The Most Definitive Music Cues in Film History


There’s a terrific little movie coming out tomorrow called London Boulevard (it’s available now on demand as well), a tough British gangster flick along the lines of The Long Good Friday or Mona Lisa, starring Colin Farrell and Keira Knightley and directed by William Monahan, who wrote The Departed. But his stylish direction and their charismatic performances aren’t why I can’t get the picture out of my head. It’s because of the Yardbirds.

Three times in the film (the opening credits, the closing credits, and a key point in-between), Monahan fires up “Heart Full of Soul,” the marvelously moody blues-rocker from 1965. It’s a great song, but it’s so well-matched to the film that they’re now all tied up together in my head; it’s pretty safe to bet that any time I hear that song from now on (which, being a Yardbirds fan, will be more often than you’d think), there will be an image of Farrell on his jail cot to accompany it.

And that’s the power of a well-chosen music cue in film; when they’re properly matched, we’ve suddenly married them, and anytime we hear that song we see that scene, and anytime we think of that movie, we hear that song. After the jump, we present ten songs that are forever tied to the movies that showcased them (and, just to keep it fair, there’s no songs from “musicals,” and no songs that were composed specifically for the film in question). Agree, disagree, and add your own in the comments.

“Stuck in the Middle with You” by Steelers Wheel in Reservoir Dogs

As Steven Wright’s K-BILLY deejay puts it, this “Dylanesque bubble-gum pop favorite” was a mostly forgotten tune when Quentin Tarantino employed it for perhaps the most disturbing single sequence in his electrifying 1992 debut, Reservoir Dogs. That scene finds psychopath Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen) cranking up the “Super Sounds of the ‘70s weekend” on a nearby radio as he tortures a kidnapped police officer for information, going so far as to slice off the cop’s ear with a straight racer as the cheerful ditty plays out. “I don’t know if Gerry Rafferty [half of Steelers Wheel] necessarily appreciated the connotations that I brought to ‘Stuck in the Middle with You,’” Tarantino confessed in 1994. “There’s a good chance that he didn’t. But that’s one of the things about using music in movie’s that’s so cool… when you do it right and you hit it right, then you can never really hear that song again without thinking about that image from the movie.” And he’s right: anyone who’s ever stumbled upon this particular song and not conjured up the image of a bloody, severed ear clearly hasn’t seen Reservoir Dogs.

“Tiny Dancer” by Elton John in Almost Famous

Cameron Crowe’s 2000 Oscar-winner is filled with memorable music moments; it is, after all, his thinly fictionalized dramatization of his early years as a writer for Rolling Stone. Its most iconic sequence comes late in the film, after Stillwater lead singer Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup) is picked up from the location of a teen house party out in the middle of nowhere. In the harsh light of the morning sun, tensions are high; his bandmates on the tour bus are steamed, and he’s both smug and embarrassed. And then we realize that Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” is not just being piped in to the scene — it’s what’s playing on the bus’s radio, and people start to sing along. The resentments and awkwardness melt away as the jaded rock stars are sucked into the song. The scene is a tribute to the healing power of music — which, to some extent, is what the movie is about too.

“In Your Eyes” by Peter Gabriel in Say Anything

Crowe again, and sorry, but the guy knows how to score his movies. His most enduring cinematic music cue comes in his directorial debut, the 1989 romantic comedy/drama Say Anything. Class brain Diane Court (Ione Skye) has ended her tender relationship with Lloyd Dobler (John Cusack), leaving him just plain broken-hearted, so in desperation, he plants himself outside of her house and lifts up his boombox (remember those?), which is “playing their song,” as the saying goes: “In Your Eyes,” by Peter Gabriel. (Fun fact: Crowe’s first choice for the scene wasn’t the Gabriel tune, but “To Be A Lover” by Billy Idol. Yeah, imagine that.) Once the scene worked its way into the popular culture, Gabriel’s song was forever tied to it; others who have attempted to use it — including J.J. Abrams, on the pilot episode of Felicity (DON’T JUDGE ME) — found viewers simply unwilling to separate it from a kickboxer in a trenchcoat holding up a portable radio.

“A Change Is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke in Malcolm X

The story behind Sam Cooke’s 1964 masterpiece is fascinating in and of itself; he wrote it as a response to Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” inspired by that song’s message of hope for the civil rights era. It was recorded in December of 1963 but wasn’t released as a single until a full year later, shortly after Cooke’s untimely death. Two months later, Malcolm X was assassinated at the Audobon Ballroom in New York City. For his acclaimed 1992 biopic of the controversial leader, director Spike Lee chose Cooke’s anthem for the sequence leading up to Malcolm’s death, its lush orchestration and powerful vocals lending a sense of epic inevitability to the scenes of Malcolm going to meet his maker.

“In Dreams” by Roy Orbison in Blue Velvet

David Lynch has always found ways to twist and reconstitute the ethos of pop music in his films, and the songs of Roy Orbison — which were at their most omnipresent during the filmmaker’s teenage years — have been prominently used on more than one occasion. There is the haunting, mysterious Spanish language rendition of “Crying” in Mulholland Dr., and then there is his unnerving use of “In Dreams” in his 1986 film Blue Velvet. The film’s twisted antagonist, Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) is obsessed with the song, and demands a performance of it from Ben (Dean Stockwell), who gives it his whole heart — which first draws Booth in (he mouths along), then sends him into a rage. In one 99-second scene, the song is forever altered into something altogether more sinister than Orbison ever intended.

“Jessie’s Girl” by Rick Springfield in Boogie Nights

One of the strangest yet most effective sequences in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1997 porn/drug/family epic Boogie Nights comes late in the film, when our fallen hero Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg) accompanies his buddy Reed Rothchild (John C. Reilly) and sketchy Todd (Thomas Jane) to the home of drug dealer Rahad Jackson (Alfred Molina), in a half-baked scheme to rip him off for a quick score. But Jackson is a certifiable weirdo, insisting that the trio hangs out and gets high while enjoying his mix-tapes and the firecracker tossing antics of the mysterious “Cosmo.” (“He’s Chinese,” Jackson explains.) Soap actor/pop star Springfield’s “Jessie’s Girl” is the second song on the playlist (“Ricky Springfield — he’s a buddy of mine!” Jackson insists), and his enthusiasm for the song is so pronounced, the sequence itself so strange and uncomfortably drawn-out, that we start to get nervous before anything happens. On top of all of that, Molina’s character is one of those people who insists on adding their own lyrics (we all know one of these guys), throwing in “I’m so jealous!” and “She should be with me!” between lines of the chorus. It’s a sure thing: if you have the misfortune to hear “Jessie’s Girl” after taking in Boogie Nights a time or two (very few people only see it once), you’ll find that those toss-offs have suddenly become part of the song.

“Love is Strange” by Mickey & Sylvia in Dirty Dancing

To restate it and put it politely, we’re not fans of Dirty Dancing, the dopey and formulaic 1987 dance romance that inexplicably became our generation’s West Side Story. But there’s no denying how well the early-‘60s jukebox hits are worked into the film, from Otis Redding’s “Love Man” to Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs’ “Stay” to Solomon Burke’s goosebump-inducing “Cry to Me.” (However, the appropriation of “Be My Baby” for the opening credits remains unforgivable — that song is how Mean Streets opens, blasphemers.) And the charming playfulness of Mickey & Sylvia’s spoken bridge in their 1956 hit “Love Is Strange” is beautifully captured in this lovely little moment, which ensures visions of the late Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey’s original face upon any subsequent listenings.

“Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen in Wayne’s World

Even those of us immune to the pleasures of Queen (sorry, I just don’t get it, never have, never will) cannot help but succumb to this classic scene from the 1992 smash Wayne’s World. A #1 hit for Queen in 1975 and again in 1991 (when it was re-released as a tribute to the late Freddie Mercury), the song was a favorite of writer/star Mike Myers; he insisted on including in the film, even though director Penelope Spheeris didn’t think it fit with the heavy metal tastes of lead characters Wayne and Garth. She may have been right, but you can’t argue with the results, or with the inarguable fact that the image of Myers and Dana Carvey head-banging to the hard rock section is as much a part of the song as the a capella opening or the operatic interlude.

“Hip to Be Square” by Huey Lewis and the News in American Psycho

“You like Huey Lewis and the News?” asks Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale), the title character of Mary Harron’s 2000 film adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ controversial novel. Clad in a clear raincoat and armed with an axe, he then launches into a discourse on the merits of the band (“He’s been compared to Elvis Costello, but I think Huey has a far more bitter, cynical sense of humor”) before turning the axe on rival Pau Allen (Jared Leto). The inclusion of the goofy 1986 pop hit, from the white-bread group’s Fore! (“their most accomplished album,” according to Bateman), was reportedly met with something less than enthusiasm by Lewis, who objected to the context and demanded the song’s exclusion from the movie soundtrack. Nice try, Huey, but too little, too late: “Hip to Be Square” is the 1980s equivalent to a murder ballad.

“Layla (Piano Outro)” by Derek & the Dominoes in GoodFellas

Forgive the repetition, but it just isn’t right to leave Goodfellas off this list — there are so many amazing pop moments (“Sunshine of Your Love” tied to that wicked dolly shot of DeNiro; “My Way” over the end credits; “What Is Life” and ten other songs in the symphony of paranoia that is Henry Hill’s last day as a free man), none more so than director Martin Scorsese’s appropriation of the “piano outro” to Derek & the Dominos’ rock classic “Layla.” The first half is too ubiquitous to tie only to GoodFellas; that’s the half that everyone knows, that gets played on the oldies station, that everyone can sing along to. But the second half, with its passionately pounding piano and sweeping orchestration, provides the only possible sound big and vast enough to encompass the dark turn that Scorsese’s gangster epic will take.

Those are just a few of our favorites — what songs are, for you, forever tied to the movies that use them?