Guardians of the Galaxy mixtape

Weekend Roundtable: Movie Mixtape

Nearly as much as their epic space battles and wise-cracking humor, the ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ movies are notable for their infectious soundtracks of 1970s pop hits. In this week’s Roundtable, we look at other famous examples of filmmakers putting licensed songs to good use.

To be clear, when we say “licensed songs,” we mean songs that existed beforehand and were not written specifically for the movie, nor did they premiere in the movie.

Shannon Nutt

There are so many good picks for this week’s Roundtable that I had a hard time deciding. Then a scene came to me and I realized it was the ONLY right choice for this topic.

I’m going with David Lynch’s use of the Roy Orbison hit “In Dreams” in ‘Blue Velvet‘ (which also makes great use of the Bobby Vinton tune it takes the title from, incidentally). Trying to describe the scene won’t do it justice (that’s probably true of most of Lynch’s work), so I encourage you to watch the movie sometime.

The song is actually used a couple times in the film, first with a lip sync by Dean Stockwell and not long afterwards during a scene in which the movie’s villain (Dennis Hopper) takes the protagonist (played by Kyle MacLachlan) on a terrifying joy ride.

It seems to be the perfect song for a Lynch movie, as much of his work has revolved around dreams and dream-like surrealism. Leave it to Lynch to take Orbison’s love ballad and turn it into the stuff of nightmares.

Brian Hoss

Among its other notable and iconic elements, the use of music in ‘Apocalypse Now‘ ranks right up there. In particular for me is the use of The Doors’ “The End,” which at the film’s onset really makes for a perfect bit of cinema. The scene has spectacle, madness, surrealism, and even a haunting fatigue, and all of this sets the tone of the film perfectly. The book-ending later is really just a bonus.

M. Enois Duarte

I was going to choose Simple Minds’ “Don’t You (Forget about Me)” for pretty obvious reasons, until I remembered that the band made it specifically for the movie. Keeping with the 1980s theme and being nostalgic for my youth, I think one of the best uses of a licensed song is, hands down, the Pixies’s “Where Is My Mind” in David Fincher’s now classic ‘Fight Club‘.

I was already a big fan of the song since its original release in 1988, when I played my ‘Surfer Rosa’ cassette constantly. Watching Fincher’s movie, not only was I shocked by the twist ending, but also immensely surprised to hear the song play in the background. The whole scene is truly one of the best closing moments ever, leaving audiences with a beautiful, haunting image of Edward Norton and Helena Bonham Carter enjoying a panoramic view of destruction as Black Francis sings us into the end credits.

Luke Hickman

Cameron Crowe is among my favorite directors. One of his best talents is the ability to use existing music to give his films the perfect mood and tone. He’s not only great at finding the perfect song, but he also finds off-the-beaten-path tracks and bands to do it. Each time he makes a new film, I stick around during the credits just so I can learn the names of the unknown-to-me artists who contribute to his soundtracks. (Fortunately, Crowe lists his complete track lists on his web site, so that step has gotten easier.)

With that preface, my favorite use of music in a movie happens to be in ‘Vanilla Sky‘. I love the music of that film so much that it’s difficult to pick just one track to highlight. However, for this post I’m going with Sigur Rós’ “The Nothing Song.” It plays during the rooftop finale of the film. David’s eyes are open, he’s made amends with those that he loves, and he has a big decision to make. The songs itself starts slow and quiet, yet builds up in scale and grandeur. It quietly starts in the background of this scene, but really ramps up and adds emotion to the film’s final drop. After watching ‘Vanilla Sky’ for the first time, I recall frequently popping the DVD in to revisit that scene over and over again. It’s a strong resolution to the film and “The Nothing Song” adds to that richness.

Adam Tyner (DVDTalk)

Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising” has a transformative effect on me whenever I revisit one of my lifelong favorite films. My breathing slows. My pulse quickens. If I’m slouched or laying down, I immediately set myself upright. My focus intensifies. It’s admittedly a less dramatic transformation than the one David Kessler undergoes in ‘An American Werewolf in London‘.

One of the most fascinating things about “Bad Moon Rising” is the combination of its upbeat music and ominous lyrics, and that makes it a brilliant prelude to the film’s standout sequence. A montage follows David as he endures a boring evening trapped inside his lover’s London flat, passing the time with trashy TV shows and by opening the refrigerator door over and over despite not being the least bit hungry. All the while, the lyrics barked out by John Fogerty foreshadow what’s soon to come. “I see trouble on the way.” “I see bad times today.” “Don’t go ’round tonight / Well, it’s bound to take your life.” “Hope you are quite prepared to die.”

In keeping with the dichotomy of the song’s bleak lyrics and cheery guitars, David quips, “Fee-fi-fo-fum. I smell the blood of an Englishman,” blissfully unaware that he’d literally be getting a faceful of the stuff shortly afterwards. The last time we see David truly alive and happy, we’re hearing a song about death and misfortune, befitting a horror/comedy approaching its crescendo. This is as perfect a combination of cinema and song as I’ve ever come across, and accordingly, I can’t think of one without my mind immediately turning towards the other.

Chris Boylan (Big Picture Big Sound)

For me, songs really can make a movie. I went into ‘Moulin Rouge!‘ expecting to hate it, but really loved how Baz Luhrmann adapted modern pop songs, as well as mash-ups of those songs, to fit a 19th Century setting. My favorite was Ewan McGregor’s rendition of Elton John’s “Your Song.” He starts off nervously reciting the lines as poetry but then just starts belting the rest out: “My gift is my song… And this one’s for you.” It leaves Nicole Kidman’s character in stunned silence, and it actually gives me goose bumps. Every. Single. Time.

On a lighter note, the use of The Banana Splits’ “The Tra La La Song” in ‘Kick-Ass‘ is priceless. As Hit Girl (Chloë Grace Moretz) is slicing off limbs and impaling drug dealers with pointy objects, the happy strains of “Tra La La” provide an excellent counterpoint to lighten the mood. The version used in the film was not the original but a cover by punk band The Dickies which was a bit more up-tempo. Simply inspired.

Another popular song that helped to define a film is “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin” by the Righteous Brothers in ‘Top Gun‘. First Maverick (Tom Cruise) enlists the help of his fellow pilots to serenade Charlie (Kelly McGillis) with the song in a (mostly unsuccessful) attempt to woo her. Then the song is used again near the end of the movie when Charlie comes back to him in the very same bar. The scene has likely been recreated (poorly) countless times in karaoke bars around the world. Don’t ask me how I know.

Speaking of the Righteous Brothers, no list of memorable uses of songs in film would be complete without a mention of “Unchained Melody” in ‘Ghost‘. Sure, it’s been parodied everywhere from ‘Saturday Night Live’ to ‘Family Guy’, but that sensual pottery scene with Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze was a big part of what made the film a success. And as with “Lovin’ Feelin,” you hear strains of “Unchained Melody” at the end of ‘Ghost’ when Swayze’s character says his final goodbyes.

By the way, when Josh gave us this assignment, he said not to use songs that were written specifically for a film. Technically, “Unchained Melody” was written for a film, just not this film. It was written in 1955 for a little known prison drama called ‘Unchained’, hence the title. The Righteous Brothers covered it ten years later and made it popular. And ‘Ghost’ took that popularity to a whole new level. Who knew that making pottery could be sexy? What’s next? Sensual scrap-booking set to Duran Duran’s “Save a Prayer”? Hmmm… I may be onto something.

Josh Zyber

Picking any song Quentin Tarantino has ever used in a movie is, I think, too easy for this topic, so I’ll give the obvious choice of Stealers Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle with You” during the torture scene in ‘Reservoir Dogs‘ an honorable mention.

Michael Mann uses a lot of licensed music in ‘Manhunter‘, mostly from obscure ’80s bands such as The Prime Movers, Shriekback, and Red 7 that were personal favorites of his that he wanted to give some exposure. The fact that none of them ever broke out to be major acts is immaterial to how well the songs convey the required emotional drive of the movie. The most famous song in the film comes from a couple decades earlier. The movie climaxes with a brutal struggle and shootout while Iron Butterfly’s 1968 prog rock epic (the full version is 17 minutes long) “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” blares on serial killer Francis Dollarhyde’s stereo. It’s a brilliant choice that directly reflects the mentality of the character, who would have grown up with this music and continues to listen to it as part of his fantasy of spiritual ascension. The song’s slow build-up and driving, repetitive beat also greatly enhance the suspense of the scene.

Use the Comments section to tell us about your favorite uses of licensed songs in a movie soundtrack.


  1. Tears for Fears first screen credit was for the close of REAL GENIUS: “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”, referring to orbital laser platforms.

    (Actually: maybe closing credits music is a different topic).

    • Yes! We just watched the 4 Alien movies plus Prometheus with the kids for the first time in preparation for “Covenant” and I noticed that too. Funny! I tried to convince my kids there were only two Alien movies but they opened the boxed set and found the others…

      • Elizabeth

        I actually rather like Alien 3. I like how it tried to take the series in a different direction, just as Aliens before it had. The performances all seemed pretty solid and the idea that the xenomorph’s adult form is influenced by its host is interesting. I don’t know; I guess I don’t really understand why it is so hated except maybe that it wasn’t an action flick like Aliens.

        • Killing off two of the major characters from the previous film in the first five minutes kinda put a damper on things for me. But as a whole the film just didn’t make a whole lot of sense. Why was she being so secretive about the alien instead of warning them about it? Particularly the doctor who she clearly had developed a bond with. I understand she was paranoid about the company’s intentions, but this went a little too far, IMHO. There were some elements that were interesting, like you said the host influencing the form of the xenomorph was cool. But a few cool elements and some religious symbology don’t make a film. BTW, I don’t think I had watched the “special edition” or “Assembly cut” before. I remember a dog being the host, but then it was an Ox in the SE. Also, the alien doesn’t pop out of the body (only to be grabbed and held) on the way into the furnace in the SE. The changes certainly made it longer, but I don’t think they made it particularly better.

  2. NJScorpio

    “Same Old Song” from Blood Simple is so perfectly appropriate.

    As far as a full licensed soundtrack that is key to the movie…I must go with The Crow.

  3. photogdave

    I remember reading that American Graffiti was the first feature film to use all original songs instead of a score. Not sure if this is true but the songs are used effectively.
    Music from the same era and a few years later helps create the perfect atmosphere for The Big Chill. The Stones “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” is poignant for the funeral scene.
    Speaking of atmosphere, 24 Hour Party People is chock full of great 70s and 80s Mad-chester songs (obviously) from Joy Division, Happy Mondays and more.
    On the flip side, can someone ask Martin Scorsese to stop using “Gimme Shelter”? Twice in The Departed for cryin’ out loud!

  4. Paul Anderson

    PTA’s use of music in Boogie Nights is absolutely sublime. The music in Donnie Darko is pretty amazing as well. I much prefer the arrangement of the theatrical cut, however. Echo and The Bunnymen for the win during the opening credits.

    • Bolo

      Yup, ‘Boogie Nights’ is a perfect use of preexisting music. The music sets the feel of the changing eras and each song also fits the vibe of its scene.

  5. Great topic, and awesome choices, everyone. A few specific comments:

    Shannon – Yes! “In Dreams” was awesome in that scene. Good call!

    Luke – Now you make me want to watch “Vanilla Sky” again. But you also made me remember one of Crowe’s other memorable uses of a song – “In Your Eyes” – in “Say Anything.” Great stuff.

    Adam – another excellent choice. I still think of “American Werewolf” when I hear that Creedence song.

    Josh – “Stuck in the Middle” is definitely worth that honorable mention. The only problem is it’s hard not to picture Michael Madsen dancing around with a razor blade slicing off body parts every time I’ve heard it since.

    • I guess I was living under a rock, but it took me a while to realize that the Royal Caribbean cruise line theme song was an Iggy Pop tune about liquor and drug use (and more). Great drum riff intro though!

  6. Steve

    OK – it’s not a pop song, but I dare say Kubrick’s use of Strauss’ Blue Danube Waltz in the first scenes in space in 2001 changed the way I hear that piece of music. It always makes me think of space vehicles doing a dance in space now.

  7. Elizabeth

    I was never a fan of the movie, but it’s pretty much impossible not to think of Wayne’s World every time I hear Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen. The song remains a classic and its use in the film introduced Queen to a new generation. And the film, well it started the horrendous trend of trying to make 5 minute SNL skits into feature length films.

    • photogdave

      “…it started the horrendous trend of trying to make 5 minute SNL skits into feature length films.”

      I think you would have to go back to The Blues Brothers for that honour.

      • Elizabeth

        Blues Brothers might have been the first, but it wasn’t until the success of Wayne’s World 12 years later when they went all in on turning SNL skits into feature length films.

  8. Bolo

    Say what you want about the movie as a whole, but the Bob Dylan opening credits for ‘Watchmen’ is absolutely brilliant.

  9. Csm101

    The opening credits for Seven which features the creepy killer’s personal diaries and all sorts of creepy things has a cool mix from Nine Inch Nail’s “Closer”. I believe it’s the Closer (Precursor) version. Love that sequence.

  10. Plissken99

    This is cheeseball, but Gimme Some Lovin’ by the Spencer Davis group always makes me think of Iron Eagle. Which is a great soundtrack on the whole(easily bests Top Gun), yet annoyingly doesn’t include that song.

  11. JERP

    The soundtrack for Goodfellas always impresses me since it is chock full of music especially the last major sequence when Ray Liotta’s character is using too much cocaine and paranoid about the police with helicopters overhead. That whole sequce blends a mixture of tunes that includes Muddy Water’s Mannish Boy that kicks in just as the main character takes a huge snort of coke. Awesome. 2001: A Space Odyssey is also another amazing demonstration of combining image with music…..whenever I hear the Blue Danube I think of that image of spacecraft drifting through space…..amazing.

    • “Jump into the Fire” from GoodFellas (during the sequence where Henry thinks a helicopter is following him) was actually my second choice…so we’re in agreement.

  12. Barsoom Bob

    Michelangelo Antonioni used Pink Floyd’s primal scream opus “Careful with That Axe Eugene” for powerful effect for the ending sequence of “Zabriskie Point”, a some what muddled in his thinking/take on the U.S. counter culture movement in the 60’s. The girl who has been seduced by the rich guy, Rod Taylor, and living in his million dollar hillside mansion, upon finding out that her radical boyfriend had been gunned down by police, leaves, turns and mentally blows the place to smithereens in a fantastic extended, slo-mo sequence. “Axe” builds quietly, ominously as she drives away and then just as all hell breaks loose, Roger Waters let’s out that extended scream and the music goes into overdrive as the mansion is destroyed and all these different pieces of our modern life float through the air in a ballet of slo-mo destruction. For copyright reason they had to retitle it as “Come in No. 51, your time is up” for the soundtrack, but make no mistake, it is the Floyd’s “Axe/Eugene”. That ending is visceral, cathartic and quite effective.

  13. AddictedToStories

    Wow – no fans of John Woo’s “Ballet of Violence”-style movies? I first ran across that phrase in praise of John Woo’s movie Face/Off. The musical gun-battle scene blew me away.

    It’s a typical, violent gun-fight – but with a little kid listening to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” on his music player. About three minutes into the fight they fade out from live/gun-fight audio into only hearing what the kid hears – his headphones playing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” – and the imagery of the lights and explosions around him looks gorgeous when played with the beautiful music.

  14. KurtUtt

    On the same serious note: What a Wonderful World – Louis Armstrong in Good Morning Vietnam.

    More entertaining (which I just saw the source material this year and I’m 36!). Singing in the Rain (or pretty much any remix) in Clock Work Orange. How they approved that for those scenes is beyond me.

    Non-Movie: Opening Scene of the Gotham Episode where Jim Gordan is going to Jail (Se02 ep.16 ): the vocal cover of a Lamb song Gorecki. My favorite relatively unknown band!

  15. Hey M. Enois, technically, ‘Don’t You Forget About Me’ could qualify, because Simple Minds didn’t specifically record it for the movie – in fact, it’s not even a song they wrote (which is why they were initially reluctant to record it at all).

    My pick would be ‘Johnny B. Goode’ from ‘Back to the Future’, the movie that taught me who Chuck Berry was at the tender age of 10. ‘I guess you guys aren’t ready for that yet, but your kids are gonna love it’ remains one of my favorite lines in the history of film.

    In a chauvinistic/patriottic move, I’d like to point out how well Scorsese used ‘Ca Plane Pour Moi’ in ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’.

  16. Bolo

    I’ll also throw in that I associate ‘Sleepwalk’ by Santo & Johnny with the film ’12 Monkeys’. The way such a relaxing song makes Willis’s character so frantic is brilliant. The film also makes good use of ‘I Found My Thrill on Blueberry Hill’.

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