It was Martin Scorsese that first cultivated the idea that popular music could add to storytelling the way a score or dialogue could not. These are the greatest musical moments in film and television containing the obvious and the unorthodox in no particular order. What you will also find omitted are the impromptu choreographed musical numbers from the 1980s. As amusing as some of those were (i.e. “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”), it didn’t help tell the story of the film (apologies to all the John Hughes fans).
“Almost Famous”-“Tangerine” by Led Zeppelin. Count on Cameron Crowe to deliver musically with an underrated Led Zeppelin song to transition the denouement of the film.
“The Departed”-“Comfortably Numb” by Pink Floyd. This song captured the tense, yet romantic desperation of the scene (on a rainy night no less). I can’t possibly think of a better choice.
“Goodfellas”-“Layla” by Derek and the Dominoes. The piano outro to “Layla” added a comforting subtlety to a montage of the police discovering the series of dead bodies of those involved in the airport heist.
“The Sopranos”-“Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey. The tense fashion in which David Chase chose to end an epic series made viewers feel optimistic and that everything was going to be ok, until the screen goes black and the viewer is forced to conjecture the end. (It’s there; you just have to think really hard. The hints are everywhere)
“Lost In Translation”-“Brass in Pocket” by the Pretenders. If you’re a guy who loves The Pretenders and Scarlett Johannsen, then I need say no more.
“Seinfeld”-“Morning Train” by Sheena Easton. This Sheena Easton song added side-splitting laughter to the scenes with Kramer “at work” and George Costanza’s job at Play Now.
“Boogie Nights”-“Sister Christian” by Night Ranger. One of the most intense scenes in recent memory. The nervous pressure is mounted and built around this song as three guys have just sold $5000 worth of fake drugs to a wacked out junkie with a gun.
“Zack & Miri Make a Porno”-“Hold Me Up” by Live. Who would have guessed a B-side from Live’s “Throwing Copper” record would have captured the emotion of, and made romantic, a sex scene being shot for a porno in a coffee shop. Only Kevin Smith could have pulled that off.
“True Romance”-“Outshined” by Soundgarden. A film that was almost ruined by really stupid steel drum island music throughout was saved by Soundgarden. This song signified Brad Pitt’s character as the hippie stoner getting a visit from hit man James Gandolfini.
“Pulp Fiction”-“Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon” by Urge Overkill. Getting locked into the drug culture can be frantic and out of control, which Quentin Tarantino captured masterfully in this scene.
“Apocalypse Now”-“The End” by The Doors. This haunting song from The Doors’ debut album opens the film along with a shot of an airstrike dropping napalm. You hear the lyrics “This is the end” in the opening scene of the film as a metaphor for what we became during the Vietnam War.
“Summer of Sam”-“Baba O’Riley” by The Who. This song played through a montage near the climax of the film containing flashes of the Son of Sam striking again and the punk rock scene in 1977 including CBGB on the corner of Bleeker and Bowery. It was a powerful sequence that captured the paranoia in NYC almost coming to a breaking point at the end of that summer.
“A Clockwork Orange”-“Singing in the Rain” by Gene Kelly. An uncharacteristically cheery song is sung by the lead character that adds a more demented nature to the scene containing a home invasion and brutal crime. Stanly Kubrick at his best.
“Jarhead”-“Something in the Way” by Nirvana. Sam Mendes captured loneliness, confusion, and the powerlessness in a situation his character could not control in some of the best lyrics Kurt Cobain ever wrote.
“Menace 2 Society”-“Dopeman” by N.W.A. This song was played in a well-put together sequence in the middle of the film depicting the lead character making crack cocaine.
“Chasing Amy”-“Stay” by Coal. If you want to see an emotional breakup scene, you aren’t going to find much better. The song itself is enough of an emotional rollercoaster, but add the scene from the film and you have a tear-jerker on your hands.
“SLC Punk!”-“Moonlight Sonata” by Ludwig Van Beethoven. An eerie composition accompanies an acid trip with visions of nuclear holocaust. Disturbing, yet highly effective.
“Collateral”-“Shadow of the Sun” by Audioslave. It’s no secret Michael Mann is a fan of Audioslave, but the tension in this scene in downtown Los Angeles (with a random fox crossing the street) is built by Tom Morello’s opening riff and Chris Cornell’s voice.
“Fast Times at Ridgemont High”-“Kashmir” by Led Zeppelin. Before going on a date with Stacey, Mark Ratner is given the infamous date advice: “When it comes to making out, don’t forget to put on side B of Led Zeppelin IV.”
“Dazed & Confused”-“Tuesday’s Gone” by Lynryd Skynyrd. A wonderful moment following conflict and the crowd realizing the keg is empty cues this Lynyrd Skynyrd classic.
“Spies Like Us”-“Soulfinger” by The Barkays. The song, which was made more popular by “Superbad,” made its first film appearance in “Spies Like Us.” In one of the funniest moments in the film, Dan Akroyd’s character recognizes the song playing in the remote mountains of Russia in the distance and Chevy Chase replies; “They must have trouble getting gigs.”
“Say Anything”-“In Your Eyes” by Peter Gabriel. Once again, Cameron Crowe. John Cusack’s character holding up the boom box because the song says more than he ever could. This would never actually get the girl in real life, but one of the most memorable scenes set to music ever made.
“Jackie Brown”-“Didn’t I Blow Your Mind This Time” by The Delfonics. This Delfonics song was awkwardly placed in Tarantino’s adaption of “Rum Punch” and became forever linked to the film. It is so relatable because what guy hasn’t had a single or album that reminded him of a girl?
“Platoon”-“Adagio with Strings” performed by the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. As Francis Ford Coppola did in “Apocalypse Now,” Oliver Stone’s film conveyed that we not only fought an enemy in Vietnam, we fought ourselves. “Adagio” played several times throughout the film, but most notably the ending sequence showing the view of the damage from the night before by helicopter with Charlie Sheen’s voice-over.
“The Naked Gun”- “Something Tells Me I’m Into Something Good” by Herman’s Hermits. This song is featured as a musical montage to accompany the beginning of Frank and Jane’s romance. This was a hilarious scene that depicted Frank and Jane holding hands running through the surf, then clothes lining another couple doing the same thing. It also shows them coming out of a movie theater laughing themselves to tears after watching “Platoon.”
“Twin Peaks”-Original music by Angelo Badalamenti. Every episode in this TV series by David Lynch was perfectly timed to the same score from Angelo Badalamenti. Every character movement and every piece of dialogue fell in synch with a chord change in the music. The music truly moved the story, the tense emotion, and even the quirkiness of every episode.
“Into The Wild-“”Guaranteed” by Eddie Vedder. “On bended knee is no way to be free” is a great beginning to a song written for a film about escaping society and finding the freedom in the Alaskan wilderness.
“Closer”-“The Blower’s Daughter” by Damien Rice. This was the best possible way to introduce one of the most interesting, yet hopelessly romantic characters in recent memory. The image of Natalie Portman’s character walking along the street in slow motion accompanied by this song is incredible.
“Natural Born Killers”-“Bombtrack” by Rage Against the Machine. There is no better way to incite a riot than with the punch and power of Rage Against the Machine. The first attack of the song is timed perfectly to a cop getting smashed in the face with a shotgun. All hell breaks loose from there.
“Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle”-“Hold On” by Wilson Phillips. Brotherhood camaraderie at its best set to one of the cheesiest songs ever written. It was nothing less than pure Brilliance.
“American Psycho”-“Hip To Be Square” by Huey Lewis & the News. A truly disturbing scene in which a music aficionado, while explaining the artistic nature of Huey Lewis & the News, splits open a house guest’s head with an axe. The choice of song adds a “black comedy” aura to the scene.
“Deliverance”-“Dueling Banjos” by traditional. This traditional bluegrass classic sets an overtone for the entire film that makes some people get chills over thirty years later if they hear that song. Not only do people still get chills, they are as scared of going to West Virginia after this film as some people are to get in the ocean after seeing “Jaws.”
“Leaving Las Vegas”-“My One and Only Love” by Sting. The song in movie, beautifully performed by Sting, sets the tone for what is a self-loathing character that accidentally finds what can ultimately save his life, yet pushes away.
“Dead Presidents”-“Still in Love With You” by Al Green. Featured in a powerful scene depicting the peace in death the drug addicted character could not find in life.
“Boyz In Tha Hood”-“O-o-o Child” by The Five Stairsteps. This song serves as an omen to the coming loss of innocence in the lead character’s life.
“Eurotrip”-“Scotty Doesn’t Know” by Lustra. Not only is the joke of the movie, the song creeps in as many scenes as possible; even as a techno-trash remix in Eastern Europe.
“SLC Punk!”-“Kiss Me Deadly” by Generation X. This track by Generation X comes at a point near the end of the film when the lead character realizes the starting point of what became his present life and the first time he gave punk rock a chance instead of only listening to Rush.
“The Virgin Suicides”-“The Air That We Breathe” by The Hollies. Ominously establishes the setting in time of a family tragedy. The song itself sounds an inner yearning that also sets the tone for the mood of the young boys and was a great song until Radiohead ripped it off to make “Creep.”
“Elizabethtown”-“Freebird” by Lynryd Skynyrd. Cameron Crowe has often created fictional bands in his films such as Citizen Dick, Stillwater, and in this film Ruckus. The scene is Ruckus covering “Freebird” as a tribute song at a funeral.
“Silence of the Lambs”-“American Girl” by Tom Petty. A young girl soon to be kidnapped and held in captivity experiences her last few moments of normalcy to the sounds of Tom Petty.
“Big Fish”-“Man of the Hour” by Pearl Jam. A poignant and fitting closing song about a father and son’s relationship is the perfect closer for Tim Burton’s best film to date.
“Stranger Than Fiction”-“Whole Wide World” by Wreckless Eric. Punk rock can set a soul free just as a perfect moment with the perfect woman can.
“Natural Born Killers”-“Something I Can Never Have” by Nine Inch Nails. When pondering the lasting power of a relationship, this song’s meaning comes through as it did for the 2 lead characters in this film.
“Almost Famous”-“Tiny Dancer” by Elton John. This song is played in the scene on the tour bus when the fictional band, Stillwater, finds that music can transcend personal differences.
“Jersey Girl”- “My City of Ruins” by Bruce Springsteen. The song, from Bruce Springsteen’s album “The Rising,” helps director Kevin Smith view and feel the mood of Ben Affleck’s character at his crossroads and lowest emotional point.
“Wayne’s World”- “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen. If there was an award or Oscar for “best group lip-synching” then it would forever be dubbed the “Bohemian Rhapsody” award. This song plays when there are 5 people driving along in the Mirth-mobile (the blue Ford Pinto with flames) on the way to the Gasworks to see Crucial Taunt and the Shitty Beatles.
“Entourage”-“Going to California” by Led Zeppelin. All of the characters from this show had their ups and downs throughout its 8 seasons on HBO. What better way to sum up every character going out on a high note by essentially leaving California to each pursue their own dreams than inserting this Led Zeppelin classic. It takes the characters full circle from moving to California to chase their dreams and end up leaving California to further them.
“Pretty in Pink”- “If You Leave” by OMD. This song is nothing less than a synth-pop classic. This pick is for you, ladies.
“Stand By Me”-“Stand By Me” by Ben E. King. When watching the film, it’s obvious the title song is coming at some point. It hits at the most opportune time possible; when the narrator has his final look back at his fallen friend. R.I.P River Phoenix.
“The Wizard of Oz”- “Over the Rainbow” performed by Judy Garland. No explanation needed. If you haven’t seen this, then you have been locked in a Red Chinese prison for the past 80 years.
“The Three Amigos”-“My Little Buttercup” performed by Chevy Chase, Steve Martin, & Martin Short. What a way to lighten the mood in a rough and tough Mexican bar than to entertain with a song and dance. The Mexican bartender finishing one line of the song makes the whole scene.
“The Basketball Diaries”- “Down by the Water” by PJ Harvey. As meaningful as Jim Carroll’s original songs were in the film, they didn’t have the impact of the moment of PJ Harvey’s first line “I lost my heart.” This song is played at a moment when the lead character played by Leonardo DiCaprio loses his virginity and tries cocaine in the same night which was one of starting points to a life than spun out of control.
“Risky Business”- “Old Time Rock & Roll” by Bob Seger. In this cheesy scene that featured a young Tom Cruise dancing on his couch in his underwear, the director, through pure cheese, captured the feeling of “mom and dad are away” in the eyes of a teenager. For those ladies that complain that women are objectified, this scene is an example of that being a two-way street.
“We Bought a Zoo”-“Hunger Strike” by Temple of the Dog. In a film about how an unbelievable amount of courage can inspire people to be the best they can be, “Hunger Strike” a song that was born from inner-loss and conflict, is played in a scene that depicts the lead character at highest point of conflict in his inspirational experiment; running out of money.
“Office Space”- “Damn it Feels Good to be a Gangsta” by The Geto Boys. The lead character, Peter, walks into his office on a mission to do things his own way from that moment forth, in slow motion no less. It is an absolute requirement to laugh at that scene.
“South Park”- “I Remember You” by Skid Row. In season 11 of “South Park,” Trey Parker and Matt Stone did something many people had been waiting on to happen. They pointed out the utter stupidity of Guitar Hero and Rock Band video games. The episode entitled “Guitar Queer-o” features this Skid Row song in a scene after the Guitar Hero “band” breaks up and Stan Marsh finds himself performing solo in a bowling alley.
“Fast Times at Ridgemont High”- “Moving in Stereo” by The Cars. Phoebe Cates exits the pool in what has become a timeless and brilliant moment that reminds everyone of the awkward horniness of adolescence.
“Reservoir Dogs”- “Stuck in the Middle” by Stealer’s Wheel. This song is an odd and cheery choice for a sadistic torture scene in which a police officer loses and ear and is almost burned alive for fun.
“Rocky Balboa”- “Gonna Fly Now (Theme from Rocky)” by Bill Conti. In the last film in the Rocky series following an emotional speech about how winning is done, Rocky begins training. As many times as an audience has seen Rocky run across the city and up the stairs of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, none were more meaningful than the final time. The scene is helped by being beautifully shot in the snow.
“Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas-” “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane. “Throw the tape machine in the tub when White Rabbit peaks” is what Hunter S Thompson’s lawyer asks in a weird, yet funny scene that depicts a horrible attempt at suicide while on an acid binge.
“Ghost”-“Unchained Melody” by The Righteous Brothers. Find me a woman that says this scene isn’t one of the most romantic scenes from a movie ever shot and I’ll show you a woman that hasn’t seen the film.
“The Newsroom”-“High & Dry” by Radiohead. As brilliantly written as this show’s dialogue in the first season was, it also contained an unexpected high musical moment at the close of the season’s second episode. The song played over a montage of the lead character learning what it is to take to high moral ground, thus re-inventing himself and his career as a newscaster. He learns to ‘be the integrity’ that he wants to see from his staff and their work.
“Friends”- “Yellow Ledbetter” by Pearl Jam. A Pearl Jam B-side, ultimately about saying goodbye, served as a musical accompaniment to the final conflict of the writing arc of Ross & Rachel that lasted throughout all 10 seasons of the series.
“The Wackness”- “Around the Way Girl” by LL Cool J. This song was only featured in the very first cut of the film and didn’t make the theatrical release. However, if you can find the original version of the film, this song is played introducing the audience to a rooftop part in Manhattan in the summer of 1994. In the theatrical release this song is replaced by another song that doesn’t do the same job of setting the mood for the scene. Not since “Singles” has a soundtrack captured the mood of a city in a certain point in time. What “Singles” said about Seattle, WA in 1992, “The Wackness” says it as well about New York City in 1994.
“Planes, Trains, & Automobiles”- “Mess Around” by Ray Charles. As brilliant as John Candy’s annoying, sloppy, but loveable character was, the scene in the car when he sang and “air-played” every instrument in the song all while Steve Martin was asleep in the passenger seat gave the audience a great indication of what this character probably does on a day when nobody else is around.
“Empire Records-” “Sugar High” by The Coyote Shivers. Before Renee Zellweger was an Oscar winner, she was a beautiful young girl with a throaty, yet perky singing voice that sealed this scene as a top musical moment when she takes the microphone.
“40-Year-Old Virgin”- “Jump on tha D” by Trick Daddy. As Steve Carrel’s character is getting a clinic on peripheral vision, this subject-matter appropriate songs bumps in the background of the nightclub. And it’s $9 beer night.
“Casino”- “Love Is Strange” by Mickey and Sylvia. Although this song is also featured in “Dirty Dancing,” it was Martin Scorcese’s way of helping capture the initial fascination of Robert DeNiro’s character the first time he lays eyes on the wrong girl, the girl of his dreams.
“Full Metal Jacket”- “The Mickey Mouse Theme Song” by Walt Disney. This song, placed at the closing scene of the film, is an out of place, yet eerie, rendition of a group of soldiers singing it in unison after literally going through a day of hell. It puts an awkwardly positive spin on an impossible situation.
“Fear”-“Comedown” by Bush. There is always a high point in a story before loves goes sour. This song captured that mood perfectly in a scene in the middle of the film shot on a rollercoaster.
“The Exorcist”-“Tubular Bells”. Never has a more haunting melody ever been written, and never will.