The marriage of movies and music can be a beautiful thing. At its worst it can seem cloy and obvious, but when it works, magic unfolds. At its best it can be difficult to imagine the song or the movie existing without one another. And in the rarest of cases (as with my number one choice on this list) the perfect placement of a certain song in just the right scene can actually enhance the entire film, bringing something out of the song we didn't know was there before and changing the way we listen to it.
I don't think anyone expected to be rocking out to Wilson Phillips' "Hold On" during Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle. Of course the song sucks but that's the point and it was exploited brilliantly in that scene. And for a just a second it sucked a whole lot less. Everyone may have hated the series finale of The Sopranos but there's no denying David Chase's use of Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" was pure genius. There's a reason that song's sales increased by a couple of hundred percent following the episode. It always a great song, we had just forgotten. That scene reminded us in a big way.
I'm not ranking the films here or even their soundtracks, just the use of the song in the movie. Musicals obviously don't count. I had planned to do a top 10 but found 11 choices I really loved so I declared a tie for tenth place. At the bottom I listed some choices that just missed the list. Be warned that some these choices DO CONTAIN PLOT SPOILERS.
(TIE) 10. "Tiny Dancer," Elton John (Almost Famous)
No director receives more criticism for how he uses music in his films than Cameron Crowe. That's never been truer than with his more recent soundtrack efforts in Vanilla Sky and Elizabethtown. But what has to be understood about Crowe is that he's a filmmaker who wears his heart on his sleeve and makes no apologies for his musical tastes. As a former writer for Rolling Stone, he's earned the right not to. He's not afraid to use his movies as his own personal mix tapes and if I didn't love all the music he uses in them I probably wouldn't be able to stand it. But I do, so I can not only stand it, but love it.
Even his biggest detractors would come clean and say he was never more in his element with a soundtrack than with his autobiographical love letter to Rock, Almost Famous. The gang spontaneously breaking out into Elton John's Tiny Dancer" after being burned out by the grinds of the road shouldn't work at all. But it does. And I guess that must be Crowe's gift. Taking moments that should be too syrupy and making them believable and heartfelt. Yes, these characters would do something like this. There's another Crowe moment just like this later on in this list. And why has this song (which I previously considered one of Elton John's lesser efforts) sounded so much better to me ever since seeing this film?
(TIE) 10. "Needle In The Hay," Elliot Smith (The Royal Tennenbaums
Wes Anderson is pretty much infamous for employing "quirky" musical tastes in his films ever since Rushmore. But there's nothing "quirky" about this selection in 2001's criminally underrated The Royal Tenenbaums. After years of failing to meet his family's expectations and his own washed-up professional tennis pro Richie Tenenbaum is frozen in time. Forever stuck, physically and emotionally, in the moment of the on-court meltdown that ended his career and plagued with guilt over his feelings for his sister, Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow).
In a family of geniuses that all failed to live up to their promise, he's the biggest disappointment of them all. He hardly does or says anything the entire film, until a key scene where he says and does something VERY BIG. "I'm going to kill myself tomorrow." With those words begins a profoundly disturbing scene and the song playing during is Elliot Smith's "Needle in the Hay." If there was any doubt this song was destined to appear in this particular scene consider that both the actor who co-wrote the film (Owen Wilson) and the man who wrote and performed the song (Smith) both attempted suicide. Wilson survived. Smith, tragically, didn't.
9. "Save Me," Aimee Mann (Magnolia)
Recent Academy Award nominated director Paul Thomas Anderson's polarizing 1999 film Magnolia contemplates the randomness and unfairness of everyday life through nine separate but connecting stories about regular people struggling to come to grips with their pasts and present. The use of music in this film differs from the others listed here in that the film was actually WRITTEN AROUND THE MUSIC, not the other way around as we're accustomed to. Anderson has stated that it was Aimee Mann's music that provided the basis for the story and inspired him to write the screenplay. I can't ever remember a case of that happening, or if there was, we've never heard of it. She supplied every single song in the film and it's more than fair to say that without her music we wouldn't have even had a movie.
The film explores themes such as loneliness, forgiveness and, in what made audiences most uncomfortable, the idea that some things are just unexplained or out of your hands. At the end of the film all the emotions that have been building in us and the characters for over two hours just come pouring out (literally) in one memorable scene. The song we hear: "Save Me," by Aimee Mann. It's perfect. Even if you hate Magnolia or find it self-indulgent (and a lot of people do) you can't deny that it's unforgettable. A major reason why is the music. This is the first of two P.T. Anderson films that will be appearing on this list.
8. "Where Is My Mind," Pixies (Fight Club)
It's shameful for me to admit now but I wasn't that familiar with the Pixies were before the infamous strains of "Where Is My Mind?" blasted during the final moments of one of the best films of the '90's, David Fincher's Fight Club. There's no better choice to accompany one of the bleakest, most catastrophic endings of a motion picture you're ever likely to see. And when it's happening this is the song we hear. It couldn't be more fitting, both the song and its title.
What Fincher is an expert at is using famous songs sparingly, but when he does use them it's done perfectly at just the right time and has an unbelievable effect. When we hear them in his movies it almost takes a second to recognize because it engulfs the film so deeply. His use of Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit" in The Game and more recently Donovan's "Hurdy Gurdy Man" in Zodiac both almost made this list. I picked this one though because in the context of the film it's the best of the three, as agonizing as it was to choose. And I'm sure Fincher isn't even close to done with supplying us more memorable music moments in his films.
7. "Mad World," Gary Jules (Donnie Darko)
I usually hate it when a film ends with a song. It just feels so contrived and obvious most of the time. This, on the other hand, is one of those rare exceptions. I can't even picture the ending of Donnie Darko without Gary Jules' hauntingly beautiful cover of Tears For Fears "Mad World" accompanying it. The main character has made the ultimate sacrifice and when Jules' song kicks up we realize we were watching something much more than just a clever time travel movie. It gives the story an added emotional pull that takes it over the top and makes it heartbreaking. Up until that point it was a very good film, but that helped make it a great, moving one. And it's a rare cover that's superior to the original, extracting something out of the song we never knew existed.
6. "Singin In The Rain," Gene Kelly (A Clockwork Orange)
I'm cheating a little here since the song isn't actually played during the scene, just sung by one of the characters. But as we know that doesn't make its appearance any less memorable. When Alex (Malcolm McDowell) and his gang of droogs break into the old man's house and rape his wife it's a brutal, uncomfortable moment. But when, out of nowhere, Alex starts singing the most famous of all American movie musical numbers it becomes a sick, depraved one and Stanley Kubrick literally takes the song away from Gene Kelly and claims it as his own.
Before 1971 this song invoked warm and fuzzy feelings. Since then all it's done is produce nightmares. I've actually met people who think the "Singin' In The Rain" originated in this film, and honestly, I can't say I blame them. In a way, it kind of did. Supposedly Anthony Burgess was unhappy with what Kubrick did to his book, precisely because of scenes like this. But whether he likes it or not, it paid off because we're still talking about it over thirty years later.
5. "Girl, You'll Be A Woman Soon," Urge Overkill (Pulp Fiction)
The reason this isn't ranked higher is only because Pulp Fiction is a movie that uses all its music so brilliantly throughout the film as a whole rather than being remembered for one particular song in a scene. "Son of a Preacher Man," "Let's Stay Together," "Flowers on the Wall." The list goes on and on. You could make an argument for any one of those making this list and if I didn't have to pick just one I could have filled the entire top 10 with songs from this film. It's unquestionably the greatest motion picture soundtrack of all-time. I just picked Urge Overkill's cover of "Girl, You'll Be A Woman Soon" because it just sticks out in my mind as the most memorable, which is really saying a lot with a soundtrack like this.
When Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman) hits "PLAY" on the tape deck even if you've heard the song before it feels like the first time. Could there possibly be a more appropriate song for that character to play at that moment? If there is, I can't think of any, or at least Tarantino won't let us. I have no idea whether Neil Diamond was approached by Tarantino about using his version for the film and turned him down. If he did, then he's a moron. But it all worked out for the best because Urge Overkill's is better.
4. "Stuck In the Middle (With You)," Steelers Wheels (Reservoir Dogs)
"Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right." You knew this one was appearing on the list. It's funny because before Quentin Tarantino employed Steelers Wheels "Stuck In The Middle With You" so memorably in his directorial debut no one had ever really heard of it. Now you can't flip on any classic rock station in the country without hearing it. That's because of Reservoir Dogs. And that's why Tarantino is so damn good. His love and knowledge of music runs just as deep as that for film and when the two converge it's something very special.
Tarantino is known for having resurrected the careers of washed up actors like John Travolta, Pam Grier, Robert Forster and David Carradine but it's hardly ever mentioned what he's done for all these obscure or underappreciated musical artists like Steelers Wheels. Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen) playing this song while cutting a man's ear off is brilliant on about a thousand different levels.
3. "In Your Eyes," Peter Gabriel (Say Anything)
I wonder how Peter Gabriel feels about the fact that no matter what he accomplishes in his career he'll always be remembered for his "In Your Eyes" blasting from Lloyd Dobler's boom box. And how does John Cusack feel knowing that no matter what role he plays, THAT will be the one for which he's most remembered? I'm guessing they're both pretty pissed about it, but they shouldn't be. They should be proud and honored to have been part of it. Is the scene syrupy? Yes. Is it corny? Absolutely. But no one could ever claim Cameron Crowe's seminal teen flick doesn't earn every second of it. It's ironic that in a film called Say Anything the most memorable moment comes when the main character lets the music do all the talking for him.
2. "Mrs. Robinson," Simon and Garfunkel (The Graduate)
Imagine you're a songwriter named Paul Simon or Art Garfunkel and you're assigned a task, one that pays a considerable amount of money. Come up with some songs for Mike Nichols coming-of-age film about a recent college graduate (Dustin Hoffman) who's seduced by the sexy mother of his girlfriend. And then you come up with THAT. Sure it was a very good film, but I don't think anyone would be discussing it now, nor would it have ended up on the American Film Institute's list of 100 greatest movies if not for Simon and Garfunkel's most famous song.
It wasn't just the perfect song for the film or the moment. It was the perfect song for that period in our country. I think we take for granted just how good it is because it's become so ingrained in our the fabric of our American culture. How many other songs from movies can you say that about? Another one of their musical contributions that opened film, "The Sounds of Silence" isn't too far behind. Upon the film's release in 1967 Roger Ebert called Simon and Garfunkel's soundtrack "forgettable." Oops. I guess even Ebert's entitled to an off day.
1. "Sister Christian," Night Ranger (Boogie Nights)
The stage is set: Dirk (Donnie Wahlberg), Reed (John C. Reilly) and Todd (Thomas Jane) arrive at the house of the insane, strung out Rashad Jackson (superbly played by Alfred Molina) for a drug deal that's about to go very bad. The tension builds. Firecrackers go off. A song is blasting from Rashad's stereo. It's… "SISTER CHRISTIAN?" Paul Thomas Anderson's ode to skinema is full of big risks but his choice of this forgotten '80's power ballad is the biggest, and most brilliant. It's just kind of song this crazed creep would listen to. How about when he tells everyone to shut up when the chorus comes? Classic.
There may be more "respectable" choices on here but I don't care. This is the best. What's interesting about it is it really isn't the focus of the scene, but a character in it. It may be tough initially to recognize just how much it adds because it blends in so seamlessly, but I'm betting if we played the scene without the song everything would seem different and nearly all the emotional energy would be drained. It plays as big a role in the scene's success, if not bigger, than anyone acting in it.
One of the many reasons I put this in the top spot is most of the other choices were songs pretty much everyone loved, even before their appearance in that particular film. Previously, if Night Ranger's Sister Christian had come on the radio I'm sure many would probably switch the dial, writing it off as cheesy 80's corporate rock. I know I would have. What was our problem? How could we be so wrong? And thanks to Anderson I can now admit that without embarrassment (or at least a whole lot less than before).
It takes only a moment for him to change our perception of the song, redefine a band's legacy and lift his film to even greater heights. He takes a dorky song and makes it cool, giving us a case study on how to effectively use music in a motion picture. In fact, the soundtrack to this film is so strong they actually had to come out with a second volume. I have both and also harbor no shame in blasting Rick Springfield's "Jessie's Girl" (which also appears in that same scene) as loud as I can.
Part of me thinks I only posted this blog to profess my love for this song and actually first got the idea to compile this list when listening to my ipod and discovering out of the thousands of songs on it, guess which is the most played? Even after hearing it half a million times I still get chills up and down my spine and get as excited as Rashad when that chorus kicks in. I'm kind of pissed that The Game came out in 1997 so I couldn't name this masterpiece (which has aged VERY, VERY WELL) as the best film of that year. Heather Graham AND Julianne Moore. Burt Reynolds in the greatest role of his career. Night Ranger. It doesn't get any better than this.
Honorable Mention: "Everybody's Talkin," Harry Nilsson (Midnight Cowboy), "Trouble" and "If You Want to Sing Out," Cat Stevens (Harold and Maude), "America," Simon and Garfunkel (Almost Famous), "Bohemian Rhapsody," Queen (Wayne's World), "Sounds of Silence," Simon and Garfunkel (The Graduate), Every Song from Pulp Fiction "Secret Garden," Bruce Springsteen (Jerry Maguire), "Hurdy, Gurdy Man," Donovan (Zodiac), "White Rabbit," Jefferson Airplane (The Game), "Miracles," Jefferson Starship (Crank), "Without You," Harry Nilsson (The Rules of Attraction), "Hip To Be Square," Huey Lewis and The News (American Psycho), "Against The Wind," Bob Seger (Forrest Gump), "Raindrops Keep Fallin' On My Head, B.J. Thomas (Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid), "Layla (Piano Exit)," Derek And The Dominos (Goodfellas), "I'm Shipping Up To Boston," Dropkick Murphys (The Departed), "Comfortably Numb," Roger Waters feat. Van Morrison And The Band (The Departed), "New Slang," The Shins (Garden State)