In the past, a movie’s musical score consisted of mainly orchestral pieces or borrowed classical motifs. Nowadays, it’s not uncommon for a film to include contemporary rock or pop songs as part of its soundtrack. As we all know, this strategy has been employed with varying degrees of success: the addition of a thoughtfully selected song can add incredible emotional depth to a scene, while the inclusion of the latest pop hit almost always feels jarring, tacky, and gimmicky. Today, however, I want to name a few songs that not only contributed greatly to the movie in question, but also prompted me to immediately find and download that song. I’ve included links to Youtube videos of the scenes that include these songs. Most of them are not of the best quality, and for that, I apologize.
#5: “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” by Israel Kamakawiwo’ole- from 50 First Dates
While 50 First Dates is largely a classically goofy Adam Sandler movie, it has its sweet moments, and the addition of this song actually makes the movie’s ending touching rather than merely goofy. The movie’s concept revolves around the character Lucy’s (Drew Barrymore) short-term memory loss and Henry’s (Sandler) feelings for her. In an ending scene that is both melancholy and heartwarming, a pared-down, ukulele-backed version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” plays, and I would argue that this version has just as much—if not more—soul than the original Judy Garland version.
#4: “Hallelujah” by John Cale, Rufus Wainwright- from Shrek
This song is one of the main reasons this snarky, pop-culture-reference-laden film has the emotional gravity that it does. Implemented in a wordless, seamless montage, this song, with its magnificently poetic lyrics and ironically sorrowful twist on a word of joyful praise, creates an appropriately mournful atmosphere during a moment of misery. The song powerfully underscores the film’s romantic conflict and lends surprising depth to these animated characters. Note that the version of “Hallelujah” used in Shrek is performed by John Cale, but the most widely recognized and available version is sung by Rufus Wainwright.
#3: “Sh-Boom” by The Chords- from Cars
This song, written by The Chords in 1954, is two-and-a-half minutes of doo-wop joy. It’s cheery, romantic, and simple, carried almost entirely by the superb vocalizations of the band members. It’s safe to say that I would not have stumbled upon this lovely little tune were it not for its presence in the 2005 film Cars. I distinctly remember scouring iTunes in search of this song as soon as I returned home from the theatre. The use of “Sh-Boom” in Cars creates nostalgia for the bygone decade of the fifties. It highlights the revitalization of the old-fashioned Radiator Springs and transports the viewer back to the age of mint green cars with gigantic fins.
#2: “Everyday” by Buddy Holly- from Big Fish
This song has a super-short stint in the movie—only about thirty seconds’ worth of the song is used in the film. However, thirty seconds of Buddy Holly was enough to make me hunt down this song. Like “Sh-Boom,” “Everyday” is simple, upbeat, and has very little instrumentation. However, its simplicity is part of the song’s easy charm. The clip of “Everyday” is played during a moment in Big Fish when our protagonist, Edward Bloom (Ewan McGregor), is leaving his job at the circus to finally meet the girl of his dreams. The song’s cheeriness, paired with Edward’s beaming face, creates a mood of infectious happiness tinged with eager anticipation.
#1: “Don’t Stop Me Now” by Queen- from Shaun of the Dead
I regret to say that until I saw this movie, I only was aware of the most mainstream of Queen songs, such as “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “We Are the Champions,” and so on. This film is unique in that it not only prompted me to look up and download this particular song, but also inspired me to explore the band’s discography. The use of “Don’t Stop Me Now” in Shaun of the Dead is a stroke of comic genius. It clashes absurdly with the situation at hand: our heroes are busy defending their stronghold (a pub) from a horde of ravenous zombies when the jukebox starts playing this song. The characters’ reactions to the song make up half of the scene’s hilarity: the on-edge Shaun sputters out an English faux-pas (“Kill the Queen!”) and the rest of the characters find themselves swaying or bludgeoning zombies in time to this inescapably catchy tune.
Mind you, I’m not claiming that these are the best uses of modern songs in any film ever—this list is merely a collection of moments in my film-viewing experience that struck me as particularly masterful and introduced me to some great tunes. Feel free to share your favorite uses of songs in films in the comments!