Sound And Vision – The Best Uses Of Songs In Movies

Since its birth more than a century ago, cinema has used music to heighten and manipulate our emotions.

Before the invention of sound, everything from a simple piano to a full-blown orchestra was employed by silent movies to make us smile, tug the heartstrings or set the pulse racing.

This kinship between sound and vision has continued to this day and, when done right, can leave a lasting impression and elevate a film in the eyes and ears of the viewer.

The thought struck me again during a recent viewing of Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha, specifically the scene in which Greta Gerwig’s titular protagonist dances giddily through the streets of New York as David Bowie’s Modern Love plays over the soundtrack. It’s a joyful confluence of moving picture and an 80’s classic that, more than anything else in the film, has stayed with me.

There are far too many memorable examples of movie scenes that remain stuck in my head because of the way the director has used a song to enhance the action on screen. Here are just a handful of my picks – as ever I’d love to know:

What are your favourite movie scenes set to a great song?

Goodfellas (1990)
Layla (Piano Exit) by Derek And The Dominos

Martin Scorsese has long been a master of the soundtrack, none more so than in his 1990 masterpiece Goodfellas. The film is chock full of classic music overlayed over striking visuals; however, the scene that always sticks in my mind is when dead bodies start showing up across the city, be they in a car, a refuse truck or the back of a meat lorry. Regarded as one of rock ‘n’ roll’s most definitive love songs, Scorsese’s inspired use of Derek And The Dominos’ Layla (Piano Exit) instead gives the scene an elegiac tone as we know this marks the beginning of the end for wiseguys Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci).

Easy Rider (1969)
Born To Be Wild by Steppenwolf

And low, the New Hollywood was born. Although released a year earlier, Steppenwolf’s Born To Be Wild will forever be joined at the hip with Easy Rider, such is the impact the film had. It’s impossible to think of another song that could be used in its place as Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper’s drug-smuggling bikers take to the road to get to Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Just as Fonda’s decision to dispose of his watch marked a turning point in cinema, that iconic opening drum beat and insanely catchy guitar riff was the perfect soundtrack.

Reservoir Dogs (1992)
Stuck In The Middle With You by Stealers Wheel

Another director synonymous for using the ‘needle drop’ is Quentin Tarantino; so much so in fact that for his debut feature Reservoir Dogs, the fictional K-Billy’s Super Sounds of the Seventies is as integral a character in the film as Mr White et al. Call it unfortunate timing for poor old Officer Marvin Nash (Kirk Baltz), but when Stealers Wheel’s appropriately titled Stuck In The Middle With You takes to the airwaves, it provides the psychopathic Mr Blonde (Michael Madsen) with the musical spur he needs to perform some unwanted ear surgery. There are numerous other great songs used to superb effect by Tarantino throughout his career, but this remains the most potent example.

Boogie Nights (1997)
Jessie’s Girl by Rick Springfield

Once the porn star’s porn star, Dirk Diggler’s (Mark Wahlberg) desperate collapse into drug addiction reaches its sad nadir in this mesmerising scene, one of the finest of Paul Thomas Anderson’s astonishing career. Dirk, Reed Rothchild (John C Reilly) and their pal Todd’s (Thomas Jane) misguided attempt to sell drug dealer Rahad Jackson (Alfred Molina) baking soda instead of cocaine predictably goes awry. As Jackson dances to Rick Springfield’s uplifting Jessie’s Girl, the folly of their plan gradually dawns on an increasingly jittery Dirk and the unbearable tension builds with every firecracker dropped by Jackson’s mute friend. Anyone who says Wahlberg can’t act just needs to watch how he gets lost in the song before strung-out paranoia and self-loathing seeps into his eyes – it’s a masterclass in subtle character shifts. Molina, meanwhile, is spot-on as always with a genuinely unnerving performance as the loathsome dealer.

Trainspotting (1996)
Born Slippy.NUX by Underworld

Danny Boyle is among a rare breed of directors who understand how and where to use dance music in their films without it sounding naff. He had demonstrated his keen understanding of the form by inventively switching between slow motion and speeded up footage to the penetrating sound of Leftfield’s title track in his debut film Shallow Grave. In his adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s cult novel, Boyle laid a little-known b-side by the then equally little-known Underworld over the film’s closing scene. Played quietly in the background at first, the tune slowly builds to a pulse-quickening crescendo as Ewan McGregor’s Renton steals off with his friends’ loot and vows to choose life over heroin.

The Big Lebowski (1998)
Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In) by Kenny Rogers & The First Edition

It’s easy to forget just how integral music is to the Coens’ oeuvre. From O Brother, Where Art Thou? to their latest Inside Llewyn Davis, their use of music is as carefully thought out as their storyboarded visuals. Arguably their most memorable needle-drop scene is the surreal ‘Gutterballs’ dream sequence from The Big Lebowski. Set to the psychedelic Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In), a wide-eyed Dude’s (Jeff Bridges) love of bowling is indulged as he rents a pair of shoes from Saddam Hussein, teaches Julianne Moore’s Nordic-clad Maude Lebowski how to bowl and then becomes the ball as he ‘rolls’ through the spread legs of dancing girls in swimsuits. The Dude does, indeed, abide.

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35 comments

  1. ckckred · January 3, 2014

    Nice list. I actually have my own one as well (here’s the link if you want to check it out http://cinematicfilmblog.com/2013/04/10/10-best-uses-of-outside-songs-in-films/). I especially love the songs for GoodFellas, The Big Lebowski, and Reservoir Dogs, which did for “Stuck in the Middle with You” what A Clockwork Orange did with “Singing in the Rain.” Boogie Nights is also an excellent choice.

    • Three Rows Back · January 3, 2014

      Cheers! I’ll check out your list. Great minds think alike! I did think of that very scene from A Clockwork Orange, but left it out more’s the pity.

  2. thomasjford · January 3, 2014

    I like this post a lot! I would have gone for the very same Goodfellas scene I think! There are probably a million more as well (Chuck Berry – You Never Can Tell in Pulp Fiction and Little Green Bag in Reservoir Dogs for example).

    • Three Rows Back · January 3, 2014

      Thank you! Your suggestions are both great. Every scene I though of threw up five more and in the case of Tarantino there are plenty to choose from.

  3. vinnieh · January 3, 2014

    Great choices, I’d put in You Never can Tell from Pulp Fiction.

    • Three Rows Back · January 3, 2014

      Appreciate that my friend. You Never Can Tell is a great example. Tarantino really is a master isn’t he?

  4. V · January 3, 2014

    Amazing list! Every song a classic and so integral to the overall atmosphere of each of the movies they’re featured in.

    • Three Rows Back · January 3, 2014

      Ah, thanks very much. There are so many movies to choose from; it was hard to narrow it down to be honest.

      • V · January 4, 2014

        I can imagine it was. You chose brilliantly though, my favourites are all there.

      • Three Rows Back · January 5, 2014

        Thanks again 🙂

  5. jjames36 · January 3, 2014

    I agree with all of your choices.

    I will add Warm Bodies’ use of Pretty Woman.

    Inside Llewyn Davis’ use of every song in the soundtrack.

    (For some reason only new movies are popping in my head right now.) 😉

    • Three Rows Back · January 3, 2014

      Glad to hear it! Not caught Warm Bodies yet I’m afraid. There are plently of new movies to choose from!

  6. le0pard13 · January 3, 2014

    Wonderful list of scenes and song. Well done.

  7. Redhead at the Movies · January 3, 2014

    I love this list! I was wondering if you’d seen The Wolf of Wall Street yet, because Scorsese seems to always have a great sense of music like you noted with Goodfellas. There’s a cover version of Mrs. Robinson by The Lemonheads that is so well placed in the film and just sounds so fitting too.

    • Three Rows Back · January 3, 2014

      Thank you! The Wolf of Wall Street hasn’t opened here yet, but am eager to see it – for the music as much as anything.

      • Redhead at the Movies · January 3, 2014

        Definitely! I looked up a list that I think the Playlist on indiewire posted that had every song used in the movie, it was so extensive. I’ve already seen the film twice but I think even more viewings are necessary, especially for me to go back and really concentrate on the music more but the few instances that did really stand out to me were perfect and powerful, so when you do get to see it I hope you agree and you’ll probably catch even more great examples in it than I did. It really plays an interesting role in the film, I think.

  8. Dan Heaton · January 3, 2014

    Nice list. I love the Layla use, especially as the camera drifts up to the dead couple in their new car while the piano plays in the background. I’d add Tiny Dancer from Almost Famous or Wise Up from Magnolia, which both give me chills.

    • Three Rows Back · January 3, 2014

      Thanks man. I’ll have to take your word about Almost Famous as I still haven’t seen it (the shame!). Great choice on Magnolia though 🙂

      • Dan Heaton · January 3, 2014

        You should definitely check out Almost Famous. It’s my favorite Cameron Crowe film and has such a good soundtrack.

  9. chris2508 · January 3, 2014

    Great list. Totally agree with you about Trainspotting and the Big Lebowsk. I actually have done a list like this myself.

    • Three Rows Back · January 3, 2014

      Oh really? I’ll check that out. Glad to see you agree 🙂

  10. Anna (Film Grimoire) · January 4, 2014

    Excellent picks! I love the use of ‘Lonely Boy’ by Andrew Gold at the beginning of Boogie Nights. Such a great film.

  11. Nick Powell · January 4, 2014

    Oh son of a bitch.. this is a topic I can talk about until the end of time and is something I keep meaning to start writing about on my own site. Great, great choices to include, especially of course, Stuck in the Middle with You. And Taraninto’s films (as well as the Coens) could have a handful of moments included on this list.

    As much as cliche the scene has become, I’d also include Bohemian Rhapsody (Waynes World), Hip to Be Square (American Psycho), and New Slang (Garden State), this film especially for how it found me, soundtrack and all.

    Great write up!

  12. mettelray · January 4, 2014

    Stuck in the middle of you is a perfect example.. I can’t think of any myself.. I definitely have some favorites, like, I don’t usually notice songs that much but sometimes I do and then I listen to that song a lot. Last time that happened was from Stoker’s final scene.. But I’m sure there are way better choices similar to these. RD example is my favorite though!

  13. Dan · January 4, 2014

    I love spontaneous dance sequences – one of my favourites is John Travolta and Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction at Jack Rabbit Slims! Another is the library dance in The Breakfast Club.

  14. Popcorn Nights · January 6, 2014

    That’s a good list – I love the use of Layla in GoodFellas. There’s also a brilliant montage later on in the same film that I really like that uses three songs – Harry Nilsson’s Jump Into The Fire, The Rolling Stones’ Monkey Man and What Is Life by George Harrison…when Henry Hill is being tailed by the police helicopter.

  15. Terry Malloy's Pigeon Coop · January 6, 2014

    Great post Mark. Reservoir Dogs was the one that instantly sprang to mind for me, but I’d have to sling in the Bo Rap scene in Wayne’s World too. I also really like the use of The Pixie’s Where is My Mind? at the end of Fight Club.

    • Three Rows Back · January 7, 2014

      Thanks as always Chris. I did consider Wayne’s World, but went against it in the end. Great choice with Fight Club too; that’s a cracker of a tune for a cracker of an ending.

  16. ruth · January 6, 2014

    This is a great topic for a list! I haven’t seen a lot of these as they’re too violent for my feeble nerves. I guess on the opposite side of this list, I like how Disney films use music, as one of my fave of last year was FROZEN. Inside Llewyn Davis also have some great uses, though overall I’m not too fond of the film.

    • Three Rows Back · January 7, 2014

      Cheers Ruth! Get with the violence Ruth, embrace it! Haven’t seen Frozen or the Coens’ latest yet; looking forward to both.

  17. Wendell · January 7, 2014

    Great list and great choices! One of my all-time faves is when Prince performs Darling Nikki specifically to piss off Appollonia in Purple Rain. And since Prince is on the brain, the scene of the Joker and his goons ripping through the museum to the tune of Party Man before meeting Vicki Vale is just hilarious. For a more recent movie, but older (& non-Prince) song, I love the way 9 made Somewhere Over the Rainbow a creepy song.

    • Three Rows Back · January 7, 2014

      Completely forgot about Purple Rain; blimey it’s been a few years since I watched that. Not seen 9 yet, though I hear good things. Great choices.

  18. Tim The Film Guy · January 7, 2014

    Musoc and Theme are so improtant to movies. Good post 😀

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