Filmmakers used music to augment the art of cinema even before movies had talking characters. As movies and music grew together, the role of music in reinforcing the emotional impact of a film or even a specific scene became more nuanced, and more prominent. These days, original movie soundtracks are among some of the most famous and most loved music in the world.
But sometimes, for clever filmmakers, the perfect music for a scene doesn’t need to be written. Sometimes the right song for the scene has already been written, and only needs to be found. Perhaps lesser known, perhaps past its heyday, but perfect for a moment nonetheless. With this list we’re remembering some of the most inspired choice tracks of music that accompanied iconic movie scenes and became famous through that selection.
Songs written specifically for the movie in question don’t count; these must have been written before their iconic movie associations. With that in mind, here are 17 Songs You Wouldn’t Know If You Hadn’t Heard Them In A Movie First.
17 “PRUIT IGOE" AND "PROPHECIES” – WATCHMEN
We could probably do a whole list of songs made extra famous by Zack Snyder movies. Perhaps his best soundtrack pics for Watchmen were the otherworldly orchestral meditations by Philip Glass for the sequence where Dr. Manhattan takes his leave of Earth. These two pieces were actually written for an 1982 film by Godfrey Reggio called Koyaanisqatsi.
The two songs work so well for the 2009 movie overall that they even scored the first half of the second trailer for the film. But in the Dr. Manhattan sequence on Mars, their full dramatic weight underlines the profound perspective of viewing time and the universe in their entirety. “Prophecies” plays during the quieter, more introspective moments in John’s past and “Pruit Igoe” plays during the more ominous, awe-inspiring episodes with Dr. Manhattan and his power. The entire sequence intercuts the two tracks and the two moods of Dr. Manhattan’s reflections, revealing how he got to where he is now and how he’s become so detached.
16 “NON, JE NE REGRETTE RIEN” – INCEPTION
Conducting espionage and dealing in corporate secrets and intrigue through dreams is pretty involved business. One of the many ways Cob and his team keep their operations running smoothly is with a musical que to warn of the kick to wake them from dreams. But what music do they use? “Non, Je ne regrette rien”, sung by Edith Piaf in 1959.
Like so many of the elements from Inception, the song choice takes on more and more significance the more your think about it. Here are just a few points: that now memetic BWONG that punctuates the film’s soundtrack is actually a slowed down version of the opening bars of the track at normal speed. The song itself is about wiping away memories, good and bad, and starting again, which perfectly describes Cob’s arc in the movie. Also, the song plays over the end of the credits, just like the characters using the song to signal the end of a dream.
15 “ARMY OF ME.” - SUCKER PUNCH
Just like he did with Watchmen, Zack Snyder brought plenty of lesser known songs into the spotlight for a while with his first original concept feature film Sucker Punch in 2011. Film critics and culture pundits may debate its message and how successfully it delivered it, but the dream sequences were filled with imaginatively staged action, each with a killer sound track.
Probably the most memorable of all was the first dream sequence in which Baby Doll fights the colossal samurai. The fight is set up in the club reality level with Carla Gugino playing Björk’s 1995 song “Army of Me” for Baby Doll to dance to. Then once the dream begins, it bookends the relentless tumult of the fight and Baby Doll’s discovery of her prowess. The restless percussion and frantic guitar riffs make Björk’s “Army of Me” a staple of fantastic fight music. Bonus points if you also remember the song from Tank Girl.
14 “I'M SHIPPING UP TO BOSTON” - THE DEPARTED
Martin Scorsese picked this 2005 Irish folk-punk-rock song by The Dropkick Murphy to be the theme song for The Departed in 2006. The song plays during two key moments of the film. The first is over the title card after a very long expository intro for the three main characters. We see DiCaprio’s Billy Costigan going into jail to build up his street cred so he can have an in with Jack Nicholson’s Frank Costello. In this scene, “I’m Shipping Up to Boston” really captures the distinctly Irish chaos of the setting and the pitch black absurdity of the characters’ situations.
The second time the track plays is right before the climactic shootout of the film, where Billy, Colin and Franks’ schemes are all about to come to fruition. This time the audience is in the know about Colin finally getting fed up with working for Frank. The raw chorus and frantic chords of the song perfectly mirror the audience’s suspense as the authorities prepare to bust Costello.
13 “OLD TIME ROCK AND ROLL” - RISKY BUSINESS
Tom Cruise knew how to show up every single teenager in America when it came to messing around the house while their parents were away. He did have to be coaxed into a few baby steps before hosting an orgy, though. Before he crossed paths with Rebecca De Mornay, Cruise was helping himself to Whiskey and Coke, uncooked frozen dinners and turning up his parents’ stereo. What’s the headline track of the night? Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock and Roll."
Dancing in his socks, tighty whities and a salmon button up shirt, Cruise solidified that 1983 movie moment and that song in popular culture. The funny thing is that a lot of the other music in the movie is the kind of period hip disco and synth rock that “Old Time Rock and Roll” is disparaging. Scenes like Cruise and De Mornay’s first night together, their scene on the train, and when her and his friends are rushing to fix the house all have the heady synth music while scenes where Cruise is more cocky have retro music. Might be something to that.
12 “MISIRLOU” - PULP FICTION
Rather like Tarantino’s films themselves, “Misirlou” has a long history of traditions and influences as a piece of music. The original version of the song is a traditional Mediterranean/Middle-Eastern dance song in a much more “exotic” key with a slower tempo.
In 1962 Dick Dale recorded a heavily accelerated surf rock version of the song with guitar and trumpet. This version also introduced the shouting. That's the one that plays over the opening credits of Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, getting the audience psyched up to the enjoy the colorful characters and frantic lives of Los Angeles’ criminal underworld. The hectic track makes a curious contrast with the slow crawl of the opening credits but there’s no question the song fits the engrossing action of the rest of the movie, especially with the cliffhanger of the diner holdup immediately preceding.
You may have also heard “Misirlou” in Rayman: Raving Rabbids or in Luc Besson’s Taxi. Also, the Black Eyed Peas heavily sampled the melody and distinctive vocals for their 2006 hit “Pump It!”
11 “HOOKED ON A FEELING” - GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY
What is it about this 1974 Blue Swede cover of Mark James’ 1968 “Hooked on a Feeling” that makes it so popular in other media? It may have been a number 1 hit in the States during the '70s but its cameos in popular culture have ensured that its popularity endures.
It features in Tarantino’s early film Reservoir Dogs, as another nostalgic track from the film’s in-universe radio station, juxtaposing the feel good music with the seedy characters and action. Ham-extraordinaire David Hasselhoff also did a cover of “Hooked on a Feeling” for an album of the same name he released in 1999.
And finally, once again in 2014, we have Guardians of the Galaxy to thank for bringing this infectious, easily sing-along song back into the limelight. It was one of Peter Quill’s favorite songs from his home on Earth before he was hurled through space and complements the Guardians’ plucky heroics perfectly. Ooga-Chaka!
10 "I'M GONNA BE" - BENNY AND JOON
One of those songs forever doomed to be remembered by its lyric rather than its actual title, but that’s only a testament to how memorable it is. The Proclaimers 1988 hit, “I’m Gonna Be (500 miles)” played over the opening credits of Jeremiah S. Chechik’s 1993 romantic comedy Benny and Joon; during the sequence we get understated introductions to Mary Stuart Masterson’s Juniper “Joon” and Johnny Depp’s Sam.
The song makes an appropriate score to go along with the characters’ restlessness and especially Johnny Depp’s silent-era comedy stylings. They don’t necessarily do what’s best for each other but the care and the determination to do right is there.
The film arguably may have fallen victim to Hollywood’s tendency to simplify or even glamorize mental health issues for entertainment, but there’s no doubt it cemented “I’m Gonna Be” in the popular lexicon as a song about going to great lengths for the ones you love.
9 "KISS ME" - SHE'S ALL THAT
There’s nothing like the perfect song to make a good second impression, or maybe third. We all saw the first impression most people got of Rachel Leigh Cook’s Laney Boggs in She’s All That. This Hollywood-frumpy, artsy-fartsy “dork”, seemed content to brush every one off while she did her own thing.
And then Freddie Prinze Jr. takes on a bet to make any random girl his buddy Paul Walker picks out Prom Queen with only 6 weeks until the big night. These two teens from two different cliques hit a few bumps in the road but they start to hang out. It’s when Prinze Jr.’s sister (Anna Paquin) gives Laney a stunning makeover that he starts to develop real feelings for her. The slow-mo and soundtrack “Kiss Me” by Sixpence Non the Richer perfectly captured the reveal. It was a hit debut track before the movie in 1997 but it’s remembered best today thanks to this 1999 romcom classic.
8 "KISS FROM A ROSE" - BATMAN FOREVER
Seal’s “Kiss From a Rose” didn’t do so hot when it first premiered in the UK in 1994, but it got a lot of recognition when Joel Schumacher included it in the Batman Forever Soundtrack. Most of the soundtrack during the actual film was orchestral, composed by Elliot Goldenthal, but there were a few choice pop tracks used to underline the themes and mood of the movie.
“Kiss From a Rose” Played over the closing credits, and heavily reflects the movie’s themes of obsession and the risks of dual identities. Val Kilmer’s Bruce Wayne/Batman and his relationship with Nicole Kidman’s Chase Meridian is the foremost example, especially with the melodramatic tones of both the song and their romance. Even though Seal’s track only appeared in the credits, Joel Schumacher himself directed a Batman Forever themed music video for the song, and it went on to win MTV and Grammy awards in 1996.
7 "NIGHTCALL" – DRIVE
“Nightcall” had a whole host of electro house talent in its production. Daft Punk’s Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo produced the track and electronic artist SebastiAn mixed it with Lovefoxxx as the lead singer. It was released in 2010 by Kavinsky.
Just a year later, director Nicolas Winding Refn secured the song to play over the opening credits for his Cannes Film Festival darling Drive. In the title scene, we’re introduced to Ryan Gosling’s unnamed driver as he makes his way to his humble home in the dead of night. The song is a perfect fit for the neon saturated neo-noir look of the film. The steady beat and synthesized vocals underscores the languid prospects of the Driver before the action of the film really gets going.
“Nightfall” was also used in a flashback scene in another 2011 thriller of the legal variety, The Lincoln Lawyer. Coincidentally, Bryan Cranston starred in both films.
6 “STUCK IN THE MIDDLE WITH YOU” - RESERVOIR DOGS
In perhaps Reservoir Dogs' most iconic scene, Michael Madsen’s character has a cop tied to a chair and helpless. As part of his twisted game, he turns on the radio to Super Sounds of the Seventies, to get his groove on. And it looks like he gets exactly the track he wanted: Stealers Wheel, “Stuck in the Middle With You”.
The already gagged and bloody cop can’t help but watch as Madsen shuffles, taps and sings along to the Dylanesque song, brandishing his straight razor. As the camera cuts away from Madsen slicing off the cop’s ear, the chorus blares, underlining the sadistic glee Madsen’s getting from his stuck victim.
One of the best touches with the soundtrack in Reservoir Dogs is how the songs fade in and out with the ambient environment and the action. “Stuck in the Middle With You” starts out playing from the radio set in the garage, but then swells to play over the scene like a regular soundtrack. It even cuts out and back in as Madsen exits and reenters with his lighter fluid, highlighting how stuck the cop is.
5 "SEND ME ON MY WAY" – MATILDA
This is a song that everyone remembers from a different movie. “Send Me on My Way” was first released by Rusted Root as single in 1995. The first movie it appeared in was actually Bryan Gordon’s Pie in the Sky, but it only gained pop culture staple status when it scored a quiet but pivotal scene in Danny DeVito’s Matilda in 1996.
Matilda’s neglectful parents leave her alone in the house with nothing ready to eat. So what does any super-brained four year old prodigy do? Make herself pancakes from scratch like a boss, that’s what. The song isn’t even in the movie itself for a full minute but it does go well with the scene. This moment marks Matilda beginning her journey of discovering, using and basically surviving on her powers. She is certainly on her way.
Other appearances of the song in movies have underscored more literal journeys, like the prehistoric journey in the first Ice Age movie.
4 "DOWN IN MEXICO" - DEATH PROOF
“He wears a red bandana, plays a blues pi-anna
(In a honky-tonk, down in Mexico)”
Here's yet another classic song given an iconic scene in cinema history by Quentin Tarantino. “Down in Mexico” was originally written by the lyricist and song writing duo Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. It was released by the band The Coasters on their title album 1956. It broke the top 10 chats for R&B for that year but only in 2007 did Tarantino use it to score a spectacular lap dance.
While celebrating their girlfriend’s birthday, Vanessa Ferlito and company announce over the radio that they’re offering a lap dance to anyone who can recite a certain poem, and Kurt Russel’s Stuntman Mike eagerly claims the prize. Ferlito sits him in a chair in front of the bar and turns up the juke box with the '70s rerecording of “Down in Mexico.” She’s got the crop top t-shirt and booty jeans going on as she mouths the words and undulates all over Russel. Too bad he returned such a glorious lap dance with such brutality.
3 "JUST DROPPED IN" - THE BIG LEBOWSKI
Ah, the Dude. The other Jeffrey Lebowski. During the course of his misadventure to deliver a ransom for The Big Lebowski’s wife, the Dude is drugged through his favorite cocktail, a White Russian. He descends into a bizarre dream sequence with its own animated title cards and everything.
Since this is the Dude, what else is the dream about but bowling and gorgeous women? The Big Lebowski’s daughter Maude, played by Julianne Moore, takes center stage as the leader of a troupe of chorus line dancers with supersized bowling pin caps. If the sexual suggestion of the Dude taking Maude’s hand to line up the shot wasn’t on the nose enough, he transforms into the ball and flies leisurely down the lane between the entire troupe’s spread legs.
Also, Saddam Hussein is handing out the bowling shoes.
And scoring all this madness? “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” by Kenny Rogers and the First Edition, all but detailing an LSD trip by name circa 1968.
2 "PAPER PLANES" - PINEAPPLE EXPRESS/SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE
“All I wanna do is BANG BANG BANG BANG, click-click, CHING, take your money!”
“Paper Planes” was one of those songs that was everywhere in popular media for a while. M.I.A recorded the song in 2007 and released it in February 2008. That very same summer, it was included in the trailer and soundtrack for Pineapple Express and the actual film for Slumdog Millionaire. You could argue that the leaked-deleted-officially released trailer for Pineapple Express made the song more famous than Slumdog did, but there are a few themes in both movies that the song speaks to.
Both movies and the song are about characters in dangerous settings trying to survive by hook or by crook. The slowbeat electronic pop chorus of the song works just as well for comedic effect in the Pineapple Express trailer as it does for the ironic theming of capitalism in the Slumdog Millionaire scene, where Jamal and Salim make meager livings off train passengers.
1 “NEW SLANG” – GARDEN STATE
Every Manic Pixie Dream Girl needs a moody, acoustic song with curious, angsty lyrics to introduce her. After flying home to New Jersey to attend his mother’s funeral, Zack Braff finds himself passively attending a drug party and getting blitzed. Fortunately his father had already booked him an appointment with a doctor for the next morning. And who does he meet there but Natalie Portman, an admitted though inexplicable pathological liar and epileptic.
She’s listening to The Shins with colossal headphones and insists that this one song will change Braff’s life while they wait. It’s “New Slang.” You could tell on Braff’s face how much he’s hooked, listening to the lyrics and watching Portman’s beaming face as she watches him listen. Garden State has kept a lot of its cult following since 2004. That popularity has carried over to its soundtrack as well, especially for “New Slang”, which was originally released by The Shins in 2001.
Were there any other songs that you remember first hearing in an iconic scene from a movie? Let us know in the comments!