7 Songs Perfectly Placed In Films

An oft overlooked facet of film making is mood setting. There are many ways this can be achieved, but few work so instantly and strongly as perfect music placement. If you’ve ever seen a Quentin Tarantino or Wes Anderson film, you’ve seen some of the more obvious ways this is done (more on Mr. Anderson later). But for every Stuck in the Middle with You in Reservoir Dogs, there are lesser known but just as important moments in film.

Note: this isn’t for moments when the film is “about” the music (which is what Garden State does for pretty much the whole film). This is for the moments where the music brings out something that wasn’t there on-screen, something that is felt rather than stated. These are 7 examples of perfectly placed songs in films.

SUPER MEGA SPOILER ALERT: Due to the fact that for many of these scenes to work, the music has to be used at pivotal moments, there will obviously be spoilers ahead. In fact, many of the instances on this list are the end of the movies, so if you don’t want to know how these films end, do not read on.

Pirate Radio

Procol HarumWhiter Shade of Pale

Note: Above video is un-embeddable, but it’s the only one that has the scene, so go to YouTube and watch it.

In a okay-to-good film full of some pretty great music, why does Whiter Shade of Pale stand out? There are great placements of The Turtles’ Eleanor and Leonard Cohen’s So Long Marianne, but when the ship is sinking (literally) the needle drops on Procol Harum’s classic tune, with the DJ saying, “This is a long record … I hope I hear the end of it.” It’s a serious moment in a rather silly film that would probably not work without the song, and …Pale‘s slightly warming, slightly haunting organ line conveys both the comfort they sought in the music, and the finality of the ship going down.


The NationalAbout Today

Gavin O’Connor‘s Warrior is a film about brothers, so it is only fitting that a band of brothers is the one to score the film’s last moments. About Today is often used as a set-closer for The National, pushing its 4 minute run time into to 8 minute-plus territory. So for the final fight which pits brother vs. brother, one fighting for family and one fighting to fix his past, O’Connor uses the live White Sessions version of the song, nearly in full. As one brother painfully, and tearfully forces the other into defeat, the swell of emotions is too much for them to contain, and the song kicks into high instrumental gear as the vocals drop out. Just as O’Connor’s film ends on an emotionally draining note, About Today leaves it all in the ring.


Love Spit LoveAm I Wrong?

In a much less exhausting example than the one above, Angus is a film that is known today for mainly one thing, its soundtrack. So when Love Spit Love‘s Am I Wrong? opens the film (yeah, I used it twice, get over it) merged with the sounds of the marching band we see on-screen, it serves to show the unity the film will have with its soundtrack. It announces that these songs won’t only be heard during the film, they will be a part of what is happening, and they will exist in the living, breathing, world of the film.

(500) Days of Summer

Regina SpektorHero

If there’s one thing (500) Days of Summer is remembered for, it will probably be this. The playful way director Marc Webb presents his film (whether it be through impromptu musical numbers, twee illustrations, or anti-chronology) is not often seen in many mainstream films. But in the scene above, where we see Tom’s expectations of a party at Summer’s house vs. the reality of it side-by-side, the dichotomy is heartbreaking. The often dark-sounding piano and solo voice of Regina Spektor does little to lift the scene up, and does even more to drive Tom’s emptiness home with the viewer.

This Is England

Clayhill Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want

This example, like The Life Aquatic below, is less about what’s happening during the song and more about what happened leading up to it. The few minutes above are the final images we see of Shane Meadows‘ semi-autobiographical journey through skinhead culture. The pre-teen Shaun has been through enough in the last 90 minutes of film to warrant a mid-life crisis twice over. He’s in the midst of a complete loss of identity. He doesn’t know who he is, what he wants, or who he wants to be. As he stands at the edge of the sea, disposing of the symbol that has caused so much wrong in his short life, Clayhill‘s cover of The SmithsPlease Please Please Let Me Get What I Want plays. Shaun may not know what he wants, but he knows what he doesn’t, and as he throws the St George’s Cross into the sea, he allows himself to start over.

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

Dream AcademyPlease Please Please Let Me Get What I Want

As one of the sole moments of calm in an otherwise hectic day, Dream Academy‘s version of the same Smiths song above (what do filmmakers have against Moz/Marr?) serves to allow Ferris, Sloane, and especially Cameron silently take a look at what they’re doing, and more importantly, take a breather. Sometimes a song doesn’t have to move the plot forward, and in this case it doesn’t. Instead, the song allows the film to exist in a different space for two minutes. The film goes from 60 to 0 (and then back to 60) and allows the audience, the characters, and the plot to breathe.

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

Sigur RosStaralfur

Like This Is England up there, this scene is a near-bookend to the film. And as I promised earlier, here’s my little musing on Wes Anderson. Anderson often lets the music take over the scene. It is as if, without words, he is announcing “I like David Bowie and I am going to keep pushing him in this film and you can’t ignore it.” Anderson, when it comes to music placement, is about 10 light years away from subtle. But this scene (even more so than the stellar Needle In The Hay scene in The Royal Tenenbaums) allows the music to fit into the film nicely and neatly, without just dumping it over the top of everything. When Steve Zissou finally sees the shark he’s been hunting, the shark that has claimed the lives of his best friend and his (maybe not) son, he just looks at it. His plan all along was to kill it, but his relationship with his (not) son brought him back to his oceanographer days, before his career started failing, and before he vowed to kill a shark for revenge. The often too beautiful for real words music of Sigur Ros is the perfect, understated compliment to a man whose life is teetering on the brink of disaster. And just as a footnote, one of the biggest crimes of the century was Bill Murray‘s lack of serious recognition for his amazing performance as Steve Zissou. Dude is owed an Oscar big time.


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Categories: Film, Music

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9 Comments on “7 Songs Perfectly Placed In Films”

    10.18.11 at 11:56 PM #

    I have always thought that the end of This is England was one of the best song endings I’ve seen in a film, for that exact reason. Great pick.

    • Sh Hess
      10.19.11 at 1:35 PM #

      Are you shamelessly self promoting yourself Parks?

  2. Kat Keating
    10.19.11 at 10:40 AM #

    Thoughtful and well written. This might be my favorite topic used on here. I always appreciate the way music is incorporated in film. It mutually enhances the two art forms.

  3. 10.19.11 at 11:49 AM #

    Not sure how Blink-182’s “Mutt” in American Pie doesn’t get an appearance on the list, but whatever.

  4. Sh Hess
    10.19.11 at 1:34 PM #

    Perfect Day Trainspotting came to my mind straight away.

  5. Kat Keating
    10.19.11 at 2:55 PM #

    Not to steal Jim’s thunder, but while we’re at it, I’d like to add “The Sprout and the Bean” by Joanna Newsom from The Strangers to this list. Wasn’t expecting this song to appear in the film before seeing it recently. Don’t want to spoil it for anyone but it’s a very fitting song for the scene it is used in.

  6. 10.20.11 at 8:31 AM #

    First thing I thought was “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” … another good one: “Babe O’Riley” at the end of The Girl Next Door.

  7. Colin Holmes
    10.20.11 at 11:28 PM #

    How is there no Scorsese on this list? This has always been one of my favorite song moments in a movie. Jackson Browne’s Late for the Sky in Taxi Driver. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kCuN6H3V6_Q&feature=related


  1. All Hail the Indie Epic | List Off - 10.20.11

    […] the most compelling, out-of-body experience for the listener. On Tuesday, Jim noted Sigur Ros in his post, and how their song “Staralfur” is used in the film The Life Aquatic. Coincidentally, […]

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