The popularity of the Guardians of the Galaxy soundtracks reminds us of how well music can enrich a movie’s narrative. Unlike Suicide Squad, which collected a random assortment of songs, Guardians of the Galaxy intelligently used popular (and some lesser known) rock and pop music to shed light on a character’s essence. One of my favorite moments occurs in the first Guardians movie, when Star-Lord attempts to distract the character Ronan with a “dance-off, bro” to the song “Ooh Child” by the Five Stairsteps — a scene that embodies Star-Lord’s quirkiness and ability to maintain a sense of humor amid danger.
Guardians of the Galaxy is just one of many movies that are made better by a great soundtrack. Following are five more to savor as we celebrate the glory of movies: on the eve of the 90th Academy Awards. Note: I avoided original scores and musicals. If we’re going to consider, say, A Hard Day’s Night, the list comes to an end before it ever begins.
Get your motor running. Head out on the highway. Those are the words that propel Captain America and Billy on one of the greatest yet tragic road trips in movie history. Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild” kicks in with its funky organ, thudding drums, and gritty vocals just as Billy and Captain America, riding their powerful motorcycles like steeds in a western, slice through the open road of the high desert. Buckskin and chrome never seemed so cool.
Shaft, “Theme from Shaft.” (1971)
Everyone knows “Shaft.” But to really understand the song, you have to hear the propulsive percussion, wah-wah guitar, Isaac Hayes’s rich voice, and triumphant horns as John Shaft struts down the cold streets of Manhattan in the movie’s opening credits. Shaft was made the same year Hollywood produced two memorable cop antiheroes with The French Connection and Dirty Harry. Shaft set itself apart in many ways — its mostly black cast in roles usually given to whites; its gorgeously shot scenes that captured the rhythms of New York; and the searing soundtrack, which told us everything we needed to know about John Shaft’s coolness before he uttered a single word. Got a time piece, brother?
Apocalypse Now: “The End.” (1979)
The opening credits to Apocalypse Now eerily set the stage for the movie’s surreal and terrifying descent into the Vietnam War. As the familiar, jangly guitar of Doors’ “The End” begins to play, American helicopters appear like monsters over the Vietnamese landscape (in reality, the Philippines, where the move was shot) and unload napalm. These are some of the most powerful opening credits in movie history, made more visceral by the sound of Jim Morrison’s voice in the dirge-like “The End.” In fact, the use of “The End” in Apocalypse Now — so mesmerizing and intoxicating — was credited with helping to launch a revival in the popularity of the Doors that has endured to this day.
Goodfellas: “Layla.” (1990)
What image comes to mind when you hear “Layla” by Derek and the Dominos? Perhaps you imagine Eric Clapton and Duane Allman dueling in the studio to create the emotional guitar parts that make the song? For me, “Layla” will always conjure the blood-splattered montage of criminals killed by gangster Jimmy Conway in the aftermath of a major heist. The use of the song’s piano coda adds a sadness to the deaths of characters who have the misfortune of sharing the same space with the psychotic Conway — such as Frankie Carbone in the meat truck, Frenchy in the garbage truck, and, perhaps most memorably, Johnny Roastbeef and his wife shot to death in a pink Cadillac. The juxtaposition of the song and death creates a certain kind of poetry that Martin Scorsese has been mastering for decades.
Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” inspires what might be the greatest singalong in the movies. When rock star Russell Hammond rejoins his band on the tour bus after a wayward night of partying, everyone is hurting. Hammond is coming down from an acid trip, his band mates are feeling the full weight of their punishing travel schedule, and young journalist William Miller is homesick. But as they sing the chorus of the tender and country fused “Tiny Dancer,” their hurts melt away if only for a few minutes of bonding on the road. “I have to go home,” Russell says to groupie Penny (“I am a band aide” Lane. “You are home,” she replies. And “Tiny Dancer” welcomes him to stay.
After you see enough films, you start hearing the same songs over and over, and it’s harder to feel impressed by any sense of freshness. It’s not the fault of the moviemakers but my ears becoming so accustomed to how music is used. Even still, I am glad that a movie like Guardians of the Galaxy can come along and make me rediscover songs I’d either forgotten about or take for granted. Those moments don’t happen very often. I savor them when they do.
What are your favorite music moments from movies?