To me, there’s nothing better than a film where a favourite song is suddenly heard on screen, when you least expect it. If the song is used appropriately, it can manage to give you chills for years to come. This is a list of songs that have made the scenes they ‘re in what they are, as if you were to take them away, the scene wouldn’t be even half as charming or compelling to watch over and over again. Some are favourite songs, others aren’t but they work with the scene perfectly in order to communicate a mood and a lasting feeling.

Popular Songs in FilmsEasy Rider/Born to Be Wild: This has to be one of those songs that people identify not only with the film, but with the entire subculture the film was about. First released in 1968, it was immortalised by the film that would become an emblem of an entire generation. As a film, it is credited, along with The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde, for kicking off the New Hollywood movement of filmmakers aka filmmakers who did low-budget films, independent from Hollywood studios and did well. And this was because such films spoke on behalf of that time’s youth, a youth disillusioned by the system. Easy Rider’s soundtrack is a nod to the music that expressed those changes in society as well. ‘Born to be Wild’ fits perfectly as the inspiration for a generation ready to revolt against everything, and the scene it appears in stands for the notion that freedom is found on the road, by being mobile, constantly changing so that you can experience it all. This song probably still plays in people’s heads when they see a Harley-Davidson racing by, howling. It certainly plays in my head, along with the moto of bikers everywhere, inspired –I’m guessing– by the film itself: Live hard, Ride Easy!

Popular Songs in FilmsThe Graduate/The Sound of Silence: Simon and Garfunkel’s song, originally named ‘The Sounds of Silence’ was their first big hit in 1965 and helped them gain exposure to a mass audience. The Graduate, released in 1967, uses the song twice, book ending Benjamin’s story. The opening credits roll to that song, as Ben is introduced, going back home, seen mostly at the airport on a walkway. He makes no effort to walk but moves along, with no expression on his face and looks kind of lost and unmoved by what is going on around him-the same reaction he has to events many times during the film. And if beginning the film with the line ‘Hello darkness, my old friend’ is a statement about Ben’s bleak view of his future, then the use of the same song in the last scene, as Ben and Elaine realise what they have done and think about what lies ahead is perhaps of the most eerie song choices ever to grace a scene where two lovers escape an unwanted future and run away free. Combined with the expression on both the actors’ faces which, legend has it wasn’t in the script and it’s just their relief of finishing the scene and their fright of Mike Nichols as he was shouting at the top of his lungs for them to laugh, the song makes the ending as open as possible, as the characters are left as unsure as they were in the beginning, if not more. Nothing is certain, anything can happen.

Popular Songs in FilmsAlmost Famous/Tiny Dancer: Tiny Dancer has been used a lot in films and the first time I remember hearing it in one is in My Girl 2. I had the film’s soundtrack and always thought that this song would forever remind me of that scene. And then Cameron Crowe worked his magic and, undeniably, gave us the most fitting sequence to that song. Stillwater, the band that the film’s protagonist is on the road with during their 1973 ‘Almost Famous’ tour, welcome their guitarist back into the bus after a big fight they all had. Russel returns half-naked and dazed after spending an entire night dropping acid at some fan’s house. The band still don’t talk to each other and, then, ‘Tiny Dancer’ comes on. The lyrics capture that sense of being on the road, from all the things one sees on the endless roads that tire and, at the same time, can set one free. The whole film is about how the love of music can change your life and having such a song come in and bring everyone together again truly reminds us that music has the rare gift of making you feel at home, wherever you may be.

Popular Songs in FilmsPopular Songs in FilmsVelvet Goldmine/Satellite of Love: This is one of those films that has an incredible soundtrack and the cinematography, editing and direction of the scenes which include the songs feel like they are choreographed to every note, accent and beat, reminding us that video clips can actually be an artform. The film’s soundtrack, supervised by Randal Poster, is very eclectic and from Iggy Pop’s cover of ‘TV Eye’ by Ewan McGregor and Wylde Ratttz to Brian Eno’s ‘Baby’s on Fire’ sung by Jonathan Rhys Meyers, the use of all the songs surprised me when I first watched the film, still excite me when listening to them and will be forever bound to these one-of-a-kind scenes they have scored. However, the scene featuring Lou Reed’s ‘Satellite of love’ made such an impression the first time I watched the film that not only did the song stick in my head for years, it seems, but it has also convinced my that Lou Reed must have visualized the song in a very similar manner, as the late-night-entertainment-park idea Todd Haynes had suits the song’s tempo and relaxed but ready-to-burst attitude to the max. Not much more I can say. Ewan McGregor lip syncs to the background vocals, Jonathan Rhys Meyers rides a roller coaster with a flowy scarf on, swept back by the wind, psychedelic lighting and editing only reveal fleeting moments of the romance just beginning. I am convinced this is what love at first sight feels like.

Popular Songs in FilmsMoulin Rouge!/Heroes: Well, uses of popular songs in Moulin Rouge! could make a list of their own and picking one was extremely hard. You have your ‘Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend’ sung by Nicole Kidman inside the Moulin Rouge, your ‘Children of the Revolution‘ sung by the elite of bohemian artists of fin-de-siècle Montmartre, including Green Fairy/Kylie Minogue and that’s just during the first 20 minutes. Since it is a film filled with uses of popular songs in the most postmondern way possible, I will go postmodern on it as well, be totally subjective, not care about which scene is aesthetically better or which song is used best, and just play favourites. The first time I watched Moulin Rouge! I was surprised with every song that came on, since I wasn’t aware of what was in store for me in terms of the soundtrack. It felt like I was at a party and, suddenly, I saw people I’d met before but never expected to see there. Most of them were nice surprises, but when I heard ‘Heroes’ coming out of Ewan McGregor’s mouth, it was like my first love had just appeared, looking better than ever! I enjoyed how this particular song, though taken quite out of context, is the one which actually convinces Satine to give Christian a chance. And it is quite the line… The idea of love and romance as a heroic act, defying all odds, is one of the most romantic notions I’ve ever come across, present in Bowie’s original as well and, if it worked for Satine, how could it not work for me? And the way Ewan delivers it, confidently and honestly, with a beautiful voice to match, makes me ache every time.

Satellite of Love (Velvet Goldmine)


Listen to:

Born to be Wild (Easy Rider)
The Sound of Silence (The Graduate)
Τiny Dancer (Almost Famous)
Elephant Love Medley (Moulin Rouge!)

Read also:

Moulin Rouge! at Unsung Films
The Graduate at Unsung Films

Cameron Crowe’s Top 10 (Or So) Music Moments in Film at empireonline.com