The 50 best uses of songs in movies

TONY ranks the coolest soundtrack moments of all time.

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10. "Sister Christian," Night Ranger/"Jessie's Girl," Rick Springfield, Boogie Nights (1997)

The sad rise and fall of porn star Dirk Diggler reaches its catharsis in this legendary sequence, a drug deal gone awry. First, we're introduced to the den of berobed crackhead Alfred Molina, jamming to his "awesome" mixtape and the aggressive triumphalism of Night Ranger's hair-metal anthem. Then (after an unexpected cassette flip) the music shifts to Rick Springfield's puppy-eyed rocker, as our hero slips into a dangerous situation beyond his control. Watch Mark Wahlberg's complex close-up as the chorus builds: He's half in awe of the song—perhaps it's the kind of music Dirk wishes he himself could record—and half cognizant of his own ruination. For all of his subsequent genius, director Paul Thomas Anderson has never eclipsed this scene.—Joshua Rothkopf

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Watch the video for "Sister Christian" by Night Ranger and "Jessie's Girl" by Rick Springfield

9. "Layla," Derek and the Dominoes, Goodfellas (1990)

One could cull a top-ten-song list just from Martin Scorsese's landmark crime epic, the most influential movie of the 1990s. The director was yoking pop music and images with a deftness no one could touch; for the sake of our list, we'll go with this montage of whacked comrades, set to the forlorn piano outro of Eric Clapton's early-'70s radio staple. The party is over as goons meet their long-telegraphed ends: slain in a pink Caddy, hanging in a meat truck and gunned down in the private living room of a "made guy," where a promotion takes a shocking turn. Even as you watched the sequence for the first time, it felt like a classic—and still does. (We can't embed the specific part, but here's a link to it.)—Joshua Rothkopf

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Watch the video for "Layla" by Derek and the Dominoes

8. Tubular Bells, Mike Oldfield, The Exorcist (1973)

The most signature piece of music to ever grace a horror movie (and now an instant evocation of creeping doom), Mike Oldfield's prog-rock composition was selected for this 1973 blockbuster's opening theme after an entire original score was rejected by director William Friedkin. In the piece's tinkling piano and synths, you can hear a premonition of the iconic soundtracks of John Carpenter to come. Early in the film itself, you seen Ellen Burstyn strolling down a leaf-strewn Georgetown street. Children cavort in costume—it's Halloween. Nuns pass, their robes billowing in ghostly waves. Suddenly Burstyn stops, noticing two priests having a heart-to-heart conversation. "There's not a day in my life that I don't feel like a fraud," one of them says, anguished. Everyone's faith is about to be tested. (Above is the trailer—brace yourself—and here's a link to the scene.)—Joshua Rothkopf

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Watch the video for Tubular Bells by Mike Oldfield

7. Rhapsody in Blue, George Gershwin, Manhattan (1979)

Gershwin wrote his groundbreaking high-art-meets-lowbrow work in 1924 as a "musical kaleidoscope of America." But after fellow Brooklynite Woody Allen set his film's opening montage of local landmarks and crowded avenues to the composer's signature tune, you can't help but think of one specific city whenever you hear those joyously jazz-inflected fanfares. Cinematographer Gordon Willis's peerless black-and-white Gotham tour combined with Gershwin's vintage ode fully captures the poetry and sound of the streets. This is late-'70s NYC recast as an old-fashioned urban wonderland, a version of past and present Manhattans linked together with every skyscraper shot and slinky piano run.—David Fear

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Watch the video for Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin

6. "Stuck in the Middle with You," Stealers Wheel, Reservoir Dogs (1992)

Tarantino has already made several appearances on our list, yet here is the sequence that stands above all his others. QT places Stealers Wheel's benign folk-pop tune over an unlikely scene in which a cop is tortured at great length by the psychotic, razor-wielding Michael Madsen. What starts as a playfully meta moment with "Mr. Blonde" doing some swaggering dance moves turns deadly serious by the time of the infamous ear slicing, when the song's playful cries of "Pl-ee-ee-ease!" might double as unanswered cries for mercy. Along with Tarantino's impeccable musical taste, it makes for an instantly memorable set piece—the first of many in the filmmaker's oeuvre.—Keith Uhlich

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Watch the video for "Stuck in the Middle with You" by Stealers Wheel

5. "In Your Eyes," Peter Gabriel, Say Anything... (1989)

Let's say your true love has broken up with you, and you're going to blast something on a boom box outside their window to win them back. Most people would probably pick one of the era's soft-rock hits or power ballads; then again, most people aren't Lloyd Dobler. Kudos to Cameron Crowe for picking Peter Gabriel's sincere confessional as the perfect offbeat choice for John Cusack's heart-on-his-sleeve hero to serenade dream girl Ione Skye. Thanks to the combo of the song's testimony to soulmate salvation and Cusack's misfit sensitivity, the scene has become an iconic moment of hopeless romanticism, parodied a million times over yet still able to bring tears to our eyes.—David Fear

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Watch the video for "In Your Eyes" by Peter Gabriel

4. "We'll Meet Again," Vera Lynn, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

Vera Lynn's sentimental 1939 tune became a WWII anthem for the British, a heartfelt promise that England's sons and daughters would be reunited come what may and normal existence would resume. Stanley Kubrick's repurposing of Vera Lynn's keep-your-chin-up ditty for his satirical zero-sum game, however, put a stake through any prevailing notions of optimism; life after wartime was a now thing of the past. In an era when sick humor was the only sane reaction to notions of nuclear Armageddon, Kubrick's keenly realized callback to this old favorite, playing over a parade of mushroom clouds, goes way beyond irony. It's a punch line to the blackest joke imaginable. (Our clip includes the scene beforehand.)—David Fear

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Watch the video for "We'll Meet Again" by Vera Lynn

3. "The End," the Doors, Apocalypse Now (1979)

Jim Morrison's spellbinding 12-minute dirge was originally intended as a breakup song, but with its explicit evocations of patricide and incest (as well as the lead singer's animalistic vocalizations), the tune evolved into something more allegorical, a larger consideration of the violent beast inside us all. The mythic stature of this pop magnum opus only increased when Francis Ford Coppola placed it over the trancelike prologue of his 1979 Vietnam war epic. Helicopters slide cagily through the frame, a forest is devastated in a slo-mo napalm bombing, and Martin Sheen's somnolent visage—caught somewhere between dream and reality—floats over it all. Morrison and the band's apocalyptic lament evokes the horrors of a war as vividly and aptly as do the images.—Keith Uhlich

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Watch the video for "The End" by the Doors

2. "In Dreams," Roy Orbison, Blue Velvet (1986)

"Candy-colored clown...," requests the deranged Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) to his dandyish friend Ben (Dean Stockwell) in a womblike parlor. What has curious collegian Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) gotten himself into? David Lynch's epochal 1986 freak-out doesn't lack outr sequences, but there's something especially unnerving about this prolonged detour behind suburban closed doors (freaky ladies sitting around listlessly, Hopper's terrifyingly bug-eyed countenance). It famously climaxes with Ben lip-synching to Roy Orbison's soaring lost-love ballad using a work light as a microphone. It's a nightmare you never want to wake up from.—Keith Uhlich

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Watch the video for "In Dreams" by Roy Orbison

1. Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Richard Strauss, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

It builds, softly, with three ascending notes...then an eruption of strings and woodwinds, punctuated by colossal timpani hits. That's when the light crests over a gigantic planet—the view of a sunrise as seen from an orbiting space station, or witnessed by God Himself. Stanley Kubrick wanted to use classical compositions instead of the commissioned (and discarded) Alex North score to attain an appropriately massive soundtrack to his cerebral sci-fi masterpiece, and Richard Strauss's tone poem supplies the film's opening moments with an immediate sense of scope and grandeur: This is what the majesty of the universe sounds like. Everyone from Elvis Presley to the makers of cat-food commercials has since hijacked this Nietzsche-inspired work for their grand entrances, but Kubrick got there first; by the time 2001's title credit shows up under that sustained musical burst, the combination of sound and image has already transported you to infinity and beyond.—David Fear

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Watch the video for Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Richard Strauss



Users say

30 comments

I now also think the climatic scene to Warrior and The National's 'About Today' live version absolutely blew my  mind. Perfect combination! 

Aaron
Aaron

Somewhere Over The Rainbow - during the shoot out in Face/Off. Violence through the eyes of an eight year old.

bill
bill

You've missed a few good ones from the last decade, which other people in the comments have suggested. Forbidden Friendship - How to Train Your Dragon

dn
dn

Come on, man !!!! Ferris Bueller's Day Off - Twist and Shout Back to the future - johnny b good The mission - gabriel's oboe matrix etc etc

William White
William White

My vote goes to Remember by Josh Groban (Troy) and Ordinary by Train (Spiderman 2)

Supermanfriday
Supermanfriday

Two Tribes ...Supergrass( Robbie Coltrane) .....Florida Fantasy ..Midnight Express. Wandering Star ..Paint your Wagon.. Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia...Way out West ....The Real Me ....Quadrophenia.

Mazorko
Mazorko

Donnie Darko (2001): The Church - Under the milky way http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t-6UJigii8U Argo (2012): Van Halen - Dance the night away http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6iyX_iy8F6M 21 (2008): Peter Bjorn and John - Young Folks The Departed (2006): Dropkick Murphies - Shipping up to boston http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xrc1prw96-Y Dirty Dancing (1987): Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes - The Time of My Life Performed http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WpmILPAcRQo Drive (2011): Kavinsky - Nightcall http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iIpXQS5gaAw Kelly's Heros (1970): The Mike Curb Congregation - Burning Bridges http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XA9581o27uA The Graduate (1967): Simon & Garfunkel - Scarborough Fair http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vWxOTDYeWbU Drive (2011): College & Electric Youth - A Real Hero http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5bKGu45zHxo

awesome one
awesome one

What about Tuesday's gone happy Gilmore,schools out dazed and confused. Where is all of that.

nicole
nicole

Bill Murray's Karaoke cover of Roxy Music's of 'More than This' should have definitely been placed in the top 50 not to mention Sinatra's 'it had to be you in when harry met sally

john
john

Song to the siren. Lost highway. Patricia arquette!!! Sooo hot

yaka
yaka

does answer my question

clara alfieri
clara alfieri

Did you forget - the movie The Deer Hunter Cant Take My Eyes Off Your - Frankie Valli - 4 Seasons

00
00

Drive college ft electric youth - "a real hero" drive kavinsky "nightcall" drive desire's "under your spell" drive instrumentals by cliff martinez drive drive drive dri....

Kevin Wilson
Kevin Wilson

Well, thought out list - Kudos. One that HAS to be in the top ten though - "Falling Slowly" in Once. Its use near the beginning of the film was fantastic, and set the entire tone for the movie. But its use in the ending was the best use of music in a movie ending ever.

PJA_Master
PJA_Master

Oh and of course white Christmas in home alone when he's shaving. Great scene!

PJA_Master
PJA_Master

Great list bit it's missing dont you forget about me - Simple Minds from the breakfast club. Perfect match of song to movie.

Db
Db

Did I miss Clockwork orange or was it forgotten as well?

Smurfe
Smurfe

I really expected to see something from Forrest Gump (the entire soundtrack) and Dazed and Confused (the entire soundtrack)

Eelnodrog
Eelnodrog

Have yourself a merry little Christmas from The Victors, as the young soldier faces the firing squad!

AJRN
AJRN

Great list. You included so many that I thought you would miss.

jaspreet
jaspreet

Its very informative i really like it Threading ny,Threading nyc, Waxing nyc, Brazilian Waxing nyc, bikini waxing nyc, sugaring nyc, eyebrow threading nyc, body waxing nyc

Lisa Thompson
Lisa Thompson

a Lovely day in 127 hours - the entire soundtrack of Into the wild dueling banjos in Deliverance the "little train song Harry and Hermione dance to in HP&the DH the Doors in what?every Vietnam movie

Lisa Thompson
Lisa Thompson

good call, digga; the entire movie was a set up of that movie - You're gonna love me from Dreamgirls should be here, too and and where are streets of fire,feed me from Little shop of horrors; sister act? and sweeney todd?the proclaimers in Beny & Joon

Luke
Luke

Kubrick dominates these lists and i love it !

Mike
Mike

No Streets of Fire?

WC
WC

No "Little Green Bag" from Reservoir Dogs?

Brainslks
Brainslks

So a song from an Adam Sandler movie beats out "La Marseilles" AND "AsTime Goes By" from "Casablanca"? Who's making these f*ing lists, chimps with typewriters?

Liam
Liam

Bird is the Word - Trashmen this was brilliant in Full Metal Jacket

jason
jason

how about "memories are made of this" in Veronika Voss?

TONY 50 best songs in movies playlist on Spotify