Best Use of Music in a Movie: Share Your Favorites

Best Use of Music in a Movie: Share Your Favorites September 2, 2014

three colors blue swimming poolOn Twitter, the poet Amy Newman asked me to share my pick for “Best Use of Music in a Movie.”

When a poet as gifted as Amy Newman asks you a question, you answer it.

Few people would be qualified to choose the “best use of music in a movie.” I’m certainly not. Neither are any of us, probably. There are just too many movies, too many pieces of music.

But we are qualified to share our favorites. And I’m likely to go on amending this list as I go on thinking about it.

I want to hear from all of you. Don’t just name your favorite soundtrack. Name a moment or a scene in which the fusion of imagery and music elevated the experience into something amazing. It could be dramatic or hilarious or mysterious or bizarre. What’s a moment in which the music transformed the image, and the image transformed the music?

Here are just a few moments in movies in which music and imagery have fused most memorably for me:

  • Three Colors: Blue — The concert for the reunification of Europe (Zbigniew Preisner)
  • Three Colors: Blue — The visitations of the blue muse, especially the time that Julie tries to escape by immersing herself in the swimming pool and the music follows her down. (Zbigniew Preisner)
  • The Double Life of Veronique — Veronika’s last performance (Zbigniew Preisner)
  • Raising Arizona — The prologue, “Way Out There” (Carter Burwell)
  • The Hudsucker Proxy — Discovery of the hula hoop (Carter Burwell, with a little help from Igor Stravinsky)
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey — Just about any musical moment.
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel — The flight to the monastery by chairlift (Alexandre Desplat)
  • Punch-drunk Love — “He Needs Me” (Shelley Duvall)
  • Raiders of the Lost Ark — “The Map Room” (John Williams)
  • Magnolia — “Wise Up” (Aimee Mann)
  • Almost Famous — “Tiny Dancer” (Elton John)
  • Midnight Run — The piano blues of Jack’s reunion with his ex-wife and daughter (Danny Elfman)
  • The Graduate — “The Sound of Silence” (Simon and Garfunkel)
  • Apocalypse Now — “The End” (The Doors)
  • Watership Down — The ascent, “Climbing the Down” (Angela Morely)
  • Toy Story 2 — “When She Loved Me” (Sarah McLachlan)
  • The Dark Crystal — “The Funerals” for the Mystic master & emperor; the “Love Theme” during the boat journey (Trevor Jones)
  • Once — “Falling Slowly” (Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova)
  • The Royal Tenenbaums — ”She Smiled Sweetly / Ruby Tuesday” (The Rolling Stones)
  • U2: Rattle and Hum — “With or Without You” (the finale)
  • Just about any musical moment from The Muppet Movie (Paul Williams)

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29 responses to “Best Use of Music in a Movie: Share Your Favorites”

  1. In Master and Commander, the scene the piece Fantasia is used in fits so perfectly and makes me emotional every time.

  2. Entire score of Out of Africa.
    And that exquisite duet from Marriage of Figaro in The Shawshank Redemption.

  3. Forgot to add the final credit music for The Last Temptation of Christ scored by Peter Gabriel – it’s as if film itself is coming to an end in Christ’s victory.

  4. In The Black Stallion, Carmine Coppola’s score while the boy is trying to gain the horse’s trust, then riding him, then doing a water dance…incredible. Then later when the horse race is at its culmination, and the beach scene is replayed – what a wonderful movie.

    The bank robbery in Heat thrills like no other and can change the rhythm of your pulse.

    I love August Rush – especially when Evan is discovering he can play musical instruments. In the church, in Central Park…magic. Mark Messina

    In Rushmore, when Dirk confronts Blume, spitting on his car to the sounds of jingle bells and an organ. I also love the “Oh Yoko” montage with Blume and Max jumping bikes in synchronicity.

    500 Days of Summer – Hall & Oates and a morning-after.

    Harold and Maude – montage to Cat Stevens’ “Trouble” toward the end, plus “Where Will the Children Play” during a funeral picnic, and maybe 10 other sound cues throughout the film.

    Close Encounters of the Third Kind – figuring out how to communicate with alien life through the purity of musical notes in the end sequence.

    Badlands – musical sequence that shows a brief Eden for the couple

    I’ll never get over Stewart Copeland’s score for the movie Fresh – just wish I could get a copy of the soundtrack somehow.

    Babe: Pig in the City: my memory can’t come up with the name of the music played, but the sequence ends with an act of mercy that saves a vicious dog from drowning.

    The New World: End sequence uses Wagner (?) and a cartwheel to convey the exaltation and sweet release that can come with a death followed by new life.

  5. Fellowship of the Ring — the whole dashed brilliant soundtrack.
    Upstream Color — the ambient score, increasingly tense and effective, especially n near the end.
    The Lion King — Simba and Mufasa’s heart-to-heart
    Balto — The Heritage of the Wolf
    Kill Bill Part 2 — whatever the song is that is played at the climax, when a certain character is killed; so very operatic
    The Fall — Beethoven’s Symphony # 7, movement 2, played during the black and white opening

    But in general I find it really hard to separate my love of a piece of music in film from my love for the scene or the film itself; when done properly the music is just so completely integral to the experience.

  6. Is it cheating to say that almost anything and everything that Wes Anderson, PT Anderson, and Scorsese when it comes to use of music, is perfect?

    A few specifics:

    PTA: yes on the Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love references already mentioned. I also submit the opening of Boogie Nights and the “My Awesome MixTape #6” scene with Sister Christian, Jesse’s Girl, and 99 Luftballoons- all perfect for that completely insane and captivating scene. God Only Knows as the last word in that movie (well second to last, if you count Dirk Diggler’s Jake LaMotta moment). The music during the opening of There Will be Blood let’s you know that you are in for something significant (huge understatement). Slow Boat to China is another unexpected and somehow perfect finishing touch to a PTA movie in the Master.
    Circling back to Magnolia- Aimee Mann is appropriately praised for everything she does… but I also want to point out how fantastically Goodbye Stranger (Supertramp) plays over Wiz Kid Donnie Smith’s moment of longing in the bar.

    Wes Anderson: Ooh La La as the slow-mo kicks end and the joyful tears start flowing at the end of Rushmore. Seu Jorge is incredible, but if Sigur Ross, Bill Murray, and the Tiger Shark don’t make you weep, seek help. In Tenenbaums: Margot’s arrival to These Days is magical, and Hey Jude is appropriately epic, but when I talk about great musical cues in Tenenbaums, I’m talking about puttin’ a brick through the other guy’s windshield; I’m talking about taking it out and choppin’ it up- enter Paul Simon. And the scene that grabbed Scorsese’s attention: The Stones’ 2000 Man- “they’ll never catch me, man.”

    Scorsese: Yes, pretty much everything in Goodfellas, Mean Streets, and even the Departed. But more noteworthy to me is Peter Gabriel’s work on Last Temptation. It is Accomplished at the end of the film makes you believe and rejoice in that reality in a way that few other musical pieces do or can.

    I second the mention of American Graffiti, the music of which gives me fabricated nostalgia for the 50s and 60s instantaneously (fabricated because I was born in ’81, but have heard so many stories from my dad that I sometimes forget I didn’t experience the 50s and 60s). When Rock Around the Clock and Smoke Gets in Your Eyes in particular play, I am taken “right back.”

    I also second the mention of A Real Hero in Drive. The more surprising but equally effective use of music is Oh My Love as Driver locates and closes in on his underestimating prey. Tick of the Clock during the opening chase helps make that one of the most purely badass scenes ever. If I’m driving at night and that track comes up on the soundtrack, I’m very tempted to turn off my headlights and suddenly pull behind a parked car to let the imagined police chasing me zoom by.

    Musicals would take this in an entirely different direction, but having watched Singin’ in the Rain recently with my son, I have to say that that sequence and song are pretty hard to beat, when it comes to the use of music in movies.

    Finally (if anybody is still reading), Ennio Morricone. Each of the main cues in Once Upon a Time in the West perfectly capture and signal their characters (and yes, the final shootout is the most over the top and also the best); the Dollars trilogy music defines a whole genre (and his work on Duck You Sucker is quirky and straddles the genres Leone is mixing up perfectly); and his haunting work in Once Upon a Time in America. But (I really am leading up to a moment), the reprieve of Father Gabriel’s oboe in the last minutes of The Mission is the musical moment that I most cherish. Without spoiling for those who haven’t seen it (and if that is you, get ahold of it and see it, immediately)- the moment when Robert DeNiro’s Mendoza looks up at Father Gabriel, to see how he is living out his faith in this most extreme of situations, is the completion of his discipleship into the foolishness of following Jesus, and Morricone gives us the same theme that has been Father Gabriel’s throughout the movie, yet somehow both sadder and more triumphant than it is has been before..

    (only watch if you have seen the movie, and if you are in a place where you are okay to cry)

  7. THE FOUNTAIN – “Death is the Road to Awe” (Clint Mansell) from the end of the astronaut’s journey.

    HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY – “So Long and Thanks For All The Fish” Singing dolphins is the best way to introduce Douglas Adams’ kind of humor.

    A KNIGHT’S TALE – The movie’s use of music is great but, Queen’s “We Will Rock You” in particular has never worked better in a medieval setting.

    SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD – “Black Sheep” Though the music from the film is great, I might vote for Crash and the Boys for my favorite fake band if they had more than three songs totalling less than 2min.

  8. The Two Towers — When Gandalf charges down the slope at Helm’s Deep

    Dan In Real Life — The football scene

    Moonrise Kingdom — The opening montage set to Benjamin Britten

  9. MASTER AND COMMANDER – Boccherini’s La Musica Nocturna de Madrid

    HENRY V – Non Nobis Domine


    WAKING NED DEVINE – Parting Glass and Lux Eterna (one of my all-time favorite movie speeches over lovely Irish music)

    THE NEW WORLD – Vorspiel

    CHARIOTS OF FIRE – Every musical moment

  10. I think “Kom, Susser Tod” in the end of evangelion did, even though it’s controversial.

    I’ve seen fan works that try to replace it with serious music, but they don’t have the same impact as this. For some reason, this captures so well the “everything just went to hell” feeling that the scene has. It’s really not due to the lyrics, because you can’t really hear them in the scene except for “tumbling down.” It’s more like that it just short circuits you; you get the same sense of numbness the protagonist feels at that very same moment, after all the emotional wallops that just happened before. Then the utterly bizarre imagery happens…

    Spoiler: this is the soundtrack to the end of the world.

  11. The first full statement of the “Gondor” theme, as Gandalf and Pippin are galloping to, and up into, the city.

  12. Just about any musical point in “The Prince of Egypt”.

    The “Flight” sequence in “Man of Steel”.

    The “Kronos” sequence in “The Incredibles”.

    I know I’ll get hate for this, but the “Let it Go” sequence in “Frozen”.

    The ending scene in “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas”.

    The “Sailing” sequence in “Where the Wild Things Are”.

    The opening to “Lawrence of Arabia”.

    The creation sequence in “The Tree of Life”.

    The “Confutatis” dictation in “Amadeus”.

    The “Flight Test” sequence in “How to Train Your Dragon”. Actually, pretty much everything in “How to Train Your Dragon”.

    The opening to “Ponyo”.

    Just about every bit of licensed musical choices in “The Wolf of Wall Street”.

    Those are the ones that come to mind anyway…

  13. Definitely Magnolia and Punch Drunk Love. All of Magnolia for me, was inspiring. Also, I really love Rattle and Hum, so many great moments: ‘Exit,’ ‘Desire,’ ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,’ ‘Where the Streets Have No Name,’ ‘Heartland,’ ‘All I want is You.’ I also really love the music in Fantastic Mr Fox, particularly ‘Street Fighter Man’ by the Rolling Stones. Last one: Stranger Than Fiction and Spoon. So great.

  14. I’m surprised I’m not a bigger U2 fan. I rarely ever listen to their music – although I don’t change the channel when they come on the radio – and I only own 2 of their albums. That said, I still maintain that the two greatest rock concerts I’ve ever been to are both U2, and one of my favorite movie moments is in Tell No One, when Alexandre is trying to figure out the password and With or Without You starts playing… the way that song works on multiple levels, the multiple layers of tension… I’ve watched the film at least 3 times and it gives me shivers every time.

  15. DRIVE – “A Real Hero” by College and Electric Youth – the sunkissed drive along the concrete banks of the Los Angeles River

    BIRTH – “Prologue” by Alexandre Desplat – high angle tracking shot from behind of a runner clad in a black running through a snowy Central Park

    THE THIN RED LINE – “Journey to the Line” by Hans Zimmer – the visual poetry of the steadicam footage floating through the jungle like disembodied spirits as you’re swept along to bear witness to the savage early morning raid on the Japanese camp in an emotionally shattering 9-minute sequence

    2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY – “The Blue Danube Waltz” by Johann Strauss II – a circular space station spinning as it orbits the earth while another spacecraft approaches as if the two are dance partners in the starry blackness of outer space

    WATCHMEN – “The Times They Are a-Changin'” by Bob Dylan – opening montage of an alternative history of the US where superheroes are inserted Forrest Gump-style into iconic 20th century moments that are burned into our collective psyches

    THE CONSTANT GARDENER – “Kothbiro” by Ayub Ogada – a British diplomat tries unsuccessfully to purchase a spot for a refugee girl on a plane that is evacuating Western aid workers from a village that is under attack from armed tribesmen on horseback. As the plane lifts off, the young girl runs after it and is covered in the dust kicked up by the propellers.

    FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS – “Your Hand In Mine” by Explosions in the Sky – an outgoing high school quarterback throws a football to a group of eager young boys playing in the shadow of the high school football stadium

    THE GREAT BEAUTY – “More Than Scarlet” by Decoder Ring – a couple of Italian high rollers – who are way past their prime – watch a beautiful young girl dance in a glass room at an extravagant party on the roof of a penthouse in Rome – one of many Ecclesiastes moments in a film chock full of them

    BIG FISH – “Finale” by Danny Elfman – the reluctant son of a natural born storyteller with a penchant for stretching the truth, reconciles with his estranged father by consenting to his father’s dying wish to tell him the story of “how it all ends”

    HEAT – “God Moving Over the Face of the Waters” by Moby – the fateful nighttime shootout at LAX illuminated by bright runway lights and filled with the roar of planes descending and ascending in the background

    AMERICAN BEAUTY – “American Beauty” by Thomas Newman – a transcendent cinematic moment when a teenage boy shows the video of “the most beautiful thing” he’s ever recorded to the girl he has a crush on and they kiss for the first time

    • Thank you for mentioning the intro to “Birth” one of my all-time favorite openers. Unfortunately the rest of the film lacks. But that shot and score are terrific.

      • There are so many affectionate nods to Kubrick in this film but this opening sequence is the most overt. I think that’s why I love it so much! *If you’re interested, do a side by side comparison of the tracking shot from behind of the astronaut jogging in the circular space station from “2001: A Space Odyssey” and the prologue sequence from “Birth” and you’ll see what I’m talking about.

        • But you’re right, the rest of the film does not live up to the promise of that impressive single take opening shot.

  16. I like all the examples here. Great stuff. I really like closing scene in the TREE OF LIFE. Berlioz’s Requiem Mass used for the last scene has not left me. The words are truly profound in that context as well.

  17. Night of the Hunter has two favorite musical moments. Robert Mitchum and Lillian Gish singing “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms”, with that beautiful image of her by the screen door, rifle on lap, and him in deep background. Also the haunting song Pearl sings as they float down the river.
    Vincent Hallo uses excellent music in his films. I specifically think of the Yes song during the ending club scene in Buffalo ’66 and the beautiful songs used during long driving scenes in The Brown Bunny, such as Jackson C Frank, and Jeff Alexander’s ” Come Wander With Me”, which is tonally quite similar to Pearl’s song.
    This moment in Harmony Korine’s Mister Lonely has another haunting folk song sun by a girl. I guess that’s my genre.
    And who doesn’t love the “Tonight You Belong to Me” scene in The Jerk?

  18. Don’t forget “Grand Central Waltz” — The Fisher King (George Fenton)

    The Tree of Life creation scenes for blending image with sound

    Edward Scissorhands is notable for how Elfman’s score essentially started a whole new “sound” (picked up by endless Christmas commercials since but no one did it better)

  19. Some of my favorite uses of music in film (in no particular order):

    You know this is going to be a long list, right?

    DOUBLE LIFE OF VERONIQUE – the concert in the rain, and the scene you mentioned (Zbigniew Preisner)
    THE LION IN WINTER – the opening credits, and the celestial accompaniment for Eleanor’s entrance (John Barry)
    EMPIRE STRIKES BACK – any time the Imperial March plays (John Williams)
    JAWS – the opening (John Williams)
    THE SHINING – the opening underscored by “Dies Irae” with electronic effects (Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind), and the scene when Danny disrupts his father in his room (Bartok)
    EYES WIDE SHUT – the manor (Gyorgy Ligeti), and the opening, the same cue segueing from underscoring to diegetic music (Dmitri Shostakovich)
    WALL-E – pretty much every cue, but especially “Put On Your Sunday Clothes,” “It Only Takes a Moment,” (Jerry Herman) the desolate earth theme, and the space dance (Thomas Newman)
    EDWARD SCISSORHANDS – the ice dance (Danny Elfman)
    THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS – Hannibal’s escape, alternating between the Goldberg Variations and original underscoring (J. S. Bach and Howard Shore)
    SWEENEY TODD (Burton) – the brilliant irony of Todd’s “Johanna” (Stephen Sondheim)
    CHICAGO – Marshall’s staging of “We Both Reached for the Gun” (John Kander)
    AMADEUS – dictating “Confutatis” (W. A. Mozart)
    WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF – the sparse, haunting cues towards the end (Alex North)
    LAURA – lunch with Waldo – a band is playing the main (and only) theme, and then it shifts to underscoring as Waldo tells his story (David Raksin)
    TAXI DRIVER – all the saxophone solos, as lost as Travis (Bernard Herrmann)
    THERE WILL BE BLOOD – the descending, rhythmic oil theme (Jonny Greenwood)
    MOONRISE KINGDOM – “Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra” (Benjamin Britten)

  20. The Secret of Kells – pretty much all the music in the whole movie, but especially in the final scene.

    American Graffiti – again, there is great music throughout the entire film, but I especially love when the opening to ‘Sixteen Candles’ starts playing when it cuts to nighttime at the diner.

    The Last Starfighter – one of my absolute favorite film scores of all time, which brings the whole film to life in so many sequences, particularly the flight to Rylos and the final scene.

    ET The Extra Terrestrial – The final ‘saying good-bye’ and ascension sequence.

    Grosse Pointe Blank – ’99 Luftballoons’ playing while disposing of a corpse.

    The Shining – the music that plays when Danny rides his big wheel through the halls.

    The Doors – ‘Not to Touch the Earth’ concert sequence and ‘The End’ sequence.

    Monty Python and the Holy Grail – That music during the boat trip to Castle Aarrgghh

    Dumbo – Pink Elephants on Parade

    Allegro Non Troppo – The “Bolero” sequence

    Fantasia – “Night on Bald Mountain” and “The Sorceror’s Apprentice”

    Nightmare Before Christmas – “Jack’s Lament”

    The Fifth Element – sequences like the ‘Diva Dance’ and ‘Leloo’s escape’

    Star Wars: A New Hope – Luke looking at the horizon on Tattooine and Ben’s Death

    The Empire Strikes Back – Yoda lifting the X-Wing out of the water

    Return of the Jedi – Luke and Darth Vader’s final battle

    The Dark Crystal – the reveal of Aughra’s observatory (and OK, pretty much everything before and after that too)

    Halloween – John Carpenter’s score is the best thing about this movie in general, in terms of creating its atmosphere.

    Little Shop of Horrors – songs ‘DownTown’ and ‘SupperTime’

    Mary Poppins – ‘Feed the Birds’ (both the song itself and the instrumental version that plays when Mr. Banks walks to the bank alone at night.)

    Pee Wee’s Big Adventure – Pee-Wee’s “devils and clowns” nightmare sequence

    LA Story – the final ‘weather will change your life twice’ sequence on the airplane

    (I could probably spend all night thinking of more…..)

  21. Good list. A few genre additions:

    “The Ecstasy of Gold” in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (Morricone)

    “Final Duel” in Once Upon a Time in the West (Morricone)

    Silverado Main Title (Broughton)

    “Death Theme” from The Untouchables (Morricone)

    “Funeral Song” from Dr. Zhivago (Jarre)

  22. The “levitation” scene from Solaris (Bach)
    From Magnolia: the smile in the final frame while “Save Me” plays
    “Parade” from Paprika (Susumu Hirasawa)

  23. Obvious one not mentioned in your list, John Cusack in the rain in Say Anything – In Your Eyes (Peter Gabriel).

    Not so obvious choice, Truman Burbank discovers his power over the world around him in The Truman Show – Anthem Part 2 (Philip Glass – from the film Powaqqatsi)

  24. My favorite pieces of music in movies:

    WALL-E — Just about everything.

    Up — “Married Life.”

    Ocean’s Eleven — “Clair de Lune.”