1. “Indian Love Call,” Mars Attacks! (1996)
Planet Earth has its fair share of unassuming saviors: A mild-mannered newspaper reporter from the city of Metropolis, for example, or the lowly bacteria capable of putting an end to The War Of The Worlds. Yodeling cowboy Slim Whitman stands among these unlikely deliverers, though when it comes time to serve his fellow man in Mars Attacks!, it’s not technically Whitman saving the day, merely his voice. In a wink to H.G. Wells’ pioneering Martian invasion (and an apparent lift from an old Howard Stern bit), the aliens of Tim Burton’s trading-card adaptation are felled by the warbling frequencies of Whitman’s signature recording, a crossover hit from 1952 that makes for one goofy deus ex machina. Once donut-slinging slacker Lukas Haas discovers the awesome power of his grandma’s favorite singer, it’s not long before the nihilistic slapstick of the film turns to slapstick slapstick—replete with a gooey green punchline. With Whitman being broadcast worldwide, the Martians stumble around like they had a few too many Lone Stars down at the honky-tonk, and Earth lives to fight another day—a fight it will likely be bailed out of by one doofus or another.
2. “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher And Higher,” Ghostbusters II (1989)
Ghostbusters II has problems aplenty, but perhaps its most egregious is the use of a song as the deus ex machina not once, but twice. In the Ghostbusters universe, the nature of ghosts and their ectoplasm varies depending upon the current needs of the plot, but the sequel’s psycho-reactive metaphysical slime has bad energy that can be counteracted by upbeat grooves—especially Jackie Wilson’s 1967 hit “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher And Higher.” The track makes a toaster dance and animates the Statue Of Liberty, turning it into a transportation vehicle from Liberty Island and a (terrifying) symbol of hope for pissed-off New Yorkers. (It’s no Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, but still pretty creepy.) Then, in the final scenes, a mass crowd sing-along of “Auld Lang Syne” manages to weaken the impenetrable shell of ghost power/negativity encasing the fictional Manhattan Museum Of Art, forcing the ghost of Vigo The Carpathian back into a painting.
3. “Can’t Get Enough Of Your Love, Babe,” The Simpsons—“Whacking Day” (1993)
A hallowed tradition that combines Springfield’s capacity for violence (channeled through the senseless destruction of snakes) with its citizens’ fear of that which they do not understand, Whacking Day serves as one of The Simpsons’ strongest critiques of mindless groupthink (channeled through the unquestioned senseless destruction of snakes). The episode that takes its name from the holiday does celebrate one type of conformity, however: Its central animals’ unshakable attraction to low-frequency vibrations. Enter Whacking Day Grand Marshal Barry “I know my own name” White and his soulful ode to doin’ it (and doin’ it and doin’ it), “Can’t Get Enough Of Your Love, Babe.” As disgusted by the holiday as local schoolyard activist Lisa Simpson, White lends his voice to the cause, luring the creatures away from the town-square slaughter and into the velvet safety of his 1974 hit—leaving viewers to make their own jokes about a Barry White song being used to call snakes to attention.
4. “Cupid,” Innerspace (1987)
In the Fantastic Voyage homage Innerspace, Dennis Quaid’s test pilot is shrunk to microscopic size and accidentally injected into Martin Short’s body, where he manages to forge a symbiotic relationship with him by tapping into his optic nerve and inner ear—and feelings of inadequacy. Then, as happens so often, a woman comes between them: Short shares a kiss with Quaid’s girlfriend, Meg Ryan, swapping Quaid’s pod along with their spit. With Quaid adrift and unable to communicate with Ryan, in this most visceral of relationship metaphors, he has to figure out a way to tell her what happened so he can get back to his stereo hook-up inside Short and talk his way home. Fortunately, Quaid happens to be carrying a copy of “their song,” Sam Cooke’s “Cupid,” and even more fortunately, his submarine has a tape deck. So he blasts “Cupid” into her eardrum, letting Ryan know in the nick of time he’s inside her—in a romantic way!—and that she needs to kiss Short again to put Quaid back where he needs to be to save his life.
5. “Tequila,” Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985)
Pee-wee’s Big Adventure doesn’t allow time for politesse, especially when its titular man-child learns he’s been lied to: Not only is his beloved bicycle not hidden in the basement of the Alamo—the Alamo doesn’t even have a basement. Pee-wee’s normally a happy-go-lucky oddball, but this disappointment is enough to make him careless enough to yell at a rowdy motorcycle gang (the “Satan’s Helpers”) for being noisy while he’s trying to use the phooone. To add property damage to insult, he then accidentally knocks over their bikes. They’re in the middle of trying to figure out exactly how to kill him—possibly only after giving him to a well-endowed biker babe, apparently a horrific fate for such a fey, gay-icon virgin elf—when PW has the bright idea of calling up The Champs’ peppy, Latin-flavored instrumental “Tequila” on the jukebox. On borrowed platform shoes, Pee-wee stays alive by dancing for the Helpers’ amusement. They don’t much like him, but they do like the way he smashes glassware, walks on his tiptoes, and evokes the idea of tequila, and by the end of the tune, they’re all buddies, and he’s an honorary gang member with his own bike—albeit a motorized one.
6. “Babysittin’ Blues,” Adventures In Babysitting (1987)
The “threat” that necessitates this musical rescue is iffy—and so is the musical rescue itself—but it’s the centerpiece of the film nonetheless. While supervising a couple of kids and their friend, babysitter Elisabeth Shue is pulled into a classic “into the night” scenario, where she and her charges run around downtown Chicago, trying to evade some criminals who want to retrieve some accidentally stolen evidence. For a bunch of suburban kids this sheltered and naïve, accidentally winding up onstage at a blues club is terrifying—they’re the only white folks in the place, and the mere presence of black faces leaves them paralyzed with fear. But real-life blues hero Albert Collins is strangely willing to pause his rocking, energetic show and cede the spotlight to some awkward children: “Nobody leaves this place without singin’ the blues,” he tells them. So they pour out their shallow little hearts in spastic couplets about the rough life of the middle-class teenage babysitter, Collins and his band vamping behind them—and the place goes wild with unlikely joyous approval. After fully committing to their silly performance, Shue and her brood win everyone’s approval and are permitted to leave, instead of being eaten alive by scaaaary city-dwellers. As a bonus, Collins temporarily stymies their pursuers, ordering them to sing the blues, too. Sadly, the film doesn’t include "Criminalin’ Blues," which sounds much more entertaining.
7. “We Are Family,” The Birdcage (1996)
Mike Nichols’ adaptation of La Cage Aux Folles hinges on a dinner among the parents of a newly engaged couple. The catch: The man’s parents are gay men, Armand (Robin Williams) and Albert (Nathan Lane), while the woman’s are a conservative senator Kevin (Gene Hackman) and his wife Louise (Dianne Wiest). Drag queen Albert decides to play a mom, but eventually the sham becomes impossible to uphold, and Kevin finds himself trapped above a gay nightclub by paparazzi looking for pictures of the engagement. To escape unnoticed, Kevin and Louise are forced to dress in drag themselves and dance out of the club. Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family” provides their cover (and a guilt-trip) in an infectious set piece that forces Kevin and Louise to break out of their comfort zones and maybe have a little fun along the way. Hackman has never looked more terrified, but the plan works better than expected: The gays save the conservatives, the conservatives come around, and the couple get happily married.
8. “Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be),” The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)
“Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)” grew up to have quite a career, but it debuted as the moving maternal refrain in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1956 remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much. James Stewart and Doris Day play Ben and Jo, Americans on vacation who get mixed up in high-stakes deception—as one does in a Hitchcock movie. Unfortunately, this leads to their son’s kidnapping, so Ben and Jo track the kidnappers all the way to an embassy, where they must play their parts. When Jo is asked to sing a song, she picks something her son will immediately recognize, hoping to draw him out. Cue “Que Sera, Sera (What Ever Will Be, Will Be),” one of the most moving sequences in the Hitchcock filmography. Jo keeps looking around for any sign of her son, the camera roves around the building working its way up to the boy’s far-off room, and Ben uses the distraction to go looking for him. It’s a little more complicated than that, but regardless, the song successfully reunites the family.
9. “Tiny Dancer,” Almost Famous (2000)
Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous is a film with many themes—coming of age, following dreams, maintaining integrity—but its most potent is about the healing power of rock ’n’ roll. The fictional band in the film, Stillwater, is imploding, and guitarist Russell (Billy Crudup) is set to quit after an acid trip and some band drama involving T-shirts. But once he’s been coaxed back onto the tour bus, the radio starts to play Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer”—and everyone on board falls into singing along. Somehow, the act of solidarity puts things right again. Shortly afterward, Stillwater begins to travel from gig to gig by airplane, so presumably the band members found another way to solve their problems.
10. Édith Piaf, “Non Je Ne Regrette Rien,” Inception (2010)
Christopher Nolan’s Inception relies on relentlessly paced action in order to deflect questions about its central concept: dream thievery. One of the key elements is the “kick,” an action Dominick Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his colleagues need a to ratchet themselves from the deep recesses of shared consciousness. In the film, it’s the sensation of falling backward in a van going off a bridge, with a song signaling the end of a dream. That’s where Édith Piaf’s “Non Je Ne Regrette Rien” comes in. Not only is Piaf’s track used by Cobb’s group as a prelude to the kick—and a warning that they’re running out of time to implant a memory in their target’s (Cillian Murphy) subconscious while evading Cobb’s projection of his deceased wife (Marion Cotillard)—but composer Hans Zimmer used a dramatically slowed down version of the song as the basis for the film’s influential main theme. It’s also coincidentally the song performed in the final scene of La Vie En Rose, starring Cotillard in an Oscar-winning role as Piaf.