From 'The Batman' to 'Succession': The Best Uses of Nirvana Songs in Movies and TV – Collider

Nirvana’s presence in ‘The Batman’ is the latest example of the influence the band still has.
When Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain died in April 1994, a generation lost its voice. Almost thirty years later, however, his voice is still being rediscovered by subsequent generations, of those who don’t find music on MTV and CD releases, but YouTube, movie trailers, and soundtracks. For many years you would not find a Nirvana song in movies. When the rights to Nirvana’s music was sold, that changed, and now we’re getting a new take on the meaning behind Cobain’s music. Here are the best examples of how Nirvana songs were used to great impact in movies and TV, and what those songs meant to the scenes they were in.
The earliest example of Nirvana being used in the movies does not include an original version of their work. In this Baz Luhrmann musical drama we do not hear Cobain’s voice, but we get that famous guitar riff, leading to dozens of brightly dressed women and men in top hats belting out the chorus of, “Here we are now, entertain us, we feel stupid and contagious.” Courtney Love, who lost out on a role in the film to Nicole Kidman, agreed to let Luhrmann use eight seconds of Nirvana’s most loved song. To expand on this, the chorus is repeated several times while overlapped with new lyrics. It’s all a bit silly, but performed so well that it works. Even more impressive, Marilyn Manson was the original singer, but after Love complained, he was replaced just six days before the movie opened.
RELATED: Courtney Love Says Kurt Cobain Would Be “Proud” of Nirvana Song’s Use in ‘Succession’
Here we get the actual In Utero song played, and it’s gut-wrenching. It’s used in the acclaimed HBO series about a family of funeral homeowners. Peter Krause’s leading character, Nate Fisher, has just died. During a flashback scene to 1994, his sister, Claire, walks into Nate’s room and finds her brother crying as the heartbreaking song plays in the background. Kurt Cobain has just died. “Well, his music will live on,” a young Claire says. Nate smiles. “Yeah. Yeah, it will,” he responds. In the present day Claire smiles at the memory. Nate will live on too. The song keeps playing as we follow Claire and Nate’s mother looking sad and lost, while the haunted final lines of “All alone is all we are” plays on repeat.
Seventeen years before the Nevermind track would appear in The Batman, it showed up in this Sam Mendes directed war film about a Marine, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, having a mental meltdown during the Gulf War. When his character calls home to speak to his girlfriend, he becomes suspicious of her new guy friend. “He’s just a friend,” she tells him, but the broken look on his face tells us he doesn’t believe her. The song, a perfect meditation on loneliness, comes in as the Marine lies in bed at night, before getting up to walk alone to the bathroom. He stares at himself in the mirror and his reflection turns into an image of his girlfriend. He vomits an incomprehensible pile of sand into the sink before waking up. It was all a horrible nightmare. Still, the war, his cheating girlfriend, are both something in the way of his happiness.
This is the most bonkers inclusion on the list. This Clive Owen action flick is not meant to be taken seriously. A tribute to John Woo films, it’s hyperbolic and insane, and few Nirvana songs live up to that more than this intense fury from Nevermind. In the opening scene, Owen’s character spots a pregnant woman being chased down a street. He dispatches of countless villains in a warped display of gunplay and violence, the action enhanced by Dave Grohl’s machine gun drumming and Cobain’s furious guitar. One of the band’s faster songs, it’s perfect for the film's quick cuts, and its own quickness tells us this movie is meant to be mindless fun. “I don’t care” and “I don’t mind,” Kurt wails. You shouldn’t care about taking this movie seriously. Leave your mind behind and enjoy the madness.
If there’s a song wilder than “Breed,” it’s this one. It’s not used to be over-the-top and cartoonish, however. The song is maddening, and its use here is as a happy past and a troubled present mixing together to create a supersonic panic attack. That fits perfectly with the scene it’s used for in this film, starring Steve Carell and Timothée Chalamet as a father and son whose relationship becomes troubled due to the son’s drug use. We get to know more about them in a frenzied 90 seconds that finds Carell’s character going out to look for his son. In the car, he reminisces about better days, a younger version of his son, played by Jack Dylan Grazer, screaming the Nirvana song as both smile and laugh. We then jump back to the present as the father finds his older son in a dark, rainy alley. He takes him to his car, where the drug-addled Chalamet throws up all over the interior. “Gotta find a way!” Cobain screams. Here, a father has gotta find a way to save his child.
The most mainstream use of a Nirvana song came from this superhero blockbuster that was stacked with 90s music. Set in 1995, we find Brie Larson as the titular character forced to confront the Supreme Intelligence inside the Kree simulation. As her eyes pop open, the famous bass line kicks in, and she sees the song coming from a nearby record player. The Supreme Intelligence appears in the form of Captain Marvel’s boss, played by Annette Bening. It dances to the music and tells her, “The music, it’s a nice touch.” It’s not just meant to be any song playing. This one means something to Captain Marvel and the plot. The lyrics are about accepting someone for who they are. The Supreme Intelligence doesn’t accept her, but Captain Marvel is fine with who she is.
This controversial track appears in a pivotal scene during the third season of the Emmy Award-winning HBO series. Brian Cox’s character has covered up sexual misconduct allegations made against his company’s cruise division. His daughter, Sarah Snook’s Siobhan "Shiv" Roy, steps up to the podium at an employee town hall to speak about the allegations and allay concerns, but is interrupted by this In Utero hit playing over the speakers, drowning her out. As workers rush to find the source of the music and turn it off, Shiv is left standing alone, humiliated. The sabotage is shown to be the work of her brother, Kendall, who previously outed his father’s cover up. It is meant to remind everyone there of what happened. With Cobain screaming “Rape Me” again and again, it’s impossible for anyone to forget.
Matt Reeves knew from the moment he was writing the script that this lesser known song was going to make it into the film. As he told Esquire, “I started listening to Nirvana, and there was something about ‘Something in the Way,’…which is part of the voice of that character. When I considered, ‘How do you do Bruce Wayne in a way that hasn’t been seen before?,’ I started thinking, ‘What if some tragedy happened…and this guy becomes so reclusive, we don’t know what he’s doing? Is this guy some kind of wayward, reckless, drug addict?’ And the truth is that he is a kind of drug addict. His drug is his addiction to this drive for revenge. He’s like a Batman Kurt Cobain.” The track is used multiple times, most notably as Batman moves through the city early on in the film. We can feel the sadness, the pain, the loneliness pouring out of him. Composer Michael Giacchino’s mix adds a haunting piano which makes the song that much more heartbreaking.
Shawn Van Horn is a Film & TV Features Writer for Collider. He has written two novels and is neck deep in the querying trenches. He is also a short story maker upper and poet with a dozen publishing credits to his name. He lives in small town, Ohio, where he likes to watch rasslin’ and movies.
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