The 10 Best Uses of Popular Music in Modern Film

Don’t let the concept fool you: Hollywood has made a mint mining popular culture for music to squeeze into their productions. Even back in the days when actors frequently broke into song for no good reason, the latest selections on the hit parade were wedged in for some necessary commercial cross promotion. Many of the most memorable tunes from the past found their purchase in the cinema of the time, and up until the ’50s, there was little change. Then directors hit upon a more intriguing idea. Instead of just using same as a marketing tool, why not give the material meaning? As a result, we’ve seen a steady increase in the use of popular songs and genres — rock, country, soul — as a viable motion picture backdrop. Some filmmakers have become so good at the concurrence of sight and sound that their reputation rests on it.

As a result, this is our list of the 10 Best Uses of Popular Music in Post Modern Cinema (yes, we are skipping several decades previous – there’s just no time or space). First off, however, some ground rules. We have PURPOSEFULLY tried to avoid the obvious choices. You won’t see “Layla” from Goodfellas, “In Dreams” from Blue Velvet, or “Sister Christian” from Boogie Nights (we have another, better selection for that film). In fact, many of the so called “most memorable” moments from the use of music in movies are AWOL here. Why? Well, it’s far more fun to discuss new traditions that to trod down the paths previously proposed. Even better, songs and sounds are personal things. One individuals love of George Thorogood can lead to the widespread use (and abuse) of his “Bad to the Bone”.

So we stick with what we like, what we feel fulfills the promise and needs of the scene, and how the overall movie and narrative is enhanced/highlighted by the tune selected. We may not have for favorites listed, but that’s OK. Within this category there seems to be dozens of intriguing choices, starting with one from 2010’s Best Film…

#10: “Baby, You’re a Rich Man” — The Beatles, from The Social Network

As the coda for the out of court case being waged against Mark Zuckerberg and those who would claim credit for creating that funny little muddle known as Facebook, David Fincher delivers a devastating blow. As a weary John Lennon sings over a simplistic piano-based beat, the combination of celebration and defeat is palpable. As the lyrics chide our characters, calling them out as “beautiful people”, the ending insinuates unearned wealth and a battle over basic human dignity. When combined with what we had seen previously, it’s makes the movie’s message even more sharp and eviscerating.

#9: “Police on My Back” — The Clash, from Knocked Up

It’s a throwaway moment, a sequence where our E! News Producer lead and her married pal run through a pharmacy looking for home pregnancy tests. But the inference in director Judd Apatow’s juxtaposition is easy to spot. Our heroine is being hounded by the poor choice she made weeks before, and the siren-like squeal of Mick Jones’ guitar provides the urgent backdrop. The impact may just be part of hearing one of the greatest bands — punk or otherwise — celebrated in a mainstream movie. Yet there is a clear subtext here which both the song and Apatow’s use explore with ease.

#8: “Holiday Road” — Lindsay Buckingham, from National Lampoon’s Vacation

Mostly made up of individual vignettes strung together by standard road movie conventions, John Hughes’ first major Hollywood success (he wrote the script) needed something to tie these often uneven moments together. Enter Mr. Pop from Fleetwood Mac, an artist desperate to break free from the shackles of guiding one of the most successful acts of the ’70s. Buckingham’s bouncy tribute to the endless drudgery of the rat race may seem like a surreal choice, but director Harold Ramis uses it in several solid ways. As a reminder, a punchline, a cheerleading chant, and finally, as fuel forwarding the Griswald family toward their date with pseudo-Disney destiny.

#7: “Let’s Get Together” — The Youngbloods, from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

After Alex Cox was fired, director Terry Gilliam stepped in to this troubled adaptation of Hunter Thompson’s classic and came up with a great idea — why not let the author’s words do all of the talking. Now, all he needed was the right musical backdrop to make one of the writer’s most important passages — the “wave” speech — come to life. By picking this era appropriate classic, Gilliam gave us both a call to arms and a sad requiem for the optimism of the time. The perfect backdrop for a meditate on the promise of the ’60s un-obtained.

#6: “Sixteen Reasons” — Connie Stephens, from Mulholland Dr.

David Lynch loves to do this. The first example one can remember is the by now iconic moment when the cruel criminal Frank Booth asks his pal Ben to sing about a “candy colored clown.” But for quite possibly his greatest cinematic achievement ever, the filmmaker found this surreal pop nugget and used it as a comment on the fakeness of Hollywood. As the ’50s chanteuse sells the sappy, puppy love lyric, we slowly watch the movie magic around her disintegrate. Eventually, a level of menace arrives that neither the lyric nor the bubble production suggests. It’s Lynch at his most daring, and delightful.

5 – 1

#5: “Hold Tight” — Dave, Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick, and Titch, from Death Proof

Quentin Tarantino gets two entries here, and with good reason. Along with Martin Scorsese and Paul Thomas Anderson, he’s one of the few directors who ‘gets’ the use of popular music in post-modern cinema. Songs can function as both soundtrack and commentary, as this biting piece of British Invasion rock and roll suggests. While the lyric is all love song, the proto-punk guitar work and choral wailing forewarn of the devastating car crash to come. Even better, by having one of his characters explain the tune and the band who play it, we, the audience, become partners in the play date with death.

#4: “Like a Rolling Stone (Live Version)” — Bob Dylan, from New York Stories

Martin Scorsese has so many memorable music moments that to pick just one seems unfair. Yet we continuously go back to this tumultuous live take on the Dylan epic because of how magnificently it amplifies its material. All we really have here is an artist, frustrated both sexually and creatively, struggling to complete a canvas. As the song whips into a musical maelstrom, we see how emotions unleashed lead to great, even masterful art. As the tune winds up and the painter stands at his canvas, spent, we feel we’ve just experience the inner workings of a troubled, talented mind.

#3: “Festival” — Sigur Rós, from 127 Hours

After days spent trapped beneath a boulder in an isolated Utah cave, our hero has finally found the guts to sever his own arm and stumble toward civilization. Needing a piece that was both triumphant and cautionary, director Danny Boyle unleashed Sigur Rós’ lovely lament — and movie magic was born. The Icelandic band have seen their songs frequently featured in the trailers of important films — Children of Men, for example — but few filmmakers have found successful ways to incorporate their ambient dreamscapes into the narrative mix. Boyle understands, turning an already emotional moment into something sublime.

#2: “Across 110th Street” — Bobby Womack, from Jackie Brown

Tarantino again, and this time he is setting the stage for everything to come later. As a character and a film, Jackie Brown is a throwback to the days when drive-ins and urban theaters would feature ass-kicking characters of African American persuasion. These blaxploitation titles, popular because they spoke to a demographic wholly underserved, often had killer soundtracks and QT re-contextualizes this Womack wonder to fit his post-modern take on the material. The desperation and pain of the lyric and delivery uncover the hidden conceits about to be discovered in the storyline, while the ’70s soul feel argues for the movie’s retro and revisionist elements.

#1: “Machine Gun” — The Commodores, from Boogie Nights

How do you celebrate a ’70s porn star’s rise to the top? Even better, how do you find a way to bring all of your divergent characters together to illustrate the “one big happy family” feel that will guide the rest of your movie? Why, you get one of the greatest dance instrumentals of all time and place you actors in a line, Saturday Night Fever style, and let them strut their stuff. Sure, in this montage, the actors discuss the tools of the skin trade and the critical reaction to same, but the real selling point is their momentary move into choreography. As the spin and turn, jump and jive, we’re ready to follow these people anywhere — and director Paul Thomas Anderson delivers in devastating ways.