Recently, on the Doc and Woody show, we started talking about music in movies. Which songs appeared most often in movies, and so forth. We didn’t count classical music pieces (Orff’s “O Fortuna” from Carmina Burana is one of the most-used pieces of music) and we ignored Christmas music (Silent Night would beat anything else). Frankly, any Christmas music would likely outpace almost any other song, because it was all written before 1920, and as such it is all considered public domain. This means a movie can put in a recording of a song like Silent Night without paying songwriting royalties.
Anyway, the number one song we came up with was Walking On Sunshine by Katrina And the Waves. This, we believe, has been in more movies than any other song. For me, the most memorable use of this song was in the movie High Fidelity, where Jack Black’s character, ostensibly the most snobbish music nerd in the world, puts on that song to rock out. (Also great in that movie – the scene where the band Sonic Death Monkey launch into Let’s Get It On.) High Fidelity has one of the greatest soundtracks of any movie, ever – The Kinks, the 13th Floor Elevators, the Velvet Underground – and yet the two songs I remember in context are those two. Oh, and one more. That one goes on Today’s List.
Here is Today’s List: The best use of music in movies. When you remember the scene because of the music, or the music because of the scene. This excludes certain songs in movies, like “Iron Man” in Iron Man, because the tune plays only over the credits. My criteria here – the song itself has to be good. Not necessarily a great song, but a good one. So, Celine Dion might have had a memorable song in Titanic, but that does not make the list because it’s Celine Dion. Also, the movie itself has to be good. Not necessarily great, but good. Which means that although “Sweet Home Alabama” is used memorably in Con Air, it doesn’t qualify, because Con Air sucks. So no Celine Dion music, no Rob Schneider movies. Here goes:
15. High Fidelity – The Beta Band – Dry The Rain: As someone who once worked in a record store, this movie spoke to me in many, many ways throughout. The best use of music, however, was the scene where John Cusack, as the record store owner, said “I will now sell five copies of the Beta Band’s 3 eps” or something like that. He says it in a confidential, secretive-type whisper to one of his music-nerd employees, played by Todd Louiso. Rather than asking, as most of us would, why Cusack is whispering, or making fun of him for acting like a secret agent when putting on a tune, Louiso buys right in. “Do it,” he says, in a conspiratory whisper of his own. This is Cusack’s way of relating to his weirdo employee, as though they are the only people alive who have heard of the Beta Band, and now they are going to spring “Dry The Rain” on unsuspecting customers, who will fall all over themselves to pick up the album. Also, it’s just a wicked song.
14. Grosse Pointe Blank – Queen & David Bowie – Under Pressure: John Cusack again. This time, “Under Pressure” is playing while Cusack, a hit-man going to his 10-year high school reunion, is holding a baby. As he holds the baby, he has something of an epiphany. His life could have been far different had he taken a different path out of high school. Or if he had stayed with his high school girlfriend. The baby is part of that realization, but so too is the song, which triggers the decade-old memories.
13. O Brother, Where Art Thou? – Soggy Bottom Boys – I Am A Man Of Constant Sorrow: Although this song is used many times in the film, I am referring specifically to the last time it’s used. In a chaotic town hall environment, with George Clooney wearing his bizarre fake beard, the joy in this song comes through amazingly. A great bluegrass soundtrack throughout the movie is punctuated by this song, which is fantastic. And yes, it’s Clooney and John Turturro and the guys singing it, but that makes it even better. This really is a magnificent tune.
12. Goodfellas – Derek & The Dominoes – Layla: I never really liked that long, drawn-out instrumental piano part at the end of “Layla” until I saw Goodfellas. The instrumental part is not long and drawn-out when used in this movie. In fact, it’s just long enough for Robert DeNiro to wipe out all of his enemies, hanging their bodies in meat lockers or dumping them in dumpsters. And then Joe Pesci gets whacked.
11. Reservoir Dogs – Stealer’s Wheel – Stuck In The Middle With You: On the Tarantino Connection CD, which came out about 10 years ago, Tarantino is interviewed a few times about the use of music in his movies, which is generally very brilliant. (Honorable mention here to “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon” and “You Never Can Tell” from Pulp Fiction.) In one of those interviews, he says “I don’t know if Gerry Rafferty appreciated the connotations I brought to ‘Stuck In The Middle With You’. There’s a good chance he didn’t.” Then the CD launches into the song. Which is about the most perfect introduction to a song you can get. Especially when that song was used in Reservoir Dogs as the soundtrack to the brutal sawing off of a cop’s ear.
10. Apocalypse Now – The Doors – The End: I am discounting classical and orchestral music here, which is why I am not picking the amazing helicopter scene set to Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries. But the rest of the music in this film, especially the Doors songs, is brilliant as well. And “The End” is so chilling, and so appropriate in context in Apocalypse Now, that it stands with Ride of the Valkyries as a memorable musical moment. As Martin Sheen gets mentally prepared to assassinate Marlon Brando, he becomes a different person. He will butcher Kurtz, not just take him out. This is not just the end of Brando, it is the end of Sheen as well.
9. Shaun of the Dead – Queen – Don’t Stop Me Now: There are a lot of great musical references in Shaun of the Dead. The scene where Shaun and Ed are going through Shaun’s record crate and deciding which LPs are bad enough that they can justifiably be thrown at zombies is terrific. Also great are the songs in the movie, and none are better than “Don’t Stop Me Now”. With strobe lights in the background, and in time to the music, the little group of survivors beats a zombie bartender with pool cues from the bar. Of course, the fact that the strobe lights are on and the music is blaring is only attracting more zombies…what a great movie!
8. Pulp Fiction – Dick Dale and the Del-Tones – Misirlou: Like I said earlier, there are many candidates for best song from Pulp Fiction. Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell” is a magnificent choice for the dance-contest song at that 50s-style diner. “Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon” is a perfect tune for the Uma Thurman character. But “Misirlou” is the best music in the movie, since it is the best opening tune in a movie, ever. After Honey Bunny (Amanda Plummer) stands up to rob the restaurant, delivering that great line – “any of you f- pricks move, and I’ll execute every m-f- last one of you” a surf tune kicks in. And it sounds BADASS. No one hears Misirlou any more without instantly thinking of Pulp Fiction. Well, I don’t, anyway.
7. Wayne’s World – Queen – Bohemian Rhapsody: I realize that this is the third Queen song I have put on the list. And no, I am not some kind of rabid Queen fan where I need to mention them as often as possible. In fact, I am fairly indifferent to Queen. And by the way, Queen was responsible for one of the worst movie soundtracks ever made – the cheesy, horribly 80s, painfully silly soundtrack to Highlander. However, the fact that Wayne’s World managed to resurrect this great tune and put it back on the charts so many years after it’s release is a testament to the popularity of the movie, which is pretty decent, and the quality of the song, which is awesome.
6. The Ladykillers (2004) - Rose Stone with the Venice Four and the Abbott Kinney Lighthouse Choir – Let The Light From the Lighthouse Shine On Me: This will be the worst movie on this list. Guaranteed. Not that it’s awful, because it isn’t. It’s just a pretty amazingly weak effort from the Coen brothers, and Tom Hanks. A bunch of guys, including the irritatingly loquacious Hanks, have rented out rooms in the house of an old, fat, bible-thumping woman in order to break into a riverboat casino from her basement. The bible, and the thumping thereof, is a central theme in this movie, which leads to an absolutely killer soundtrack full of fantastic gospel tunes, co-ordinated by T-Bone Burnett. And this one is the best of the bunch. An absoultely mesmerizing gospel song by a tremendous group of singers.
5. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – Burt Bacharach – Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head: I would never suggest that this is a heavy movie, or one that needs to have the mood lightened in any way. But at the same time, it IS an absolutely brilliant movie in nearly every way, and this song might provide the best single moment in the film until that freeze-frame ending. It functions almost as the soundtrack of a musical “montage”, but really accentuates the true nature of the relationship between Butch, Sundance, and the woman they both love. There is no real animosity, no true hurt feelings, but rather this is just the way it is. And for each person it is by turns blissful or melancholy. And this song fucntions both ways.
4. Forrest Gump - Buffalo Springfield – For What It’s Worth: This song has been used in dozens of movies. Most of those movies have been great, and this song has always been brilliant. Recently used in Tropic Thunder, before that it was the opening theme of Lord of War, and before that it was re-done by Public Enemy with Stephen Stills to become the theme of the movie He Got Game. But of course it’s most associated with the Vietnam movies of the 70s and 80s. Just hearing that opening note can send a chill up your spine, and nowhere is this more true than in Forrest Gump. I’m no huge fan of Forrest Gump, I think it’s pretty good but no amazing classic. But this song, in this movie, is indeed classic.
3. Children Of Men – King Crimson – The Court of the Crimson King: This movie is totally under-rated when it comes to music. Not only are there a ton of great uses of the Rolling Stones’ “Ruby Tuesday”, but they reach deep into the vault of psychedelia for this incredible tune, used as Clive Owen approaches the gate of what is basically a fortress. The song creates, on it’s own, an atmosphere of apocalyptic foreboding. Not only is this one of the best movies of the past ten years, this is one of the best songs of the past fifty.
2. The Harder They Come – Toots And The Maytals – Pressure Drop: This movie has the greatest soundtrack of any movie, ever. And there are so many songs that could have made this list. The scene where Toots and the Maytals are in the studio singing “Sweet and Dandy”, exuding the joy that a group can have recording great music. The use of the Jimmy Cliff tunes “Sitting In Limbo”, “Many Rivers to Cross”, and “You Can Get It If You Really Want”. And the title track, Jimmy Cliff’s “The Harder They Come”, is likely the greatest reggae song ever recorded. Also amazing – the Slickers’ tune “Johnny Too Bad”, a song which reflects the movie as though it was written specifically for it. But I am going with the scene where Jimmy Cliff chases a drug dealer down a reservoir tunnel, shooting at him to the sounds of “Pressure Drop”. The most incongruous, yet the most effective, chase music you will ever hear.
1. Office Space – Ghetto Boys – Still: Again, a candidate for Best Soundtrack Ever. A movie about cubicle-bound office workers set to some of the most hardcore gangsta rap in the world. Seems strange, but boy, does it ever work. And this song is the best one of them all, used as Peter, Michael and Samir take a photocopier out to a deserted field for a gangland-style beatdown. As the hardcore, badass tune plays, they set to work destroying the copier. Like so many gangland movies, where a character is getting beat down, the two reasonable guys at one point have to physically restrain their friend, who has lost it and goes after the copier with his bare hands. There is a moment where Samir makes a subtle gesture with the baseball bat to stop Peter and Michael from attacking – Samir is basically saying “I got first here”. A brilliant scene all around (recently spoofed in Family Guy, where Peter and Stewie recreate that entire scene as they destroy Peter’s “Surfin’ Bird” record – possibly the best use of music in a sitcom as well).
There are many others, and those are simply my personal favourites. I welcome any other songs people might want to throw in here. Movies and music go together so well, and it’s a thing of beauty when they come together this well. My honourable mentions – “Okie From Muskogee” by Merle Haggard, from Platoon. “White Rabbit” by the Jefferson Airplane from Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, “These Days” by Nico from The Royal Tenenbaums, and “The Pusher” by Steppenwolf from Easy Rider.