Inspired by a nearly decade-old inventory of songs firmly linked to films, this week’s question comes from reader Drew Evans:
What song is inextricably linked in your mind to a film or TV show scene even though it was written independently of and never intended by the artist to be associated with it? (The classic low-hanging fruit example here being “Stuck In The Middle With You” and Reservoir Dogs.) In short, what song comes on the radio and always and immediately evokes a scene from a TV show or movie?
My go-to example of a song inextricably tied to a movie in my mind is “In The Still Of The Night” by The Five Satins as it’s used in David Cronenberg’s 1988 thriller Dead Ringers. That same song had turned up just the year before in Dirty Dancing, but whenever I hear it now, I’m instantly reminded of the scene in which suave gynecologist Elliot Mantle (Jeremy Irons) tries to share his girlfriend (Heidi Von Palleske) with his withdrawn, sullen brother Beverly (also Irons). The Five Satins could not possibly have been thinking about Cronenbergian body horror or quasi-incestuous threesomes when they recorded this song in the basement of a Catholic school in 1956, and yet the song’s plaintive yet sensual mood suits the scene perfectly. In this context, it’s a song about inconsolable erotic yearning.
Perhaps because of his music journalism background, Cameron Crowe tends to prioritize song selections in his movies. Although the use of Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” in Almost Famous is a gem, to me Crowe will never top Say Anything—and, more specifically, the scene where Lloyd Dobler (John Cusack) stands outside Diane Court (Ione Skye)’s house with a boombox playing Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes.” Dobler’s trying to win her back after a breakup, of course, by playing one of her favorite tunes. But not only is the song indicative of his personality—it’s the perfect combination of offbeat, thoughtful, and sincere—it drives a sweet gesture that created unrealistic romantic expectations for an entire generation.
French director Claire Denis is responsible for some of the greatest scenes of people losing themselves in music in all of filmdom. But while I don’t regularly hear Corona’s “Rhythm Of The Night,” which played over the end of Beau Travail, or the Animals’ “Hey Gyp,” which got the definitive “teenage boy alone in his room” treatment in her coming-of-age piece U.S. Go Home, I’d bet that a month doesn’t go by that I don’t find myself in a CVS or Walgreens in the dead of night with the Commodores’ 1985 hit “Nightshift” playing on the in-store speaker system. The song is used during a sublime and richly shaded sequence in Denis’ 35 Shots Of Rum. Funny thing is, I used to hear the song in 4 a.m. dives, which brought back memories of the young couple played by Mati Diop and Grégoire Colin dancing against a backdrop of green wall; nowadays, I hear it while restocking on diapers and milk, which instantly brings to mind the reverse shot of the widower (Alex Descas) watching his grown-up daughter from the bar.
Wes Anderson has a well-earned reputation as a director who can take a song and make it his own. The Royal Tenenbaums is different, though. Instead of “owning” the songs, Anderson works with them, drawing parallels between the music and his world of disaffected intellectuals. It works for “Hey Jude,” it works for “Ruby Tuesday,” and it works for Elliott Smith’s “Needle In The Hay,” which underscores (and occasionally threatens to overwhelm) the movie’s darkest scene, the attempted suicide of Richie Tenenbaum. It’s a harrowing scene, one of the director’s best, and it’s only made worse by the relentless strum of Smith’s guitar and wailing voice—and the knowledge that he’d be dead, possibly by his own hand, just two years after the film came out. It’s dangerous to call any piece of art a “cry for help”—and Smith reportedly disliked Anderson’s decision to pair his anthem to self-destruction with a suicide scene—but it’s impossible for me not to think about Richie’s blood, draining down his arms into a sink full of shorn hair, every time “Needle In The Hay” shuffles onto my iPod.
There are so many possible answers to this question; even just sticking to the already-mentioned Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson could provide another dozen great choices. So I’ll go with a song I love dearly on its own yet still associate with where I first heard it: Pulp’s “Like A Friend,” which I first heard in a memorable scene from Alfonso Cuarón’s loose 1998 version of Great Expectations. Pulp has such detailed, often narrative-driven songs that using one in a movie without overpowering the scene in question is a tall order, but Cuarón’s confidence, even in one of his lesser-loved movies, shines through in this sequence where Estella (Gwyneth Paltrow) turns up and has Finn (Ethan Hawke) draw her nude portrait, before abruptly exiting his apartment. The yearning, frustration, and surrender of the song perfectly matches the onscreen action, right down to the drawn-out coda, which blasts as Finn decides to chase after the enigmatic girl he loves.
“Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” has been featured in countless movies and TV shows over the years, not to mention thousands of performances of Jersey Boys. But, for me, that Frankie Valli classic will always be the song Heath Ledger used to woo Julia Stiles in 10 Things I Hate About You. Encouraged to sacrifice himself on the altar of dignity to make amends for rejecting her earlier advances, Ledger’s Patrick Verona decides to stage a public performance—complete with a high school marching band—to show Stiles’ Kat Stratford that he really does care about her. The whole thing works not because Ledger is some great singer (he’s not), but because he’s so committed to winning Kat over with song and dance, which is both ridiculous and ridiculously charming. It’s easily one of the top 10 sexiest romantic gestures on film, especially the moment where Ledger casually slides down a pole while singing like it’s no big deal.
If there’s a dependable device in Ben Stiller’s filmmaking toolbox, it’s his knack with a pop song. He was drafting off Martin Scorsese’s use of Eric Clapton and Warren Zevon all the way back in 1987, and his feature-length directorial debut launched a No. 1 single/enduring ’90s time capsule while also making a trio of tunes from the ’70s and ’80s its own. But none of these are the musical moment from the Stiller filmography that I have trouble divorcing from its cinematic context. It’s not anything from Zoolander’s throwback dance party, either: It’s Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody To Love,” as karaoke’d by The Cable Guy’s eponymous character. I’ve only seen the movie once or twice, but I’ve heard “Somebody To Love” dozens of times in the past 20 years, and it’s almost never Grace Slick’s piercing glare that the song calls to mind—it’s an unhinged Jim Carrey, his melodic Adam’s apple, and a room full of weirdos. Like The Cable Guy as a whole, the set-piece seethes with comedic menace, with Carrey’s aggressive approximation of various Summer Of Love postures making it seem like he’s always one second away from humping the camera. It’s a bad trip that left an indent on my impressionable young mind, as if it were part of some psychedelic brainwashing ploy.
This is maybe the greatest cliché answer possible to this question, but what the hell: I can’t listen to Derek And The Dominos’ “Layla” without thinking of Goodfellas. Specifically, I can’t hear the end of the song without thinking of the montage of dead bodies it scored in Martin Scorsese’s seminal gangster movie. Scorsese has a history of perfect song choices in his films, but “Layla” stands out for me in part because the section he uses almost sounds like it was written to fit the sequence in question—the lyrical, wistful yearning of the music serves a beautiful, darkly hilarious counterpoint to all those tacky, mobbed-up corpses in their various permutations. Whenever I hear “Layla” on the radio, the finale seems like it came from some different universe. But in Goodfellas it fits perfectly, to the point where I’d rather just watch the movie again then listen to the music—but then, I mean, it’s Goodfellas. I think I’d always rather just be watching Goodfellas.
I’m in the minority just fine with Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s sixth season. Yes, we had to deal with “Doublemeat Palace,” but I appreciated the show’s willingness to extend its characters’ growth right into “early 20s emotional chaos.” Willow got hooked on magic/addiction metaphors. Giles pondered his role as a middle-aged bachelor hanging out with college students. Buffy had that whole “unwillingly brought back from heaven” angst. So the eighth episode, “Tabula Rasa,” offered all a respite from their existential crises thanks to Willow’s errant amnesia spell. It’s a playful interlude, complete with misunderstandings, romantic mismatches, and Spike reinventing himself as Angel, essentially. But reality crashes down again, leaving Willow and Tara broken up, Giles on a plane to England, and Buffy drowning her sorrows (and, shockingly, making out with Spike) at the Bronze, all told in a montage set to Michelle Branch’s achingly emotional “Goodbye To You.” Season six was pitched high and dark, but that’s not always a bad thing, and was an indelible match with Branch’s wailing lament, from deep in the heart of the hellmouth of post-adolescence.
Hall & Oates’ “You Make My Dreams Come True” had already been used in a cinematic gold montage in The Wedding Singer. But it’s now impossible for me to hear my favorite H&O song without thinking of (500) Days Of Summer. In an inspired interpretation, the song is used to depict Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt)’s post-coital euphoria over being with Summer (Zooey Deschanel), as a mere walk to work turns into a show-stopping musical moment. To the tune of the song, Tom glad-hands strangers, makes fountains erupt, and plays with animated birds. He then seamlessly segues into a dance flash mob, over-the-top amplified by a marching band. It makes the crashing relationship moment that comes after it all the more tragic, but forever positions “You Make My Dreams” as the perfect soundtrack for ignorant lovelorn bliss.
Similarly to how the fourth-wall breaking scene Gwen describes makes that (500) Days Of Summer such a joyous stand-out, the season-one finale of Skins uses Cat Stevens’ “Wild World” to unexpected but cathartic effect. It’s memorable for how out of character it is for the show, which up to this point had been a straightforward drama about a group of teen friends. It steps into surrealist territory when Sid (Mike Bailey) looks at himself in the mirror and sings the opening line of the Cat Stevens tune. It’s a startling deviation from formula but also a somehow perfect way to show how Sid responds to the escalating themes building all season crashing together for the dramatic finale. None of this scene should work, but it all does. It doesn’t hurt that I already loved Cat Stevens and this song when it made such a bizarre appearance here, cementing the two together.
It’s become a lazy go-to for “serious sad times” in film and television at this point (I blame that jerk who made most of America aware of it for the first time by singing it on American Idol), but I’ll never forget hearing Jeff Buckley’s version of “Hallelujah” set to the finale of The West Wing season three, “Posse Comitatus.” It serves as an elegy for Mark Harmon’s Secret Service agent Simon Donovan, who is shot and killed after accidentally stumbling into a convenience store hold-up. Sure, it gains weight by doubling down on the momentous decision of President Bartlet to assassinate a foreign diplomat, but for me, the song is indelibly linked to having my heart break for C.J. Cregg (Allison Janney), who had just fallen for Donovan. Every time I hear that song now, I’m back watching Janney weep on a New York City street, and I get choked up all over again.
I was going to say Sarah McLachlan’s “Full Of Grace,” which was used during the season two finale of Buffy after Buffy kills Angel. But since Buffy’s already been mentioned, I’ll go with Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bleecker Street.” The song accompanies the final moments of Mad Men’s fourth-season standout “The Suitcase.” I’ve long been a huge Simon & Garfunkel fan, but before this episode I hadn’t spent much time with their early album Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M. on which this track appears. Now I can’t shake the way one of Paul Simon’s lyrics perfectly parallels the action on screen. “I saw a shadow touch a shadow’s hand” will, for me, forever be linked to Don squeezing Peggy’s hand, a nod to his sorrow and their kinship.
Although I love the Twilight books and will vehemently defend them until blue in the face (the series should be required reading for every American teenage boy considering any kind of serious romantic relationship), I’m not really a big fan of the Twilight movies. But a few elements of the films manage to do the books justice, and among those is the Iron & Wine song “Flightless Bird, American Mouth,” which Kristen Stewart apparently handpicked for the films. Used for Edward and Bella’s slow dance at their prom in the first movie and then for their wedding in Breaking Dawn—Part 1, the song perfectly encapsulates the core of the couple’s often troubled relationship, conveying longing, uncertainty, and the difficulty of change. Whenever I find myself wishing I could re-read the books but don’t have the time to dive into 1,500 pages of material, I’ll simply put the song on repeat, and live in that world for a half-hour or so. Don’t make fun of me. I know you’re making fun of me.
It’s impossible for me to separate Harry Belafonte from Beetlejuice. There is of course the now-famous dinner scene in which Charles (Jeffrey Jones) and Delia Deetz (Catherine O’Hara) and their guest are possessed by supernatural forces, resulting in a highly choreographed and comical routine to “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song).” But it’s the slightly less-remembered scene of Lydia Deetz (Winona Ryder) happily dancing to Belafonte’s “Jump In The Line (Shake, Senora)” while being levitated. Watching that movie as a child, I identified more with Lydia than with her parents and absolutely loved the whimsy of that scene.
Whenever there’s a horrible mass shooting, I always think of Chris Morris’ brilliant satire of Islamic fundamentalism and the war on terror, Four Lions. It’s a wacky slapstick comedy about suicide bombings (yes, a wacky comedy about suicide bombings that’s actually really, really funny) that finds the hilarity in exploding limbs and deadly self-deception. And whenever I think about Four Lions,
I think about its brilliant use of the golden oldie “Dancing In The Moonlight” as the infidel anthem these proud jihadists just can’t help but sing and dance along to. Given the maddening ubiquity of massacres these days, I find myself thinking about Four Lions an awful lot, but at least I also have an upbeat ditty to go along with all that darkness.