The Projects: Great Music Moments In Film History, Vol. 2

By Spencer. Today we continue our look at the greatest on-screen musical moments. Miss Volume 1? Click back to see what we’re shooting for—those scenes where the song becomes absolutely essential to the film. In today’s batch, we look at several iconic moments where the song spoke not just for the movie but for an entire era.


“The Sound Of Silence” in The Graduate (1967): Even by the late 1960s, rock-and-roll really had yet to become a fixture in movie soundtracks (outside of A Hard Day’s Night or the typical Elvis picture, that is). Simon & Garfunkel’s soundtrack to Mike Nichols’s The Graduate changed all that. Providing the perfect background for Dustin Hoffman’s story of generational disaffection, it played an essential role in turning the movie into a cultural phenomenon—so much so that in our collective memory, the soundtrack and the movie have practically become one. In this montage, there is no dialogue and no background noise; just “The Sound Of Silence” giving perfect voice to the sense of alienation Hoffman feels being a child again in the home of his privileged family while at the same time having an affair with an older woman. Fifteen years later, there would be a whole channel devoted to these kinds of music videos, but in 1967, this moment stood out from everything else Hollywood was making—like a generation of young filmgoers was snatching the torch right out of their parents’ hands.

The Shins Through Sam’s Headphones in Garden State (2004): Just as The Graduate became the soundtrack to an entire generation, no movie expressed the musical tastes of the reigning generation of youth in the early 00s better than Garden State. Director/star Zach Braff’s song choices, featuring Coldplay, Iron & Wine, Zero 7, Thievery Corporation, and Frou Frou, were like an introductory course for the genre that was about to become known as indie rock. Here, The Shins’ “New Slang” takes center stage, becoming the musical cue for the exact moment when Braff’s character falls in love with Natalie Portman. With iPods and iPhones, we’re now entirely used to being able to soundtrack our own lives, but this scene ingeniously illustrates the magic we’re all hoping for when we do it.

“Fight The Power” Dance Intro in Do The Right Thing (1989): If you ever wanted to distill the spirit of the late 80s and early 90s down to a single movie scene, this one might be it. The bright, garish colors. The urban grittiness. The clothes. And of course the music, courtesy of Public Enemy, who provided a political anthem in “Fight The Power” that spoke for a nation of angry black youth. That culture on the edge of rebellion was the central idea of Spike Lee’s movie about the seemingly trivial events that lead to a full-on race riot in Brooklyn. And yet the real magic of these opening credits is the physicality of Rosie Perez’s dance moves. They express something bordering on positive energy—as if this movie isn’t just about rage but also the raw need to speak out, not just with words but with the body. Like an idea waiting to explode.

The “Starman” Sequence in The Martian (2015): Was it an obvious song choice? Of course. But that’s what makes it so perfect. The lyrics may be a little on the nose, but director Ridley Scott brilliantly re-purposes the David Bowie classic for a montage in which our cast of characters on Earth and in space make their final preparations to rescue Matt Damon from Mars. What makes this musical moment so special? The winking humor of it, combined with the truly human moments it backdrops: astronauts saying goodbye to their loved ones, engineers working feverishly for an evasive solution, and Damon penning an optimistic goodbye to Mars itself. What makes The Martian succeed as a movie is how its cast, through adversity, becomes one big disconnected family, and this montage wraps that sentiment up with just the right musical bow. And of course, it also serves as a poignant goodbye for Bowie himself, who would be lost to us just a few months later.

The Doors’ “The End” in Apocalypse Now (1979): Few opening credits set the mood for what’s to come better than the intro to Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, soundtracked by the 1967 Doors song, “The End.” The guitar is ominous, exotic, almost mystic-sounding. The lyrics signal all the bitter cynicism of how we had come to feel about the Vietnam War: “This is the end / My only friend, the end.” And the song is married perfectly to the images on the screen, as jungle palms sway before a dark cloud of helicopter dust before silently exploding in a barrage of napalm. It’s a poetic aural and visual expression of a very simple and timeless theme: war is hell.

Head Over Heels” in Donnie Darko (2001): You might say it’s weird that a movie from the 00s could hope to speak for the 80s. But the 80s are a decade uniquely defined by nostalgia in our collective memory, and what makes Donnie Darko work as a film, despite a bizarre and disturbing plotline, is all of the throwback nods to 80s culture. Like a demented reimagination of a John Hughes montage, this scene wordlessly scans the action at Donnie’s high school, peeking in on the inner thoughts of the movie’s quirky cast of characters while Tears For Fears provide the soundscape. Stylish like an MTV video, but smartly filmed to move the story forward, it makes you yearn for a lost era — and defines our own era as well, one in which we’re often more culturally engaged with the tastes of our past than with our present.

The “Play It, Sam” Scene in Casablanca (1942): Of course there’s no better example of the power of movie nostalgia than Casablanca’s “As Time Goes By,” a song that’s literally about nostalgia. Ingrid Bergman, visiting Rick’s Cafe, asks the piano player if she can hear the song one more time, “for old time’s sake”—and then we watch the pain wash over her face from all the memories it brings back. Then Humphrey Bogart storms in, reminding Sam that he’s told him never to play that song, still unaware of who requested it—and with that exchange, we learn everything we need to know about our two main characters. The song is the soul of the movie, a crystallization of the lost love between Bergman and Bogart. For them, it’s an uncomfortable reminder of a time when things were happier, and for us watching the movie here in 2016, in a very different way, I suppose you could say the same thing.

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