Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Top 20 Uses of a Song in a Film

As separate artistic forms, music and film have the ability to stir profound emotions within us. When a film scene effectively utilises a song, well, that's like the time you dipped your French fries into your ice cream sundae at McDonald's, but even better. An individual song can underscore a scene by heightening the narrative, creating an atmosphere, or reflexively commenting on the scene through its lyrics. As with any list, my choices for the best uses of song in a film are purely subjective. I will only include scenes from films that I've seen, and I haven't seen all of the classics, so bear that in mind before you jump down my throat about 'forgetting' that song from your favourite cult film of all time. Another criterion is that no instrumental pieces are allowed. All scenes are accompanied by songs that have lyrics. There will be some spoilers here and there, but I'll try not to ruin the entire film for you. One last thing—this is an ordered list. I usually have no particular order to my lists, but I feel passionate about this subject. I'm starting at 20 and will work my way down to number 1. I hope you enjoy my offerings.

20. Blue Valentine (2010)

Song: You Always Hurt the One You Love
Artist: The Mills Brothers (covered by Ryan Gosling) 

This scene, between Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, occurs in a flashback. Gosling and Williams portray a couple whose marriage is on the rocks, and scenes like this one serve to illustrate how love that was once tender and rapturous can turn sour. Above all, this scene is kinda cute due to Gosling's goofy singing and Williams' spontaneous style of dance, and it's accentuated by the setting of a beautiful shopfront.

19. Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986)

Song: Twist and Shout
Artist: The Beatles

Watching this scene, you envy everyone involved in it. Can you imagine how much fun they had!? Watching this film as a teenager, it's easy to fantasise about being Ferris Bueller. This scene allows you to get lost in that fantasy, as you watch everyone have a ball. It's really iconic, and I think of this film whenever I hear Twist and Shout.

18. Groundhog Day (1993)

Song: I Got You Babe
Artist: Sonny & Cher

Harold Ramis' film about a man who relives the same day over and over and over again (literally) is one of my all-time favourites. As soon as Phil's (Bill Murray's) clock radio ticks over to 6:00 and I Got You Babe plays, we know as an audience that it is February 2 all over again. It's a clever way of denoting that Phil is still trapped in the time loop. This scene is hilarious, but also subtly scary, as you imagine yourself in the same dilemma.

17. Shame (2011)

Song: New York, New York
Artist: Liza Minnelli (covered by Carey Mulligan) 

This haunting rendition of New York, New York was shot in real time at 3 A.M., with cameras simultaneously focused on Mulligan, Fassbender and Dale. Fassbender and Dale had never heard Mulligan sing before, so their reactions are genuine. I especially love this scene because of the lighting. There's this golden hue that adds character to the whole scene. 

16.  Mary and Max (2009)

Song: Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)
Artist: Doris Day (covered by Pink Martini)

This film is testament to the fact that you can be immensely moved by lumps of clay. Mary and Max is my favourite animated film of all time. Here, Mary attempts suicide after falling out with her American pen pal, Max. This is a very loaded scene, as Mary is only eight years old. Is she successful in her attempt? Well, I implore you to watch the entire film. It's one of the most touching movies I've ever seen, and the screenplay is amazing. 

15. Reservoir Dogs (1992)

Song: Stuck in the Middle with You
Artist: Stealers Wheel

Mr. Blonde is one sick human being. He treats this cop as his plaything, but he doesn't want to be the traditional menacing bad guy. Instead, he puts on a song that gets the audience tapping their feet (effectively gaining our support), before slicing the cop's ear off. He even displays a sick sense of humour by talking to the severed ear, then asking the cop "Did you hear that?"

14. High Fidelity (2000)

Song: Baby, I Love Your Way
Artist: Peter Frampton (covered by Lisa Bonet)

In Nick Hornby's novel High Fidelity (this film's source material; also my favourite novel), Rob hears this song and remarks "I'm in tears, and the feel-nothing world that I've been living in for the last few days has vanished." While John Cusack doesn't break out in tears in this scene, he is obviously mesmerised and moved by Bonet's rendition of the Frampton classic. She hits all the right notes, and it almost feels as though Rob has blocked out the whole world, devoting his whole consciousness to hearing Bonet sing. 

13. Harold and Maude (1971)

Song: Trouble
Artist: Cat Stevens

This unconventional love story is criminally underrated. For those not familiar with the film, Bud Cort plays a young adult who falls in love with a 79 year-old woman (Ruth Gordon). The film works because the relationship is treated with respect. We are not positioned to view the relationship as 'disgusting' or 'disturbing'. Harold and Maude click when they're together, and this scene exemplifies how much Harold cares for Maude. Note: Cat Stevens provided nine songs to the film's soundtrack. 

12. 50/50 (2011)

Song: Crying
Artist: Roy Orbison

In this almost poetic scene, Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Kyle (Seth Rogen) destroy one of Adam's ex-girlfriend's paintings. Adam has been diagnosed with cancer at the age of 27, so this scene not only embodies the catharsis of forgetting a past lover, but also goes to show that there are fun times to be had even if you have a debilitating disease such as cancer, which is the film's main point. 

11. The Deer Hunter (1978)

Song: Can't Take My Eyes Off You
Artist: Frankie Valli (covered by...must I list them all?)

I can't find a clip of this scene that allows embedding, so you can click on the link below.

A young Christopher Walken grooving to the song in a red flannelette shirt is not the only reason this scene works. The first act of this film makes for light-hearted viewing, as we see a close-knit group of friends bond before three of them go to serve in the Vietnam War. When the film is over, we look back at a scene like this  with fondness, and ponder whether this moment remains in the characters' memories, or whether it's been erased by the horrors of war. 

10. Say Anything... (1989)

Song: In Your Eyes
Artist: Peter Gabriel


Here's a scene that always pops up when the conversation diverts to classic moments in teen films. The fact of the matter is, we don't see this type of romantic earnestness in today's films. Indeed, Emma Stone's character in Easy A laments that we don't see such gestures of love anymore, wishing John Cusack would serenade her with a boombox. 

9. A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Song: Singin' in the Rain
Artist: Gene Kelly (covered by Malcolm McDowell)

Can you imagine how confronting this scene would have been back in 1971? Heck, it's still controversial by today's standards! Singin' in the Rain is a song associated with happiness and freedom, but here the song is subverted as Alex and his droogs break into the home of a writer and his wife, committing physical assault and rape (the rape is not shown in this clip). It becomes a sinister victory song, as Alex and his gang frolic in this dystopian society. 

8. Boogie Nights (1997)

Songs: Sister Christian; Jessie's Girl
Artists: Night Ranger; Rick Springfield

I could not include this scene without acknowledging both songs. This scene combines hilarity and suspense in a way that few other films have mastered. You'll never see a drug deal scene quite like this. What really makes this scene is the presence of Cosmo—the kid who lets off firecrackers FOR NO PARTICULAR REASON. So much comic tension in this scene. The reactions of Wahlberg, Reilly and Jane are priceless, and Molina's performance as Rahad is brilliant. 

7. Drive (2011)

Song: A Real Hero
Artist: College (feat. Electric Youth) 

Director Nicolas Winding Refn chose this song for the film because he conceptualised Drive as a fairytale. The Driver (Ryan Gosling) kills 'villains' in the film; villains that are modelled on crooks from 1980s films. And yet The Driver is merely a human being, not unlike you and I. He doesn't say a lot, and he keeps an almost apathetic demeanour throughout the film. He's just an ordinary guy who adopts extraordinary responsibilities. I love how the film ends in ambiguity. The Driver drives off into the night, and we do not know what mission he will undertake next. Do yourself a favour and listen to the whole soundtrack (and watch the film if you haven't already).

6. American Psycho (2000)

Song: Hip to Be Square
Artist: Huey Lewis and the News

This ranks among my favourite film monologues of all time. This scene is rather similar to the ear severing scene from Reservoir Dogs. The upbeat nature of the song distracts us from the horror that is unfolding before us. We get caught up in the song, and before we know it, Paul Allen is dead. After watching this scene, you'll never forget that the song is "not just about the pleasures of conformity and the importance of trends; it's also a personal statement about the band itself." 

5. Almost Famous (2000)

Song: Tiny Dancer
Artist: Elton John

You don't know how many times I've been on a crowded bus, hoping everyone would break out in song like this. You can tell how close the cast was in this film. They seem genuinely happy to be singing this song. It's a moment of bonding, and when Kate Hudson rests her head on Patrick Fugit's shoulder, I just melt. If you like music (you know, real music), you have to see this film.

4. Blue Velvet (1986)

Song: In Dreams
Artist: Roy Orbison

Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) is one of the most psychotic characters ever imagined in celluloid, so when he grabs hold of Kyle MacLachlan, gets up in his face, and whispers the lyrics of In Dreams to him, you are terrified. Look at how Hopper uses his fingers as he whispers the lyrics, and listen to how he vocalises the words " dreams". Truly haunting. 

3. Closer (2004)

Song: How Soon is Now?
Artist: The Smiths


The song plays very faintly in the background, but it's there. Larry (Clive Owen) deplores the way Alice (Natalie Portman) carries out her services. He wants Alice to show genuine feelings for him, but her job as a stripper does not allow this. Larry's pleas for intimacy fall on deaf ears, and when Morrissey belts out the line "I am human and I need to be loved," a fundamental truth of the human condition is crystallised. 

2. Mulholland Dr. (2001)

Song: Llorando (Spanish version of Roy Orbison's Crying)
Artist: Rebekah del Rio

This is arguably the most moving film scene I have ever had the pleasure of viewing. When you watch this scene, you forget you're watching a film. You surrender yourself to the film, realising that art has obscurely dissolved into reality. It's an odd sensation, and no words can really do it justice. I would pay a copious amount of money to watch this scene alone in a dark theatre. Del Rio did not know she was being recorded, which makes the scene even more remarkable. Right before this performance, a man on stage says "No hay banda," (There is no band) "But yet we hear a band." I can't really delve any deeper into this. Only David Lynch knows the true answers. 

1. Lost in Translation (2003)

Songs: Brass in Pocket; More Than This
Artists: The Pretenders (covered by Scarlett Johansson); Roxy Music (covered by Bill Murray)

This is it. My all-time favourite use of a song in any film. Well, technically, this scene encompasses two songs. First we see Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) do a cute little dance for Bob (Bill Murray). There's no eroticism attached to it. She simply values Bob—her confidant and only friend in a city where everyone's a stranger. Through the song, she asks for Bob's attention. She needs it. Her husband is more interested in his photography career (and his models) than he is in her. Then, Bob takes to the mic and dryly sings More Than This. His voice is tinged with the knowledge that this chance encounter in Tokyo is all he's got with Charlotte. They share a glance to tacitly acknowledge this fact. Later in the film, Charlotte says to Bob: "Let's never come here again because it would never be as much fun." An affecting scene from a beautiful film.

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