Still more lazy thoughts from this one…

Same Song, Different Movie: Sinnerman by Nina Simone

This is the next entry in a series from early 2012 that looks at the use of “needle dropped” songs, many of them popular tunes, in movies. Specifically, in more than one. Yet they are not officially considered part of a film’s score. A score consists of those orchestral, choral, or instrumental pieces some consider background music. Both music forms are equally utilized as cues by filmmakers for a specific purpose or to elicit certain reactions by the audience.

I’m fascinated by this in general, and movie soundtracks have long intrigued me. This convergence of the music and film arts I’ve spent much time toward. My wife can confirm this. Some (not all) movie soundtracks have incorporated those songs the director or music programmer showcased in their production along with the film’s score.

A few filmmakers have made it part of their work to incorporate well-known or popular song as a recurrent element. Why not? Music and movies make for a wonderful tandem, and I regularly watch out for them. As usual, I give credit to my blogging colleague over at Fog’s Movie Review for helping to ignite this series care of his excellent post, Tossin’ It Out There: What’s YOUR Favorite Song From a Movie?:

“… there’s a deep connection between the two arts, and sometimes that winds up creating an inseparable bond between the two in the viewer’s mind.”

As we’re about to turn up the heat seasonally, the next entry in this series should do likewise. Via one of the all-time greats, Nina Simone. The legendary American singer, songwriter, pianist, arranger, and Civil Rights Movement activist who employed a range of musical styles that mesmerized whoever cared to listen. From classical jazz, blues, and folk, to R&B, gospel, and pop, the woman could do it all. Superb work she wrote herself to brilliant song covers that elevated them further, like here.

“Sinnerman”, or “Sinner Man”, an African-American spiritual that’s been recorded by many a performer. Les Baxter Orchestra’s in 1956 one of the earliest and popular, yet brought to a new height when Nina put her stamp to it in ’65 upon the release of her Pastel Blues LP. Remains one of her most iconic, and at more than 10 minutes in length, along with its distinctive tenor and lyrics, it is simply hypnotic. Utilized in many a revival, but also center stage in scores of films, TV, commercials, and remixes1.

Two standout instances deployed by a pair of distinctive filmmakers for their crime-based feature films, which come to think of it, fitting for the song’s title.

The Thomas Crown Affair (1999)

John McTiernan, another American filmmaker best known for his action films2, unexpectedly helmed a stylish thinking man’s heist flick, which happened to be a remake of a ’60s Steve McQueen vehicle3. That it’s the rare redux on par with the original tells you it was obviously a good match. His scorer, composer-conductor Bill Conti (Rocky, For Your Eyes Only, and The Right Stuff) quoted from the original’s theme song4 in the film’s soundtrack but inventively feathered in the non-vocal parts of “Sinnerman” throughout. Saving the best for the finale with Nina bringing it to full glory as the “sinner” of the picture thwarts law enforcement with a redeeming act. As Thomas Crown returns to the scene of the crime, his theft of Monet’s San Giorgio Maggiore at Dusk from “the Met”, blending with others dressed as The Son of Man5 to throw off his pursuers as Simone smoothly intones, “Oh sinnerman, where are you gonna run to?”

Miami Vice (2006)

Note when cohort Trudy slyly smiles as she recognizes Sonny is once more on the prowl with the beautiful bartender

Almost as slick, “Sinnerman” was again put to a grand scheme, rather sneakily, by director Michael Mann for his 2006 film based on the 1984-90 TV program. No stranger to the use of needle dropped music in film, like his first instance in this series, the filmmaker similarly deployed and situated it in another dance club set piece using a re-mix of the song. Apt as the hymn meant as a confessional, here using the Felix da Housecat Heavenly House Mix, and called on to mark the instigators, both good and bad. Plainly to denote the pimp and his entourage as they drive in to this covert police operation meant to snag them. Yet, Mann had the DJ drop the musical hint only when Sonny Crockett saunters over to the bar for Mojitos6. Clearly establishing that the other “Sinnerman” of the storyline is the involved “Miami Vice” undercover cop who can’t steer clear of a pretty face7.


The entire series can be found here.


  1. Some of which include TV shows, Homicide: Life on the Street, Scrubs, Entourage, The Blacklist and Person of Interest.; movies High Crimes (2002), Cellular (2004), and the documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015); to the Apple Watch 2 and HTC Corp. mobile phone commercials. 
  2.  Predator (1987), Die Hard (1988), The Hunt for Red October (1990), Last Action Hero (1993), the sequel Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995), and The 13th Warrior (1999), here re-teaming with his Nomads (1986) lead, Pierce Brosnan. 
  3. The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), co-starring Faye Dunaway (who has a cameo in the McTiernan version), directed by Norman Jewison. 
  4.  The Windmills of Your Mind
  5. The voguish 1964 painting by Belgian surrealist painter René Magritte. 
  6. A Cuban highball cocktail consisting of five ingredients: white rum, sugar (traditionally sugar cane juice), lime juice, soda water, and mint. 
  7. In the parlance of my day, he’d be hoping to “…get his mack on.” 
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8 Responses to “Same Song, Different Movie: Sinnerman by Nina Simone”

    • le0pard13

      Yeah, it was a wonderful deployment of this Nina classic. Glad we share an appreciation of it, Ted. Thanks, my friend. 🙂

      Like

      Reply

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