of another film that syncs pop songs with images and dialogue any better. To borrow a phrase originated by Rahad Jackson (and later stolen by Guardians of the Galaxy), Boogie Nights plays like an awesome mixtape.
Most filmmakers, if they’re lucky, will come up with a scene or two in an entire career that utilizes a pop song in such a way that it forever changes how people hear that song. In Boogie Nights, Paul Thomas Anderson does it dozens of times in the space of a single film. Now, it’s possible that some of these instances are stuck only in my head, and possibly in the heads of other people who have watched Boogie Nights many, many times. Nevertheless, I have come up with 42 musical moments worth noting in the movie. Stop staring blankly into space, my coked-up pals, because I’m about to toss some musical firecrackers.
32-42. Songs Only People Who Have Watched Boogie Nights 100 Times Notice
You decided that reading an article ranking the 42 greatest musical moments in Boogie Nights was a good idea, so I assume you’re interested in minutiae. For instance, you may care that the song Jack Horner plays in his living room after escorting home Amber from Hot Traxx is “The Sage” (42) by the Chico Hamilton Quintet. You may care that the documentary that Amber Waves directs as a “poem” for Dirk Diggler is scored by two songs, “Disco Fever” (41) and “Flying Objects” (40), composed by interstitial music cult hero Roger Webb. You may even care that the song playing at the doughnut shop where Buck comes into his Buck’s Super Stereo World cash is Lewis H. Redner’s “O Little Town of Bethlehem” (39).
Speaking of Buck, do you know what “country-western shit” he plays to demonstrate the power of the TK-421? Richard Gilka’s “Off the Road” (36), that’s what. Ya dig? Ya dig?
Because there is so much music in Boogie Nights, even some well-known songs get pushed to the margins, including Juice Newton’s “Queen of Hearts” (38), Starland Vocal Band’s “Afternoon Delight” (37), and Brook Benton’s “It’s Just a Matter of Time” (33). ’Til Tuesday’s “Voices Carry” (35) plays on Roller Girl’s Walkman for a quick moment at the end of the movie, a sly nod to Anderson’s friend and future soundtrack collaborator Aimee Mann. An instrumental version of Jethro Tull’s “Fat Man” (34) recurs throughout, most notably in the aftermath of the botched drug deal at Rahad’s house, though otherwise doesn’t call attention to itself.
None of these songs calls attention to themselves, so I’ll do the attention-calling on their behalf. For instance, how great is Jon Brion’s porn industry award-show music (32), which allows Dirk to keep rocking and rolling?
30-31. “Broken Circus Slash Funeral Music”
The above quote is taken from Anderson’s commentary track on the Boogie Nights DVD, when he’s talking about “The Big Top” (31), the spooky fanfare that plays at the beginning and end of the movie. (Anderson says the theme is “intended as a warning.”) “Funeral music” is also a fitting description of “Clementine’s Loop” (30), a crushingly monotonous bell tone that Anderson used in his first three films — in Boogie Nights, it scores the most depressing montage, when Anderson cuts between Dirk Diggler being gay-bashed and Roller Girl doing this:
I repeat: You don’t ever disrespect Roller Girl.
20-29. The Popular Soundtrack Favorites
These are the songs that were reintegrated into wedding reception playlists in the years after Boogie Nights came out. There’s a mix of established oldies like ELO’s “Livin’ Thing” (20), Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up, Pt. 1” (23), and Walter Egan’s “Magnet and Steel” (24), along with forgotten chestnuts that quickly became dorm room staples, like the twin Roller Girl sex scene numbers “Jungle Fever” by the Chakachas (28) and “Brand New Key” by Melanie (27). Many of these songs — like the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” (29), KC & the Sunshine Band’s “Boogie Shoes” (26), and the Commodores’ “Machine Gun” (25) — were used to accompany happy montages in the first half of the film. Seriously, who didn’t love “Machine Gun” after this?
Roberta Flack’s “Compared to What” (22) was less popular (and not included on either volume of the soundtrack), perhaps because it scores the bummer montage in which Buck is turned down for a loan, Amber and Roller Girl slip into an abyss of cocaine psychosis, and Dirk and Reed can’t convince Robert Downey Sr. to let them take those damn magical tapes to the record company.
But I want to call special attention to the brief scene scored by Apollo 100’s “Joy” (21), in which Eddie retreats to his bedroom after meeting Jack for the first time and preens in front the mirror:
If you watch it with the sound off, it looks like an homage to Saturday Night Fever, right down to the Serpico poster on the wall. With the sound on, it has a Clockwork Orange vibe. The emotional tenor of Boogie Nights lies somewhere between those two films.
What follows are six set pieces: two parties, two gatherings, a recording session, and a movie. The songs in these sequences are inextricable from each other. Anderson lets songs run longer than many directors would dare — in Boogie Nights, they often run from beginning to end, cueing up the next song or (in one famous case) getting cut off by it. The music in these set pieces creates the vibe, builds the tension, reveals character motivation, and comments on the action, like a Greek chorus of disco fiends.
14-19. Eddie’s First Party at Jack Horner’s House
The part everybody recalls from this sequence is the pool shot, set to Eric Burdon and War’s “Spill the Wine” (14), when the camera follows a comely swimmer into the pool, under the water, and then back out of the water where Eddie and Reed are debating proper cannonball technique. (The inspiration for this shot was taken from 1964’s I Am Cuba.) It is rightly remembered as one of the more spectacular, show-offy directorial flourishes in a movie loaded with them. I love it. I love how you can hear Burdon softly croon “I dreamed I was in a Hollywood movie” while Buck and Becky bicker about his cowboy clothes. I love how Burdon says “SPILL THE WINE, TAKE THAT PEARL” right as the girl hits the water. This whole sequence feels like a real party, and the wall-to-wall music is a big reason why.
But if I have to compare the greatness of the Jack Horner Party sequence against the greatness of the other sequences in Boogie Nights, I do have one quibble: The songs are a little obvious. When Eddie arrives at Jack’s house after fighting with his mother, it is set to Three Dog Night’s “Mama Told Me Not to Come” (19). When Amber’s son calls the house and Maurice can’t get her on the phone because she’s too busy doing lines off the coffee table, it is set to Andrew Gold’s “Lonely Boy” (18). Amber then gazes lovingly out the window as Eddie dives in the pool, a melancholy moment underscored, again, in somewhat heavy-handed fashion by Elvin Bishop’s “Fooled Around and Fell in Love” (17).
Don’t get me wrong — this is all fantastic. You can’t beat that Julianne Moore cocaine glow.
It’s just that all of these songs portend the doom coming later, and at this point in Boogie Nights I long for the lighter-hearted moments, like when Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Scotty J. shows up in a too-tight tank top to Hot Chocolate’s “You Sexy Thing” (16), or when Eddie envisions a new identity that will cut glass as Ohio Players testify during “I Want to Be Free” (15).
11-13. The Gathering at Hot Traxx
Anderson re-creates the sound and feel of bars and nightclubs better than any director save Martin Scorsese. (David Fincher gets an honorable mention for the nightclub scene in The Social Network.) Bars are loud, bustling, grimy, exciting, and occasionally depressing locales in PTA movies, as they are in real life. My favorite “underrated” music sequence in any PTA movie is that part in Magnolia when William H. Macy grooves out on Diet Coke and tequila to Supertramp’s “Goodbye Stranger” in the dive bar, because I’ve heard a ton of Supertramp in dive bars in my time. (This clip has been dubbed in French, but you get the idea.)
The most famous nightclub scene in a PTA film takes place at the start of Boogie Nights, when we meet all of the major characters as they shout over “Best of My Love” by the Emotions (11). The bravura Steadicam shot is another justly famous show-offy moment — it immediately put Boogie Nights in the Goodfellas zone, though seeing Luis Guzman prowl around a disco always makes me think first of Carlito’s Way. As for the music, it is banging and seductive, and it immediately draws you in. The music is what allows you to see the glamour of Hot Traxx through the eyes of the characters, rather than for what it really is, which is just another nondescript disco in the Valley where porn stars go to feel like celebrities.
There are two other songs in this sequence that are less noticeable: Boney M.’s “Sunny” (12) and Silver Convention’s “Fly, Robin, Fly” (13). You can barely hear “Fly, Robin, Fly” — it comes on when Jack is talking to Eddie in the back room — but it’s still integral to maintaining the “we’re at an actual C-list disco in 1977” effect, even if it’s subliminal.
10. Angels Live in My Town
How great is Angels Live in My Town? Shout-out to Brock Landers.
Shout out to Chest Rockwell.
Shout out to Brock and Chest.
With all due respect to the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage,” the ideal song to soundtrack two magnificent individuals doing magnificent things (such as breaking beer bottles, kicking over cardboard boxes, and chasing down Raphael) in magnificent sideburns and mullets is “J.P. Walk” by the obscure ’70s funk outfit Sound Experience. Without this song, I might not have spent the late ’90s emulating Brock Landers and Chest Rockwell as my masculine ideal. As it is, everything about this sequence is perfect and it’s insane to me that it’s only at no. 10. Who made this list anyway?
6-9. The New Year’s Eve Party
PTA’s tendency to let songs run long is pushed to the brink in this sequence, unofficially known as “the part in Boogie Nights where everything turns to shit.” Considering how the party ends (R.I.P. Little Bill), it’s almost cruel to hear it kick off with McFadden & Whitehead’s “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now” (9). Otherwise, the songs in the New Year’s Eve sequence appear to have been chosen for their ability to evoke a long, drug-fueled journey headed toward a disastrous conclusion. Sniff ’n’ the Tears’ bubblegum new-wave classic “Driver’s Seat” (8) ushers in the specter of Floyd Gondolli, who represents the shift from film to video and (in Anderson’s view) the death of porn’s “romantic” period. (Card-carrying bad influence Todd Parker also enters the movie during this song.) The Move’s grinding “Feel Too Good” (7) comes in right as Dirk is trying blow for the first time with Amber, commenting obliquely on the seeds of his demise.
And then there’s this excruciating scene. Poor Scotty J.
The party hits rock bottom with Little Bill’s suicide, which PTA allows to play out with stomach-turning slowness. The audience rides as Bill’s copilot as he decides to kill his wife, her lover, and then himself. The song playing in the background is “Do Your Thing” (6) by Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band, which similarly bends, twists, dips, and dives over the course of several meandering but purposeful minutes. You can hear the kick-drum dragging the song forward at the pace of Bill’s sad, broken heart.
4-5. Michael Penn and Robert Downey Sr.’s Recording Studio
In the history of actors who can’t sing that are called upon by Anderson and/or God to sing poorly in excellent PTA movies, you have Philip Seymour Hoffman warbling “(I’d Like to Get You on a) Slow Boat to China” at the end of The Master, and the cast of Magnolia trading lines from Aimee Mann’s “Wise Up.” Both are fantastic, but not as essential or life-affirming as the Boogie Nights double-shot of “The Touch” and “Feel My Heat,” because what is?
People forget how funny PTA movies can be. They don’t get funnier than this scene. If I have to pick one song, I’m going to go with “Feel My Heat” (4), because I choose “Feel My Heat” over nearly everything in my life. But “The Touch” (5) is incredible. “The Touch” justifies the existence of The Transformers: The Movie, which is where it originated, a film that otherwise traumatized me when it was released in 1986. I also love that PTA already had “The Touch” in his back pocket at 17 when he made The Dirk Diggler Story.
It’s just that “Feel My Heat” loves me today, it loves me tomorrow, it loves me like only a generic Zeppelin rip-off written by Paul Thomas Anderson and John C. Reilly can. I’m gonna watch it 20 more times in a row.
1-3. Drug Deal at Rahad’s Place
This is probably the best-ever example of how a movie can completely transform (and flat-out improve) a song. If not for Boogie Nights, I doubt I could sit through the entirety of “Sister Christian” (2), much less adore it as much as I do now. But this has already been thoroughly picked over. It’s pretty much a given that this is the greatest sequence in Boogie Nights, and possibly PTA’s entire oeuvre. Instead, I’d like to make a brief digression about the Inherent Vice trailer.
When it dropped in September, PTA fans watched this trailer over and over. I know I did. The part of the trailer I couldn’t get enough of was where it switches from the middle of Sly and the Family Stone’s “I Want to Take You Higher” to Sam Cooke’s “Wonderful World.” It reminded me of my favorite part of the Rahad’s drug deal sequence, when the awesome mixtape switches over from “Sister Christian” to “Jessie’s Girl” (1).
This works brilliantly on multiple levels. First off, it sounds cool. Second, it adds to the unpredictable tension of the setting. Third, it sounds really cool. Fourth, it adds another personality wrinkle to Rahad, a minor character who instantly feels as rich as Dirk or Reed. He has this mixtape, it has all of his favorite songs, but he’s also a heavy drug user, so of course he finished off Side 1 with only part of Night Ranger.
Later, PTA holds the close-up on Dirk’s dazed expression just long enough for him to get up as Rick Springfield says, “And I’m lookin’ in the mirror all the time,” which Anderson says wasn’t intentional, just lucky. Perhaps it was also a coincidence that the tape transitions to Nena’s anti–nuclear war anthem “99 Balloons” (3) right as the bullets start flying. Or maybe Rahad, like Paul Thomas Anderson, is just really good at soundtracking calamities.