Top 10 Most Memorable Uses of Music in Film

Having not written a post for such a long time, I decided to get things back up and running with one of my favourite topics: music in film. This list features my personal top 10 most memorable uses of music within films, songs that you can’t help but picture a specific scene to when you hear it. I’ve picked songs that remind me specifically of a scene, not just a film in general. Also, I obviously have to have seen it, so some big or obvious choices may not be here (e.g. Footloose). Without further ado, here’s my top 10:

10. She’s Gone Away (Nine Inch Nails) – Twin Peaks: The Return (2017)

While not technically a film, Lynch’s latest project was described as an ’18-hour movie’ and honestly after watching it, I think it deserves film status. This choice was easy, She’s Gone Away was utterly haunting and has stayed with me ever since. This song appears in Episode 8 of the series, which has been hailed as a masterpiece and is perhaps the most experimental piece of television in history. Without giving away too much, this song which is just dark and guttural, perfectly summaries this episode’s treatment of the darkness of humanity and I don’t think any other song would have worked nearly as well.

9. The Funeral of Queen Mary (Synth//Wendy Carlos) – A Clockwork Orange (1971)

This is one of my absolute all-time favourite openings to a film. Kubrick takes his time here, the mark of a confident director. The slow dolly shot in towards Alex and his crew through the futuristic set of the ‘Korova Milkbar’, coupled with this music sets the tone for Kubrick’s dystopian but classic creation. Alex’s love for classical music is evident throughout the film and although this isn’t his favourite ‘Ludvig Van’ (Beethoven), this already evokes a sinister tone when the clip finishes on Alex (Malcom McDowell’s) ‘Kubrick stare’. (More info here:

8. These Boots Are Made For Walking (Nancy Sinatra) – Full Metal Jacket (1987)

Another Kubrick classic! This is one of my favourite juxtapositions within cinema, going from the harsh realities of Marine boot camp (SPOILERS in video) to these soldiers being deployed in Vietnam and seeing how it has become their new status quo. This song evokes not just the 60s era but also acts as a social commentary, with the words reflecting  both the control the US Army tried to impose on Vietnam; but also the upper hand the Vietnamese Army had through Guerrilla warfare and street crime (in this case distraction via prostitute). Kubrick is one of the masters of music being used to not just set a film’s context but also use it for storytelling and political/social commentary.

7. Harlem Shuffle (Bob & Earl) – Baby Driver (2017)

This pick for me is so great because of the combination of the visuals alongside the music. Throughout this section, for those eagle-eyed viewers, the lyrics of the song, actually feature in the visuals, through graffiti on wall’s that Baby passes and many other examples (which I’ll let you discover for yourself!). Not only does the background highlight the lyrics, but diegetic sounds (sound from within the film ‘reality’ itself) are timed and incorporated into the song too, highlighting Baby’s connection to music and how everything around him links back to this significant element of his personality, a huge indicator into his psychological process at an early stage in the film. The planning and imagination this must have taken cements Edgar Wright’s status as an extremely assured filmmaker, for who music is such a vital part of his filmmaking process. I find this sequence interesting too, for this is the ‘real’ Baby, the first time we are left with him in his day-to-day life, not his criminal sideline he is dragged in to. So to see his levity, slight arrogance but confident and upbeat personality just from his walk to the coffee shop allows us as an audience to connect with him and already gain a huge insight into his character very early on.

6. Hip to be Square (Huey Lewis and the News) – American Psycho (2000)

This is such a classic scene! I remember the first time I saw this film and just being blown away by the use of juxtaposition between Bale’s performance and the clinical tone of the film thus far and the use of of such a random, yet quintessentially 80s ‘yuppie’ song. This song like a lot of the others on this list, isn’t just essential to this moment but it captures the tone of the whole film and is often the most remembered part of the film. Not only that, but it allowed Bale the opportunity to showcase his versatility and range of acting, in what is his true ‘breakthrough’ performance; and this range isn’t something we really see to this extent again in his career. Finally, another reason this scene made this list is because many viewers (myself included) would automatically assume this film was directed by a man, with the style being so reminiscent of Quentin Tarantino or Martin Scorsese, but it is in fact the work of Mary Harron (co-writer and director). Now whilst I could talk a LOT about female directors and their underrepresentation, I will keep this short and sweet by just saying that kind of work and style is what women should aspire to be making. Women don’t have to stick to period dramas, rom-coms or inspiring biopics, female directors can be up there with the most gruesome, pop culture inspired, stylish directors and can excel at it too!

5. Lust for Life (Iggy Pop) – Trainspotting (1996)

Choose life, choose a job, choose a career…is the music in your head yet? This song and the opening monologue of Trainspotting are so intertwined that when presented with one, you can’t help but fill in the other in your head. Again, like a lot of the other entries on this list, Trainspotting is just iconic song, after iconic song, but this one is the one that is the true standout. Whether that is because it’s the opening scene, which like I’ve said throughout here, indicative of character’s personality/thought process, the tone of the film and the style of the director, is something to bear in mind, but certainly isn’t the only factor in my decision to include it here. Trainspotting is so very much of its time, but yet has also stood the test of time, unlike many of its contemporaries. The soundtrack is heavily inspired by the 90s Britpop scene, and the songs highlight the huge rave and drug culture there was throughout the UK at this time. Lust for Life, is largely about Iggy Pop’s relationship with drug addiction, which throughout this opening is the primary motivation and key driving force for much of the film. However, this theme is not in your face, instead the adrenaline pumping, fast beat of this song grips you from the opening shot and keeps you on a metaphorical ‘high’ from the music; mirroring the characters relationships with and feelings when taking drugs. In my opinion, bar Trainspotting 2, Danny Boyle’s films and use of music has never hit the same heights as it does here, and it is still one of the most iconic scenes within British cinema (and possibly worldwide) which is why it’s made number 5 on my list.

4. Come and Get Your Love (Redbone) – Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 1 (2014)

I can’t help but smile whenever I watch the opening of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.1. Having been a Marvel fan for a number of years prior to this film, the opening seemed a pretty standard sci-fi, action type film, the usual. But then this song began and I was just mesmerised. Not only does it reflect Peter Quill’s link to Earth (and 70s music), but it gives us a window straight away into his personality and challenges masculine stereotypes within the action/sci-fi genre. This is my favourite use of music throughout the film (despite many others great songs!) and the way it is edited and choreographed to be so synchronised is a masterclass in how to create an opening that hooks your audience and gives them a sense of what you’re going to do with this film and the tone you can expect throughout. James Gunn shows us just from this opening that this is his film, he is confident and he is unafraid to bring something different to the table. I think it is a shame that he won’t return for the Volume 3, but hopefully we will get to see some other great uses of music in his upcoming reboot of Suicide Squad for the DC franchise.

3. You Never Can Tell (Chuck Berry) – Pulp Fiction (1994)

Ask anyone about this film and I can guarantee that the majority of the time people will cite this scene, or even go as far as to recreate the iconic dance. From the moment John Travolta and Uma Thurman (Vince Vega & Mia Wallace) step into Jack Rabbit Slims, we are transported back to the 1950s, from the music to ‘Buddy Holly’ as their waiter, it is already a step out of the world Tarantino had created thus far in the film. Whether it’s reflective of both character’s love of drugs, or just an indulgence of Tarantino’s, this whole sequence is very surreal and does almost feel like part of another film or like a Brechtian scene, jarring and highlighting the film’s artifice to the audience. With this dream-like atmosphere already in place, the moment Thurman and Travolta begin dancing to ‘You Never Can Tell’ serves to heighten even further the bizarre and ‘cool’ status Pulp Fiction has earned over the years. Plus, with one of the arguably greatest on-screen dancers (Travolta), being catapulted back into the limelight with this film, it gives an audience such a buzz and thrill to see this legend back doing that he does best. To this end, this scene does remind me of ‘Beauty School Dropout’ in Grease, where it feels more as though at this point in the film these two characters are purely in this moment, in their own bubble, just doing what they love unashamedly, and as though no-one is watching them. Tarantino in all his work is the king of cool when it comes to music, and no scene is cooler than this one here.

2. Stuck in the Middle With You (Stealers Wheel) – Reservoir Dogs (1992)

This was nearly my number 1. The use of music again acting as a counterpoint to the sinister actions taking place on screen. Tarantino’s directorial debut has, perhaps, his best use of music in any of his films. In this scene, psychopath, Mr Blonde (Michael Madsen) tortures a police officer, the reason for this, we assume is for information in regards to the heist. However, when he declares, “I don’t really give a f**k about what you know or don’t know, I’m gonna torture you anyway.” we know that as an audience we are left in the hands of a volatile, unpredictable criminal, who makes us as an audience feel uncomfortable, as we can’t second guess his actions. So when he begins to dance to “Stuck in the Middle With You”, with a vicious glee, it heightens his sadistic nature and creates one of the most iconic scenes in cinema. Most people who hear this song will have this scene and imagery come straight to mind. Interestingly, despite being one of the most gruesome parts of the film, from a director famed for his use of excessive violence and blood, the camera shies away from the actual physical act/gruesomeness, leaving it to our imaginations, meaning this song will forever be etched into our brains and scar us into imagining unspeakable/unimaginable acts. An amazing feat for any director, let alone a directorial debut. 

1. In Dreams (Roy Orbison) – Blue Velvet (1986)

I find it hard to even begin to describe how much I love this sequence. David Lynch’s, Blue Velvet, is an exploration of the seediness and darkness within people that lurks beneath suburban, ‘wholesome’ America. This scene shows antagonist Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) taking his victim Dorothy Valens (Isabella Rossellini) and ‘innocent’ bystander Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle Machlachlan) to his friend/associate’s house, where we assume Dorothy can see her kidnapped son and Jeffrey (who was caught seeing Frank’s crimes) is being kept to be intimidated and deterred from any further snooping. This sequence is already very strange, with an eclectic mix of characters, bizarre music and terrifying levels of tension with a crazed Dennis Hopper adding an air of unpredictability and genuine fear. But what makes this scene so memorable and bizarre, and the reason audiences still discuss this sequence, is the inclusion of the song ‘In Dreams’. Throughout the scene we hear Dennis Hopper repeatedly reference “The candy coloured clown they call the sandman”, something we relate to their drug-taking. However, when Dorothy is allowed to see her son, her interaction with him seems fraught and again adds to the uneasy atmosphere already created. This conversation is instantly juxtaposed by Ben’s miming/performance of ‘In Dreams’, an androgynous, hypnotic, almost psychedelic experience which Frank seems to revel in. The inclusion of an older song such as this, which out of this context, seems dreamy and light-hearted, takes on a whole different tone and is used by Lynch here as an example of contrapuntal music (a song which contradicts or juxtaposes the emotion/tone of the scene or film) which just enhances and makes this film the unforgettable nightmare it is and is one of the reasons it will be discussed and analysed for years to come.

So there we go, that’s my top ten most memorable uses of music in film! Do you agree or disagree with these choices? Any glaring examples I’ve missed? Let me know in the comments below!

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