Top 20 Best Uses of Songs in Movies
Jun 19, 2014
William Friedkin's 1973 film The Exorcist is just as famous for its use of Mike Oldfield's "Tubular Bells" as it is for its 360 head turn—perhaps, in fact, even more so. Richard Strauss' Nietzsche-inspired tone poem "Thus Spoke Zarathustra" is probably much more commonly referred to as the music from the opening of 2001: A Space Odyssey than it is by its real name. The point we're trying to make: sometimes the marriage of movie and song are so inseparable, so capable of encapsulating the mood of the sequence, that all other meanings and contexts are lost. In honour of these inspired "needle drops," we've collected a list of the best choices made by some of the best directors. By Lauren Down
Elliott Smith: “Needle in the Hay”
The Royal Tenenbaums
If anyone knows how to pair songs with film scenes it's Wes Anderson. Along with his music supervisor Randall Poster, Anderson has been responsible for some of the most iconic and heartfelt matches in modern cinema. The opening chords of Elliott Smith's “Needle in the Hay” play out as Richie Tenenbaum shuts himself in the bathroom after finding out about his adoptive sister (who he is in love with) Margot's many relationships. He shaves his head and beard before cutting his wrists to the sounds of Smith's voice. “Needle in the Hay” is heartbreaking enough on its own, but set to Richie’s suicide attempt (two years before Smith’s own suicide), it is the most powerful, sad pairing.
Pixies: “Where Is My Mind”
Never underestimate the power of Pixies. David Fincher's choice of “Where Is My Mind” for those infamous closing moments of Fight Club is nothing short of inspired. Frank Black's gritty vocals and Kim Deal's high pitched coos are the perfect reflection of Edward Norton and Helen Bonham Carter's final movie moment—holding hands as the skyline explodes and Norton says, “Trust me, everything's going to be fine.”
Elton John: “Tiny Dancer”
For a certain generation, “Tiny Dancer” is that song from the Almost Famous bus scene. That fact almost says all we need to say, but ultimately the power of this song in conjunction with the movie lies in its ability to put a smile on anyone's face. Even Russell Hammond, the lead singer of Stillwater—who sits shivering on a comedown from his reckless, drug-fueled pool dive the night before—is coaxed by his briefly-estranged band members into singing along. The palpable sense of tension felt on the bus before is effortlessly lifted and immediately transformed into something euphoric.
Huey Lewis and the News: “It's Hip to Be Square”
Christian Bale's simultaneous critical narrative of Huey Lewis and the News and murder of Wall Street rival Paul Allen (played by Jared Leto) embodies the spirit of the Bret Easton Ellis novel (adapted by Mary Harron) in ways that we're pretty sure would have been impossible otherwise.
Simon and Garfunkel: “The Sound of Silence”
It's not only that the words of Simon and Garfunkel hold up a mirror to Benjamin Braddock's (played by Dustin Hoffman) unexpressed emotions, but the way “The Sound of Silence” kicks in the moment his face drops that earns Mike Nichols and Sam O'Steen's pick its place on this list. As he and an eloping Elaine Robinson ride off into the proverbial sunset on that yellow bus, the song expertly undercuts the happily-ever-after pretence and captures the awkward realization that they're not really sure the big gesture move was the best idea.
Stealer's Wheel: “Stuck in the Middle With You”
Only Tarantino could take a sprightly ’70s hit and twist it into something now synonymous with a grisly torture scene. We don't know, but we're pretty sure that this is where the phrase “ear-bleedingly bad” comes from.
Lou Reed: “Perfect Day”
Much like Tarantino, Danny Boyle has an ear for matching the rapturous with horrific; and the use of Lou Reed's beautiful anthem as the soundtrack to Renton's floor-sinking overdose is the perfect example of this. In fact this scene embodies the polarized nature of a film that was sensationalized for glorifying the use of heroin whilst actually doing pretty much everything it could to show you it was a terrible thing.
Q Lazzarus: “Goodbye Horses”
The Silence of The Lambs
It's nigh on impossible to listen to this song in its non Silence of the Lambs form without mouthing Buffalo Bill's rumbling, terrifying murmurs of “Would you f-ck me? I'd f-ck me.” The moment he steps backwards in self-admiration is the moment these two entities become inextricable.
Bob Dylan: “The Times They Are a-Changin’”
Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon's original graphic novel Watchmen is beholden for its gritty approach to the superhero canon and the film followed suit. But whether or not you were a fan of Zack Snyder's adaptation, you can't deny how powerful its Bob Dylan scored opening-credits sequence is: Dylan's 1964 folk standard acting as a prophecy for our heroes' fall from grace.
Simple Minds: “Don't You (Forget About Me)”
The Breakfast Club
John Hughes isn't just a director, he is practically a musical genre in his own right. Iconic films like The Breakfast Club—along with Sixteen Candles, Some Kind of Wonderful, and Pretty in Pink—helped establish an artistic canon that went beyond the screen and into the subconscious undercurrent of pop culture. The choice of Simple Minds’ “Don't You (Forget About Me)” as a closing song is an inspired one, reflecting the retroactive nostalgia of the entire film.
Chuck Berry: “You Never Can Tell”
Next to the Macarena, Uma Thurman and John Travolta's moves at Jack Rabbit Slim's are probably the most imitated on the dancefloor. Of the many, many Pulp Fiction scenes that have made their mark as pop culture staples, this feels the most subtly engineered. And even though the atmosphere rests on a knife edge, there is a giddy joy in Chuck Berry's voice that lures you into a false sense of security.
Derek and the Dominos: “Layla”
After Francis Ford Coppola's Godfather epics, Martin Scorsese's 1990 film Goodfellas is the gangster movie. There are so many scene and song matches we could pull from this landmark film—least of all those wonderfully paranoid moments accompanied by Harry Nilsson's “Jump Into the Fire”—but we've opted for the montage of slain made men from the pink caddy to the frozen meat truck as accompanied by “Layla.”
The Doors: “The End”
Another opening soundtrack masterpiece comes from The Doors and Apocalypse Now. Though obviously Wagner's “Ride of the Valkyries” is equally, if not more iconic, it's the sprawling, vivid guitars of Jim Morrison and co. that make the cut from this Vietnam war epic. Placed over the nightmarish acid-trip like intro of napalm, helicopters and Martin Sheen's flickering visage, Francis Ford Coppola sets the precedent for the horrors that follow.
Vera Lynn: “We'll Meet Again”
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
The sentimental optimism of Vera Lynn's 1939 tune became a WWII anthem for British troops and those waiting at home for them. What better place for it, then, than the punchline of Stanley Kubrick's dark, mushroom-cloud-filled joke?
Donovan: “Hurdy Gurdy Man”
The identity of the Zodiac killer, a serial killer who operated in California in the early ’ '60s and ’ '70s, is one of the biggest criminal mysteries of the 20th Century. There have been many theories about who was responsible, but the fact that no conclusive answer has ever been reached remains as unsettling as it does intriguing. Nothing reflects this dichotomy more than the wavering psychedelic sounds of Dovovan's “Hurdy Gurdy Man” in David Fincher's film adaptation of events (as based on the Robert Graysmith book Zodiac). There is even an argument that Fincher's inclusion of this track in 2007 is responsible for the association of the song as a creepy one—after all this is “Mellow Yellow” Donovan we're talking about.
Kenny Rogers & The First Edition: “Just Dropped In”
The Big Lebowski
A drug-fueled bowling alley trip soundtracked by a song all about the dangers of taking acid. Go on, you try and think of a better match.
Jimmie Dodd: “Mickey Mouse March”
Full Metal Jacket
Kubrick does it again. Written by Mickey Mouse Club host Jimmie Dodd for the TV show's launch in 1955, this epitome of childhood innocence is perhaps now even more synonymous with Full Metal Jacket than it is with its original incarnation. It’s the perfect metaphor for the corruption of our youth and the fear faced by the young, as they go into battle as part of a war they will never understand.
Roy Orbison: “In Dreams”
David Lynch is another director blessed with a knack for pairing the dark with the light, and his predilection for the surreal is nowhere more obvious than on his seminal 1986 film noir, or neo-noir, Blue Velvet. An exercise in unnerving seedy interactions set against a back drop of sexual violence and psychotic criminal activities, Blue Velvet reaches one of its many terrifying climaxes when Dennis Hopper's character Frank watches in sadness and rage as his dandy partner in crime lip synchs to Roy Orbison's “In Dreams.” The song then continues to soundtrack the molestation of Dorothy and the savage beating of Jeffrey.
Cat Stevens: “Don't Be Shy”
Harold and Maude
As black romantic comedies go, you don't get much darker than Harold and Maude, and Hal Ashby's skilful touch with music goes a large way to contributing to the lighter-hearted side of things. Cat Stevens’s “Don't Be Shy” is an enticing invitation into the world of the death-obsessed Harold and the older object of his affections, Maude.
Yello: “Oh Yeah”
Ferris Bueller's Day Off
“Ohhh yeeahhh.” John Hughes makes his second appearance on this list but come on, is there anything more suitably cheeky than the low dubs of this song in terms of soundtracking the hijacking of your friend’s dad’s Ferrari?