Over the past few decades, there has existed an unmistakable shift in the way that movies engage songs. For the first forty or so years of sound movie history songs featured in films were either written directly for the movie or, if the songs pre-existed, they were worked into musicals. And then there was a shift toward using popular songs to overlay montage as a shortcut to plot development. Usually, these things are eminently forgettable, but every once in a while a filmmaker uses a song to such incredible effect that it becomes impossible to hear the song without associating it with the movie. This can be a good thing or a bad thing, obviously. To an extent it serves to rob one’s imagination. On the other hand, often a song you really never cared for becomes one that you actually turn up when it appears on your radio.
Then He Kissed Me. The Crystals. Goodfellas.
Many movie fans prefer to single out the use of the piano coda of Eric Clapton’s Layla as the defining musical moment from Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas. But let’s face it, the single greatest sequence in that entire movie that has a musical element to it isn’t the revelation of body after body as the Robert DeNiro character struggles desperately to keep all the Lufthansa loot to himself, it’s the magnificent traveling shot that follows Henry Hill from a nobody to a somebody beneath the strains of The Crystals’ “Then He Kissed Me.” It’s a great song anyway, but Scorsese now owns all rights to it. The staccato beat is in perfect juxtaposition to the smooth, gliding camera moves that take us from the street and place us into a seat in a nightclub. The lyrical content is also used to perfectly counterpoint how Karen sells her soul.
Head Over Heels. Tears for Fears. Donnie Darko.
Not the best Tears for Fears song by far, it is the best utilized for filmic response. It’s hard to think of any other movie that uses its musical choices to such perfect effect-not the Director’s Cut, I must add, which right off the bat makes the bewildering choice to substitute Echo and the Bunnymen’s The Killing Moon for a tepid INXS song-and perhaps the most dazzling mixture of song and cinema occurs when Donnie Darko returns to school following his fateful encounter with a big rabbit and a jet engine. As the camera pulls back at a weird angle from the back door of a bus, Head Over Heels seems like the only possible song to use. For the next two minutes every single major and minor character in this film will be introduced in slow or fast motion as the final lyrics-beautifully apt-linger: Funny how time flies.
Stuck in the Middle With You. Stealers Wheel. Reservoir Dogs.
Yeah, I absolutely defy anyone who has seen Reservoir Dogs to not reach for their ear when they hear this song. This is an example of how to use a song for an effect by engaging in absolutely oppositional thematic utilization. There is simply nothing in this song that contains even a hint of the macabre. Well, there didn’t use to be. Now, of course, this has risen to become one of the most macabre songs ever. Without question it is one of the best uses of a song in recent movie history.
In Dreams. Roy Orbison. Blue Velvet.
Is it just me or does Dean Stockwell bear a remarkable resemblance to Pee Wee Herman as he mouths Orbison’s plaintive song in this scene? It’s David Lynch, so you know it’s going to be creepy. But really it has more to do with Dean Stockwell’s performance than anything else. It’s a great song that should have been more well known before Blue Velvet. Even now it’s rarely heard, but those who do hear it can’t help but think of this sequence.
Old Time Rock and Roll. Bob Seger. Risky Business.
Never a particularly good or memorable song, the use of it in Risky Business instantly elevated it to iconic status. Only those who have never seen Tom Cruise dancing around in his underwear can ever hear this song without thinking about it. Well, almost. Actually, whenever I hear this song I think first of Alf’s parody of the scene in Risky Business. Regardless of which alien you prefer to think of when hearing this song-Tom Cruise or Alf-it’s practically impossible not to think of someone sliding across the floor in their skivvies.
Foggy Mountain Breakdown. Flatt & Scruggs. Bonnie and Clyde.
Before Bonnie & Clyde turned it into a mandatory chase scene song, this little banjo ditty was considered the ultimate accomplishment for banjo players. A fast, difficult song that requires major league fingering it was well known among country music fans. But its popularity exploded and was forever cemented after its use in the movie. The filmmakers actually did something incredible with Foggy Mountain Breakdown. It’s almost impossible to imagine that the song wasn’t written especially for the chase sequences; that’s how perfect a match of song and cinema this really is.
Dueling Banjos. Weissberg and Mandell. Deliverance.
Hard as it may be to conceive, this song actually existed in a slightly different form as Feudin’ Banjos nearly twenty years before the movie Deliverance was made. The filmmakers pretended they didn’t know of its existence, but once it became a million copy seller you can bet they quickly found out. The result being that the original writer of Feudin’ Banjos is now also credited with writing Dueling Banjos. Good for him. Regardless, of course, nobody who hears this can ever think of anything other than weird banjo-playing kid.
Lust for Life. Iggy Pop. Trainspotting.
It’s a three way tossup. Some will only picture skinny Iggy upon hearing this song. Others will, unfortunately, think of going on a cruise ship. The rest of us will picture Ewan McGregor running like mad through the opening sequence of Trainspotting. A great song made even more memorable by terrific utilization in a movie.
Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood. Santa Esmeralda. Kill Bill, Vol. I.
A flexible little tune that has been covered by everyone from The Animals to Elvis Costello, this version remains the ultimate. It’s a ten minute plus opus that admittedly seems a little out of place as the soundtrack for a samurai fight, but eventually it comes to seem as if the only possible choice in the world. By the way, this is an utterly fantastic song to play while speeding down the interstate. Those ten minutes fly by at an alarming rate.
Tequila. The Champs. Pee Wee’s Big Adventure.
Take one classic song, add a generous helping a bizarre man-child in ridiculously high heels, toss in a jigger of bearded Harley hogs and what results is a classic musical moment in American film history.