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.
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.
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.
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.
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.