The only thing in the world more immediately transformative than music is that imagined extra step at the top of the stairs; everything else comes in waves. No matter how dramatic the on-screen moment, it is the synergised jolt of music and action in unison that stirs up the reticently stored reserves of adrenalised emotional response.
As Quentin Tarantino once wrote, “One of the things I do when I am starting a movie, when I’m writing a movie, or when I have an idea for a film, is I go through my record collection and just start playing songs, trying to find the personality of the movie, find the spirit of the movie. Then, ‘boom,’ eventually I’ll hit one, two or three songs, or one song in particular, ‘Oh, this will be a great opening credit song.’” The ‘personality of the movie’ is a poignant phrase, with it ol’ Tarantino has touched upon the cloaking elegance that a soundtrack imbues, like essential seasoning.
Whether it be opening credits, closing scenes, stirring moments or subtle backdrops, the hand in glove moment of sound and visuals is the greatest that cinema can offer and I’m willing to stick my neck out and assert that as a firm declaration. The immediate emotional transformative potential of music coupled with a story and the captivating visuals of a cinematic vignette is a short cut to the human soul that the silver screen has implemented and transmuted to devastating, wondrous and magical effect.
Below, we’re looking at ten times that movies have deployed music at its epic emotion-inducing best.
The 10 best music moments in movie history:
10. The Big Lebowski – ‘Just Dropped In’ by Kenny Rogers & The First Edition
As Los Angeles pans into view during the opening sequence of The Big Lebowski we hear the soaring Tumbling Tumbleweeds, a musical lament of acquiescing to the equanimity of aimlessness in the meandering dream of the Old West and cut above this is a conversational ode of sorts to ‘The Dude’. Within that opening stanza, Sam Elliot drawls out the following: “Sometimes there’s a man, well, he’s the man for his time and place, he fits right in there.”
Just as the musical choice is perfectly thought out for that opening, the deployment of songs thereafter is equally considered. The Dude is just a dude, like the rest of us, and unlike most movies, he behaves like a normal person. In times of stress we can all just pop on a record and drift into the sanctity of music’s comforting ‘oh fuck it’ and when the dude drifts into a psychedelic dreamscape it not only offers up evocative imagery and a scintillating song, but it also reaffirms the dude’s devil-may-care brilliance.
9. Drive – ‘Nightcall’ by Kavinsky
Lynchian, Hitchcockian, these are all invented terms, coined out of necessity to describe the unique styles and techniques crafted and created by their namesakes. The synth and drum machine sounds of Drive might not be to everyone’s liking but the flowing neon pop soundscape earmarked the film as a very original piece of work from the get-go.
As Gosling remarked early on in the project, “I think this should be a film about a guy who drives around in his car listening to pop music.” And that’s what makes this music moment stand out. Not only is it so ineffably uber-cool that it spawned a slew of cringe-inducing scorpion jacketed incel imitators, but it helped also foretold what was later to unfurl. Ryan Gosling’s nameless driver does not make good on his escape to some AC/DC hard-on but to a track of dreamy yearning. And like all good openers, it says, “welcome to the movie, please feel free to put your feet up.”
8. Fight Club – ‘Where Is My Mind’ by Pixies
If the measure of a music moment is how long it stays in your mind, then the indelible impact that David Fincher made with the perfectly crafted finale to Fight Club deserves all the glory of a college dorm morning. The marriage of the Pixies, the sepia-toned destruction, and the clutching of hands is a vignette as memorable as any in the history of cinema.
First impressions are important, but they’ll always be usurped by the last. The haunting grimness of the movie could’ve been undone in a second if the last shop was paired with something trite. Fortunately, the Pixies match it with perfectly Sympatico debased distortion and it makes for a spine-tingling moment.
7. Lost in Translation – ‘Just Like Honey’ by The Jesus and Mary Chain
Of course, this quote is not featured in Lost in Translation, but Ferris Bueller once said, “Life moves pretty fast, you don’t stop to look around once in a while, you could miss it.” It’s not quite a Shakespearean level profundity but there is an undeniable truth to it. Life unravels in an equanimous unspooling of meandering discourse. It is a rare thing indeed on this journey to arrive a stoplight of one of life’s unmistakable diegesis, and sometimes even these momentous junctures pass by all the same, but they always impart a hue of truth that circumstance and experience are not one and the same.
That is the moment enacted in the finale of Lost in Translation and thanks to the perfect song choice it is paradoxically the most climactic anti-climaxes in movie history. The song rises up as the star-crossed duo depart with the knowing ambivalence that they have done the right thing and memory will persist all the same. Life can be bittersweet, and the scenes honeyed sonic equivalent embalms any mellowed melancholy with the sanguine glow of sweetness. It is a song that seems to have been lassoed by enlightenment from the passing ether and gently coaxed down with good intent to meet with the reverb-laden beauty of The Jesus and Mary Chain’s atmospheric epic.
6. Midnight Cowboy – ‘Everybody’s Talkin’’ by Harry Nilsson
Jon Voight steps out from a motel room into the sun-baked street of some southern town, sporting cowboy boots, a tasselled brown leather jacket, a suede cow skin suitcase and a smile as wide as the shot. As the sun pours over the street corner, Harry Nilsson begins his iconic plucking of Fred Neil’s original song ‘Everybody’s Talkin” and you know even before he starts singing that you’re in for a good movie.
Let’s face it not even tune deployed in cinema has to be judiciously handcrafted. Music is simply a creative gift, a balm to the grind, and if you can chuck in a song as good as this then why not? Naturally, it does happen to also work brilliant in this instance, but it also reassures you from the outset that this is a flick of taste and class.
5. Apocalypse Now – ‘The End’ by The Doors
Apocalypse Now opens in a prognostic maelstrom of musical dread. The Vietnam War had no end, it was an unwinnable war of ideologies whereby the American’s tried to bomb the Viet Cong around to their way of thinking, and for everyone involved it was a rare circle of hell.
The Doors not only propagate this dreadful dichotomy in a sonic encapsulation of doom, but beyond the atmosphere, it also mirrors the narrative of the film and as such the war. The notion of ‘glory’ in war pics can be nettlesome and from the outset, Apocalypse Now seizes the mantra that war is hell, and it makes no compromises in this regard by playing the near-12-minute track all the way through.
4. Inception – ‘Time’ by Hans Zimmer
With Inception, Hans Zimmer produced one of the quintessential examples of where music can elevate a movie and summon up depths of emotion. It’s just an action movie at its very core, that is not to put Christopher Nolan’s work down, it’s far from your bog-standard shoot ’em up, but there is a swelling of emotional depth from the picture, not usually associated with the genre, that is heavily rooted in the scintillating score.
‘Time’, in particular, is a piece of music that conjures up all the edge-of-your-seat sweaty-palm cliches that movies were made for. The belting harmonics of the piece not only transform the movie but ensure that the story does what all stories are meant to do – take you out of yourself. It’s impossible to see Leonardo DiCaprio sliding down snowbanks with the full force of a symphony and the searing guitar work of Johnny Marr pelting behind him and still carry the hang-ups of everyday dull drudgery.
3. Goodfellas – ‘Jump Into the Fire’ by Harry Nilsson
If I had a weaker stomach then I might perhaps worry that squeezing Harry Nilsson tracks onto the list twice might be a push, but I defy anyone to argue that it doesn’t perfectly set up the forthcoming paranoid demise of Henry Hill perfectly as glances around for helicopters in a coked-up haze.
Thankfully, I’ve also got the opinion of filmmaker Edgar Wright to back me up, as Wright touted the iconic pair-up of Ray Liotta’s paranoia with the psychedelic riff of Harry Nilsson’s ‘Jump Into The Fire’ as being one of his favourite music moments in movie history, and rightfully so. The fast-paced exhilaration of the song with its darkly underscored low-end bass is the perfect pairing for Henry Hill’s (Ray Liotta) frantic fall from non-existent grace.
2. Pulp Fiction – ‘You Never Can Tell’ by Chuck Berry
You can look at any given still image from Pulp Fiction and you might be able to remember what is playing at that particular moment. Sometimes the marriage of song and scene is so strong that the two can’t be separated.
When the actor Jeff Bridges first saw Pulp Fiction he said, “It had a wonderful affect on me and it was similar to the way that Talking Heads affected me when they came out. I’d gotten used to music and I was listening to the stuff that I liked and suddenly the Talking Heads came out and it was almost like a splash of cold water. Tarantino’s movie gave me that same reaction when it came out. […] Every once in a while, a movie will come along and its almost like an Etch A Sketch and it cleans everything off to start a fresh.”
There are many musical moments in Pulp Fiction that shook the Etch A Sketch clean, but with this dance sequence, Quentin Tarantino painted his own iconic masterpiece in ink and originality.
1. 2001: A Space Odyssey – ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’ by Richard Strauss
As Tom Hanks said regarding the Earth rolling into view on 2001: A Space Odyssey, with the accompanying hair-raising adrenalised sonic maelstrom of ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’: “I realised that cinema was nothing more than a collection of colour and sound and the end result is an emotional wallop that you might not be able to understand.”
The impact of this scene was the cultural equivalent of a neanderthal emerging from a cave not only with a wheel but a brand-new SUV. Not only was Tom Hanks mind-walloped enough to want to pursue a career in the arts, but David Bowie’s desires were also reaffirmed and he wrote the magisterial ‘Space Oddity’, Mick Jagger actually penned a movie review about it, and the end is simply listless. This was a thunderous moment where a profound vision became perfectly realised and it transfigured the phrase ‘edge of your seat’ from the status of a tired cliché to the realm of universal truths.