Inside Llewyn Davis, the new film from wunderkind filmmaker siblings Joel and Ethan Coen, is defined in part by artistic struggle, personal grief, and a bleak, wintry backdrop. It’s also overflowing with outstanding music on the title character’s journey to gig his way from the Big Apple to Chicago; as the picture unfolds, leading man Oscar Isaac regales us with a soulful repertoire of classic folk tunes.
The soundtrack is so good that it got us thinking about great musical performances in other movies. Inside Llewyn Davis isn’t a musical, per se, so you won’t find any Broadway adaptations here, but that still leaves a number of films with wonderful music cues, from teen comedies to biopics.
So without further ado, here are our ten favorite music numbers in movies that aren’t musicals:
Imagine this: you’ve traveled back in time to ensure your parents fall in love and preserve your own existence. The linchpin of your plan is their 1955 high school dance. What else, then, do you do when your future is on the line but tear up the stage playing Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B Goode”?
That’s exactly what Marty McFly does in Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future. Of course, nobody knows who Berry is when Marty introduces the song, thus making our hero the real “genius” behind the rock legend’s most memorable number. But hey, who’s keeping track?
Zemeckis almost cut this sequence from Back to the Future entirely, but positive test reactions convinced him to keep it. Smart move; it’s one of the best in the entire film.
How can anyone watch the members of Stillwater belt out “Tiny Dancer” in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous (arguably his best film to date) and not crack a smile? What starts out as an awkward, taciturn moment of unspoken frustrations turns into the movie’s most important lesson on the unifying power of music.
Before Elton John’s voice starts filling the air, the attitude aboard this bus can be described as sullen, silent, and generally peevish; nobody’s happy with anybody. But before long, everybody’s walls have come down; grievances are forgotten as they joyfully add their voices to Elton’s.
It’s a perfect reminder of how easily a single song can bring people together.
Sid Vicious, the late, great, erstwhile bass player for seminal English punk rock band The Sex Pistols, really did do things his way, so it’s only fitting that the man chose to write a cover version of Paul Anka’s “My Way” (popularized, of course, by Frank Sinatra) in 1978.
Which made it just as appropriate for filmmaker Alex Cox to essentially do a cover of the cover in his 1986 biopic on Vicious and girlfriend Nancy Spungen, Sid and Nancy. Cox and his star, Gary Oldman, recreated the video for the song (down to the ultimately censored violence) to anarchic perfection.
The rest of the film is a gut punch, heartbreaking and moving in equal measure, but this sequence (a foreshadow of the movie’s tragic ending) could be its most evocative.
Generally, it’s hard to go wrong with David Bowie; the one exception would be when he kidnaps your baby brother in the dead of night and holds him hostage in a castle full of goblins. Such is the plight of Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) in Jim Henson’s Labyrinth.
Sounds pretty grim, but Jareth, king of the goblins (Bowie), has a decent streak in him: he gives Sarah thirteen hours to get through the eponymous maze, and in the meantime, he and his subjects do a halfway decent job of babysitting little Toby, singing “Magic Dance” together to cheer up the little tyke.
None of this makes their aims any less nefarious, but at least they’re conscientious villains.
An open-casket funeral presided over by singer Jim James and indie rock band Calexico sounds strange enough on paper; on film, it’s almost downright surreal. But the setting is what makes “Goin’ to Acapulco” the most off-beat entry on this list.
That said, the film it’s part of is pretty unorthodox, too. Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There, an ostensible biopic about Bob Dylan, uses many non-traditional flourishes, including a fractured narrative, to tell its story, and cast six different actors (including Richard Gere, Christian Bale, and, most notably, Cate Blanchett) to portray Dylan at various points in his life.
When James shows up during Gere’s segment, crooning this “Basement Tapes” ditty in full face make-up, it leaves a lasting impression, to say the least.
Few people know how to turn out a party better than Ferris Bueller, everyone’s favorite 1980s teen truant. If Ferris Bueller’s Day Off demonstrates anything, it’s that the guy can’t help but be the center of attention wherever he goes; he’s a magnet for excitement.
Maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration, though, since he tends to incite good times on his own. He doesn’t need fun to find him, he just makes it. That’s what defines Ferris – his undeniable cult of personality.
Case in point: when the Von Steuben Day parade wanders into Ferris’ path, he takes the opportunity to lead revelers in a chorus of the Beatles’ “Twist and Shout”. What can you say? The kid has an inherent knack for seizing the day.
Like Almost Famous, the final number of Christopher Guest’s folk mockumentary A Mighty Wind is all about music drawing people together. In this case, the people are folk musicians uniting for a memorial concert, but given that this is a Guest film, not everything goes as smoothly as intended.
Much of A Mighty Wind is spent getting to know the musicians – The Folksmen, Mitch and Mickey, and The New Main Street Singers – before the film’s climactic performance. They’re a quirky bunch; some of them worship color, while others, like Mitch, are victims of their own neuroses.
But when everyone gets on stage to play “A Mighty Wind” as one, all of their oddities fade into song. It’s a heartfelt note to a movie defined by the ravages of failure.
It’s hard to remember a time when Heath Ledger wasn’t defined by his iconic turn as the Joker in 2008’s The Dark Knight, but before he played the Clown Prince, before he starred in Brokeback Mountain, and even before he met Chaucer in A Knight’s Tale, Ledger played Patrick, the male lead in the Shakespearean adaptation 10 Things I Hate About You.
This is the role that helped Ledger break out into the mainstream, and for all of its many delights (the film holds up well even today), his gutsy musical entreaty to Julia Stile’s Kat remains its hallmark scene, even though his motives aren’t totally pure.
Portraying a real person is enough of a challenge without the added task of mimicking their musical talents to boot, so the acting world probably still hasn’t forgiven Joaquin Phoenix for making it look so easy in 2005’s Walk the Line.
Whether he’s playing a song or just being Johnny Cash, Phoenix nails the man’s every tick; he more or less melts into the role, becoming almost indistinguishable from the person he’s embodying. It’s an impressive turn from a gifted actor in a film littered with great music.
Arguably, “Folsom Prison Blues” is the cornerstone moment of the picture, but if you’ve got a soft spot for “Ring of Fire” and “Jackson,” Walk the Line‘s final scene is probably more to your liking. That said, you can’t really go wrong either way.
If this last pick feels a bit coy, it still feels right: the Coens aren’t strangers to pulling off musical numbers in their films, and in that regard, O Brother, Where Art Thou? feels like something of a spiritual cousin to Inside Llewyn Davis.
But music is used differently in both films. Here, it’s a cover for Everett (George Clooney), Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson), and Pete (John Turturro), as they’re on the run from the law after breaking out of prison; posing as folk musicians seems like a decent enough way to throw off the scent, so to speak.
It doesn’t totally work in the end, but since it leads to a fantastic impromptu performance from the self-styled Soggy Bottom Boys, it’s all worthwhile regardless.
This list could honestly have gone on for another ten entries (and maybe another ten after that); there are far more movies out there that hinge on strong musicianship than you might realize, and no two of them look the same. Films like Ray and The Doors, or non-Broadway musicals like The Muppet Movie and Once (yes, Once is now a Broadway musical, but in 2009 it was its own thing), all have a powerful musical pulse running through them. (To say nothing of seasonal hits like Elf.)
So let us know in the comments what your favorite musical non-musical movies are, and make sure to check out Inside Llewyn Davis once it begins its theatrical run.
Inside Llewyn Davis opens in theaters on December 20th, 2013.