8 of the Best Uses of Pop Songs in Movies

When you think of music in film, you probably don’t imagine the weepy, melodramatic orchestras of old Hollywood, but instead the frenetic Rolling Stones montages of a Scorsese movie, the juxtaposition of violence and toe-tapping classics in a Tarantino film, the blaring rap song of a Spike Lee joint. Since roughly the 1960s, pop music has invaded Hollywood and become inseparable from many scenes in film for its ability to add a new layer of feeling, emotion or just plain style to any scene. It can be used to make you laugh, cry, or simply gape with awe, but when it’s used best, it always has some kind of measurable effect on the storytelling and on the audience. These are just some of the best uses of pop music in film.

1. “Stuck in the Middle with You” in Reservoir Dogs

Many directors have accentuated scenes of brutality with unlikely uses of pop standards, but Quentin Tarantino — always eager to try his own spin on film classics — set a high water mark for this bizarre effect in his first directorial feature Reservoir Dogs. The tense chamber drama of a group of criminals trying to sniff out the rat in their midst in the immediate aftermath of a bank robbery is occasionally interrupted by the familiar tracks and dulcet tones of a ’70s rock radio DJ. The most ruthless of this gang of criminals, Michael Madsen’s Mr. Blonde, tunes into the station when they spin “Stuck in the Middle with You” as he sets about torturing a capture cop, not for information but simply because he can. The upbeat Stealers’ Wheel track transforms a scene of routine brutality into something far more disturbing, as Mr. Blonde dances along and just plain revels in his acts of violence.

2. “A Hard Day’s Night” in A Hard Day’s Night

The brief opening chord at the beginning of “A Hard Day’s Night” is so immediately recognizable it only feels fitting that it kicks off both the album A Hard Day’s Night and the accompanying film. The day-in-the-life story of the irreverent Beatles navigating their hectic work schedule begins with its most rejuvenating and famous sequence, as the four lads don disguises and duck through alleyways as they evade the screaming masses of their fans and smile like they’re loving every minute of it. “A Hard Day’s Night” announces this fun film as more than a cash grab on Beatlemania and it announces The Beatles as far more than a fad.

3. “In Dreams” in Blue Velvet

David Lynch knows how to use the familiar with just enough deliberate malaise to turn it into something unspeakably, even unfathomably creepy. His early foray into surrealist noir Blue Velvet uses the crooning romance of Roy Orbison’s classic “In Dreams” to vastly increase the insane menace of the already-pretty-menacing villain Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper), who commands one of his cronies to sing the number for his pals and captives alike. The song’s slow pace and dreamy subject matter perfectly fit the world of nightmares and fantasies Blue Velvet seems to exist within, and the lyrics give Booth something to say a little later, as he turns them into a thinly-veiled threat on our protagonists’ life.

4. “The Sound of Silence” in The Graduate

Too often misconstrued for a rousing triumph of youth culture and rebellion, The Graduate is actually a ruthless comedy about the phoniness of the adult world and the directionless unrest that drives the aimless young graduate of the film’s title to rush into life and make the same mistakes his parents did decades before. The Graduate finds Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin in a state of post-graduation malaise, trapped in that feeling of “what now?” personified musically by the use of Simon and Garfunkel’s haunting “The Sound of Silence” during the opening credits. The song is reprised in the film’s final moments too, completely altering the tone of the seemingly happy ending by daring Benjamin to ask himself, yet again, “what now?”

5. “Bohemian Rhapsody” in Wayne’s World

Sometimes the use of music in film isn’t revelatory, but just hilarious. Such is the case with Queen’s shapeshifting classic “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a song that forms the backbone of Wayne’s World’s most inspired sequence, wherein the titular Wayne and his rocker friends drive around their suburban hometown together belting out the lyrics with as much theatricality as Freddie Mercury’s vocals. It comes early in the film, and it serves as a strong yet hilarious introduction to these hard-nosed rockers and how seriously they take their musical passions.

6. “Layla” in Goodfellas

Martin Scorsese has no shortage of memorable classic rock montages in his films, but few have the cathartic, beautiful yet brutal impact of his Goodfellas montage set to the shimmery instrumental jam of Derek and the Dominoes’ ballad “Layla” — and this is coming from someone who doesn’t particularly care for the overall film. After a dramatic heist, Scorsese’s camera glides smoothly across a multitude of former associates who got careless with their profits and were wiped out by Robert De Niro’s Jimmy. Contrasting the victory of our protagonists and the loveliness of the song with the ever-creative death scenes alone makes one of the film’s most powerful statements about the hypocrisies of gangster life.

7. “Tiny Dancer” in Almost Famous

It’s only fitting that one of the greatest films about the music industry should have one of the greatest uses in pop music. Almost as strong as a standalone scene as it is in context, this memorable sequence finds the members of the fictional band Stillwater and the hangers-on for their tour at a low point initially, as they stew over their resentments silently in the tour bus before Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” begins belting through the bus’s speakers system and rousing everyone into a loving singalong. It might sound simple, but it functions as a brilliant, wordless tribute to the power of a simple pop song to bring people together.

8. “The End” in Apocalypse Now

The hazy guitar picking of The Doors’ ten-minute epic “The End” begins what may be the greatest war film ever made. We see jungles exploding in fiery bursts and our war-addled protagonist Willard (Martin Sheen) staring at a slowly oscillating ceiling fan in an impersonal hotel room as Jim Morrison makes the appropriately apocalyptic declaration “This is the end…” The fading montage of beautifully disturbing images lays the groundwork for the surreal mess of a war that is Vietnam, and this song sums it all up with a slow-burning intensity to match the film itself.

Follow Jeff Rindskopf on Twitter @jrindskopf

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