Musical Moments in Cinema
I love music nearly as much as I do movies, and the combination of the two can be a potent thing. It can be played for laughs, for emotion, to indicate that two characters are falling in love, or that they’ve broken apart. This list is about ‘pop’ music, rather than classical or score pieces. Theme songs, like those in the James Bond films, are not eligible; the songs must be an integral part of a scene in the film.
The entries are in alphabetical order by film title.
Tiny Dancer in Almost Famous
I could probably have renamed this list Top 5 Musical moments in Cameron Crowe films, or even Top 5 Musical Moments in Almost Famous, such is the influence of pop and rock music on the former Rolling Stone journalist’s movies. This use of Tiny Dancer stands out though, because of what it says both about the films characters and about music itself.
After a night partying with fans a drunk Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup) is picked up by his band’s tour bus, and greeted with a sea of disapproving faces, but Elton John’s song starts playing on the bus stereo and slowly everyone aboard begins singing along, re-bonding Russell with the group. It’s a moment of catharsis so infectious that it’s hard not to burst out in song yourself by the end of the sequence, and it will make you like Elton John more than you thought possible.
Wise Up in Magnolia
Aimee Mann’s song had already appeared in a pretty good film (Sliding Doors) before Paul Thomas Anderson appropriated it, along with several more of the then little known singer songwriter’s tracks, and used it to craft one of cinema’s truly indelible moments. Magnolia, a three hour epic with 15 main characters with interlinked stories, was always going to be operatic in scale, but here it becomes operatic in form, with each character singing along with a few of Mann’s heartfelt words.
This is where Magnolia could, and probably should, have jumped the shark, but the cast really throw themselves at the scene, each finding a different and entirely character specific note to play their section of the song on. It’s a theatrical device, and it shouldn’t really work, but Anderson and Mann draw all these characters together for this one, almost unbearably moving, scene.
Falling Slowly in Once
The little indie that could; Once is a film all about the unifying power of music, about how a Guy (Glen Hansard) and a Girl (Marketa Irglova) are drawn together by his songs and her piano playing. In this early scene they sit in a piano shop and she plays a classical piece for him, before he takes out his guitar and this song, to see if she can accompany him. She can, and so begins a collaboration and a budding friendship.
Falling Slowly, which, like all the songs in Once, Hansard wrote, is a beautiful song, but more than that it encapsulates the whole thrust of the movie in its opening line “I don’t know you / but I want you / all the more for that” and we feel that line throughout the scene, the immediate chemistry between Hansard and Irglova a palpable thing. It also helps that the performers, particularly Hansard, throw themselves into the song with total abandon, allowing you to get as wrapped up in it as they do.
In Your Eyes in Say Anything…
I’m of a certain generation, I grew up in the 90’s, and anyone who was young then, who saw Say Anything… as a teenager has, I’m sure, at some point considered re-enacting this scene themselves for some girl they couldn’t have, even if she was no Diane Court. It’s the midpoint of Cameron Crowe’s teen romance, and the central couple have broken up, so Lloyd (John Cusack) takes his boom box, stands outside Diane’s (Ione Skye) window, hoists the boombox over his head, and plays Peter Gabriel’s In Your Eyes at full blast.
It’s one of those scenes that really ought to be cheesy, but for some indefinible reason it works, with Gabriel’s words saying more that Lloyd’s ever could at that moment. Cameron Crowe, for his part, captures the moment in one of the iconic shots of 80’s cinema, a shot and a scene that are etched in my memory.
Wonderful World in Witness
Honestly, is there a better sound in the world than Sam Cooke’s voice? I’m sure that, at the very least, it ranks in the top three, and it’s seldom been put to finer use than it is here. Witness sees Harrison Ford’s cop living undercover among the Amish, to protect a young murder witness (Lukas Haas), and at the same time falling for the witness’ mother (Kelly McGillis). Wonderful World comes on Ford’s car radio when he’s fixing it and, taken by the song, he dances with McGillis who, of course, never usually hears secular music.
Wonderful World is a perfect choice for this scene, it’s utterly wholesome, which makes both the fact that it’s forbidden and the charge that we see between Ford and McGillis play better and it’s just such a beautiful song that you are as transported by it as they are, and as shaken when it is abruptly turned off as they are discovered, a great use of a perfect record.
See Also: A Waltz for a Night in Before Sunset; Feel My Heat in Boogie Nights; Across 110th Street in Jackie Brown; A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow in A Mighty Wind; Misirlou in Pulp Fiction; Stonehenge in This is Spinal Tap