Many of the greatest songs in pop history are inseparable from their usage in classic films. "The Sound of Silence" in "The Graduate," "Jumpin' Jack Flash" in "Mean Streets," "Stuck in the Middle with You" in "Reservoir Dogs"... these moments have been celebrated time and again, indelible to the point that there's nothing more to say about them. But what about the hundreds of other transcendent sequences heightened by a well-placed music cue — the ones you giddily discuss with your friends over a beer or a coffee that make you smile or shiver at their very thought? In the interest of broadening this conversation, here are 25 cues that are every bit as deserving of praise as the outro to "Layla" in "Goodfellas."
This sequence starts with a laugh. “Nauls, will you turn that crāp down. I’m trying to get some sleep. I was shot today.” Of course, Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” is anything but crāp, which is why Nauls does not comply with Bennings’ request. John Carpenter then cuts away from the kitchen and allows his camera to prowl the empty halls and common rooms of the Antarctic base. The dog Bennings took a bullet for is on the hunt as well. It stops at the open door of someone’s quarters. Palmer? Norris? Impossible to tell from the head-and-torso shadow cast against the wall. The dog enters the room, the shadow turns to see it and… Carpenter freezes the image and fades to black. The assimilatin’ fun is about to begin!
“Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps…” Nat King Cole’s dulcet voice drifts throughout Wong Kar-wai’s masterpiece of unrequited love like tendrils of cigarette smoke, expressing the ardor the film’s central characters (Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung) cannot bring themselves to consummate. As the film wends into its final act, Wong makes potent use of Osvaldo Farrés’ “Quizas, Quizas, Quizas” to drive home the yearning that roils beneath the would-be lovers’ finely tailored façades. The song plays three times, the final cue being the one that shatters your heart.
Brian De Palma’s cheeky variation on Stanley Kubrick’s classic centrifuge jogging scene from "2001: A Space Odyssey" finds a couple of married astronauts, played by Tim Robbins and Connie Nielsen, tripping the zero-g light fantastic to one of Van Halen’s most euphoric tunes. The first time you watch the film, you’re too wrapped up in the ecstasy of the moment to realize what a technically tricky sequence this is — which is how it should be. It’s the most joyous moment in an atypically hopeful De Palma movie (largely because he inherited it from Gore Verbinski late in preproduction), and yet another reminder that the David Lee Roth-era Van Halen is right where it's at.
“Sorry for that. I won’t be around for a while.” Duran Duran’s early ‘90s power ballad was an unusual choice to score George “Captain Katanga” Harris laying down a hellacious beating on a disehevled former business associate in a London caf e, but the jarring tonal dissonance sticks with you long after the film is over – especially because you have no clue what this vagrant did to earn his whupping. It’s especially fun to watch a pre-Bond Daniel Craig appear so utterly powerless over a situation he clearly does not understand.
If you’re recruiting a team of badāsses for a dangerous mission, you might as well do it to the steroidal synth of Emerson, Lake and Palmer's “Touch and Go." You had to be a hardcore MTV viewer or listen to a really awful hard rock station circa 1986 to know this song, a poppy betrayal of Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s prog-rock roots. MacGruber himself, Will Forte, is a huge fan of this track and once accepted a bet that he would listen to this song and only this song for an entire year. Apparently he followed through, and his SNL colleagues let out a collective groan when this ditty dropped during a friends-and-family screening of the film.
Anachronistic music cues are for closers (take note, Taika Waititi), and French filmmaker Bertrand Bonello has proved time and again he knows how to close out a movie. This Moody Blues orchestral rock classic turns up near the end of the film , as the prostıtutes of the eponymous, turn-of-the-century brothel sway trancelike in each other’s arms. It’s an opium-induced reverie that gradually crescendos to a strange, tear-streaked catharsis. A few years later, Bonello boldly utilized Blondie’s “Call Me," inextricably linked to Richard Gere and Paul Schrader’s “American Gigolo," as a means of defiant release for a group of teenage terrorists.
Olivier Assayas’ semi-autobiographical drama delves into the turbulent lives of French teenagers desperate for liberation in the dying light of the early 1970s counterculture. The film hits a rebellious fever pitch during a party in an abandoned house where a typical high school hangout literally catches fire as the kids go berserk to Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” and Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door." But it all kicks off with a hypnotic double shot of Janis Joplin’s “Me and Bobby McGee” — which is as overplayed as a classic rock song gets. But Assayas and his cast make you feel like you’re hearing it for the first time.
How do you finish off one of the most emotionally wrenching coming-of-age movies ever made? Hard cut to black, and let Frank Zappa’s wistful guitar solo from the penultimate track of “Joe’s Garage” take it home. Given Zappa’s predilection for juvenile humor, wedding this unexpectedly moving piece of music to the denouement of a film about a couple of sex-crazed (to put it mildly) teenagers is a masterstroke.
Richard Shepard’s oddball assassin comedy links two grieving parents (Greg Kinnear and Hope Davis) with a stone-cold killer (Pierce Brosnan), which culminates in a hit at a Tucson racetrack wherein Kinnear must use every trick Brosnan’s murderer has taught him — much of it scored to Asia’s “Heat of the Moment." It’s a niftily shot-and-staged sequence that leaves you wondering why filmmakers don’t mine Asia’s first two gloriously overproduced albums more often. “The Smile Has Left Your Eyes” is sitting right there, guys!
Martin Scorsese’s ludicrously underrated 1999 film about a burned out EMT (Nicolas Cage) features some of the director’s most curious music cues. The strangest selection by far is 10,000 Maniacs’ “These Are Days," which you would’ve expected to hear advertising that week’s episode of “Party of Five” at the time. But the one that connects most emphatically is the kickoff track of R.E.M.’s 1994 LP, “Monster," which accompanies a particularly deranged passage featuring the final word in onscreen derangement, Tom Sizemore. Scorsese and R.E.M. are a chocolate-and-peanut-butter combination par excellence. Imagine what he could do with “Wolves, Lower!"
When it came time to express the unutterable horror of schoolteacher Jacob Elinsky succumbing to his basest desire (i.e. making a move on one of his students), Spike Lee cued up a scratch-heavy remix of British funksters Cymande’s “Bra." It’s an agonizing scene: One minute, Jacob (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is passed out in a booth while the rest of his party boozes and boogies all over the club; the next, he’s in an upstairs bathroom planting a kiss on teenaged Mary D’Annunzio. He comes to his senses and pulls away after a few seconds, but it’s too late. The damage is done. Lee drives home Elinsky’s anguish via one of his trademark double dolly shots while Cymande keeps jamming in the background. Masterful.
John Singleton’s best and most underrated film kicks off with aspiring poet Justice (Janet Jackson) losing her boyfriend in a shooting. Devastated, she seals herself off from the outside world, hoping to find solace in her record collection. She throws on a 45 of Stevie Wonder’s emotional juggernaut of a ballad, and Singleton delivers a master class in the wordless expression of grief. Justice makes a bowl of popcorn, spices it up with Tabasco and sprawls out on the floor as a police helicopter blazes its spotlight in and out of her living room window. Finally, she takes to a mirror and strikes a variety of poses in close-up. What starts out as playful quickly turns sorrowful as Wonder’s song crescendos. The lyrics offer zero comfort. “Why didn’t you stay?” There’s no catharsis here — just angry, messy misery.
It’s been a wild night for the ladies of Quentin Tarantino’s “Death Proof," and they’ve got miles to go before they settle down. They find their second wind on a stretch of rural road as this semi-obscure British Invasion banger blasts on the car radio. They bop in their seats to the music (Jordan Ladd does an adorable bit of air drumming), lost in the moment and unaware that Stuntman Mike has roared ahead of them in his death-proof beast of a vehicle. The ensuing head-on collision is as jarringly gory as anything Tarantino has ever filmed, ensuring that this song will forever be associated with this scene (at least to those who were hearing the track for the first time).
This traditional song that marks the arrival of the Jewish Sabbath serves as the unlikely entrance music for Big Jim Slade , a body-building sexual dynamo perpetually on call should the male member of a hetero coupling fall short of his copulative duties. In case you’re wondering, Big Jim is a former tight end with the Kansas City Chiefs and comes equipped with various whips, chains and a sexual appetite that’ll knock your socks off. Big Jim has satisfied women all over the world, and the capital of Nebraska is Lincoln.
An ecstatic eight minutes and 50 seconds of filmmaking . Director Michael Mann uses an extended rendition of Sam Cooke’s live show at Miami’s Harlem Square Club as a means of amping up the audience and underscoring the conflicting feelings roiling within Muhammad Ali as he trains for his first bout with the heavyweight champion of the world, Sonny Liston. As Ali works the speed bag with metronomic precision, Mann inserts images from his past: his father painting a white Jesus on a church wall; the front page of a newspaper emblazoned with a photo of a beaten beyond recognition Emmett Till; Malcolm X preaching the gospel of self-defense; Bundini Brown pledging to give Ali his “power." When Cooke breaks into “Bring It on Home to Me," Ali shadowboxes and spars with aplomb. He struts to the weigh-in with his camp, stepping in time to a beat they cannot hear but somehow feel. This is a first-rate filmmaker operating at the peak of his craft.
This funny and oddly poignant scene from a film about a washout hockey player who finds himself on the pro golf tour because he can drive the green on a par-5 conjures fond memories of an early 1980s couples skate. Happy (Adam Sandler) is clumsily trying to woo tour publicist Virginia (Julie Bowen) at an empty ice rink, and calls up this way outdated theme song from Franco Zeffirelli’s awful 1981 teen romance. As Happy and Virginia get to smooching, the camera drifts back to a profile shot of the Zamboni driver, who’s passionately lip-syncing the lyrics. As the song fades out he drops his head into his chest, suggesting a deep reservoir of regret and heartbreak that the film will never plumb.
If you were coming of age in the summer of 1987, this is a madeleine cake moment. Two kids (Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart) who are really into each other take in a Fourth of July fireworks display as Crowded House’s “Don’t Dream It’s Over” kicks up on the soundtrack. The pangs of blossoming young love, the trepidation of an uncertain future…we’ve all been there. But if you were there (right around the ill-fated opening weekend of Joe Dante’s “Innerspace”), writer-director Greg Mottola brings it all rushing back in this achingly beautiful sequence.
Norman Greenbaum’s gospel-tinged goof is an odd choice to open a violent cat-and-mouse crime flick starring Alec Baldwin as a psychopath who steals cop Fred Ward’s badge, gun and dentures. But once you’ve seen “Miami Blues," you’ll never hear the song the same way again. It’s music to break a Krishna’s wrist to.
Of the many left-field ‘80s music cues strewn throughout Michael Showalter and David Wain’s summer camp parody, you can’t top Loverboy’s “Turn Me Loose” being used to score a motorcycle/foot chase between Joe Lo Truglio and Ken Marino (which only occurs because Marino loses control of a van while crooning Loggins and Messina’s “Danny’s Song”). But for a randomly placed hay bale, Lo Truglio would’ve got his man.
Boaz Davidson’s remake of his hit Israeli flick, “Lemon Popsicle," opens with the usual teen sex comedy high jinks (most notably a penıs-measuring contest) before taking a dark detour in its final act that finds the much-desired Karen (Diane Franklin) getting knocked up by loathsome lothario Rick (Steve Antin). Good guy Gary (Lawrence Monoson) steps up to help Karen pay for an abortion, which leads to a cross-cut sequence in which he pawns his most valuable belongings while she’s strapped onto an examining table for the procedure. Heightening the tonal whiplash is Davidson’s bold decision to score the scene to U2's anthemic "I Will Follow." Whether you find the film misogynistic or refreshingly candid about its hormone-addled milieu, you have to admit that this is a joltingly inspired music cue.
“A picnic with a gun!” Jonathan Kaplan’s underrated gem (written by Charles Haas and Tim Hunter) about disaffected kids raising hell throughout a half-finished planned community outside of Denver launches its dramatic stakes into the stratosphere when wild-child Cory (Pamela Ludwig) up and grooves to Cheap Trick’s “Surrender” while brandishing a loaded pistol. She does a little air guitar at first and then trains the gun on Carl (Michael Kramer), who’s too turned on by the performance to sense its deadly implications. Cory pulls the trigger, and Carl falls back as if shot. After throwing a brief scare into his friends, he sits up smiling and lunges at them like a resurrected monster in a horror flick. These kids ain’t all right.
“It was weird that in the limited space of a postcard, Shasta should’ve chosen to remember that one day in the rain.” The heart of Paul Thomas Anderson’s brilliantly woozy adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s stoner noir rests in the romantic bliss of the mid-film reverie set to Neil Young’s “Journey Through the Past ." Doc (Joaquin Phoenix) and Shasta (Katherine Waterston) follow a Ouija board’s directions to a Sunset Boulevard address where they hope to score some dope. It’s a vacant lot, and the dead-end errand serves as a lovely metaphor for the couple’s fickle, flickering love for one another.
Hal Ashby’s election night 1968 satire hits its emotional apex at a Republican Party shindig where caddish hairdresser George (Warren Beatty) clumsily tiptoes through a minefield of ex-lovers. He eventually hooks up with Jackie (Julie Christie), and they’re caught in flagrante delicto on a kitchen floor by Lester (Jack Warden) and George’s current flame, Jill (Goldie Hawn). Hendrix’s turbulent jam might seem an odd choice for a function thrown by Nixon voters, but it’s perfectly matched to the roiling confusion — micro and macro — of the moment.
Who knew the loin-inflaming balladry of Barry White could be so menacing? Credit to Edgar Wright and Jon Hamm for turning White’s seductive opus into a psychotic pledge of unending pursuit from a desperate bank robber to his young wheel man. It’s especially effective because Hamm’s spent most of the film being the least sinister member of the crew. Now we realize he’s more viciously unhinged than any of them, and he’s “never, never gonna stop” until he’s got his revenge. The way Hamm locks eyes with Ansel Elgort and sings “quittin’ just ain’t my shtick” is the most chilling moment in the movie.
Lynne Ramsay’s haunting romantic drama kicks off with its title character (played to poker-faced perfection by Samantha Morton) discovering that her boyfriend has killed himself, leaving her only a suicıde note (exhorting her to “be brave”), an unpublished novel (dedicated to her) and a mixtape. Rather than obey his wishes, Morvern claims the novel as her own and eventually sells it for £100,000. The film ends under the blood-red lights of a rave. Morvern aimlessly wanders the dance floor with earphones on, listening to the last song on his tape. She’s answered his selfish act her own, and now she has her freedom and a future; it’s what he would’ve wanted had he known how to give it to her. As the Mamas and the Papas’ chestnut crescendos to its first chorus, we feel like we’re hearing it for the first time. For a track that was used to sell Special K cereal throughout the 1980s, this is nothing short of a miracle.
Jeremy Smith is a freelance entertainment writer and the author of "George Clooney: Anatomy of an Actor". His second book, "When It Was Cool", is due out in 2021.