You’ll find Greek music in many movies that aren’t in Greek. For instance, there are Manos Hadjidakis’ tunes in “Never on Sunday” and “Topkapi,” Mikis Theodorakis’ epic soundtracks for “Z,” “Zorba the Greek,” and “Serpico,” and Vangelis’ electronic orchestrations for “Chariots of Fire,” “1492: Conquest of Paradise,” and “Blade Runner,” all well known to cinema lovers around the world.
Horror films, action movies and comedies have all used Greek music to augment the impact of their scenes and, by doing so, have made a number of composers and melodies known to audiences worldwide. In this short list of eight films, we take a quick look at some pieces of Greek music that can be found in a number of different Hollywood and European productions.
The Exorcist (1973)
One of the most terrifying horror films in the history of cinema, William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist” has two Greek songs on its official soundtrack.
After a hard day, the Greek-American priest Damien Karras, who also holds a degree in psychiatry, returns home. His sick mother has the radio on and Rita Sakellariou, one of Greece’s best folk singers, is singing her big hit “Istoria mou, amartia mou” (“My history, my sin”). The line from the song, “You are a sickness/Inside my chest,” is particularly apt in light of the flashbacks that Father Karras experiences during the film.
Before he leaves his mother’s house, the priest lowers the volume on the radio as it plays the song “Paramithaki mou” (“My Fairytale”) by Yannis Kalatzis and Manos Loizos, and he gives his mother a goodbye kiss on the forehead.
Pulp Fiction (1994) and Taxi (1998)
“Misirlou” is perhaps the most “remixed” Greek song of all time. From its origin as a slow-paced rebetiko tune by an unknown composer, it has been redone for jazz, surf rock, oriental and rap music. The most famous version of this tune was performed by Dick Dale & The Del Tones in 1963. This take, popular at the time of its release, became famous worldwide because of its use during the opening credits of Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 masterpiece, “Pulp Fiction.”
In 1998, Luc Besson chose the same piece for the opening scene to his action comedy film “Taxi,” in which this composition can be heard while the camera follows Samy Naceri as he rides a scooter through the streets of Marseille.
Mighty Aphrodite (1995)
Woody Allen’s comedy is a pleasant look at the celebration of existence, one that plays with the key elements of ancient Greek tragedy. The film opens in what is supposed to be an amphitheater in Greece (the scene was actually shot at the ancient Greek theatre in Taormina, Sicily), where the play’s chorus narrates the tragic fates of Achilles, Oedipus and Medea to Stavros Xarchakos’ instrumental piece “Choros tou Sakena” (“The Dance of Sakenas”).
Short Sharp Shock (1998), Soul Kitchen (2009) and The Edge of Heaven (2008)
A German director, screenwriter and producer of Turkish descent, Fatih Akin was born and raised in Hamburg in the multicultural suburb of Altona. The neighborhood is a melting pot of different cultures and ethnicities from around the world, something that has had a lasting impact on Akin’s career as a filmmaker.
The characters in his feature-length films have international friends, ancestral homelands they’ve never experienced, and different perspectives on German culture. Perhaps because of his own friendship with the actor Adam Bousdoukos, whose parents come from Greece, Akin chose to use Greek music in the films he has directed.
His 1998 debut film “Short Sharp Shock,” a crime drama that launched a new style of filmmaking in Germany, tells the story of an Altona gang. Akin had Bousdoukos sing the refrain from “Minore tis avgis” (“A Dawn Tune in A Minor,” in video above at 18:30). With music by Spyros Peristeris and lyrics by Minos Matsas, this 1936 song is a sorrowful rebetiko song that remains popular today.
In 2009, when Akin and Bousdoukos came together again to work on Akin’s first comedy, “Soul Kitchen,” the director again chose to use Greek music in a number of scenes. In this film, Adam Bousdoukos plays the financially challenged owner of an alternative restaurant in Hamburg’s industrial district.
During sequences that included depictions of delirious dancing, abdominal pains and unpleasant visits from city officials, the film’s soundtrack featured the ’60s pop band the Olympians and the song “To skoleio” (“The School”), the reggae band Locomondo and its remix of the traditional 1935 rebetiko tune “Frangosyriani” by the legendary Markos Vamvakaris, and DJ Shantel’s remix of the 1929 rebetiko classic “Manolis o hasiklis” (“Manolis the Hashish Smoker”).
Meanwhile, his previous film, “The Edge of Heaven” (2007), winner of the Best Screenplay Award at the Cannes Film Festival, starts with the sounds of a Pontic lyra and the song “Tin patrida m’ exasa” (“I Lost My Homeland”), one of the songs that is most representative of Greek Pontic culture.
In this version, the lyrics in the Pontic dialect have been translated into Turkish by Kazim Koyuncu, an artist who explored the dialects and languages of the peoples who live along the coasts of the Black Sea. Koyuncu recorded hundreds of songs before his death at the young age of 33. The strong pain the Pontic music conveys matches the painful sentiments felt by the film’s protagonists.
Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998)
Guy Ritchie’s debut in 1998 was part of the slick new wave of 90s British cinema. Following Quentin Tarantino’s formula, “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” is a clever crime comedy with overlapping storylines, set on the mean streets of London. The four main protagonists are hapless gangsters, reluctantly drawn into the world of a powerful, card-playing crime lord, “Hatchet” Harry.
One of the key characters is Nick “the Greek,” a dim-witted yet loveable smuggler who sells two antique shotguns to the protagonists. In a nod to Nick’s Greek heritage, the action-packed climax is set to Mikis Theodorakis’ iconic soundtrack “Zorba the Greek,” remixed by John Murphy and David A. Hughes.
Enjoy the sequence above, featuring the legendary ex-football star-turned actor, Vinnie Jones.
The music of Eleni Karaindrou transcends borders, especially those between the Balkan countries. In her collaborative efforts with the Greek director, Theo Angelopoulos, she helped the filmmaker depict the scars of the Balkan peninsula and its peoples in a unique manner.
The music she composed for Angelopoulos’ 2004 film “Weeping Meadow” was also used in Goran Radumanovic’s film “Enklava” (“Enclave”). This Serbian movie set in northern Kosovo explores the friendship between two children, one Orthodox Christian and one Muslim, shortly before the outbreak of the Kosovo War in 1998.