Choice Music Can Highlight Movie, Define Era
The union of music and film has a long and tangled history that rivals any of the fabled romances that have graced the silver screen. Sometimes conjuring moments of fear, sadness or dread and other times creating a instances of pure majesty and joy, music is always a powerful aspect of the movie-watching experience.
While they’re often rivals as distinct industries in the entertainment universe, music and movies can be a formidable combination when united on celluloid. From the first notes Al Jolson sang in “The Jazz Singer” in 1927, ushering in the era of sound motion pictures, the creative lights of the movie industry have adopted music as a device to serve a film’s ends.
Whether it’s through the use of popular songs, classical symphonies or abstract soundscapes, music on film can set a mood, further a plot point without using dialogue or just to help sell the flick to suspicious audiences. A hit song can neatly encapsulate the theme of the picture and in rarer instances, defines an entire era. With these wide-ranging capabilities, music has become an essential implement in any filmmaker’s toolkit.
At its best, the correct music appearing at the right moment of a movie can make your hair stand on end. Music has always been capable of eliciting a powerful emotional response and when married to a series of images, the experience feels all the more meaningful and seductive. The one of the best examples of music’s power to frame a movie might be the use of Richard Strauss’ “Also sprach Zarathustra” during opening sequence of Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
In the end, music helps film realize its full potential as the ultimate art form in popular culture.
Click on to see our list of the greatest marriages of movie and music, in no particular order.
Judy Garland’s “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” in “The Wizard Of Oz”
We had to start at the top and it’s no shock to have this be on this list. “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” is probably the most famous song in pop music history. It became a high-water mark of the big studio era in Hollywood history, a template ballad for all movie musicals and sadly, a tacky staple of every beauty pageant’s “talent” segment.
Divorce the song from its 70-year legacy and Judy Garland’s rendition would still be a smash in this download age. Written by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg for the 1939 movie, the song had a fitful birth and in a mind-boggling bit of film trivia, was slated for the cutting room floor at one point. Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed.
While credit is due Arlen and Harburg for drafting the song’s whimsical melody, Garland deserves the lion’s share of praise for transforming what are just marks of musical notation into a living, breathing performance of subtle power. Her mid-range vocals fully embody and liberate the aspirations inherent in the melody. Her voice — constantly, innocently bounding over notes — flutters and drifts around the strings accompaniment but is always ascending. The song is sentimental and yet, irresistible even to the cynics in our midst.
A song this magnificent remains every bit of a shock to movie watchers as when Dorothy leaves her sepia-toned Kansas for the Technicolor splendor of Oz just moments later in the film. Music and motion pictures would never be the same again.
The Doors’ “The End” In “Apocalypse Now”
Dark and brooding, the magnetic charisma of “The End” draws listeners into a shadow world with the seductive power equal the serpent’s flattery in the Garden of Eden.
Jim Morrison’s Oedipal storyline is jettisoned from the portion of this Summer of Love epic that plays during the opening scenes of Francis Ford Coppola’s other film classic. Instead of sticking with the Doors’ original intentions, Coppola wants to use the sinister overtones and gentle allure of “The End” to lend voice to the mental turmoil of the film’s protagonist. As actor Martin Sheen stares into space in his seedy Saigon hotel room, Coppola flashes images of a rattled mind. It’s an arresting montage of violence and hellfire that graphically depicts the horror of the Vietnam war and suggests the toll this experience has takenon the combatants.
Guitarist Robby Krieger’s serpentine runs dance and duck along the periphery of the rhythm and is the only counterpart for Morrison’s warrior-poet croon. “All of the children are insane,” Morrison moans just before the music fades into the background. Everyone in the audience knows where we’re now headed in the film. In Coppola’s cinematic journey into the heart of darkness, “The End” marks the start of the path.
Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” In “Holiday Inn”
Like “Somewhere Over The Rainbow,” “White Christmas” is another no-brainer for any music best-of list, but it too had a troubled passage from initial idea onto big-screen glory. Apparently, both songwriter Irving Berlin and singer Bing Crosby thought the song would be outshined by another Berlin ditty included in the holiday film. As it turns out, “White Christmas” would never play second fiddle to another song again.
The movie, which tells the story of a former nightclub singer’s idea for a rustic Connecticut joint open only on holidays, featured a dozen or so Berlin songs and was primarily a vehicle for his music. It seems regardless of Berlin’s or Crosby’s misgivings, the scriptwriters obviously saw the song’s potential as most of the film’s pivotal scenes occurring during Christmastime and the track is featured not once but twice.
Crosby absorbs each note of the easy-going melody and radiates every chord with maximum charm and pleasure. The sound of his voice is as comforting and embracing as the spirit of Christmas nostalgia the cut aims to evoke. When co-star Marjorie Reynolds sings the song, she clearly apes Crosby’s approach to the melody.
Against all expectations, “White Christmas” became a holiday staple that will long outlive the movie that showcased it. As testament to that, Crosby starred in a partial remake years later titled appropriately “White Christmas,” which also featured two performances of the title track. In an odd reversal, the use of the song really trumped any concerns regarding the film.
Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova’s “Falling Slowly” in “Once”
If Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova have a tenuous grasp on the tenets of acting in the Irish smash hit “Once,” they certainly demonstrated their remarkable personal chemistry in the scene we first hear “Falling Slowly.”
At the start of pair’s unconsummated on-screen romance, Hansard’s young street busker teaches Irglova’s working-class, piano-playing immigrant his latest bedroom masterpiece in a Dublin music shop. It starts off weak but quickly blossoms into something both emotionally potent and encased in a kind of pop regality.
Hansard is a performer of raw emotionality and it’s hard to top “Say It To Me Now,” a full-out wail of bitter heartache and woe, that he sings during the film’s opening scene. He and Irglova ultimately achieve this by taking “Falling Slowly” in an entirely opposite direction.
As he teaches her the chords on guitar, she instinctively picks up his train of thought and finds harmonies to flesh-out and smooth his melody. Like the chance meeting between the pair, the connection between the two is unexpected and thoroughly undeniable to the parties involved. The movie-watching audience is a group of interlopers to a most intimate moment and one presented through a song of rare beauty.
It doesn’t matter if the two never get together. At that moment and throughout “Falling Slowly,” their flirtations cross over into a union that can awaken the romantic impulses in us all.
Survivor’s “Eye Of The Tiger” In “Rocky III”
While “Eye Of The Tiger” has been identified with all of the “Rocky” films, the song made its first appearance in the blockbuster series’ second sequel. The song would live on as an underdog’s anthem that anyone could latch onto.
The track’s gritty, battering guitar riffs suggest the rain of blows a boxer must alternately suffer and dish out, but it’s the fife-and-drum rhythm guitar that underpins the cut, giving it unwavering energy and makes this a soundtrack to some great undertaking. Its production values might suggest early ’80s muscle rock and yet all these years later, there is still no better song to motivate you to kick some butt.
Survivor might have quickly disappeared into oldies oblivion, but their song endures as inspiration in thousands of workout playlists.
The Beatles’ “Twist And Shout” in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”
For more than an hour and 40 minutes, film goers see Matthew Broderick’s Ferris Bueller get away with nearly everything. He deftly skips high school, easily springs his girlfriend from class, smooth talks a sports car away from the overprotective clutches of his brow-beaten best buddy and generally charms his way through every calamity.
However, Bueller’s great feat on film is to lip-synch to the Beatles’ “Twist And Shout” badly and still make us love him for it. The scene, which comes near the middle of the picture, has Broderick hijacking a float on a German-themed parade in downtown Chicago. Flanked by an army of cute barmaids, Broderick works the stage while miming John Lennon’s grizzled yelp and inspires an army of onlookers to dance along. He has the rock star moves, but obviously not enough to perfectly reproduce Lennon’s mannerisms.
Director John Hughes keeps the feeling light and stages a series of amusing dance sequences that keep the spirit moving in Broderick’s direction. As in his life, Bueller is masterfully orchestrating the pandemonium and like any great con artist, Bueller makes his little fakery a most enjoyable charade.
Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” In “Almost Famous”
It’s simply the best sing-along moment in film history.
Leave it to director Cameron Crowe, a former rock writer, to use this Elton John early ’70s classic to wordlessly nudge his fumbling, teenaged alter ego in the film to link arms with his fragmented, decadent rock-star tribe as they journey to the next gig.
The song comes along just when needed. A petty dispute has the band seemingly on the edge of breaking up, driving the guitarist to a local high school kegger where he drops acid, declares himself to be a “golden god” and then leaps from a roof into a backyard pool.
Things are at their darkest as he’s shepherded back to the bus, wet and draped in a beach towel. But a trip that begins in awkward silence slowly transforms into the sing-along, with the drummer starting things up by drumming on his lap. Soon heads are bobbing, people are smiling, one voice starts singing, then another, and another as the music pulls people through.
“You are home,” actress Kate Hudson tells the Crowe doppelganger.
Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” In “Say Anything …”
The appearance of “In Your Eyes” is the perfect convergence of music and film to make a visual image that far outstrips the few frames that appear in the film. If anyone remembers Cameron Crowe’s “Say Anything …” or even the late ’80s, they’ll remember the scene in which actor John Cusack’s Lloyd Dobler attempts to win back his love by hoisting a boombox aloft.
Dobler is the romantic hero for anyone who was ever a high school misfit. He was identifiable in a way pretty people aren’t in film. He was socially awkward, obsessively interested in arcane subjects and demonstrated a sincere sensitivity hidden barely beneath a cool exterior. His likes conformed to our own outsiders’ tastes and his true-blue defiance and tenacity gave hope to all excluded by fortune in the soap opera of high school life.
Gabriel’s breathy song, drenched in synthesizers, endures thanks to his reaching, pristine falsetto and the African rhythms that he employs throughout the track. It’s not a ballad, but it’s clearly an honest expression of adoration.
In another odd bit of trivia, Cusack reveals in the commentary track for the “Say Anything …” DVD that he was actually playing a Fishbone song on his boom box when the scene was filmed. This was in keeping with character as Dobler sports a L.A. funk band’s T-shirt frequently in the film. “In Your Eyes” was dubbed in later, making Cusack’s performance all the more impressive, and successfully filling the missing piece.
“Resolution And Hyperspace” In “Die Hard”
OK, this might be a bit of an odd choice. First, the song, “Resolution And Hyperspace” was actually first used in the movie “Aliens.” Second, “Die Hard” is a very good Bruce Willis action movie, but it’s still a shoot-’em-up, ’80s thrill ride.
And yet, the sequence near the end of the film when this Wagner-esque piece was used never fails to cause goose bumps to shoot up your arms.
In the film, hero John McClane (Willis) and his rescued wife are first meeting his cop buddy Sgt. Al Powell (future sitcom star Reginald VelJohnson) after a terrorist takeover of a Los Angeles skyscraper. Suddenly, terrorist Karl emerges from the bombed-out building that he and his boss tried to rob, seeking revenge on McClane. The bloodied villain yanks out his machine gun for some payback as a shocked McClane and his wife hit the deck. In a twist, the previous desk jockey Powell instinctively pulls his gun, shoots Karl dead and defends Willis and his bride.
The terrifically dramatic avalanche of strings and horns springs to life seemingly out of nowhere like a catastrophe and then builds and builds to reveal a heroic anthem that answers back. Just as quickly as the swelling music surged forth though, the melody quickly melds away. It perfectly accompanies the scene and underlines the subtext of the movie, setting it apart from all other action films of the era. Namely, it says that heroism isn’t just the province of a muscle-bound Arnold Schwarzenegger or costumed vigilante. Heroism can emerge from an everyman rising to an unexpected challenge. It takes Hollywood fantasy and roots it into our reality.
The Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive” In “Saturday Night Fever”
The bassline that launched a thousand dances.
“Stayin’ Alive” is a hallmark of the disco years and the best ambassador to the New York City dance subculture before Madonna came on the scene. The song was an unlikely creation coming from the Gibbs brothers, who in the late ’60s were best known for proper English pop.
Come the mid-’70s, the brothers’ immersion into American funk led to a musical fusion of their Beatles-inspired pop smarts with irresistible dance-floor grooves. Some might laugh at the movie sequences of actor John Travolta prowling the dance floor or muttering profanities in leisure-suit regalia, but there’s no denying the song’s power.
The cut was apparently a last-minute addition to the film soundtrack and the movie’s brain trust was eager to introduce the song into the production. The move upset Travolta, who was worried about how the song might affect all the choreography that he had rehearsed for weeks. According to legend, he pressed them to allow him to walk the streets of Brooklyn while the song plays and thus, came the famous scene of him strutting through the neighborhood.
Honorable mentions, in no particular order, include:
- Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” in “Titanic”
- The Who’s “A Quick One” in “Rushmore”
- Jodi Benson’s “Part Of This World” in “The Little Mermaid”
- Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power” in “Do The Right Thing”
- Jennifer Hudson’s “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” in “Dreamgirls”
- B.J. Thomas’ “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head” in “Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid”
- Bruce Springsteen’s “Streets Of Philadelphia” in “Philadelphia”
- Stealers’ Wheel’s “Stuck In The Middle With You” in “Reservoir Dogs”
- Elliott Smith’s “Needle In The Hay” in “The Royal Tenenbaums”
- Urge Overkill’s “Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon” in “Pulp Fiction”
- Prince’s “Purple Rain” in “Purple Rain”
- Rage Against the Machine’s “Wake Up” in “The Matrix”
- Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin'” during the opening credit sequence of “Watchmen”
- Glen Hansard ‘s “Say It To Me Now” during opening scene of “Once”
- Audrey Hepburn’s “I Could Have Danced All Night” in “My Fair Lady”
- The Blues Brothers Band performs “Jailhouse Rock” at the end of “The Blues Brothers”
- “Promontory” (the Celtic-themed symphonic piece played during the last scene) in “Last Of The Mohicans”
- Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes’ “The Time Of My Life” in “Dirty Dancing”
- “Springtime For Hitler” in “The Producers”
- Isley Brothers’ “Shout” in “National Lampoon’s Animal House”
- Kermit the Frog’s “The Rainbow Connection” in “The Muppet Movie”
- The Righteous Brothers’ “Unchained Melody” in “Ghost”
- Credence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” in “Forrest Gump”
- Yello’s “Oh Yeah” in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”/”‘The Secret of My Success”
- Van Morrison sings Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” in “The Departed”
- The Band’s “The Weight” in “Easy Rider”
- Daniel Elfman’s “This Is Halloween” in “The Nightmare Before Christmas”
- Simon & Garfunkfel’s “Mrs. Robinson” in “The Graduate”
- The Champs’ “Tequila” in “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure”
- Kenny Loggins’ “Footloose” in “Footloose”
- Mark Campbell and the Starlighters’ cover of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” in “Back To The Future”
- The Marx Brothers’ “Freedonia National Anthem” in “Duck Soup”
- Elliott Smith’s “Miss Misery” in “Good Will Hunting”
- Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” in “Wayne’s World”
- Carl Anderson’s “Heaven On Their Mind” in “Jesus Christ Superstar”
Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.
©Copyright 2010 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.