Whether it be from symphonies in the theater, or from a recording studio in someones closet, music has been an integral part of film for decades. Composers like Hans Zimmer and John Williams are famous for creating beautiful soundscapes that flow through scenes and pull emotion from the audience with a few well-placed notes. But sometimes an original tune isn’t necessary because the perfect song has already been recorded. While scores can fade into the background, the use of modern music often stands out and gets noticed, while connecting to the audience through a familiar tune.
This week’s release of We Are Your Friends has us thinking about the standout musical placement we’ve seen in movies past. Focused on an aspiring DJ, the movie revolves around the relationship we have with music, and its power over us. Great popular music has been used in movies for decades (or at least since Easy Rider in 1969), but we’ll be focusing on music from films released in the last twenty years that stood out for us (otherwise we’ll never get out of the ’80s!). The songs had to be written independently of the movie and have characters visible onscreen as it plays. With that in mind, here is Screen Rant’s list of 10 Great Pop Music Movie Moments.
“Don’t Stop Me Now” by Queen – Shaun of the Dead (2004)
Shaun of the dead did a lot of things right, and had all the appropriate zombie movie tropes: shuffling undead, makeshift weapons, someone in the group infected but hiding it. But it also added a new one: FUN! This is a flick chock full of carnage, full of witty asides and quick stabs of humor.
When Shaun (played by Pegg) and the gang find themselves trapped in a local pub by a wave of undead, they do their best to be as inconspicuous as possible, until the jukebox kicks in with Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now.” Made aware of their location, the zombies break in to their hideout, forcing the gang to use their environment (and its pool cues) to deal with the situation, perfectly in time to the song, while the two characters not participating in the beating bop to its beat.
The audience is swept along by Freddie Mercury’s vocal booms as the team fights for their lives, and if you’re really paying attention, you’ll notice the fire extinguisher is activated right as Mercury belts out how he’s about to explode.
“Canned Heat” by Jamiroquai – Napoleon Dynamite (2004)
Adding the perfect amount of disco (and something Wikipedia refers to as “funk/acid jazz”) Jamiroquai’s “Canned Heat” is the perfect little ditty to dance to, or at least Napoleon Dynamite (Jon Heder) thinks so.
Starting off slowly, Napoleon finds the groove easily, and his dance moves become more intricate with every passing beat. Unimpressed, the absurdity of the situation is lost on the members of the audience as they stare blankly ahead at the intricacy of Dynamite’s routine. He has somersault skills, voguing skills, and moonwalking skills; so if girls truly “only want boyfriends who have great skills”, then Napoleon Dynamite shouldn’t have a hard time convincing finding a prom date.
You might not like the song, but you’ll miss it when it’s gone. After it cuts out before the end of his routine, Napoleon pauses before awkwardly running off stage, ruining any credibility he just gained for himself. Gosh!
“Don’t Think” by The Chemical Brothers – Black Swan (2010)
Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan is a tale of two ballerinas… sort of.
Goody two shoes Nina (Natalie Portman) is a hard-working ballet dancer who slowly loses her marbles as she trains for her role in Swan Lake. In one immersive scene, Nina the alcohol lightweight goes out with her dancer friend Lily (Mila Kunis) for a night on the town to shake off stress from the grueling rehearsals. This night out includes alcohol, strobe lights and a lot of sweaty bodies. This is the night Nina starts to lose it, hallucinating on the dance floor while The Chemical Brothers’ choppy “Don’t Think” keeps pace with the quick cuts of the scene, she falls deeper into madness with every flash of the strobe light.
“Tiny Dancer” Elton John – Almost Famous (2000)
After Stillwater’s lead singer Russell (Billy Crudup) nearly quits the band to move in with a clan of suburban teenagers, the climate inside the tour bus is chilly when he returns. Thankfully the animosity doesn’t last very long, thanks to Sir Elton John and his “Tiny Dancer.”
In perhaps the most recognizable sequence from 2000’s Almost Famous, the cast (one by one, at first) start to sing along with the song playing from the bus’ speakers. As soon as Jason Lee’s brooding brow unfurls and his character smiles, the family is officially reunited, the matter behind them. Every passenger (and likely, every audience member) then joins the choir. The scene introduced “Tiny Dancer” to a whole new generation.
“Firework” by Katy Perry – The Interview (2014)
A budding “bromance” blossoms in The Interview with help from Katy Perry’s Firework.
While on location in North Korea, television host Dave Skylark (James Franco) spends some quality time with Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un (Randall Park) while on assignment to interview the secretive leader. In the midst of surveying Kim’s vast collection of vehicles, the pair hop into the president’s crown jewel: a tank carrying live rounds. Fumbling around inside, Skylark presses play on Kim’s iPod and the two share a tense moment in which Kim becomes embarrassed about his taste in music. But the two bond over their mutual appreciation for Katy Perry’s “Firework” as it turns out that Skylark is a big fan.
Apprehensive about him at first, the supreme leader opens up to Skylark as they talk about Kety Perry, margaritas, and other things that some people might think are “gay.” Then, the two men turn up “Firework” and go joyriding in the tank, explosions timed with the music as they fire rounds, grinning from ear to ear.
“Panama” by Van Halen – Superbad (2007)
Out for a night of debauchery with two preposterously irresponsible cops (Bill Hader, Seth Rogen), turbo-nerd Fogell (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) impresses them enough they agree to refer to him using the name on his (fake) I.D: McLovin, cementing his legitimacy in their reckless crew.
Superbad punctuates the approval with the instantly recognizable Van Halen rock epic, “Panama.” Inspired to write the tune after watching some car racing in Vegas, David Lee Roth penned the lyrics with high speed automobile antics in mind, and Hader delivers some of his own before spinning out of control while doing donuts. (Insert your own favorite cop/donut joke here!)
Teenagers drive cars like jackasses in mall parking lots across the nation (and quickly grow out of it – we hope) but this idiotic duo insist on re-living their glory days, which is only made more pathetic by the presence of an actual high-school student. A band known for being over-the-top, Van Halen provide the perfect soundtrack for these bad decisions.
“Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap” by AC/DC – Bridesmaids (2011)
Forced to keep a lid on her contempt toward a fellow bridesmaid (Rose Byrne) for most of the movie, Annie (Kristen Wiig) gets an opportunity to take some real shots at her nemesis during a “friendly” game of tennis. Bon Scott screams and growls overhead, offering his services for “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap,” while Annie knocks ball after slow-mo ball into Helen’s chest.
Nothing seems to go Annie’s way in Bridesmaids, but this is one of the few scenes in which she gets the better of Helen, a perpetual smarm-factory. It’s fitting, then, that this AC/DC canticle about getting even underscores the tension as these two bridesmaids take it to the court for a passive-aggressive battle of the wills.
“Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” by Kenny Rogers and the First Edition – The Big Lebowski (1998)
The Coen brothers have a style of their own when it comes to film, and The Big Lebowski is no exception. When the Dude (Jeff Bridges) is drugged, he passes out and dances his way through this eccentric dream sequence set to “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” by Kenny Rogers and the First Edition.
Bridges boogies down the never-ending staircase toward dancers wearing bowling pin-headdresses and Maude (Julianne Moore), a recent acquaintance clad in her finest viking costume. The expansive shots show off a dreamlike aesthetic, including a lit-up staircase and checkerboard floor and some giant bowling alleys.
“Come and Get Your Love” Redbone – Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
The funkiest bass line on the list is courtesy of Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love,” playing through the retro headphones of Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) as he dances to Awesome Mix Vol. 1.
Having fun despite his gloomy surroundings, Peter, aka “Starlord,” bops and twirls while his leather coat (the REAL star of the scene) follows suit. Kicking tiny space critters to the beat and occasionally using them as microphone stand-ins, Pratt dances to his destination while the audience takes in the stunning CGI environment.
Guardians of the Galaxy has a noteworthy soundtrack that includes The Jackson Five, David Bowie and The Runaways. The songs are used to pull elements of the character’s past into the story, done consciously by director and writer James Gunn to remind the audience that Quill is “a real person from planet earth, just like you and me”… except with better dance moves.
“Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” Paul Simon – The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
Pretending to be diagnosed with cancer is a terrible thing to do to your family, but that’s exactly what Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) does. In a bid to prevent his tenuous family relations from drying up, he uses his fake illness to manipulate his children (and in this particular scene, grandchildren) and ex-wife into spending time with him in 2001’s The Royal Tenenbaums.
Overprotected by their father (and his son), Royal is worried his grandsons Ari (Grant Rosenmeyer) and Uzi (Jonah Meyerson) are missing out on key childhood experiences. Together for the day, the three gentlemen run into oncoming traffic, shoplift from the corner store, run on the pool deck and gamble.
Paul Simon’s “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” is so flowery and upbeat, it erases any trace of malice in Royal’s plan and reveals his true motivations as something pretty innocent: he just wants someone to hang out with.
The honorable mentions:
Tron: Legacy boasts an original score composed by Daft Punk, with the occasional nod to the music of the 1982. “Derezzed,” which plays during a fight scene in Zuse’s End of Line Club, is a highlight.
In Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, the bands literally use music to battle each other. Against exes 5 and 6 (the Katayanagi Twins) Pilgrim’s band, Sex Bob-omb, are the ultimate victors thanks to “Threshold,” which was actually written by Beck.
Quentin Tarantino doesn’t mess around when it comes to music and is notorious for the classic tunes layered throughout his flicks. Kill Bill Vol. 1 uses the opening titles as an opportunity for the audience to breathe. A simple opening credit sequence heavy with the haze of a drowsy guitar playing the opening notes of Nancy Sinatra’s “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)” will be all it takes to convince viewers to keep watching.
Clearly this list has only begun to scratch the surface of amazing musical moments, and everyone has their favorites. What are yours? Tell us about them in the comments below.