10 Unforgettable Times Popular Music Made A Movie Scene Perfect

Sometimes a great movie scene can simply be two people chatting alongside the Hudson River or perhaps a moment of complete silence where framing, performance and editing come to the fore. At other times it’s about the music; those catchy hooks and infectious melodies becoming synonymous with iconic screen images. Here, we check out some of the best…

Music has played an iconic role in film, contributing to some of cinema’s most memorable scenes such as Judy Garland singing “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” in musical The Wizard of Oz or, through the power of the orchestral ensemble, summoning emotions such as fear, surprise, happiness or melancholy to help define the striking capacity of cinema to inspire our imaginations – be that in the simple notes of John Williams’ “du-duh, du-duh” in Spielberg’s Jaws to Bernard Herrmann complementing Hitchcock’s dramatic tension in a number of movies.

Whether it’s a spontaneous dance sequence, impromptu singing, a musical’s performer breaking out in song, or the perfectly timed use of a pop tune, music has always gone hand-in-hand with cinema (even during the silent era when a musician or musicians would often accompany the on-screen action). Here, we concentrate on the modern era and sample 10 unforgettable times popular music made a movie scene perfect.

Dirty Dancing

Song: (I’ve Had) The Time of My Life (Bill Medley/Jennifer Warnes)

Dirty Dancing

The crescendo at the end of Dirty Dancing, Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes singing “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” as Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey perform their final dance is one of the great “feel good” movie moments.

Ghost

Song: Unchained Melody (Righteous Brothers)

Unchained Melody - Ghost

For Ghost to work as a movie – for its drama to tick and for the emotions it wants to resonate in its audience – the scene in which the Righteous Brothers’ “Unchained Melody” plays as Sam and Molly make love, is pivotal to bringing all that together. The scene, which famously begins with the pair getting very wet at the pottery wheel, tells us everything we need to know about their love for one another in a matter of two minutes. The rest of the film riffs off this scene.

500 Days Of Summer

Song: You Make My Dreams (Hall & Oates)

500 Days of Summer

The sonic backdrop to one of those great spontaneous dance scenes in film, Hall & Oates’ 1981 catchy hit “You Make My Dreams” has featured in many movies over the years but rarely as effectively as in 500 Days of Summer when Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Tom Hansen celebrates hooking up with Summer Fin with a fantasy-inspired walk in the park.

Trainspotting

Song: Perfect Day (Lou Reed)

Perfect Day - Trainspotting

Lou Reed’s sombre “Perfect Day” playing over Mark Renton’s heroin overdose is the ironic accompaniment to the film’s anti-hero seeing first-hand the darkest side of drug abuse. The song is thought by some to be a romanticised recollection of the singer’s own heroin use but Reed himself has said this subtext was not intentional.

Almost Famous

Song: Tiny Dancer (Elton John)

Tiny Dancer - Almost Famous

Elton John’s best song is a big reason why the sequence in which it plays is one of Almost Famous’ best scenes. Director Cameron Crowe begins the song as a piece of non-diegetic music before making it part of the scene as the characters listen to it on their tour bus and begin singing along.

The Blues Brothers

Song: Shake A Tail Feather (Ray Charles)

A scene that won’t fail to put a smile on anyone’s face, Ray Charles singing “Shake A Tail Feather” as a spontaneous dance breaks out on the street outside is one of many highlights in this musical-comedy.

Saturday Night Fever

Song: You Should Be Dancing (Bee Gees)

You Should Be Dancing - Saturday Night Fever

The Bee Gees’ seventies’ disco rock offers us plenty of unforgettable musical moments but one in particular stands out. Some will say the film’s best dance scene is when John Travolta’s Tony Manero struts his stuff with Karen Lynn Gorney’s Stephanie Mangano to “More Than A Woman” but Travolta’s brilliant solo effort to “You Should Be Dancing” is the real highlight, the talented actor demanding our attention as he takes over the dance floor.

An American Werewolf In London

Song: Blue Moon (Sam Cooke)

An American Werewolf In London, John Landis, Film, 1980s,

One of several variations of “Blue Moon” to feature in John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London, Sam Cooke’s smooth, distinctive vocals are purposely mismatched to the anguish on-screen as David Naughton transforms into a werewolf. The moon-theme of the song adds to the film’s self-referential sense of humour while the King of Soul’s melodious brilliance is matched by Rick Baker’s ground-breaking special-effects work.

Reservoir Dogs

Song: Stuck In The Middle With You (Stealers Wheel)

Stuck In The Middle With You - Reservoir Dogs

It’s the irony Quentin Tarantino finds in the scene in which Stealers Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle With You” plays while Michael Madsen’s psychotic gangster tortures a cop that makes this scene so unforgettable. Admittedly, cutting off someone’s ear is likely to stick around in the memory but the uplifting melody that accompanies it complements Reservoir Dogs’ mid-film high point and its sadistic, offbeat sense of humour.

Back To The Future

Song: Johnny B. Goode (Chuck Berry)

Johnny B Goode - Back Too The Future

“Johnny B. Goode” provides the hooks to invent rock n roll as our teenage hero Marty McFly takes to the school stage in 1955 in the hope he can provide the melodious backdrop to his parents getting together. The song, which would in reality be recorded by Chuck Berry in 1958, features one of the most recognisable guitar solos and played an important role in Back To The Future, giving Marty his chance to fulfil a dream of playing in front of an audience and fittingly enjoying the film’s wry sense of humour that played wonderfully on the historical quirks and ironies of director Robert Zemeckis’ time-travel adventure.

Over to you: when did pop music make a movie scene perfect for you?

Written and Compiled by Dan Stephens

Dan Stephens
About the Author
Dan Stephens is the founder and editor of Top 10 Films. He's usually pondering his next list, often inspired by his adoration for 1980s Hollywood, a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

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  1. Avatar
    Dan Grant Reply

    Awesome topic…perfect companion piece to the top ten songs of all time. I love how music plays such a vital role in a film.

    If I could add a few more, I’d go 80’s for sure lol.

    Keep on Loving You from Last American Virgin is one that comes to mind and Every Time You Go, from the ending of Planes Trains and Automobiles.

    You chose a lot of terrific songs here as well. Nice job, Dan.

  2. Avatar
    Callum Reply

    So many scenes that put a smile on my face.

  3. Avatar
    Dan Grant Reply

    There was a scene in atomic blond, which just came out a couple of years ago, where Charlize Theron has an enormous battle and it’s done with Father figure by George Michael. It’s the complete opposite in tone of what you’d expect and yet it works so incredibly well.

  4. Avatar
    CineGirl Reply

    Another one featuring Travolta that I love – when they’re fixing the car… Grease Lightning!

  5. Avatar
    Dan Grant Reply

    The Power of Love in BTTF, when Marty is skateboarding to school is terrific as well.

    Also, Hip to Be Square by Huey Lewis and News, the sequence in American Psycho is very nice.

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