Movie Tunes: The Top 40 music moments in film history
There’s nothing better for someone who’s a fan of both music and movies to sit down in a theater, watch a film, and find yourself in awe of how the director has utilized a pop song to set a scene or convey a mood. It’s easy to know that you need a romantic song for a romantic moment, but finding the right song…? That’s the hard bit, and it gets even harder as you have to provide the proper sonic backdrop for just about every key moment in the film. Bullz-Eye polled all of our movie and music writers (and then some) to get their favorite uses of pop songs in movies.
The only real criteria we set was this: The song couldn’t have been written specifically for the film or have made its debut on the film’s soundtrack. This was pretty rough on us at first, because it meant we had to say so long to Simple Minds’ “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” (“The Breakfast Club”), bid bye-bye to O.M.D.’s “If You Leave” (“Pretty in Pink”), and offer a fond farewell to Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work” (“She’s Having a Baby”).
Fortunately, we had a lot of great songs – and movie moments – waiting in the wings. But be advised: our descriptions contain spoilers galore.
“Cuban Pete,” Desi Arnaz – The Mask
I don’t have the stats handy, but I’d guess that precious few police standoffs have been averted as a result of the perpetrator launching headlong in an enthusiastic rendition of a Desi Arnaz number. Frankly, though, I didn’t even know “Cuban Pete” was a Desi Arnaz song until I researched it after seeing “The Mask” for the first time. Jim Carrey was still building himself a motion picture career at the time the film premiered; I don’t know if you could prove that it was his performance in this particular scene which propelled him into mega-stardom, but it was certainly strong enough for me to buy the CD single they released for this track. The song veers from its “rhumba beat” into a rather jazzy finale, but it’s still sufficiently dance-inspiring to cause Lieutenant Mitch Kellaway (Peter Riegert) to threaten his assistant, “If you start dancing, I’ll blow your brains out.” Oh, come on, you big spoilsport, and join the conga line already! In a scene which requires considerable suspension of belief, the most amazing thing is that the studio was convinced that no one would like the scene and wanted to cut it. Thank God for test audiences, eh? – Will Harris
“The Promise,” When In Rome – Napoleon Dynamite
You either love or hate the movie. Any time it’s on, no matter what time of the day or night, it stays on…and no matter how tired I am, I still watch at least 20 minutes because I think it’s true genius. If you embraced the film and endured Uncle Rico, the time machine, and Pedro’s impending loss in his campaign for class president, only to be rescued by the dancing prowess of one "Napoleon Dynamite," then when the closing scene arrives – set to this terrific ‘80s one-hit wonder – you can’t help but cheer. As the credits roll, Napoleon and Deb seem destined for a great relationship in which he can draw her a bunch of Ligers and she can take his glamour shots. – R. David Smola
“I Think I See the Light,” Cat Stevens – Harold and Maude
Perhaps the greatest cult movie of all time. The soundtrack is by Cat Stevens, and it perfectly matches the feelings of Harold (Bud Cort), who’s obsessed with faking his own death in attempts to shock his rich mother, who has no real interest in his personal life. Throughout the film, Mom is constantly trying to hook Harold up with other rich women through a dating service. During one scene, Harold’s mother is interviewing one such prospect in front of a picture window while our hero goes outside wrapped in a sheet, douses himself with gasoline, and then lights himself ablaze. The mother sees none of this, while the poor girl sees every last detail and runs screaming from the room. Next thing you know, Harold walks in, gets a scolding, and breaks the fourth wall by looking straight at the camera and smiles as this tune kicks in. It’s classic, it kills, and I’ve yet to see a cooler use of this technique in any other film. – Jason Thompson
“Cruel to Be Kind,” Letters To Cleo – 10 Things I Hate About You
Originally written by Nick Lowe and Ian Gomm while the pair were members of the pub rock band Brinsley Schwarz (but first released on Lowe’s 1979 album, Labour of Lust), it’s always been one of my favorites. This version first shows up at 1:05 into the movie; Kat (Julia Stiles) uses this as an impetus to tell Patrick (Heath Ledger) that she could start a band, foreshadowing the movie’s ending. The song plays for 10 seconds or so, and on the old car’s radio, it’s tinny and hard to hear. (It was established earlier that this is Kat’s favorite band.) Later, at the prom, Letters to Cleo joins the prom band – Save Ferris – onstage; Patrick confesses to arranging it, vocalist Kay Hanley bops right up to the pair while singing, Kat visibly melts, and Patrick becomes The Man. Moral of the story: You can get the smart, sardonic Seattle chick if you know the band. – Mike Connolly
“Closer,” Nine Inch Nails – Se7en
When I popped in the DVD of “Se7en” to refresh myself with the film’s usage of Trent Reznor’s composition, I was legitimately surprised to find that it didn’t actually begin with it; there are, in fact, four minutes of screen time preceding the song’s appearance. The thing is, the film’s opening credits – over which the harsh, thumping industrial beat of “Closer to God” plays – are so damned creepy and set the tone of the 123 minutes that follow that it never occurred to me that they weren’t the first thing in the movie. The quickly-cut close-up shots of an unidentified individual (later revealed to be our man “John Doe,” a.k.a. Kevin Spacey) filling journals with miniscule handwriting, blacking out lines in books, going through photos of various medical experiments, and – worst of all – using a razor blade to remove his fingerprints will make you shudder. Reznor’s music does most of the talking. In fact, he only sings one line at the very end of the credits: “You get me closer to God.” Uh, actually, it’s about as far away from heaven as you can imagine. If you’d had any idea that this would be the most comfortable you’d feel for the next two hours, you would’ve walked out of the theater right then and there. – WH
“Across 110th Street,” Bobby Womack – Jackie Brown
This song was actually the title cut for a 1972 film starring Anthony Quinn, Yaphet Kotto and Anthony Franciosa; it’s arguably a blaxploitation film, but with a cast like that, you won’t be surprised to learn that it rises above the genre in which it’s often placed. Appropriately, Quentin Tarantino’s tribute to the same genre rose above the expectations of many. For a segment in which precious little happens, it’s amazing how well the opening credits of “Jackie Brown” provide the audience with all they need to embrace the film’s title character. I mean, seriously, we get nothing but a shot of airline stewardess Jackie Brown (Pam Grier) standing on a moving sidewalk for almost two solid minutes…and, yet, we see the determination in her face from the first moment she’s on the screen. As Jackie strides through the airport, her steps getting faster and faster as she attempts to get to her gate, Bobby Womack’s soulful vocals provide the perfect background music. The song concludes as Grier speaks her first dialogue: “Buenos dias; welcome aboard.” Oh, baby, we’re already on board. – WH
“Beth,” Kiss – Beautiful Girls
Small-town snowplow driver Paul Kirkwood (Michael Rapaport) is not a good boyfriend. He’s got the face of a thug, yet believes he’s entitled to date supermodels. He requires an ultimatum before he’ll propose to his girlfriend of seven years. Even then, he does so with foul language…and a brown diamond. And when he thinks he might be losing his girl Jan (Martha Plimpton) to the local meat cutter (“He cuts meat!” “You plow snow!”), Paul childishly uses his plow to pack snow halfway up her garage door, forcing her to dig her way out...every time it snows. But when he goes too far, and breaks Jan’s heart with an ill-advised attempt to make her jealous, Paul realizes that he really doesn’t want to live without her – if only it’s not too late. As the big lug takes his plow and scrapes every last flake of snow from Jan’s driveway, openly weeping to the sappiest Kiss tune ever recorded…we learn there’s hope for everyone. – Deb Medsker
“I Say a Little Prayer,” Dionne Warwick – My Best Friend’s Wedding
There comes a time in every self-respecting person’s life when they find themselves involved in something SO crazy that they say, ”What the hell am I doing?” Unfortunately, Julianne “Jules” Potter (Julia Roberts), a 27-year-old NYC restaurant critic, takes forever to get to that point in “My Best Friend’s Wedding.” After totally freaking when her long-time best friend and one-time boyfriend Michael O'Neal (Dermot Mulroney) calls and announces that he’s getting married in four days, Jules instantly decides to break them up by any means necessary. She gets a little crazy, but she really hits the heights of her lunacy during the wedding party’s rehearsal lunch, bringing her decidedly gay editor George (Rupert Everett), and having him pretend to be her fiancée. Determined to embarrass Jules for her bad behavior, George breaks into “I Say a Little Prayer” in the midst of describing their courtship…and before you know it, the table, the other restaurant guests, and even the staff join in. (Yes, you’ll find yourself beginning to sway along with the music yourself.) It’s such an over-the-top moment that you have to think Jules will come to her senses, but she doesn’t…well, not yet, anyway. The film ends with a reprise of the song and Jules dancing not with Michael but with George. Not much of a romantic future to be had with that pairing…but, as George reminds Jules, “Maybe there won't be marriage, maybe there won't be sex…but, by God, there'll be dancing!” That’ll do nicely. – Jennifer Harris
“Sweet Emotion,” Aerosmith – Dazed and Confused
What better way to open a story about teenagers in the ‘70s than with the greatest bass line of all time? As the harmonies start, we are treated with a fantastic shot of a yellow muscle car, complete with red pinstripes and a black top, as it cruises a high school parking lot. The opening montage is brilliant because it introduces many of the main characters at once – the potheads behind the school smoking a joint, the senior girls readying their hazing supplies, the geeks playing cards in study hall, and a football player in shop class, drilling holes in a wooden paddle, which he’ll later use to give “licks” to incoming freshmen. In the nostalgic two-minute intro, director Richard Linklater is able to set the table beautifully without a single character saying a word; wisely, he gave that job to Steven Tyler and the boys. (review) – John Paulsen
“Oh Yeah,” Yello – Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
“Bueller…? Bueller…? Bueller…?” Although the song’s been used in commercials as well as several films, including “The Secret of My Success” and, most recently, the Tom Arnold classic “Soul Plane” (yes, that’s sarcasm), it will always be most closely affiliated with Matthew Broderick’s shit-eating grin as he demonstrates how to ditch a day of high school and have a great time in the beautiful city of Chicago, with the help of his co-star, Wrigley Field. Yello, by the way, consists of two Swiss dudes named Dieter “Touch My Monkey” Meier and Boris Blank; this is their signature tune…and even with 12 albums to their name, it’s the only song of theirs most people even know…and it’s from a great film. You can’t hear that “Duh, duh, chick, chicka-chicka – oh, yeahhhhhhhh” and not think of Ben Stein and the gang. (review) – RDS