Movies and music. Flicks and tunes.
Two great things that go great together.
Since the advent of motion pictures, music has played a huge part in cinematic storytelling. In the days of silent movies, pianist, organists and, sometimes, small orchestras would play music along with the movie. Later, after films incorporated recorded sound, music (either through the film’s score or lyrical music) helped to convey, complement and underscore the emotions, moods and messages in movies.
When it comes to lyrical music, movies have generally used original songs created especially for the film (for instance, “Over the Rainbow” in The Wizard of Oz or “Mrs. Robinson” for The Graduate), or have had its characters perform new versions of popular songs, such as “As Times Go By” in Casablanca or “I Will Always Love You” in The Bodyguard.
However, in the last 40 years or so, it has become more common for movies to feature pre-existing recordings of songs, often of those that are already hugely popular with the general public.
In such instances, it’s not easy to effectively match the right song for a scene. Often, directors will use music as shortcuts to cover up poor screenwriting. As an example, if you see a movie scene where the characters sing a Motown song in their kitchen or living room, nine out of ten times the directors used the song in a lazy manner to convey that their characters are fun and have a classic music taste. These scenes are usually in bad movies.
Yet, the right song paired with the right scene can not only make that scene incredible, it can even increase the song’s popularity and strength. In fact, sometimes, the pairing of song and scene are so incredible that a listener hearing the song later can’t help but recall the movie scene.
The following five scenes are examples of popular songs that have been used perfectly to accentuate the power and mood of the scene in which they appeared. As a result, these scenes have created a permanent tie between the movie and the song.
1. The Silence of the Lambs: “American Girl” by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
An important rule of storytelling is to present the characters in such a way that the audience has no choice but to care for the characters. This rule is even more vital in a horror movie. If the viewers can relate to a horror movie character, if they can like them, then the viewers’ horror deepens when something bad happens to the character. If the audience doesn’t care about the characters, they won’t be really scared when the characters are in danger.
In the following scene in The Silence of the Lambs, Jonathan Demme perfectly introduces us to Catherine Martin (Brooke Smith). We first see Catherine driving her car at night, singing along to a song. Not just any song, mind you, but “American Girl” by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, one of the great rock songs that probably everyone has sung at least once while driving.
Demme’s message is clear: Catherine Martin is a normal “American Girl” and what happens to her can happen to you, your sister or your daughter.
2. The Breakfast Club: “Don’t You Forget About Me” by Simple Minds
There are some directors who, among their many talents, have the incredible ability to pair a movie scene with the perfect song. These directors, including Cameron Crowe and Quentin Tarantino, are somehow able to accomplish this feat on a regular basis.
John Hughes is also one of those directors.
In The Breakfast Club, Hughes made the viewers spend a memorable Saturday morning in detention with five various high school students: a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess and a criminal. During that time, the students learn lessons about each other and themselves.
In the following scene, Hughes ends the movie with this Simple Minds song playing over a montage of the students leaving the school. The pairing is so perfect that, after viewing it, the audience can’t help but remember the song and the movie any time they think of the other.
3. Pulp Fiction: “Flowers on the Wall” by The Statler Brothers
Quentin Tarantino has a reputation for filling his movies with a host of memorable, quirky, and, often, obscure songs.
In the following scene from Pulp Fiction, Tarantino uses the Statler Brothers hit to both reflect the scene’s mood and to contrast against it. The scene shows boxer Butch (Bruce Willis) on the run from gangster Marcellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) after winning a match that he was paid to throw. Butch has just left his apartment after killing Wallace’s henchman Vinnie Vega after Vega emerged from Butch’s bathroom.
On one hand, the song fits. It’s an absurd song and what occurs in the scene is also absurd. Yet, the song is also harmless fun, two words that cannot describe what happens at the end of the scene.
4. Say Anything: “In Your Eyes” by Peter Gabriel
As stated above, Cameron Crowe is a director with a great taste in music and an incredible ability to select the right song for a scene. This talent was immediately evident in Crowe’s directorial debut, Say Anything, which featured fantastic songs by Living Colour, The Replacements and Red Hot Chili Peppers.
However, it’s Crowe’s usage of Peter Garbriel’s “In Your Eyes” which caught everyone’ s attention. The first time Crowe plays the song is during a scene in which the main character Lloyd Dobler (John Cusack) makes love to his girlfriend Diane Court (Ione Skye) for the first time.
The second time is in the scene below, after Diane dumped Lloyd. The scene shows a defiant Lloyd standing outside of Diane’s house, holding a boombox over his head, and playing “In Your Eyes.” Together, the song and the visuals create a classic movie moment that has been referenced and/or parodied countless times.
5. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off: “Twist and Shout” by the Beatles
It’s time for another John Hughes movie classic and another perfect song choice.
There’s so many reasons why “Twist and Shout” was the perfect song to use in this scene. If Ferris, the most popular student in his school, is going to lip synch a song, it should be a song from music’s most popular band. Another reason lies with Ferris’s movie message during the movie: enjoy life while you can. What better way to do this than to twist, shout and work it all out?
In the end, though, the best reason the song and scene succeed together is that both are incredibly freaking fun. They create an iconic movie scene that would make anyone want to get on their feet and dance.
Watch the scene and shake it, shake it, shake it, baby now.
Let me know below which song/scene combo was your favorite. In the future, we’ll look at other scenes, including some more by Messrs. Crowe, Hughes and Tarantino, but feel free to offer your favorites that you’d like to see included.
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