Top 10 Effective Uses Of Pre-1980 Rock Music In Cinema

They don’t make them like they used to…that’s why modern movies are always turning to classic rock to bring music to their pictures. Here’s 10 great examples…

10. Dirty Love – Frank Zappa (The Ice Storm, Ang Lee, 1997)

ice-storm_top10films, pre-1980 Rock Music in CinemaAdmittedly this one is a tad self-indulgent as I’m a pretty big Zappa fan. Nonetheless, it was the first time I had ever heard a FZ song – aside from in his own movies (namely 1971’s 200 Motels and 1979’s Baby Snakes) – used in a film. That in itself is kind of interesting given (at least according to Captain Beefheart biographer Mike Barnes) he originally moved to Los Angeles as an 18 year-old circa 1959 to establish himself as “a writer of film soundtracks” and did in fact churn out two of them (1962’s The World’s Greatest Sinner and 1965’s Run Home Slow … plus he and his band, The Mothers of Invention, appeared in the documentary Mondo Hollywood, which was also made in 1965). His stuff later appeared in some of the early episodes of the mid-1990s animated US TV cartoon Duckman, as did the voice of his eldest son Dweezil. Not sure what happened, but there was no FZ music in the latter series – a pity because it worked really well. Dirty Love, which came off the 1973 album Over-Nite Sensation, is an apt choice by Lee given The Ice Storm partly concerns itself with a group of middle class friends in Connecticut who experiment with wife swapping and find the experience, errrr … dirty.

9. Deacon Blues – Steely Dan (Zodiac, David Fincher, 2007)

zodiac_top10films, pre-1980 Rock Music in CinemaLike Martin Scorsese (see below), Fincher is another American film maker who knows how to shape a great soundtrack with the help of popular music. Although some may say the use of Donovan’s Hurdy Gurdy Man at both the start of the film (when the first murder takes place) and during the end credits (when the narrative has pretty much has reached its conclusion regarding the killer’s identity) deserves the mention here, the use of Deacon Blues (in which Donald Fagan and Walter Becker’s melancholic and somewhat nostalgic lyrics celebrate being a loser) is quite effective and subtle, coming at a time when the audience sees the terminally ill and defibrillator-reliant journalist Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jnr) quietly drinking and smoking himself to death in bar as he watches his former newspaper colleague at The San Francisco Chronicle, Robert Graysmith (Jake Glyllenhaal), appearing on TV to boast cracking a code that the investigative reporter should have solved himself. This song originally appeared on Steely Dan’s 1977 album Aja.

8. Voodoo Chile – The Jimi Hendrix Experience (Withnail & I, Bruce Robinson, 1987)

Withnail and I, Film, pre-1980 Rock Music in CinemaWhile this electric guitar opus has been employed in a number of films – including Ridley Scott’s 2001 war opus Black Hawke Down (where the cover version by Stevie Ray Vaughn is employed) – it’s the scene when Withnail and Marwood (Richard E Grant and Paul McGann) are returning from their dismal country trip to London along a motorway in which it resonates the most. Aside from being a hilarious screen moment (Withnail is pulled over by the police for being drunk behind the wheel; he then unsuccessfully tries to pass a urine test by using baby’s pee) the song is one of the 1960s most iconic musical rock and roll moments, and thus becomes a fitting choice given the movie partly ends up being about the end of this sometimes fondly remembered era. Voodoo Chile first appeared on 1968’s Electric Ladyland and has since been on just about every (if not all) live recording issued by the Hendrix family trust over the past 20 years.

7. The House of the Rising Sun – The Animals (Casino, Martin Scorsese, 1995)

Casino, film, pre-1980 Rock Music in CinemaA difficult choice given Scorsese penchant for filling his soundtracks with an array of rock songs. Nevertheless, it does somehow fit in perfectly with the final moments of the drug addicted/alcoholic Ginger McKenna (Sharon Stone), the erstwhile trophy bride of casino boss Sam Rothstein (Robert De Niro) who has been ostracized by her family, deserted by her sleazy boyfriend Lester (James Woods) and bled dry by her crim mates. Alone and completely obliterated, she staggers to her death in the corridor of a Los Angeles hotel, her star literally extinguished in a house where there is no rising sun. The song originally appeared on The Animal’s 1964 debut album.

6. Young Americans – David Bowie (Dogville, Lars von Trier, 2003)

dogville_top10films, pre-1980 Rock Music in CinemaAfter dragging his audience through this lengthy and heavy handed morality tale about mean spirited opportunism, ruthless exploitation and violent retribution in rural USA, Von Trier’s closing credits include a photo montage depicting domestic poverty, violence, racial discrimination and incarceration in the US since the 1930s as this Bowie song blares over the soundtrack. Brilliant in its execution and delightfully unexpected, this audiovisual essay merely reiterates the broader themes of the film, further exposing the underbelly of a nation that is truly divided by class and motivated by greed. Young Americans was initially released on Bowie’s same name album in 1975.

5. Living for the City – Stevie Wonder (Jungle Fever, Spike Lee, 1991)

lonettemckee_junglefever_top10films, pre-1980 Rock Music in CinemaWhen Flipper Purify (Wesley Snipes) goes looking for his crack addicted brother (Samuel L Jackson) and girlfriend (Halle Berry) in what looks like a rundown part of Harlem or Brooklyn, he is exposed to the poverty-stricken dregs of New York’s African-American community – loony street ranters, self-destructive drug fiends, down and out beggars and self-pitying losers. This is arguably one of Snipes’ best screen moments as he stumbles through this derelict landscape. Interestingly, Lee chooses to use the longer version of the song (which came from the 1973 album Inversions) rather than the three minute:41 second one that was originally played on AM radio all those years ago.

4. Jump into the Fire – Harry Nilsson (Goodfellas, Martin Scorsese, 1990)

goodfellas_car_top10films, pre-1980 Rock Music in CinemaAlthough it’s been reported that Scorsese used some 46 pieces songs/tracks in this film, the opening of this Nilsson song – with its distinctive punchy bass line (played by Herbie Flowers) and wailing lyrics – is arguably the stand out, particularly as it marks the beginning of the movie’s final act wherein, during 1980, Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) gets nabbed for selling cocaine, squeals like a pig to the authorities and enters the FBI’s witness protection program. Of course there will be some who disagree with this choice – and for good reason. After all, other musical highlights include the use of Derek and the Dominos’ Layla piano exit when the executed bodies of Jimmy Conway’s (Robert De Niro) gang start turning up, as well as the playing of Donovan’s gentle Atlantis just as Conway and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) stomp Billy Batts (Frank Vincent) to death in a bar (an act that also results in some serious repercussions). Jump into the Fire was one of three hits that emanated from Nilsson’s 1971 album Nilsson Schmilsson – another being Coconuts, which played over the final credits of Quentin Tarantino’s breakthrough 1992 movie Reservoir Dogs.

3. Baba O’Riley – The Who (Summer of Sam, Spike Lee, 1999)

Summer-of-Sam_top10films, pre-1980 Rock Music in CinemaSummer of Sam is a strangely problematic film for a number of reasons. Aside from its overt racism (director Lee doesn’t seem too fond of Italian-Americans) and its somewhat surreal portrayal of Son of Sam killer David Berkowitz (Michael Badalucco), the story kind of doesn’t make sense given Ritchie (Adrien Brody) returns to New York from London as a punk convertee in the middle of 1977, but is more a fan of The Who than The Sex Pistols (who, if my memory is correct, don’t get a mention in the movie at all). Nevertheless, the musical montage break in the second half – which is built around Pete Townsend and Roger Daltrey’s anthem for a teenage wasteland – probably wouldn’t have worked had Lee tried using something by Johnny Rotten and the Pistols. It’s so good that even the sound of the stylus being placed on the vinyl LP at the start is completely authentic. Baba O’Riley first appeared on The Who’s 1971 Who’s Next LP, an album that also featured Won’t Get Fooled Again, which Lee uses at the end of Summer of Sam when Berkowitz is caught just as Ritchie is being beaten to a pulp by his mates, who mistakenly think (because they are so stoned) he is the killer. Again a good choice of music, but one that is not necessarily reflective of the period in which it is set.

2. The End – The Doors (Apocalypse Now, Francis Coppola, 1979)

Apocalypse Now, Film, Francis Ford Coppola, pre-1980 Rock Music in CinemaAn interesting question is: What would Apocalypse Now have been like without the inclusion of this track? Maybe not a lot different, but it wouldn’t have been quite the same either, which is entering interesting territory when one is dealing with a true masterwork. Played during the film’s hypnotic opening and again over the climatic killing of Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), the song essentially marks the start and finish of Captain Willard’s (Martin Sheen) mission – a journey in which he sets off as a restless Vietnam War assassin, only to end up being a battle weary ghost who disappears into his own heart of darkness. Taken from The Doors 1966 self titled debut album, The End was again used by Oliver Stone in his 1991 biopic about the band. Interestingly, its inclusion in the latter work also marked a transitional moment, that being when Jim Morrison (Val Kilmer) truly arrives as a performer.

1. Memo From Turner – Mick Jagger (Performance, Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg, 1970)

performance_roeg_top10films, pre-1980 Rock Music in CinemaA ground breaking cinematic moment which could easily lay claim to being one of the true precursors to the MTV music video revolution a decade later, this song (which was co-written by Keith Richards) signifies the moment when the identities of the elusive rock star (Mick Jagger) and the thuggish gangster from the homosexual London underworld (James Fox) merge after they ingest magic mushrooms. The fellow behind the soundtrack – the late, great Jack Nitzsche – used back-up musicians other than the Rolling Stones, including Ry Cooder on slide guitar, Randy Newman on piano, Russ Titelman on guitar, Jerry Scheff on bass and Gene Parsons on drums, and the results are pretty stunning; so much so that’s it’s a pity Warner Brothers didn’t record a few albums using this combination while it had them all together (although it’s unlikely Jagger, even if he wanted to, could have easily broken his contract with Decca without loads of money being involved; plus it probably would have seen the end of The Rolling Stones as we know it). Given the respective backgrounds of co-directors Cammel and cinematographer Nicholas Roeg, it’s likely the former was pretty much responsible for this one. While Memo From Turner has appeared on at least one of The Rolling Stones’ many compilation albums, my advice for anyone interested in procuring a copy of this track is to look in the second-hand record bins for the original soundtrack.

Written and compiled by Mark Fraser.

Over to you: what are your best examples of pre-1980 Rock Music in films?

About the Author
Mark is a film journalist, screenwriter and former production assistant from Western Australia.

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  1. Avatar
    Dan Heaton Reply

    Great list. I’m surprised to not see Tiny Dancer on there from Almost Famous. That was the first pick that came to mind for me. The End and Jump in the Fire are inspired choices for sure.

    • Avatar
      Dan Reply

      Love that moment in Almost Famous. Cameron Crowe filled that movie with great songs. The score was great too!

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    Dan Grant Reply

    I assume this is a great list. Maybe I am just not familiar with most of the music mentioned nor many of the films, but this list seems a little esoteric to me. I’m sure it’s just me, but what can I say?

    What about a film like Stand By Me? There’s a lot of other tunes that could make this list as well.

    • Avatar
      Dan Reply

      Lollipop, Lollipop, Oh, Lolly…Lollipop..! Stand By Me is a great film but you’re right about the music…so many good tunes.

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    sati Reply

    Oh, awesome that you included Casino. It’s my favorite moment in the entire movie.

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    Neal Damiano Reply

    Although not considered classic rock, I love Simple Minds new wave single “Don’t you forget about me” every time I hear it, I always think of “The Breakfast Club”!

  5. Avatar
    Neal Damiano Reply

    I just saw pre -1980 so this wouldn’t make it, oh well ……if it was effective 1980 songs!!

  6. Avatar
    Dan Reply

    A couple of mentions from me:

    Stand By Me for the obvious one even though there’s some great tracks from the 1950s.

    Almost Famous – not for the obvious one (Tiny Dancer) but for The Who song Sparks when his sister tells him to put a candle on and listen to the track to see his future.

    But those films have been mentioned already – quite rightly – so I’ll pick one that hasn’t been mentioned – An American Werewolf in London. Love the variations on Blue Moon, Van Morrison’s Moondance and Bad Moon Rising.

    But I have to say Mark you’ve picked some great choices to this top 10. The Doors’ The End is such a perfect fit for Apocalypse Now, Voodoo Chile always reminds me of Withnail and I, and although I don’t remember Baba O’Reilly having the same effect on me in Summer of Sam, it is my favourite The Who track.

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    thy critic man Reply

    I miss these days. The popular songs were so much better back than, and I know all we get is pop rock, or the horrible sides of rap, as opposed to the well done ones. Only a single film in this list in in the 2000’s, just further illustrating that point!

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    jackdeth72 Reply

    Very good list, Dan!

    As a Zappa fan, myself. Couldn’t come up with one of his tunes for a film outside of ‘The Ice Storm’. Which fits quite nicely for its intended scene.

    I’d covered “Surfing Girl” and “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place’ for ‘Full Metal Jacket’ and ‘Hamburger Hill’ for Michael on a previous post.

    No ‘Inna Gada Da Vida’ for Michael Mann’s ‘Manhunter’?
    ‘Layla’ for Scorsese’s ‘Goodfellas’?
    Or Dylan’s ‘The Times They Are a Changing’ for the opening of ‘Watchmen’?

    Ehhhh…. Better left unsaid.

  9. Avatar
    Mark Reply

    @ all – thank you for the interest.

    I think we can all agree that this list is by no means comprehensive; having said that, being called esoteric was quite a compliment (cheers Dan G).

    I suppose the glaring omission was Tarantino.

    Another is De Palma’s Carlito’s Way – disco may not qualify as rock, but the tracking shots when Pacino is walking through the club to Labelle’s Lady Marmalade are quite magnificent. Plus the use of Ray Barretto’s El Watusi in the poolroom shootout was also pretty cool.

    Another MIA is The Beatles’ Come Togehter, which was used to great effect by De Niro in A Bronx Tale when the bikers turn up.

    @Jack – I probably would have highlighted Nancy Sinatra and her walking boots song for Full Metal Jacket; I did consider The Times …. out of Watchmen -as an aside, another interesting use of Dylan was in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas when Gilliam uses a bit of Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again.

    Also Jack, did you ever watch Duckman? The first series had some Zappa stuff … from memory the first episode had a piece of Porn Wars; there’s also a moment when they played the opening of The Grand Wazoo. Funny stuff …..

    • Avatar
      Ljuke Reply

      The Times… was the first one that sprung to mind. Watchmen may have not been a perfect film, but I loved that montage sequence. I would add Street Fighting Man by The Stones, in Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, In Dreams by The Big O, in Blue Velvet, and Bang Bang, by Nancy Sinatra in Kill Bill.

      Call me uncultured, but Voodoo Chile always reminds me of Tommy Lee Jones air-guitaring in Under Siege.

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    jjames36 Reply

    Great list! I haven’t seen all of these, but I completely agree with the Zodiac and Ice Storm selections. Powerful moments in each of those flicks.

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    Neal Damiano Reply

    “Fire” by Hendrix in Less Than Zero when Julian (RDowney Jr). is lighting up in the club comes to my mind, what a great scene and effective use of a song!!

  12. Avatar
    Evan Crean Reply

    Some excellent picks Mark. My two top ones on your list are House of the Rising Sun from Casino and This is the End from Apocalypse Now. For me House of the Rising Sun in Casino conveys such deep, bleak emotions as we watch in horror while Sharon Stone’s character essentially fade away from her intense drug abuse. Even though Ginger is by no means a good person, her passing still sticks with you emotionally, and one of the main reasons is Scorsese’s song selection. The Doors are one of my all-time favorite bands, so of course I can’t help loving This is the End’s placement in Apocalypse Now. The tune’s complacency and Jim Morrison’s grim fascination with death feels just right for the Vietnam version of Heart of Darkness.

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    Philip Matthews‏ Reply

    Yes, and Deep Purple’s Child in Time and Bowie’s Life on Mars? in BREAKING THE WAVES.

  14. Avatar
    Matt's Movie Reviews‏ Reply

    Jumpin Jack Flash by Rolling Stones in Mean Streets, Sweet Emotion by Aerosmith in Dazed & Confused, The End by The Doors in Apocalypse Now

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