Music is a powerful cinematic tool. It can accentuate directing, acting, and cinematography to make a great scene better than the sum of its parts, it can elevate a normal scene into an iconic scene, and it can manipulate viewer’s emotions in pivotal turning points.
Effective and memorable uses of music are one of my cinema guilty pleasures. A great movie doesn’t have to have memorable music cues, but if it does, it will hold a special place in my heart. I’ve gone on a journey through some of my best film memories and compiled a list of some of my favorite uses of song in film. Let’s begin.
You’re Next – Dwight Twilley Band – “Looking for the Magic”
A good cinematic music cue can leave a lasting impression beyond the film itself. Sometimes as viewers, a song can speak to us, leave us completely enamored. We need to know who wrote the song, its title, all the things. This song is a great example of that.
I went to my local cinema to watch You’re Next with no idea what to expect. I’m not a horror movie fan and I wasn’t impressed with this one. But, I did enjoy how this song is cued and the song itself. The song cues in the opening scene as a selection from a home stereo system. It continues as a focal point of that scene, and finally shows up again later in the movie as a running gag. The song had me from the start. It’s straight 70’s 4/4 rock with a solid back-beat and heavy bass-line – an easy listening groove. After the movie, leaving the theater I immediately began scouring the internet. I had to know what this song was. The Dwight Twilley Band? Who is that, Internet? 1970’s? The hell you say! I know 70’s records. My father forced them on me as a child during every car ride into town, and I thought I had heard all the great music the 70’s had to offer. Nope. I had never heard of this band or this song. WHY? This song is an all-time great and should be revered by all. Seriously, go check it out. I’ll wait.
Hotel Chevalier – Peter Sarstedt – “Where Do You Go (To My Lovely)”
I happen to think that Hotel Chevalier is Wes Anderson’s greatest work, and this song is a big reason why. Everything surrounding the song feels right: the comedy in Jason Schwartzman testing the song before choosing it, the way the song cues amidst a tracking shot following Schwartzman’s exit from screen, and Natalie Portman’s perfect, puzzling delivery of her line, “What’s this music?” Precisely, Natalie, precisely.
Frances Ha/Mauvais sang – David Bowie – “Modern Love”
Frances runs down the streets of New York jumping, kicking, and pirouetting to this song. The song captures her free-spirit, her euphoria, and effectively cuts off when she arrives back at her apartment. The quick cut of the song and Frances’ corresponding facial expression suggest that she possibly may not be as happy as her dancing would suggest. It’s short, sweet, and brilliant. It’s a direct homage to Leos Carax’s Mauvais sang and Denis Levant’s spastic jaunts down a street to the very same song.
Pulp Fiction – Dick Dale – “Misirlou”/ Kool and the Gang – “Jungle Boogie”
These two songs punctuate one of the better opening scenes in modern film. You can’t hear these songs and not think of Pulp Fiction. That’s a powerful influence. Pumpkin and Honey Bunny have a touching expression of love… then maniacally hold up the diner they are in, threatening everyone in sight: “Any of you pricks move, and I’ll execute every last motherfucking one of you!” Stop scene. Cue song. Roll titles and credits. The mix of these songs is the brash punch line to the big bag of crazy that is Honey Bunny.
The Graduate – Simon and Garfunkel – “The Sound of Silence”
Ben Braddock rushes to stop the wedding of his love, Elaine Robinson. In one of the film’s all-time iconic scenes, interrupts said wedding (he bangs on the windows of the church screaming “Elaine”, c’mon you know this). Wedding thwarted (how often do you to get to say that phrase?), Ben and Elaine rush from the church, and hop on a bus. They take a seat in the back, pure joy and excitement on their faces. The bus pulls away. This song begins. Reality sets in and joy slowly fades from their faces. The excitement has passed and now the realization has hit them, and the uncertainty of what just happened and what could happen in the future comes rushing forward. The song encapsulates all of those feelings. It is the perfect coda.
Wayne’s World – Queen – “Bohemian Rhapsody”
Do I really need to give an introduction? Okay, maybe you’ve been in a coma since 1992 and haven’t seen it (seriously, that is the only excuse someone could have for not seeing this…). Wayne, Garth, and pals drive through the streets in Aurora, Illinois (a suburb of Chicago (Excellent)) jamming out to “Bohemian Rhapsody”. Of course they’re singing along. It’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”, you are literally required to (you’re singing it now aren’t you?). Queen is one of the greatest rock bands, hell one of the greatest bands of all time, but this scene brought this specific song to a whole new audience. There are so many of us that know this song because of this movie. “Bismillah! No, we will not let you go. (Let him go!)” See now I’m doing it. Seriously what is it about this song?
The Big Lebowski – Kenny Rogers and The First Edition – “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)”
A drugged white russian starts the Dude on an hallucinogenic gutterball journey. There is a shelf of bowling shoes that reaches to the sky, crazy-faced Dude wearing a tool belt dancing around and down a staircase, and like a Viking-clad Julianne Moore with, uh, accompanying like bowling pin dancers, man. And then The Dude just, uh, you know just like basically bowls down the lane between the dancers legs, spinning and headed for a strike. The Dude’s eyes, man. So oddly vast and like psychotic, you know? Like you’re getting sucked into The Dude Vortex or what have you. The scene has a lotta ins, a lotta outs, a lotta what-have-yous. You know a lotta strands to keep in the ol’ head, man. Very weird, and very…..Dude-ly? The Dude abides.
Rushmore – The Creation – “Making Time”
This song is one half of the quintessential Wes Anderson scene. Max Fischer is introduced by montage of all his extracurricular activities at Rushmore Academy, with this British pop piece as the soundtrack. It’s catchy, memorable, and helps instill and reinforce the unique, quirky nature of Max Fischer.
Drive – Kavinsky – “Nightcall”
The opening sequence of Drive closes with the unnamed lead as he aimlessly drives through the late-night, neon-laden streets of Los Angeles, with this booming synth track playing over it. There is a sense of isolation and loneliness that radiates in the introduction to the driver’s existence. The song is the punctuation of this feeling. It pulls all of the sound from the picture and allows the viewers to drift along with the driver’s quiet, measured confidence. The effect is so complete that I drift into this same feeling anytime this song plays while I’m driving . I immediately become “The Gosling”, brooding and cocksure,traveling down whatever not-nearly-as-dramatic-as-LA road I am on.
Jackie Brown – Bobby Womack – “Across 110th Street”
So, Quentin Tarantino again. He’s making second appearance here at the top…to the surprise of no one. Tarantino films are home to some of the best soundtracks in modern cinema. Jackie Brown is his homage to 1970’s Blaxploitation films, and this song signals that intent from the first note. The song begins as the main credits start to roll, the camera fixated on a swatch of blue, tiled wall. As the first verse kicks in, Jackie Brown, portrayed by Pam Grier (you can’t get more Blaxploitation than Pam Grier), rolls into frame down an airport moving-walkway. The shot tracks Brown, still and stone-faced, down the length of the walkway as the credits continue to roll, and just as the song reaches the first chorus, the film title slides across the screen in a retro 70’s era font. Perfect.
Jackie Brown is possibly my favorite Tarantino film (it’s this or Django Unchained), and part of that is this music cue and this scene. The first time I saw Jackie Brown I was transfixed the moment it started and hooked for the rest of the movie, all because of the way Tarantino constructed the song to fit with the simple but effective tracking shot introduction of Brown.