Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Making Good Scenes Great - Pop Music in Movies

By Phantom Troublemaker

Seeing Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 got me thinking about the phenomenal effectiveness of Baby Groot dancing to The Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back” at the end of the prior movie.

I’ve said it many times in many places, but that single instance of film created a universal moment the likes of which our world rarely sees – everyone around the world that saw that scene experienced joy akin to the Grinch’s heart growing three sizes. I have no empirical evidence to support this claim, but I have yet to meet anyone that doesn’t smile when you mention it and even critics of the film agreed that that was a bright, shining moment.

I feel like it was a landmark in pop culture history where everyone put aside their snark and their vitriol and just smiled at Baby Groot.

While Vol. 2 didn’t feature anything quite as viscerally pleasing – though it had many powerful musical moments – there are plenty of films from my lifetime that have used pop music brilliantly. Some so well that songs I would not otherwise have enjoyed are now a part of the playlist of my life. Today I wanted to sit down and think about some of the best uses of pop music in film.

Me being me, I had to lay down some ground rules.

*The music has to play over an actual part of the narrative and not just credits, though the characters do not have to be aware of the music.

*The song cannot have been made specifically for the movie. It sucked to leave out “The Touch” and “Flash’s Theme”, but that’s a different list for another Wednesday.

*The characters in the movie can’t be performing the song. They can be singing along, but not providing the song itself, for example Marty playing “Johnny B. Goode” in Back to the Future. That, too, is another list.

*The song must be relevant to the scene. It’s not just playing in the background while characters talk.

“Stuck in the Middle With You” by Stealer’s Wheel – Reservoir Dogs

I thought I was pretty hardcore when I first saw this movie. I had seen plenty of Freddy, Jason, and Pinhead doing unspeakable things to irresponsible teenagers. But the scene that this song accompanies was one of the first times I had seen a regular old human being brutal and horrific on film and it affected me. My film taste had always leaned towards the fantastical, so I hadn’t sampled many of the more grounded movies available. It was one thing to see Clarence Boddicker and his wacky gang blow Officer Murphy to pieces in the futuristic Detroit of 1997. It was quite another to see the homicidal glaze in Mr. Blonde’s eyes as he tortures Marvin Nash. It was so real it almost put me off the movie. And it was so powerful that anyone who has seen Reservoir Dogs can’t help but think of the scene when this song plays.

“I Want You Back” by The Jackson 5 – Guardians of the Galaxy

As I mentioned above, the scene with a revived baby Groot dancing in his little flower pot is a source of almost universal joy. For that one brief scene, everything is okay in the galaxy.

“For Whom the Bell Tolls” by Metallica – Zombieland

What better way to open a post-zombie-apocalypse movie than with Metallica’s doom-filled dirge?

“Tiny Dancer” by Elton John – Almost Famous

This is one of my favorite “come together” scenes. Everyone is on the tour bus and just fucking sick of it. Then Elton’s voice comes on the radio and nobody can resist singing along.

“Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen – Wayne’s World

This one is probably one of the most iconic music related scenes of my generation. Even though the height of Queen’s popularity predated our pop music by a decade, everyone my age knows “Bohemian Rhapsody” in its entirety and it’s because of this movie. Heck, Queen saw quite a resurgence thanks to this scene.

“Shoot to Thrill” by AC/DC – Avengers

I’m a wrestling fan. Wrestlers have entrance music. And in Avengers, Iron Man has entrance music.

Jon Favreau used an entire playlist of AC/DC songs as the soundtrack for Iron Man 2. Among them was “Shoot to Thrill”, which Iron Man used in the opening of the movie to announce his arrival at the Stark Expo. That scene was awesome, but the one where he arrives to battle Loki in Avengers is incredible because he is literally using the song as a preamble to his fight against a bad guy – just like a wrestler would. In the very context of the movie our favorite egomaniac Tony Stark is using an AC/DC as entrance music. It’s fantastic.

“Free Bird” by Lynyrd Skynyrd – The Devil’s Rejects

Rob Zombie uses one of the most famous songs in the world in its entirety as the backdrop to the Firefly family making the decision to go out in a blaze of gory. It works for the movie because rather than making the antagonists of House of 1000 Corpses sympathetic or at least anti-heroes, Zombie doubled down on their villainy. Lord knows they can’t change.

Honorable mention to Kingsman: The Secret Service for its use of “Free Bird”; while the scene was outstanding, it wasn’t as thematically appropriate is it was in Rejects.

“Tequila” by The Champs – Pee Wee’s Big Adventure

For many years I thought that this was the greatest song I had ever heard in my life, all because Pee Wee Herman entertained a bar full of roughneck scum while dancing to it. And it is a pretty damned good song.

“Hip to Be Square” by Huey Lewis and the News – American Psycho

Hearing Patrick Bateman giving a dissertation on the relative merits of the albums of Huey Lewis and the News while putting on a plastic suit and preparing to murder Jared Leto with an ax has to be one of the greatest scenes in the history of horror.

“Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” by Kenny Rogers and the First Edition – The Big Lebowski

I had no idea that Kenny Rogers sang anything other than country until I saw this movie. The Dude’s trippy flight through bowling alleys and Valkyries was weird enough without realizing that the Gambler was providing the weird psychedelic tunes. My friend, Andy Samford, does a pretty righteous cover of this one.

“Army of Me” by Björk – Sucker Punch

There are as many things to dislike about Sucker Punch as there are things to like, but I think we can probably all agree that Babydoll’s fight against giant samurai robots with Gatling guns is awesome, and made all the more so by Björk’s musical weirdness.


“Salutation/Jump Around” by House of Pain – Kiss of Death

I don’t know if many people remember this movie, let alone this scene. In it, Nicholas Cage’s character Little Junior Brown brings a huge boom box into a room, plays these tracks, puts on a plastic poncho, and beats a guy to bloody death with his bare hands. At the time I saw Kiss of Death Nicholas Cage was still considered more cool than weird and I was a HUGE mark for House of Pain.

“Blue Moon” by The Marcels – An American Werewolf in London

What remains one of the greatest werewolf transformation scenes in cinematic history is accompanied by this sweet song.

“Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” by Wham! – Zoolander

I still don’t know if I even like this movie, but I sure do like Wham! and the montage of Ben Stiller and his moron friends driving around and being morons delights me to no end. Particularly the climax, which is unbelievably morbid and gruesome. Stiller has a dark, dark sense of humor and I love it when he goes a bit too far.

“Get Back” by Ludacris – Tropic Thunder

Speaking of Ben Stiller, his humor isn’t always dark. Sometimes it’s just insane. Like putting Tom Cruise in a fat suit and enough makeup to make him unrecognizable and having him do the world’s most incredible interpretive dance to Atlanta’s own Ludacris.

This kind of breaks my first rule since it's just a credits sequence, but I also fully believe that this scene is a critical part of Les Grossman's character arc.

“ABC” by The Jackson 5 – Clerks 2

If I were ranking these selections, this might be number one, even over baby Groot. Rosario Dawson is one of the most luminous and delightful human beings ever to walk God’s green earth, and the pure joy she displays in this scene is worth every shitty thing Kevin smith has ever done. Next time you see something like Yoga Hosers or that shitty episode of The Flash, just look this scene up on YouTube and recognize that the universe is, indeed, balanced.

“Dare to Be Stupid” by Weird Al Yankovic – The Transformers: The Movie

The pure electric thrill of seeing my favorite animated transforming robots on the big screen was only overshadowed by the thrill of seeing them dance to the music of the greatest musician of all time, Weird Al Yankovic. I don’t have very clear recall of my childhood, but I remember watching this scene in the theater next to my sleeping mother vividly.

The use of Al's song also lessened the sting of Ultra Magnus's death.

I'm just kidding. Nobody cared about Ultra Magnus.

“Come Baby Come” by K7 – Suicide Squad

I never imagined I would hear K7 in a 2016 theatrical release, but there was really no better song to have Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn kicking ass to. I wish the scene had been a bit longer and she had taken out a few more goons, but it was still an awesome piece of the movie.

“Beat on the Brat” by The Ramones – Billy Madison

A little on the nose, but it still delights me every time I see Adam Sandler dodgeballing the shit out of a bunch of little kids on the playground. Listening to the unadulterated wonderfulness that is The Ramones while it happens is just a bonus.

“Cannned Heat” by Jamiroquai – Napoleon Dynamite

This has to be one of the most unexpected scenes I’ve ever watched. I had no idea what was about to happen and nothing could have prepared me for it. I didn’t even like Jamiroquai at the time, but seeing Jon Heder bust out those dance moves was phenomenal. Me and the missus were both laughing so hard we were crying.

I know I left plenty of songs off of this list. Why don’t you go join the Needless Things Podcast Facebook Group and let me know which ones I missed!

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