“You can never really hear this song again without thinking about that image from the movie,” Quentin Tarantino
There are filmmakers who expertly utilize popular music to give scenes of their movies little more impact, and not a lot of them really do it better than Quentin Tarantino. Music in films can help create and/or add to the atmosphere of certain scenes, or bring a film back to a specific era in time, or even be so jarringly opposite of what we are seeing that it burns into our brains.
So I decided to make a list of the films I thought used popular music that made a lasting impression. These are scenes that, without the aid of the song used, might have not been as memorable. Also, some of the videos are Not Safe For Work (NSFW), so tread lightly.
10. Wayne’s World: Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody
This is perhaps my first memory of a pop song truly owning a scene in a movie. “Wayne’s World” was a masterpiece in insane humor, from Ed O’Neil’s psychopathic doughnut shop owner to spoofing “Laverne and Shirley,” the film took the humor to ridiculous levels. But it was the use of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” that everybody remembers, and helped bring such an amazing band back to the forefront of popular culture.
9. X-Men Days of Future Past: Jim Croce’s Time in a Bottle
First off, I am glad that director Bryan Singer is back making the X-Men films. His presence was surely missed after he left the franchise to make a terrible Superman movie. And it was this scene, in this return to the franchise as director, where the audience gets to see how Quicksilver operates to the tune of Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle” that stole the show. Expertly done and made for an incredible scene. Singer, in my opinion, has never struck me as a director who utilizes music like this in his films, but he knocked it out of the park with this.
8. American Psycho: Huey Lewis and the News’ Hip to Be Square (NSFW)
The film adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ groundbreaking, and incredibly disturbing, book of a 1980s Wall Street professional who also happens to be a psychotic serial killer became quite the cult hit after it came out in theaters. The film certainly was graphic and violent, but it also utilized parts of the book that I personally found really disturbing: Patrick Bateman’s long-winded monologues about really terrible bands from the 1980s. Bands like Genesis, Whitney Houston and Huey Lewis and the News. For the film, obviously they couldn’t have Christian Bale just stared blankly at the camera and talk about music, so they incorporated these speeches during his disturbing psychotic breaks. And the one that worked best was the Huey Lewis and the News scene, when Bateman talks his victim’s ear off about the album “Fore” and it’s single “Hip to Be Square” before he puts an ax into the guy’s head. It even spawned a “Weird” Al spoof.
7. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: Young Bloods’ Get Together
There is perhaps no book adaptation that stayed as true to the source material than Terry Gilliam’s take on Gonzo Journalist Hunter S. Thompson’s classic “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” Which also presents an issue with the film keeping a coherent storyline, because there really isn’t much of a plot to the book beyond a drug-fueled trip to Vegas to cover a dune buggy race and attend a national drug enforcement meeting. Thompson’s words get to truly shine during his classic “Wave Speech” in the film, a reflection on the end of the 1960s and what it meant to Thompson. It’s aided with the Youngblood’s “Get Together” in a way that could have turned out corny, but really worked with the sentiment of the words and performance by Johnny Depp.
6. Shaun of the Dead: Queen’s Don’t Stop Me Now
There is something great about juxtaposing a scene that seems to lead to impending doom at the hands of zombies with the sudden opening bars of Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” blaring over the jukebox. It just made for a perfect scene for “Shaun of the Dead,” which itself is a perfect spoof of George Romero’s zombie movies. And then they proceed to fight zombies in rhythm of the song, which just adds to the greatness of this scene.
5. Big Lebowski: Kenny Rogers & The First Edition’s Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)
For a film that was pretty odd to begin with, “The Big Lebowski” also threw in a drug-induced hallucination scene set to the tune of Kenny Rogers & The First Edition’s “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In).” The Coen Brothers often make the best of the music in their films (like “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”), and this film was no exception. For one, the song fits in with Jeff Bridges’ “Dude” character, a burned out stoner from the 70s who finds himself in a jam when he is confused for another Lebowski in a kidnapping scheme (also, thugs pee on his rug. A rug, mind you, that tied the room together).
Interestingly, the Coens did a complete 180 with their film “No Country For Old Men,” which did not feature any music at all — something in and of itself was jarring to realize half-way through the film.
4. Casino: The Animals’ House of the Rising Sun (NSFW)
Martin Scorsese is a master of combining classic rock songs with his mobster movies. His use of “Layla” in “Goodfellas” and especially his use of “House of the Rising Sun” in “Casino” would be widely copied by HBO’s “The Sopranos,” which paid homage to this sort of use of music in nearly every single episode. For “Casino,” the mood of this song fits perfectly well with what is happening: The mob is cleaning house after a mess in Las Vegas. There is also something very creepy about using a 60s pop hit for a montage of mob whackings.
3. Guardians of the Galaxy: Blue Swede’s Hooked On A Feeling
One of the best parts of “Guardians of the Galaxy,” for me, was using a mix tape as a part of the story. It is also what I consider the best of the Marvel movies so far. The song “Hooked On A Feeling” is used as we are given more background on these characters, and a little of the horror Rocket has gone through in his past. It’s also great to see and hear the contrast between a 70s pop hit being played over a futuristic space prison. They made it work fantastically.
2. Office Space: Geto Boys’ Damn It Feels Good To Be A Gangster
Mike Judge’s genius truly shined when he made “Office Space,” a film that looks at one man’s personal hell working in an office environment. It also utilizes hip-hop music throughout the film. But it is when Peter Gibbons apathy toward his work situation comes out in full-force to the Geto Boys’ “Damn It Feels Good To Be A Gangster” that this juxtaposition of visuals and audio shows its brilliance. He is a gangster in his own right, in this scene, flaunting the conventions of office etiquette and not giving a damn what his co-workers and superiors think of it.
1. Reservoir Dogs: Stealers Wheel’s Stuck In The Middle With You (NSFW)
And we come to the big one. A scene in which the violence isn’t even really shown, but is still horrific to watch anyway. Quentin Tarantino’s directorial debut “Reservoir Dogs” is probably best known for this scene, when Mr. Blonde tortures a cop he’s kidnapped after a botched jewelry store robbery. Blond cuts off the officer’s ear as Stealers Wheel’s “Stuck In The Middle With You” is played on the radio (the camera pans away from the gore, something Tarantino would utilize in his other films that somehow makes the terror even worse) and attempts to set the guy on fire, showing just how much of a monster the character truly is. It also has the effect on myself and others in that we cannot hear this song without picturing this very scene in our minds.
That’s my list. I know there are some omissions (“Graduate” for one), but these are my personal favorite moments when pop music was used in film. Feel free to comment below and tell me what your favorite music/movie combination is.