As pop culture’s main counterparts, music and film share a long-lasting and passionate love affair. A lot of movies have built their reputation on their use of music and, respectively, many music artists were broadly popularized thanks to the movie that featured their song.
For many filmmakers, the process of choosing the right music is an inseparable factor of their filmmaking method. Before starting writing a film, before even having an idea for a film, Quentin Tarantino — distinguished for his skillful use of music — always goes through his record collection in search of the right vibes. Likewise, for a great deal of iconic American directors like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, and Stanley Kubrick, music has always played a vital role in their filmmaking.
Music can really transform a cinematic sequence into a compelling experience. When used correctly, it can intertwine so tightly with a film that it makes it impossible to listen to it out of context, without replaying the scene in your mind. A strong musical moment in a film is one of the most cinematic things a director can achieve.
Here are 15 examples of films with creatively placed licensed music that made for incredibly compelling scenes (for best uses of incidental/diegetic music in movies, checkout the fellow Screen Rant list here).
15. KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE / CHURCH MASSACRE / LYNYRD SKYNYRD – FREEBIRD
Matthew Vaughn has been regularly accused of using violence for violence’s sake, a criticism not entirely unjustified when you take into account his über-stylized bloodshed often lacks any redemptive element. He is, however, a visual master when it comes to violent aesthetics, incredibly creative in conceptualizing complex and choreographically demanding sequences. His latest effort Kingsman: The Secret Service is a shining example of filmic action done right.
There’s an easy pick for this film, since there’s one scene that everybody was talking about, despite loving or hating the film: the church massacre. Amid a church service, Samuel Jackson’s villainous Richmond Valentine puts his evil plan to the test inside a church, by triggering the most primitively aggressive instincts in people via the millions of hacked SIM cards he previously gave away. What follows is a sequence so extravagant in its execution that needs to be seen to be believed, with an amusingly raging Colin Firth going absolutely bananas. Fittingly soundtracked by the lengthy bombastic electric guitar solo from southern rock legends Lynyrd Skynyrd’s track Free Bird, the scene is a cinematic achievement on its own.
14. DOWN BY LAW / OPENING TRAVELLING / TOM WAITS – JOCKEY FULL OF BOURBON
Jim Jarmusch is probably the last great American independent filmmaker and one of the few who stayed true to his underground origins in a 35-year spanning career. Jarmusch’s intimate, small-scale tales of crooks and misfits is told through a dizzily-paced, mesmerizing narrative that earned him a signature directorial style. With this film, Jarmusch redefined cinematic “cool.” Those characteristics were largely established in his 1986 comedy Down By Law, one of his best films, and definitely his funniest.
For the opening scene, Jarmusch picked “Jockey Full Of Bourbon,” a song by his friend and regular collaborator Tom Waits (who also stars in the film), to set the mood for scenes to come. The camera’s moody travel through the streets of Louisiana is ideally captured by Robby Müller’s wonderful black-and-white cinematograph. Accompanied by Waits’ atmospheric guitar work and lyrical storytelling, Down By Law‘s opening scene gave us an exquisite card postal of archetypical Americana.
13. GANGS OF NEW YORK / NATIVES VS. DEAD RABBITS / PETER GABRIEL – SIGNAL TO NOISE
Gangs of New York’s opening scene takes place in the mid-19th century Five Points neighborhood in New York, which was wonderfully reconstructed inside the legendary Italian Cinecitta Studios for Scorsese’s film. This setting is the scene of the savage hand-to-hand combat between the two prevailing gangs of the time, Bill the Butcher’s The Natives and Priest Vallon’s Dead Rabbits, properly setting up the highly violent tone of the film.
Along with Howard Shore’s imposing score, Martin Scorsese’s dream project was bound together with a versatile soundtrack, a medley of contemporary world music and folk songs of the era. For this particular scene, Scorsese chose an intense track from ex-Genesis frontman Peter Gabriel, who also composed the award-winning score for Scorsese’s controversial masterpiece The Last Temptation of Christ. “Signal to Noise’s” electric pulse (used here in its instrumental version) effectively punctuates the blood-soaked insanity of the scene. The rapid editing and visual stylization combine with the music selection and result in one of the of the most brutal and graphic fight sequences ever filmed.
12. DONNIE DARKO / FINALE / GARY JULES – MAD WORLD
Donnie Darko is one of the most respected and celebrated film debuts ever. Drawing from the suburban fantasy flicks he grew up with, Richard Kelly managed to create an incredibly original, complex, and personal film by equally incorporating fundamental adolescent issues and sophisticated sci-fi themes. His title character, Donnie, is a gifted, but troubled teenager who is dictated to commit a series of crimes by his imaginary giant rabbit friend. Soon he will discover that his visions are far from coincidental and will grasp the unique opportunity he has to influence the lives of those around him for the better.
The film’s all-star 1980s soundtrack, featuring Duran Duran, Tears For Fears, The Church, and Joy Division helped set the right tone by beautifully accompanying Kelly’s artful tableaus, but it was the combination of its deeply emotional denouement with Gary Jules’s cover of Tears For Fears’ “Mad World” that really stood out. Donnie’s ultimate sacrifice finds every character safely in their beds, reflecting on their lives, and Gary Jules’ hit found its way to the top of the UK billboards as a result.
11. SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER / OPENING CREDITS / BEE GEES – STAYIN’ ALIVE
“Well you can tell by the way I use my walk…”
You may be cool, but you’re not “John Travolta strutting through downtown in his flares, in a vulgar display of ’70s machismo” cool. Saturday Night Fever opens to the Bee Gees hit “Stayin’ Alive,” a rather perfect introduction to its main character Tony Manero, a Brooklyn youngster whose harsh reality is utterly sidelined when he’s on the dance floor.
Although undeniably kitschy in retrospect, Saturday Night Fever is a culturally significant portrayal of the disco subculture of the late 1970s. Presenting dancing as the perfect escapist art, it boosted the disco genre worldwide with its groovy soundtrack, one of the most popular and best-selling ever. It also made a star out of John Travolta. The film, combined with Grease, granted Travolta a period of stardom before he fell into obscurity a few years later. His star status fully resurrected in the ’90s by Quentin Tarantino, in a role that cleverly pays tribute to Tony Manero, Pulp Fiction’s Vincent Vega.
10. KILL BILL VOL. 2 / THE BRIDE PUNCHES HER WAY OUT OF THE COFFIN / ENNIO MORICCONE – L’ ARENA
From his debut Reservoir Dogs to last year’s The Hateful Eight, every Tarantino movie is a masterclass of how to use music in film. Either by adding tons of style, or by being a narrative element itself, Tarantino makes music a vital component in his filmmaking. He helped popularize dozens of forgotten songs and niche artists, with his film soundtracks consistently selling thousands of copies worldwide.
His Kill Bill duology features some of his most recognizable song ensembles and is packed tight with memorable music moments. In one of Vol. 2’s highlights, Bill’s brother Budd buries the Bride alive inside a sealed wooden coffin. Despite the initial shock, she gathers her strengths and uses Pai Mei’s teachings to punch her way out. Uma Thurman’s compelling performance combined with Tarantino’s choice to insert the track “L’ Arena,” from his all-time favorite composer Ennio Morricone, elevated the scene to exhilarating levels that can make even the most reserved of viewers cheer in pure joy.
9. APOCALYPSE NOW / HELICOPTER RAID / RICHARD WAGNER – RIDE OF THE VALKYRIES
Memorably described by Coppola himself as “not about Vietnam, it is Vietnam,” Apocalypse Now remains an unprecedented anti-war masterpiece, almost four decades after its release. While Spielberg focused on the physical pain of war with his masterful Saving Private Ryan, Coppola concentrated on the mental agony of it, creating perhaps the film to best describe war’s maddening effects on man.
In one of the most memorable and disturbing sequences of the film, a flock of helicopters raids a Vietnamese village, causing great loss of civilian lives. Coppola’s ingenious choice to connect it with Richard Wagner’s “The Ride of the Valkyries,” the high point of his The Ring of the Nibelung classic opera, made it a seminal moment in cinematic history. The sequence encompasses all the insanity and hopelessness of war. Nearly four decades later, this scene is so deeply carved into our collective subconscious that it’s impossible to separate the music from the image.
8. WATCHMEN / OPENING CREDITS / BOB DYLAN – THE TIMES THEY ARE A-CHANGIN’
He may be one of the most controversial directors of our time, with legions of devoted fans and sworn haters, but nobody can deny the fact that Zack Snyder is an eminent film stylist. His cinematic style has been hugely influential in modern Hollywood. His ability to create incredible visual moments in his films has provided us with a series of mini pop culture-jammed masterpieces, where music always plays a definitive part.
Featuring an all-star soundtrack with the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Simon & Garfunkel, Leonard Cohen, Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, and Nat King Cole, his Watchmen adaptation is literally filled with such moments. For example: the unforgettable, eye-popping film introduction. It’s a masterful slow-motion recap of a century of superhero alternative history, featuring references to iconic events such as the Soviet atomic bomb project, the burning monk, JFK’s assassination, the Kent State shootings ,and Apollo 11’s moon landing. And it’s all fittingly narrated by Bob Dylan’s substantial sociological anthem The Times They Are a-Changin’.
7. MELANCHOLIA / OPENING / RICHARD WAGNER – TRISTAN AND ISOLDE
Lars Von Trier’s version of science fiction came about as a profound and sobering comment upon the futility of human existence. Probably his best film to date, Melancholia is an intense emotional thrill-ride that centers on the rough relationship between two sisters during the last remaining days before a giant planet crashes into Earth.
Trier’s cinematic style is easily distinguishable by natural-lit, hand-held camerawork and the almost complete absence of music. His techniques originate in the “Dogma 95” movement, an experimental filmmaking movement he founded with fellow Danish director Thomas Vinterberg that banned all the use of special effects and technology in cinema. Luckily for film viewers, he broke every aspect of his vow to the Dogma Manifesto with Melancholia’s opening sequence, an array of ultra-slow motioned, stunningly composed, gorgeously art-directed shots. Flooded in Wagner’s wistful chants, the scene foreshadows in an ominous and surreal way the events to come.
6. ZABRISKIE POINT / VILLA EXPLOSION / PINK FLOYD – COME IN NUMBER 51, YOUR TIME IS UP
Michelangelo Antonioni’s cult classic Zabriskie Point is a resonant message against the consumerism that has overwhelmed modern society. A true brainchild of the counterculture generation that emerged in the late 1960s, driven by the illusive aspiration of peacefully changing the world. The film portrays the liberating, but doomed love affair of two youngsters who find their way from the riotous student movements to the isolation of the Californian desert, before being separated forever.
In the film’s famous finale, a luxurious resort is exploded inside the heroine’s mind’s eye, as the ultimate act of deliverance from materialism. Expensive furniture, electronic devices, clothes, books, food, are all blown to smithereens in front of our eyes in a compelling sequence. The sequence was shot by no less than 17 cameras running in ultra slow-motion and accompanied by the hallucinatory musical fusions of “Come In Number 51, Your Time Is Up,” from the psych rock pioneers Pink Floyd. The conclusion is a powerful cinematic scene and a purifying moment of self awareness and redemption.
5. FIGHT CLUB / FINAL SCENE / PIXIES – WHERE IS MY MIND
A man who just went through a rollercoaster of agony and psychosis can finally comfort his woman, insisting that he’s recovered and everything will be alright. He holds her hand tight. In front of them, a whole row of skyscrapers is leveled to the ground like sandcastles. Just before we cut to black, an erect member interjects in the scene, a final blink of the film’s twisted humour. The rest is cinema history.
David Fincher’s Fight Club is one of those generation defining films that occur once in a decade. It’s a sharp, provocative, and utterly rude sociological reflection in the wake of the 21st century. The film works on literally every level and is ideally concluded in the aforementioned scene, with The Pixies’ “Where Is Mind?” perfectly illustrating its mind-bending nature. The scene also features one the most recognizable ending quotes ever: “You met me at a very strange time in my life.”
4. THE MATRIX / NEO’S PHONE SPEECH / RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE – WAKE UP
It was no less than seventeen years ago that everybody was asking “What is the Matrix?” and the Wachowskis were changing the course of cinematic history. The Matrix exploded like a bomb amongst the orders of cinephiles and movie buffs and became the new object of fandom worship. It’s a movie that combined so many elements together– Japanese manga and Asian martial arts, Orwellian dystopias and superhero mythology, world theology and Ancient Greek philosophy– and yet remained so focused and coherent in its realization.
Complementing Don Davis’ outstanding score, the film featured an awesome collection of licensed music, a mishmash of some of the best late 1990s samples of alternative metal, industrial rock, and electronica. There are so many memorable scenes with terrific use of music in the movie, but if one really stands out it is the fantastic finale, where Neo leaves his last message through a public phone, foretelling the coming revolution. There could be no better music choice to succeed the scene than Rage Against The Machine’s rousing track “Wake Up,” a straightforward nod to the illusion of living inside the Matrix. And as if all this wasn’t cool enough, Neo hangs up the phone, puts on his sunglasses and bows out. Flying.
3. DRIVE / DRIVER SPOTS NINO / KATYNA RANIERI – OH MY LOVE
Nicolas Winding Refn’s neon masterpiece Drive is a seminar in cinematic aesthetics. A 1980s inspired neo-noir thriller, Drive is a superbly shot with the seductive craftsmanship of a provocative auteur. Its silent anti-hero, a part-mechanic, part-stuntman, part-getaway driver dressed in an unforgettably fetishistic scorpion jacket, instantly became a fascinating cult figure.
An essential component to the film’s artistic success, Cliff Martinez’s haunting score and a selection of 1980s nostalgia songs (Kavinsky’s hit “Night Call” among them) played out as the perfect companion to the Driver’s rides into the Californian night. It was however Refn’s choice to use Riz Ortolani’s operatic song “Oh My Love”, heartily performed by Italian singer and actress Katyna Ranieri, that produced the film’s most enchanted scene. The scene depicts the moment when the Driver spots the mobster Nino, who murdered the Driver’s day-job boss, and pursues him, plunging him into a darkness from which he can never return.
2. THE FALL / OPENING CREDITS / BEETHOVEN – SYMPHONY NO. 7 IN A MAJOR
In The Fall’s vague, slow-motioned opening credits sequence, we see men running and shouting on a train bridge, looking down at the river below them. There’s a cowboy, an old-fashioned stereotype of a Native American, a young couple sitting on a table, and a washed up piece of leg armor with a pierced arrow. All eyes are on the water. The men bring a railway crane and start pulling. To the audience’s surprise what emerges from the river is a dead horse.
A true visual genius with rampant imagination, Tarsem Singh’s glaring talent is unfortunately being wasted of late in mediocre Hollywood fantasies. A decade ago however, he delivered a cinematic gem so gorgeous-looking that it is rightfully ranked amongst the most beautiful movies ever filmed. In The Fall, an injured stuntman recounts a mythical tale of five diverse heroes to a fellow hospital patient– a young Hispanic girl. The hyperrealistic opening (which will be explained later in the film), shot in stunning black-and-white in contrast to the rest of the film’s vibrant color palette and filled with Beethoven’s cathartic melodies, is one of the most striking scenes in recent memory.
1. 2001: THE SPACE ODYSSEY / SPACE STATION / JOHANN STRAUSS – BLUE DANUBE
2001: A Space Odyssey is a trailblazing vision of mankind’s evolution and its inevitable destiny in space. A perfectionist to an almost psychotic extent, Stanley Kubrick realized his cosmic epic with meticulously crafted wide-angled shots and thoughtful conceptualization. Kubrick flawlessly balanced between form and function in composing a film so massively influential, so repeatedly referenced, and thoroughly analyzed that it changed the way we perceive cinema– and even art in general. This remarkable film functions as both a sci-fi thriller and a contemplative art film.
As the man-ape’s bone is being transformed into a space vessel and we’re being introduced to the space station, the film’s striking imagery and magical optical effects (decades before the invasion of CGI) successfully infuse the viewer with the ethereal feeling of floating in space. This monumental moment, which is genially emphasized by Johann Strauss’ dreamy waltz “Blue Danube,” signifies science fiction’s coming-of-age as a cinematic genre.