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The Best Utilized Songs in Movie History

27 June 2004 by Gnoll No Comment

THE BEST UTILIZED SONGS IN MOVIE HISTORY
by Gnoll

The American Film Institute just counted down their top 100 movie songs of all time. And while it seems rather convenient that the list was revealed just a few days before I posted this article, the connection of the two is purely coincidental. This is actually something I’ve had planned for a few weeks, but simply lacked the motivation to get off my ass and compile it.

Besides, my list is different. AFI’s list basically included any song from any movie, regardless of whether the song was written specifically for the movie or not. This means you got a shit-ton of stuff from musicals, but also means you got stuff that was just tossed onto the soundtrack as an afterthought. But the main reason my list differs from AFI’s is this: what they judged are the songs themselves; what I’m doing is judging the way the song was utilized within the film.

And I’ve got some pretty specific criteria, too. To qualify for this list, the song must have existed and been in the public eye before the movie was released. Nothing here is a song specifically written for a movie. Also, the song in question must be used in its original version. It can’t be an interpretation by a character on screen, unless it’s a situation where it accompanies the original song. What I’m looking for here is the way the director tied this song in to the film, resulting in a scene that sticks with you. What I’m looking for are songs that, when you hear them on the radio, immediately conjure up the scene from the movie in which they were utilized. I’d say that this list exemplifies that.

So here you have it. I’m sure I’ll get some flames in my mailbox as a result of this list, but that’s the way it goes. Enjoy. Or not.

10. Lou Reed, “Perfect Day”
TRAINSPOTTING

Could there be any better musical and visual interpretation of a heroin overdose ever captured on film? In this scene, Ewan MacGregor’s Mark Renton takes a shot in the arm that leads to an overdose, and his housemate calls the ambulance as if it’s a routine thing. The scene culminates in a POV shot featuring a sunken floor, which completes the feeling of helplessnbess. This song being used for the scene is brilliantly ironic, and I don’t mean that in an Alanis Morrisette way.

9. Metallica, “Master of Puppets”
OLD SCHOOL

You just can’t do better to capture the raw, aggressive nature of a fraternity hazing sequence than Metallica’s pre-Napster anthem “Master of Puppets”. And in OLD SCHOOL, Todd Phillips’ 2003 comedy starring Will Ferrell, Luke Wilson, and Vince Vaughn, they make the best possible use of it. The three stars in question start a fraternity for losers, and haze their pledges by driving around in a black van, kidnapping them and tormenting them. The scene is wickedly funny, but it wouldn’t have half of the effect without James Hetfield growling “Come crawling faster! Obey your master!” over speed metal guitar riffs.

8. Queen, “Bohemian Rhapsody”
WAYNE’S WORLD

It’s practically a cliché nowadays to mention it, but this scene is absolutely amazing. Not only did it cement a less-than-stellar comedy as a classic, but it also introduced this song to a whole new generation of listeners. We all know how it goes: five burnt-out metalheads are in an AMC Pacer, they pop in a Queen tape, and headbanging ensues. It’s simple, but it’s absolutely brilliant. And to this day, I can’t hear this song without imitating the film’s stars once it reaches its crescendo. This scene has been imitated in other films, most notably in the Rap music comedy CB4, but it’ll never be done to the same effect.

7. Elton John, “Tiny Dancer”
ALMOST FAMOUS

No, that’s not “Hold me closer, Tony Danza.” But however you want to misinterpret the lyrics, Elton John’s ballad is best remembered by moviegoers of recent years for this classic scene in Cameron Crowe’s 2000 semi-autobiographical film. A tour bus full of musicians, groupies, and a fifteen-year-old news reporter, all ready to strangle one another after months together on the road, join together in harmony to belt out this song as it plays on the radio. It’s just an amazing scene, thanks to the direction and the performances of all those involved.

6. Geto Boys, “Damn it Feels Good to Be a Gangsta”
OFFICE SPACE

The idea of using hardcore rap music as the score to a comedy about straight-laced white collar working stiffs is brilliant unto itself, but one of the most memorable scenes involves this classic track from gangster rap pioneers The Geto Boys. Shortly after our hero Peter has undergone a transformation to a mellower persona, he decides to make a few changes around the stuffy office in which he works, to the tune of this catchy little number. The fact that the lyrics are so crude only adds to the effect, and ensures that this film will never be shown on broadcast television without some major editing.

5. The Cars, “Moving in Stereo”
FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH

Ah, yes. The defining moment for many an adolescent boy in his sexual discovery is sprawled out right here. Judge Reinhold’s Brad comes home from a day hard at work where he spots his sister’s cute friend. He retires to the bathroom where he fantasizes about her taking a breathtaking plunge into the pool, and then revealing a peek at her hidden parts as she tells Brad she’s always thought he was cute. Of course, the scene ends in a moment that’s hideously embarrassing to anyone who watches it. But any male who hears “Moving in Stereo” to this day and doesn’t immediately envision Phoebe Cates’ slow-motion ascent from the pool probably owns a lot of Judy Garland records.

4. Night Ranger, “Sister Christian”
BOOGIE NIGHTS

Who would have guessed that one of the cheesiest songs of the 1980’s could provide one of the most frightening sequences in film? In P.T. Anderson’s BOOGIE NIGHTS, it does just that. Toward the end of the film, star Dirk Diggler and a couple of his cronies go to make a drug deal with an eccentric rich man. Before the deal goes down, there’s this long period of anticipation where the guy, dressed only in a speedo and bathrobe, has a few drinks and jams out on the stereo to some of the day’s hit songs. As he air-drums through the solos of “Sister Christian”, his Asian houseboy is lighting firecrackers and tossing them on the floor. The whole thing is so insanely creepy that you can’t help but feel the same way our main characters do, riding the edge of your seat.

3. Stealer’s Wheel, “Stuck in the Middle with You”
RESERVOIR DOGS

It’s been parodied ad nauseum, it’s almost hackneyed in its relevance, but this scene in Quentin Tarantino’s directorial debut is memorable for a reason. Quentin took a new approach to the use of music in his films, and this is a prime example. After a heist gone bad, a sadistic hitman is left alone with a captured police officer where he proceeds to torture him while dancing to this semi-obscure hit from the 70’s. The money shot in the sequence involves the removal of the cop’s ear, in a scene that’s gruesome and scary and strangely funny all at the same time, even without showing the actual incident occur. It certainly brought a new infamy to the song, which can’t be heard without someone mentioning this scene.

2. Roy Orbison, “In Dreams”
BLUE VELVET

Those of you who have seen this film have to be recalling just how disturbing this was the first time they saw it. BLUE VELVET, David Lynch’s crowning achievement, is already a thoroughly creepy film, but this scene certainly takes the cake. Frank Booth, a psychotic gangster, kidnaps the young interloper who has stumbled upon the gaze of his lady friend and takes him for a night out with his even stranger friends. This scene is especially creepy because of the chilling image of Dean Stockwell in makeup lip-syncing with Roy Orbison’s haunting vocals.

And finally, for the absolute best-utilized song in movie history:

1. Peter Gabriel, “In Your Eyes”
SAY ANYTHING

This epic ballad from Peter Gabriel is beautiful unto itself, and comes into play several times during the course of Cameron Crowe’s 1989 romantic comedy. We first hear it as the film’s leading couple, Diane and Lloyd, are consummating their relationship for the first time. But the scene in reference here occurs after they find their first rift in the relationship. Lloyd goes to Diane’s house, and serenades her with a boombox in an image that is carved into the brain of every person in a generation with a romantic bone in their body. Of course, back in 1989, standing under a girl’s bedroom window blaring a love song was a pretty romantic thing. Nowadays, it’d probably get you locked up for a while.

Just for shits and giggles, here are a few others I considered which didn’t quite make the cut:

Carly Simon, “You’re So Vain” – DICK
An underrated comedy that used a lot of gems from the 70’s, DICK’s closing moments involve Nixon, recently resigned from the Presidency, flying away from Washington, with his last image being of the two teenaged girls who did him in holding up a huge sign that says “YOU SUCK, DICK!” Nixon’s resulting middle finger gesture punctuates the power of this song over the sequence.

Van Halen, “Everybody Wants Some” – BETTER OFF DEAD
I’m sure that every teenaged kid working in a burger joint has dreamed of playing mad scientist with his food, but nothing can beat the food coming to life and ripping out some Eddie Van Halen guitar licks and David Lee Roth vocal chops. The scene is crudely animated with stop-motion clay modeling, but that’s half the charm.

The English Beat, “Mirror in the Bathroom” – GROSSE POINTE BLANK
Is it a coincidence that there are three John Cusack movies mentioned somewhere here? Anyway, this particular scene works so well because the song makes a perfect backdrop for the vicious fight scene between hitman Martin Blank and the man hired to kill him. The only reason it didn’t rank higher is because the song is a little on the obscure side here.

The Champs – “Tequila” – PEE WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE
“I say we let him go!” “NOOOOO!” Our good friend P.W. runs into a scrape with a biker gang, and as a “last request”, borrows the fry cook’s shoes and cues this song on the jukebox. The dancing that follows is legendary stuff, and is certain to be imitated by anyone nearby whenever this song is played in a public setting.

Harry Belafonte, “Day-O” – BEETLEJUICE
In order to get a scare out of their house’s new tenants and their guests, a deceased couple hires the title ghost to possess the offenders and put on a musical number. Unfortunately, the plan backfires, and the folks who were supposed to be scared shitless wind up enjoying the musical number as much as the audience does.

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