I haven’t seen Danny Boyle and Richard Curtis’s new film Yesterday, but I am sure already that its music licensing budget must have been through the roof. Songs by The Beatles are the most expensive in the world to use in film/tv/commercials. All great films using famous songs in your film can be extremely effective, but also potentially terrible (*cough* Hallelujah in Watchmen). Here’s a list of some good examples, consciously ignoring biopics about musicians and James Bond title songs because that’s a whole other ball game.
Mommy – Wonderwall
Any excuse to rewatch this scene. This scene still gives me shivers. In a movie full of trauma and discontent, and a whole lot of yelling, this scene is one of the purest depictions of liberation ever put to film. The aspect ratio trick is an ingenious touch. Wonderwall may have generally been played in the world far too many times, but Dolan seems to breathe new life into it in this scene, and it complements the visuals perfectly.
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou – Life on Mars
The perfect example of Wes Anderson’s use of music is this scene from his polarising Life Aquatic with Bill Murray and a stop-motion shark. The song quietly builds up a momentous scene between newly met father and son, and then explodes into chorus as Steve travels up the deck alone to compose himself. It’s a powerful moment brought to life by David Bowie.
Varsity Blues – Thunderstruck
This Jon Voight sports film has a compelling mid-film scene that shows the team struggle with hangovers on the pitch after a big night out, and get brutally rolled over in glorious slow motion, to AC-DC’s Thunderstruck. This song reportedly cost the filmmakers $500,000, which considering the film’s entire budget was $16m, was a serious chunk of cash. It is an impressively shot scene, though, and hearing the song while watching Jon Voight maddeningly throw a clipboard in slo mo is always a pleasure.
Dazed and Confused – Sweet Emotion
Richard Linklater’s cult slice of growing up in America opens with this hit Aerosmith song. A montage of high schoolers going about their general day (on the last day of school before summer), the song plays to totally muted dialogue. It instantly provides an incredibly specific and effective atmosphere that perfectly sets up the film’s stoned yet genuine aura.
Magnolia – Goodbye Stranger
Paul Thomas Anderson’s monumental mosaic features a particularly memorable scene in which braces (or corrective oral surgery) enthusiast Quiz Kid Donnie Smith (William H. Macy) ponders life and love to the sound of Supertramp’s Goodbye Stranger. He sees an attractive bartender, Brad, who has the braces that Donnie so badly wants himself. Brad seems to be an easy embodiment of everything Donnie wants at that moment in time – a material goal, a physical goal, but actually a goal of finding love and deep connection. It’s before Donnie fights for Brad’s attention with a brilliant Henry Gibson, who has the one thing Donnie doesn’t – money. The two intellectuals quote greats at each other, and yet while their academic abilities are clear, the sad truth is they are both emotionally stunted and lonely to the point of despair. Unfortunately the only video online is dubbed in French, but it’s easy to see the power that the song brings to the scene.
Mad Men – Tomorrow Never Knows
Ok, this isn’t a film, but Mad Men is better than most films, and its use of music is so incredibly astute that it would be unfair to not include it on this list. At the end of Season 5’s “Lady Lazarus”, Megan Draper pesters Don into listening to a new Beatles album Revolver, starting with Tomorrow Never Knows. She wants to bring an old fashioned Don into a new and incomprehensible world of hippies and modernisation, one that Don has until now refused to join. Now that he has a young new wife, he is thrown into this world, from a home with a housewife and kids in the suburbs to a Manhattan penthouse apartment. A classic Mad Men ending, it manages to bring together the concerns of different characters into a cohesive montage. But Don turns the song off, indicating his rejection of changing times and perhaps signifying a doomed marriage. AMC spent $250,000 getting the rights to this song, which for one episode of a thirteen episode season, demonstrates just how important it was to the show.
Mad Men – You Only Live Twice
I know, no Bond songs, but this Mad Men scene uses Nancy Sinatra’s You Only Live Twice to one of the greatest shots in the entire series. The camera dollies back as Don walks away from Megan on a soap set, away from the fantasy. It’s super meta, and the overly glamorous James Bond song shows that it really is fantasy. The double entendre of “Are you alone?” is such a sharp question that shows the whole illusion of glamour around that world.
Chungking Express – California Dreaming
Wong Kar-Wai is one of the greatest when it comes to using music – imagine In The Mood For Love with a Hans Zimmer soundtrack. No thank you. California Dreaming is embedded into the narrative of the film – it links to the two separate stories together, it links two characters together. It shows “the grass is greener on the other side” feeling as universal yet illusory. Don’t watch past 8 minutes if you haven’t seen the film.
Apocalypse Now – The End
Arguably the most evocative opening few minutes in the history of cinema. A zoomed in view of a jungle canopy. The Doors’ The End plays, and in an instant, the jungle lights up in a terrifying blaze. It’s the ultimate use of music for ultimate intensity. No blood, no guts, just the sheer consuming power of napalm.
McCabe and Mrs Miller – The Stranger Song
Robert Altman’s revisionist Western opens to the haunting beauty of Leonard Cohen. Using modern music anachronistically in period films is always a risky business, but Altman’s pensive and starkly beautiful opening of a snowy mountain town on the American Frontier is made immortal by Cohen’s calmly mournful song.
The Graduate – The Sound of Silence
In 1967 Roger Ebert said that the music Mike Nichols chose to use in his film was “instantly forgettable”. Thirty years later he re-reviewed the film and conceded defeat. The Simon & Garfunkel music in this film is perhaps its most memorable feature, a brilliant soundtrack that bring together a suburban classiness somehow with youthful angst. The brilliant shot of Benjamin sliding along the moving walkway in the airport to The Sound of Silence is an amazing opening sequence, but watch the second clip for the eternally famous cuts that Mike Nichols uses to link the compartmentalised parts of Benjamin’s life.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 – Father and Son
Filling an overload of VFX with 70s nostalgia is welcome juxtaposition, and it made the original Guardians film one of the most refreshing in the extremely-extremely-well-trodden Marvel universe. In Vol. 2, James Gunn uses this Cat Stevens song to play over Yondu’s space funeral in this Marvel sequel. Apart from being a great song, it adds a level of poignancy and keeps up the 70s charm to go with this rather sad moment as a villain achieves catharsis. Its relevance also works on a number of levels, both centrally with Kurt Russell and Chris Pratt as the fighting father and son, but also a number of family relationships throughout the Guardians’ universe.