Written by: Erik Beck, Special to CC2K
Pummeling Zombies to the Rhythms of Queen
25 Of The Greatest Uses of Rock Music in Movies
When the opening notes of “Misery” start playing and Clerks II fades to black and white, it’s a sign. Kevin Smith might not have developed a visual style yet, but he’s definitely learned something from Martin Scorsese; the synthesis of rock and roll to film can take what would otherwise be a sloppy moment of film and turn it into a classic. It’s Soul Asylum, it’s Dante and Randall, it’s obviously designed to make us remember the end of the first Clerks. It evokes a very specific memory of a film we loved and we leave the theater smiling. Barely two months later, The Departed reminded us once again that Scorsese is a matter of this directorial trick and those first few moments of the film, with the menace that is always lurking beneath the surface in both Jack Nicholson and the Stones, remind us that we love this connection. We want this connection. We want to think more about this connection. If that’s really what you were thinking, this is the list for you.
But before we praise these 25 seminal uses of rock-n-roll in the movies, let's establish some criteria for what a movie and a rock song must do and be in order to qualify for this immortal list.
1 – This is rock and roll, not just music, so none of these films, by rule, are from pre-55. As it so happens, only one of them is even from pre-79.
2 – No musicals. It seems too easy to point out great rock and roll moments on film in films that are chock full of them.
3 – No biopics of real life rock and roll bands or singers. How hard is it, really, to make great use of a Doors song in The Doors? It’s a much trickier assignment to do it in Apocalypse Now, which, unfortunately, falls just short of this list.
4 – It must be used in the movie. It can’t be played over the end credits. “The Hands That Built America” is a great song and the way it comes in at the end of Leo’s monologue in Gangs of New York with the scenes of the city through the 150 years following the events of the movie are fantastic, but it’s really the end credits. The only song I considered that really plays over the end credits is “I Believe” by Stevie Wonder, because it fits in so well with the end of High Fidelity, as Rob finally gets it, but in the end, the rules are the rules.
5 – It must be a specific song. The following movies all have perfect soundtracks: American Graffiti, Stand by Me, Singles, Grosse Pointe Blank. Yet, in the end I couldn’t figure out a really good song to take from any of them, any one single moment where the song was perfect and really made the moment.
6 – Trailers don’t count either. Especially if they don’t use the actual song in the movie. In the Name of the Father makes great use of U2’s “Pride”, Without Limits features “Where the Streets Have No Name” and the Wonder Boys trailer wouldn’t be nearly as brilliant without John Lennon’s Watching the Wheels (which at least is in the movie), but this is about the moment in the movie. Making a good trailer is like making a video. It’s just not the same.
That said, I’ll take a quick second to award an honorable mention to the trailer for Adaptation. It's a perfectly constructed trailer that employs just enough of the movie's hectic, neuortic imagery to entice you, yet omits enough to leave you bewildered and itchin' to see the movie — all of it underscored by a perfect track: Queen's "Under Pressure."
Now, let's get to it. Here's are 25 of the greatest uses of rock music in movie history:
#26 – “Hey Hey My My” (Neil Young and Devo)
Human Highway (Neil Young) – 1983
I mention this as #26 to kick us off because no one has seen this movie, which means you also haven’t heard this version of the song, because it’s the only place you can find it. That is not a typo up above. Neil Young and Devo star in this movie. It is a movie so appalingly bad that I gave it zero stars. Out of some 4000 movies I have seen, I have only given zero stars on 5 occasions: Showgirls, Caligula, Plan Nine from Outer Space, Glen or Glenda and Human Highway. And the use of the song is mindboggling. It breaks up whatever narrative flow the movie had and lasts a really, really long time. Yet, it is so fascinating, in that train wreck sort of way and no one else ever seems to have seen it, so I’d like to encourage people to see it.
#25 – “Don’t Stop Me Now” (Queen)
Shaun of the Dead (Edgar Wright) – 2004
The song that gives this list its title. Possibly the funniest entry on the list. A bunch of friends have barricaded themselves into their local pub to fend off the zombies. Shaun’s mother has become a zombie and they must fight her with pool cues. And the jukebox is on. And they are beating her in time to the music. It’s so easy to make visual use of “We Will Rock You.” This is much harder.
#24 – “The Only Living Boy in New York” (Simon and Garfunkel)
Garden State (Zach Braff) – 2004
In the middle of the Shins commercial otherwise known as Garden State, a fantastic moment comes in. They go to edge of the cliff and they scream into the “infinite abyss.” Standing in the rain, wearing garbage bags with holes cut in them, screaming, with one of Paul Simon’s most beautiful songs playing (ironically written when Art was off filming Catch-22, so perhaps it was destined to end up on film). It took me a long time to get in to Garden State, but this moment made the film stand still for me. I kept rewinding it, playing it again. Because while so much of the film doesn’t connect, this moment connects.
#23 – “Bye Bye Love” (Roy Scheider)
All That Jazz (Bob Fosse) – 1979
I allow this to break the musical rule, because it’s not a traditional musical and the introduction that Ben Vereen gives the song, a desperate man holding on by the edge of his fingertips, changing the lyrics to “Bye bye life,” all of these combine to make this a phenomenal moment.
#22 – “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” (Rolling Stones)
The Big Chill (Lawrence Kasdan) – 1983
This scene points out the importance of sound mixing and editing. At Alex’s funeral we are told that Karen will play one of Alex’s favorite songs. She sits at the organ and starts playing “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” instantly bringing a smile to every character on screen; yet it’s Kasdan who brings a smile to all of us as he transitions from the on-screen organ to the off-screen recording of the song itself as we transition from the service to the actual burial. And for some bizarre reason it’s not included on either version of the soundtrack.
#21 – “Tracks of My Tears” (Smokey Robinson and the Miracles)
Platoon (Oliver Stone) – 1986
Charlie Sheen is forced to choose a side between those two fathers, Elias and Barnes, and he makes, what many of us feel, is the right choice, going with the more casual, more put together Elias. Getting high while smoking out of a gun barrel, the tent sings along this song, such a perfect piece of Motown that seems to bridge the gap between pop and psychedelia. And twenty years ago it wasn’t nearly as much of a cliché for a group of characters to sing together on screen.
#20 – “Stuck In the Middle With You” (Stealer’s Wheel)
Reservoir Dogs (Quentin Tarantino) – 1992
Perhaps not as high on the list as it might have been if not for two things: the fact that it’s become such a parody and cliché that it’s lost some of its original creepiness, and quite frankly, I think it’s a terrible song. This is the only song on this list I don’t own, and not just because listening to it makes me think Michael Madsen is gonna cut my ear off.
#19 – “Tiny Dancer” (Elton John)
Almost Famous (Cameron Crowe) – 2000
On the whole, no one does rock and roll better than Cameron Crowe, and small wonder, since he started out as a rock prodigy writing for Rolling Stone. Almost Famous is not quite a true story and not quite a musical, but the way this song works, how it makes the characters come together, how it allows for a perfect transition, how it brings out the perfect line (“I need to go home.” “You are home.”), how it even holds the trailer together, how just seeing the trailer reminded my roommate at the time that “Elton used to do great songs, why doesn’t he make great songs anymore?,” for all of this and more.
#18 – “Just Like Honey” (Jesus and Mary Chain)
Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola) – 2003
The opening drum sounds so much like “Be My Baby,” that my first thought was that Sofia was ripping off Marty’s opening to Mean Streets (another moment that fell just off the list). But this song is better for the moment. I don’t want to know what Bill Murray says. If you think you know, don’t tell me. It’s a better moment for not knowing. And the song makes it perfect, kicking in as he walks away, back to the car, to never see her again, to move through the streets of Tokyo. Some songs on film work perfectly the first time you hear them, but this one requires you to know the lyrics to know why it’s so perfectly placed. And once you do know the lyrics, you understand how good the ending of this movie is.
#17 – “Most of the Time” (Bob Dylan)
High Fidelity (Stephen Frears) – 2000
I had Oh Mercy for years before I saw High Fidelity. But when Rob goes over to Laura and softly says that he’s sorry, and the opening of the song kicks in and the dialogue fades away for almost a full minute I realized that this might be the best Dylan song made after Blood on the Tracks. I felt like this was the song Rob Gordon would have played himself if he were the director.
#16 – “Get Together” (Youngbloods)
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Terry Gilliam) – 1998
It’s so hard to get literature up on the screen, to capture the printed word. Gilliam allows Depp to use Thompson’s own words, every word of it direct from the novel, and using most of a full page (pages 66 through 68 in the Vintage paperback). Johnny sounds exactly like what I expected Hunter to sound like and this is the perfect song to play over the background, with that “high and beautiful wave,” and “the high water mark – that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”
#15 – “Sister Christian” (Night Ranger)
Boogie Nights (Paul Thomas Anderson) – 1997
I think this is why I’ve reduced the Reservoir Dogs scene; PT Anderson does Tarantino one better. As Anderson points out in the commentary, the explosion of violence on screen comes just with the explosion of drums and noise in the song. And while Michael Madsen oozed menace, Alfred Molina seemed like a complete lunatic. I’ll bet that this song still makes Mark Wahlberg feel like he should run for his life.
#14 – “Then He Kissed Me” (The Crystals)
GoodFellas (Martin Scorsese) – 1990
The scene, all in one shot, is longer than the song. How often does that happen? Marty had already proved with the opening shot of Mean Streets that he knew exactly how to make the best use of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound. This is why Marty should have, by my count, 4 Best Director Oscars, not including this year. He knows how to direct. It’s one thing to put together a scene in the editing room. This was obviously put together on location and he knew what song was going to be playing above it.
#13 – “The Sound of Silence” (Simon and Garfunkel)
The Graduate (Mike Nichols) – 1967
An iconic shot now, the use of Simon and Garfunkel to open the movie, and quite frankly, all through the film. While The Graduate doesn’t seem to quite hold up to multiple viewings as other films from the same era do, this shot always carries me through. “Mrs Robinson” is the song that holds the movie and the use of “April Come She Will” is impeccable comic timing by Nichols, but it’s the set up shot of Hoffman in the pool with this song over it that is the enduring image.
#12 – “Wise Up” (Aimee Mann)
Magnolia (Paul Thomas Anderson) – 1999
This absolutely is a moment that could have flopped and killed the whole film. Instead, it works. I remember sitting in the theater thinking, ‘I absolutely have to get hold of this song.’ It works because it’s a great song. It also works because the actors absolutely believe in the moment, they carry it through. It took guts on Anderson’s part to have all his characters singing, especially to have them all singing the same song. But they came through and it comes through.
#11 – “Gimme Shelter” (Rolling Stones)
The Departed – Martin Scorsese – 2006
“War, children, it’s just a shot away.” Nicholson says it perfectly, cop, criminal, when you’re facing a loaded gun, it doesn’t really much matter. Scorsese has always known exactly what song to use and at exactly what time. From getting Peter Gabriel to write the music to Last Temptation of Christ to getting U2 to write a song about America to play over the end of Gangs of New York, he has had his hand on the pulse of film and music. I kept seeing the trailer for The Departed, but not expecting the song in the film (it is conspicuously absent from the soundtrack), but Marty brilliantly introduces us to the dark, grimy world of South Boston with a song that only too well captures the menace of Nicholson’s dead end portrayal of a gangster so obviously based on Whitey Bulger.
#10 – “Didn’t I Blow Your Mind This Time” (Delfonics)
Jackie Brown (Quentin Tarantino) – 1997
It’s a tricky thing to use a song more than once on a soundtrack. By the end of That Thing You Do, you’ve heard the title song so many times you don’t ever want to hear it again. But this song is so cleverly introduced, so subtly pushed forward throughout the film, we can feel ourselves sucked in to Max Cherry’s growing fondness for the song. And it all comes together with Samuel Jackson’s subtle rendering of the key line of the film: “I didn’t know you liked the Delfonics.”
#9 – “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” (Marvin Gaye)
The Big Chill (Lawrence Kasdan) – 1983
Such a perfect song for the moment. Sarah has just heard on the phone that Alex is dead. She turns to her husband Harold, who is bathing the kids (as they sing “Joy to the World”) and the beat of the song, a song guaranteed to be recognized by just about everybody comes on. As if that weren’t the perfect enough set-up, the song continues as we see the dressing of Alex’s corpse for the funeral, including covering the fatal slits on his wrist. The Big Chill not only has one of the greatest soundtracks of all time, it is one of the greatest films of all time for using the music as well.
#8 – “Fire and Rain” (James Taylor)
Running on Empty (Sidney Lumet) – 1988
The first film that ever made me cry. It still makes me cry, every time I see it. It’s set up earlier in the film when the characters sing “Fire and Rain” at a birthday party. At the end, however, we get the choice that so many people face in life: family or ourselves. Danny is finally pushed away at a moment when we don’t expect, by a character that we don’t expect it from, told to go make what he can of his own life, because it is what is best for him. With this song playing over the background, it makes for the one of the most powerful and touching endings to a film ever (and total fodder for a future list).
#7 – “Everyone” (Van Morrison)
The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson) – 2001
We often think of the great ways that movies start, but so many of the top 10 on this list are from the endings. Movies often have funerals, but rarely do they make use of a song, with only three exceptions coming to mind: The Big Chill, with that funeral making this list, To Die For, where Nicole Kidman, bizarrely and hilariously sets a tape deck on the gravestone and plays “All By Myself,” and this moment. It’s such a great song, one of Van Morrison’s most under-appreciated songs, playing only as they all file away out of the cemetary plot, slowing to a crawl for Luke Wilson to slowly leave his father behind in his grave.
#6 – “Dry the Rain” (Beta Band)
High Fidelity (Stephen Frears) – 2000
Directors often use clips of songs to great effect (think of Marty’s use of only the piano exit of “Layla” in GoodFellas), but it is rare for a character to make deliberate use of only part of a song. It threw me off so much that when I went out and bought the soundtrack after watching the film on opening weekend, that it didn’t seem like it could possibly be the same song. But Rob Gordon knows exactly what he’s doing, jumping right to the point that’s going to make the audience, both in the theater, and in his record store, appreciate how fantastic the song is. If only the scene lasted a little longer. And how I love the look on Rob’s face when he is told “it’s really good,” and he, subtly, replies, “I know.”
#5 – “Blower’s Daughter” (Damien Rice)
Closer (Mike Nichols) – 2004
Even though this is a great song and one of the all time great character introductions, it probably wouldn’t rank as high on the list had Nichols not made brilliant use of it to bookend the film. This is another of those moments where I went straight home to find out what the song was and get hold of it, immediately. And it wasn’t simply because it’s a great song, though it is. But forever, when I hear this song, I will think of Natalie Portman walking down the street, sometimes in London, sometimes in New York, always being stared at by pretty much every guy she walks past.
#4 – “Born Slippy” (Underworld)
Trainspotting (Danny Boyle) – 1996
The hands down winner for best continual use of music in a film, this list could have easily contained half a dozen Trainspotting moments. This and the #1 on the list are examples where I have put the song on a mix tape straight from the movie, so as to have the corresponding monologue over the song as well. This serves a similar function to “Blower’s Daughter,” as the similar monologue and the way the credits run form bookends on Trainspotting.
#3 – “In Your Eyes” (Peter Gabriel)
Say Anything (Cameron Crowe) – 1989
This has become a cliché, an icon, a moment that everyone knows, Lloyd Dobler standing with a boombox, blaring “In Your Eyes,” because Diane Court had already told him much she loved the song. Yet, this is a moment true to life. It is the most believable cliché in movie history, the exact kind of thing I can see myself or any number of people I know having done. It works because of the look on Lloyd’s face, because of the way the moment builds, because the song is just that good.
#2 – “Imagine” (John Lennon)
The Killing Fields (Roland Joffe) – 1984
I couldn’t even keep from getting choked up describing this scene to my wife. Sidney Schanberg had to leave Dith Pran behind when he caught one of the last helicopters out of Saigon in 1975 and the horrors that Pran survived in Cambodia would have killed any lesser and many stronger men. Yet, to see the two men finally reunited after Schanberg searched for years, to see the magnamity of Pran to offer up that there was nothing for him to forgive, that friendship had already forgiven anything between them, with this song, of all songs to be playing in the background is one of the most beautiful moments in all of film.
#1 – “Lust for Life” (Stooges)
Trainspotting (Danny Boyle) – 1996
Not only the best use of a song, but possibly the best opening to a movie in motion picture history. The song sums up everything about the film, sets the tone right from the opening seconds, with a perfect pounding beat before we see anything, that works in perfect time with Renton and Spud running away from the cops at top speed, lead by one of film’s greatest monologus. “Choose life.” A mantra to believe in.