Pop music and Film, the best combination since Peanut Butter and Jelly. Every time a director combines cinema and music there’s the potential to achieve something greater than either medium can achieve on its own. And some truly transcendent moments in film have been born as a result of this pairing.
For this list, I wanted to focus on scenes rather than montages, which is a shame because music lends itself well to the latter. My sincerest apologies go out to The Graduate and The Karate Kid. I’m also talking strictly about pop music not scores or songs from movie musicals. So with that in mind, let’s jump in.
Music is typically thought of as a way to energize or add interest to a scene. But it can be equally effective when used for irony. Why else did the “Stuck in the Middle with You” scene from Reservoir Dogs become so iconic? But aside from that scene, I think this scene from Boogie Nights is the most memorable ironic use of music in film. It completely changed the way I think of “Jessie’s Girl” and I assume that millions of other viewers have had the same experience.
The juxtaposition of Rahad’s exuberant singing and Dirk’s anguish over the robbery is priceless.
This scene stands out because it lacks the non-stop kinetic energy that fuels the rest of the film. It’s simplicity elevates the tension and it makes the violent climax of the scene feel all the more chaotic.
This scene is without a doubt the most inventive use of diegetic music (music that comes from a source within the film like a boom box or car radio) I’ve ever seen. The character’s movements are perfectly timed with the music, which the characters are totally unaware of. But that’s not what makes this scene so brilliant.
This song’s presence in the scene actually puts it’s characters in danger, by attracting zombies to their hiding place. This not only raises the stakes, but it adds layers another remarkable layer of comedy to the scene. David frantically trying to shut off the jukebox, as Shaun, Nick, and Liz whack the zombie to the beat of the song is an ingenious moment of comedy.
Martin Scorsese’s filmography has more memorable music moments than any other director’s. From “Be My Baby” in Mean Streets to “Layla (Piano Exit)” in Goodfellas to “I’m Shipping Up To Boston” in The Departed, Pop music is an integral component of Scorsese’s cinematic style.
Legendary composer, Bernard Hermann’s unforgettable score is responsible for most of the memorable music moments in Taxi Driver, but this scene’s use of “Late for the Sky” is nothing short of brilliant. Scorsese turns a simple scene of Travis watching television into a hypnotic portrait of the character’s loneliness. As we watch the young couples dancing to “Late for the Sky” on television, we can’t can help but feel as alienated as Travis.
Plus, I could watch that perfectly-timed shot of Travis aiming his gun at screen as the song’s opening riff rings out a million times. It’s just so damn cool.
Martin Scorcese famously designated Wes Anderson as “the next Scorsese”. And if Wes has inherited one trait from his predecessor, it’s his knack for effortlessly weaving pop music into his films. Music is intrinsic to Anderson’s aesthetic. Each of his films has a handful of dazzling music moments. “These Days” in The Royal Tennenbaums, “Let Her Dance” in The Fantastic Mr. Fox, and “Queen Bitch” in The Life Aquatic come to mind. I could’ve easily made this list by simply plucking Anderson music moments from a hat.
But my personal favorite is the closing scene of Rushmore, that’s perfectly scored to “Ooh La La” by Faces. Rushmore in many ways feels like it was directed by it’s protagonist, the precocious overachiever Max Fischer. And the soundtrack is no exception. Each song sounds like it was hand picked by Max, in an attempt to communicate his slightly aggrandized view of the film’s plot to the audience. Nowhere is this more evident than in the film’s finale where Max actually requests that the DJ play this wistful Faces tune. The entire Heaven and Hell Cotillion sequence is the icing on the cake of Rushmore, but this scene is the cherry on top.
It’d be a bit of a stretch to say that Before Sunrise is the best movie ever made about love, but I think it’s safe to say that Before Sunrise is the best movie ever made about falling in love. And if I had to pick one scene to support that statement, it’d be the listening booth scene. It’s ironic that my favorite scene from such a dialogue-heavy film has no dialogue whatsoever. But, it’s just that good.
This scene is so simple, yet so brilliantly crafted. Firstly, you have the song, a little-known acoustic folk ballad that the film popularized. It’s a simple, gentle tune with an undeniable purity and a poignant sense of longing. Secondly, there’s the handheld camerawork which is so subtle that you may not even notice it. But it adds a “fly on the wall” feeling to the scene that makes it feel that much more natural. But the performances are what really makes this scene so perfect. Their chemistry just oozes off the screen.
You can just watch these two actor’s faces and understand exactly what they’re feeling, which is best described as a mixture of infatuation and uncertainty. It’s an emotion I’ve felt dozens of times in real life, but I’ve never seen it put onscreen so honestly. Linklater knows that one beautiful song and two brilliant performances can say more than even the most well-written dialogue can. And that’s why it lands here at number one.
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