Photo: Columbia Pictures
Movies, even the silent variety, have always employed music for dramatic effect. But when you get the right person at the helm, it can also create a rocking effect. The directors below have mastered the art of utilizing songs to create iconic cinematic moments. All of which likely wouldn’t have been so without that exact right tune at the exact right time. Below are some of these rocking auteurs’ finest moments, highlighted by each director’s definitive example — which, in most cases, was really hard to pick.
Directors Whose Soundtracks Are On Point
The Coen Brothers
I won’t begin to say their movies are always on point — Inside Llewyn Davis was so slow it felt like I took an entire car ride to Chicago with an oppressively dour dude whose name I still can’t spell — but you have to admit, “Fare Thee Well” is a beautiful, perfectly American tune. And perfect American tunes have been a staple of the Coens throughout. O Brother Where Art Thou helped kick off a new folk revival (which I thought Llewyn might finally end). But their most spot-on musical film The Big Lebowski, bridges the folk gap with rock ‘n’ roll from Bob Dylan’s “The Man In Me” playing over the opening and first dream sequence to the scene above, featuring The Dude tripping out to Kenny Rogers & The First Edition’s “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” while getting clean bowling shoes from Saddam Hussein and ogling a Viking-clad Julianne Moore.
If it’s classic rock you want (hopefully, because that’s kind of a theme here), then you won’t be disappointed by any of Anderson’s offerings, not even The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, which may be tinged with Seu Jorge’s Portuguese folk music, but at least it’s all written by David Bowie. If you like your classic rock a bit more classical though, stick to The Royal Tenenbaums, The Darjeeling Limited and The Fantastic Mr. Fox, which all provide quality deep cuts from your favorite British Invasion stalwarts. But my favorite usage has to be from the end of my favorite Anderson film Rushmore. When Max Fisher head nods at the DJ to play the Faces’ “Ooh La La,” then gets Ms. Cross to look at him the way we all want to be looked at by our hottest teacher, that’s cinematic magic right there. Heck, even “Hot for Teacher” couldn’t be as fitting.
John Hughes understood us dweeby preteens. He was a little older, a lot wiser and understood that a good song could define a film. And a film could define an era. Tell me Vacation doesn’t come joyously to mind the second Lindsey Buckingham’s “Holiday Road” plays. Or Kelly LeBrock when you hear Oingo Boingo’s “Weird Science.” Or The Breakfast Club every goddamn time you hear Simple Minds’ “Don’t You (Forget About Me).” I think Hughes’ best musical usage, though, has to be Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. It introduced us to Yello’s now ubiquitous “Oh Yeah,” which captured the will-he-get-caught spirit of the defiant film. But the defining moment has to be Ferris lip-syncing “Danke Schoen” and “Twist and Shout” in front of a packed Chicago parade, while avoiding a child-molesting principal and turning on a float full of randy German fraus.
Sure, Rosario Dawson rallies for vaginal bareness to Moby’s “The Day” in the very trippy Trance. Yes, Trainspotting made me choose life and gave me far more listening pleasure after my first viewing pleasure, even introducing me to such huge, must hear monthly songs as “Perfect Day,” “Lust For Life,” and “Born Slippy.” But that movie made heroin so much less fun. And as far as definitive goes, we have to remember that for a second there, after Slumdog Millionaire, Danny Boyle made mainstream America like Indian music.
Dazed and Confused is widely regarded as having one of the best utilized soundtracks of all time, right from the sultry beginning baseline of “Sweet Emotion” rolling in time with Prickford’s 1974 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am SD-455. And School of Rock actually taught us all how to rock more thoroughly, mostly thanks to the soundtrack. But as much as I have a hard time not picking a moment from those films, I have to pick Boyhood for Linklater’s best overall musical usage. While Dazed, Everybody Wants Some and Boyhood all served to transport us to a very specific time and place, Boyhood did that for the entire span of a boy’s adolescence. The music successfully helped pass the time, and situate the audience within the boy’s next phase of growing up. Which is impressive, but now that it comes time to definitively pick an iconic scene, nothing in Boyhood comes close to Wooderson’s Emporium entrance to Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane.” I still try and emulate that walk whenever I enter a bar. At least one with a foosball table.
When you honestly can’t decide which soundtrack is a director’s best, then you know you have a master of musical movie moments. Tarantino’s often obscure songs stick, too, because you can’t help but associate the action with the music on so many occasions: Vincent Vega and Mia Wallace dancing The Twist to Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell”; Rick Ross’ “100 Black Coffins” ushering Django into Candyland; and hell, I don’t know if he wrote it into Tony Scott’s shooting script or not, but let’s also give a hat tip to True Romance when Clarence and Alabama do some big-bopping to the Big Bopper in a phone booth. But the first time we realized we had a master on our hands had to be when Mr. Blonde plays Van Gogh with a cop’s face while busting smooth moves to Stealers Wheel’s never-the-same party tune “Stuck in the Middle with You.”
I guess we should have expected as much from a former Rolling Stone writer and current husband of Heart’s hot Wilson sister, but Crowe had a decade-long run of some of the best musical choices in filmdom. From the iconic “In Your Eyes” scene in Say Anything to the grunge-defining “Singles” soundtrack to Springsteen’s heart-tugging “Secret Garden” planting the seeds of love in Jerry Maguire, it all culminated in Almost Famous. Music is, of course, essential to the plot, and is consistently stellar throughout (even Stillwater’s originals are pretty good). But Crowe’s most iconic usage has to be the scene above, which poetically captures the healing power of music after Russell’s acid-tripping and golden godding nearly destroys the band. I’m pretty sure it was the first time I ever heard Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer,” too, as was likely the case for many of us. Of course, now it’s one of the most popularly butchered Elton songs around, which just goes to show you the purchasing power unleashed by a perfect usage of music in film.
I don’t know about you, but my introduction to Spike was his joint School Daze, although my only real memory of the film is doing “Da Butt,” which I learned to do all night long. Then Do the Right Thing came out, and love and hate kicked me in the ass till there was no more dancing. Well, I guess people do dance to Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” but it’s much better to riot to. Then Spike ran the spectrum from Gang Starr to Coltrane in Mo’ Better Blues and blew my musical mind. But my personal favorite — another PE collaboration — was He Got Game. And the titular song is only the second best on the killer soundtrack. The first “What You Need Is Jesus,” is so powerful I can actually dunk when I hear it. And only when I hear it. Thank you, Jesus!
David O. Russell
O. Russell’s place on this list has been slowly cementing over the years, but his moment of inclusion wasn’t a sports-bra-busting Jennifer Lawrence teaching Pat Solitano how to waltz to Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash’s “Girl From North Country.” It solidified when big-bellied Christian Bale turns off Chicago’s “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” in favor of Duke Ellington’s “Jeeps Blues,” all in an effort to impress the knockout who wore a string bikini and a fur to the pool party. Impress her it does, too, so much that she has a flashback to her blues-filled days working on the pole. We have that very same Ellington-loving knockout to thank for the fantastic plunging dress trend that’s still with us today.
No, I didn’t feel compelled to put a woman on this list out of fairness, political correctness or Bernie f–king Sanders. Amy Heckerling earned her way on this list (unlike Spike 😉 if for no other reason than because she was the uncredited director behind the most head-bobbing film ever: A Night at the Roxbury. Okay you need more? Clueless features the Beasties’ “Mullet Head.” More? You’re a tyrant. Fine, I’ll give you four: the second and third set of breasts I ever saw were both moments so highlighted by song, I wouldn’t be able to recall said orbs without them. Jennifer Jason Leigh — lying about her age and sneaking off to the point with young stereo executive and nice-jacket-wearing Ron Johnson — is the hot embodiment of Jackson Browne’s “Somebody’s Baby.” And then Phoebe Cates gets wet n’ topless to The Cars’ “Moving in Stereo.” And just like that, your whole life has changed because of one perfectly soundtracked and boob-laden movie.
As we’ve seen from the Coens and Tarantino on occasion, seemingly anachronistic song placement can be used to jarring and memorable effect. Baz Luhrmann may be the master of such a technique, from Romeo + Juliet to Moulin Rouge! and then on to his masterpiece The Great Gatsby, which explodes off the screen in a caravansary of popping champagne, tuxedoed gangsters and glittery showgirls doing the Charleston to banging hip hop and techno beats. The technique serves to make everything once learned true again, namely that a little party never killed anybody. Well, except Jay Gatsby.
If I didn’t include Scorsese, I’d lose my List Making Card. And then I’d really be a failure. But at least I’ve never felt paranoia the likes of Henry Hill during his busy day dropping off guns and picking up cocaine to the thumping bass line of Harry Nilsson’s “Jump Into The Fire.” And that’s just one Goodfellas iconic moment — I can think of three more: heads in the freezer set to the piano outro of “Layla”; “Sunshine of Your Love” inspiring Jimmy to hatch a plan to whack his colleagues; and the one above, the original long tracking shot dancing into the Copacabana’s back entrance accompanied by The Crystals’ “And Then He Kissed Me.” You can play that game with many of his soundtracks. Honestly, Scorsese has enough iconic musical movie moments just set to Rolling Stones songs to merit another list completely.