By Spencer. As a website devoted to both music and film, there’s an obvious cross-section we’ve been ignoring up until now. Sure, we once featured some movie musicals that don’t suck, but that’s only the most glaringly obvious marriage of music and film. Today, we kick off a series devoted to another kind of on-screen music moment: those stand-out instances where the song just makes the scene, where it perfectly captures the mood or plays an integral role in the development of the story. Where music takes over the movie at a crucial point and accomplishes what no bit of dialogue ever could. These are the moments when song and script combine effortlessly to form an unforgettable movie memory.
“Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon” in Pulp Fiction (1994): No one has more experience with crafting perfect music moments on film than Quentin Tarantino. He’s done it in virtually every one of his pictures, so expect to see him pop up more than few times as this series continues. We start with Pulp Fiction, one of those movies where the soundtrack is practically a character in the film. And while I could’ve easily gone with the Jack Rabbit Slim’s twist contest (pictured above), it draws a close second to this scene, in which Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman) and Vincent Vega (John Travolta) each flirt with temptation in their own way, with Urge Overkill’s cover of Neil Diamond’s “Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon” providing the musical backdrop to their contest of wills. Each knows that their lives are on the line if anything happens between them, and the tension builds right along with the song—with an unpleasant surprise waiting for Vincent in the end.
The Yardbirds Club Scene in Blow-Up (1966): Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up is a daring collision of realism and surrealism about a photographer who thinks he may have accidentally captured a murder on film. As his paranoia grows, the film ever-so-gradually detours into an almost dreamlike quality, as if to give visual effect to his unshakable suspicion that something is very wrong with the world. In this scene, toward the end of the film, our photographer wanders into a London club and stumbles into a very rare glimpse of rock royalty together on-stage. You see, for only a few months in 1966, the Yardbirds featured one of the most incendiary guitar pairings ever assembled: Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck. And this is one of the few times that historic lineup was ever recorded together. Beck’s amp starts to give out on him, causing him to smash his guitar in a fit of anger. Perhaps the coolest part of the scene is the way the crowd goes from eerily stoic to a near riot when he throws the neck of the guitar from the stage. It’s all so disturbing, and the song blisters like nothing we’d hear again until the grunge era.
“Bohemian Rhapsody” in Wayne’s World (1992): Sometimes a movie uses a song so well, it becomes forever identified with it. Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” had been around for almost two decades when Wayne and Garth reintroduced it to a whole new generation with this hilarious head-banging joyride through the Chicago suburbs. It’s the little touches that make it, too: the way each guy in the car latches onto a different part of the vocal harmony, like members of the band, or the way Wayne breaks into an air drum fill. To this day, I have to shut my eyes and slam my head around whenever those guitars kick in.
The Dance Scene in Ex Machina (2015): In a movie that is otherwise ominously serious, the moment in Ex Machina when Oscar Isaac and his assistant break into an “impromptu” dance routine (to Oliver Cheatham’s “Get Down Saturday Night“) is one of those gloriously out-of-nowhere left turns. And yet it accomplishes so much in service of its story. This is the point where you realize that this computer genius, who says he’s invented the first artificial intelligence, is more than eccentric; he’s out of his fucking mind. So cool it’s disturbing, it functions as a window into the mind of a character and a bit of comic relief all at once—and it’s Exhibit A in why this is such a freakishly inventive film.
The Dream Sequence in The Big Lebowski (1998): If you had to pick the most famous single scene in the entire collected works of the Coen Brothers, it might be this one. Recalling the grand musical numbers of Busby Berkeley in the 1930s, this drug-induced dream interlude (backed by the perfect song choice, Kenny Rogers & The First Edition’s “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)“) is a comic surrealist masterpiece. There are just so many iconic images packed into this three-minute sequence: those dancers in bowling-pin crowns, Saddam Hussein working the shoe counter, and of course, The Dude shaking his ass and thrusting his hips on that black-and-white staircase to infinity. You could argue that this single scene made The Big Lebowski a cult classic and marked the Coen Brothers as one of our most essential directing talents.
The “Tiny Dancer” Sing-Along in Almost Famous (2000): No music scene captures the spirit of its film quite like this one in Almost Famous—a movie that’s after all a two-hour love letter to music. It comes at a crucial point in the story, when the hypocrisy and hollowness of this band of wannabe rock stars has been laid bare. Everyone gets on the tour bus, exhausted and disenchanted, and Patrick Fugit’s aspiring young Rolling Stone writer seems ready to quit—when Elton John’s Tiny Dancer plays over the radio. A few absently-whispered lines build into a massive sing-along that reminds you just how much these flawed people genuinely do love music (even if they’ve forgotten that fact along the way). As a scene, it crystallizes the entire film, and it reminds you just how powerful music can be as a communicator and a shared experience.