Undefended: Needle Drops

It has become increasingly common for films to fill their soundtracks with pop music, though this is often done very poorly. The songs can be too obvious, too on-the-nose, or the soundtrack can become so reliant on them that they lose all impact. Nonetheless, a good needle drop can be immensely satisfying. For this month’s Undefended lists, FilmFisher’s writers picked the five best uses of pop songs in cinema.

The selections had to be preexisting songs (i.e., not written for the movie), with lyrics (i.e., not classical pieces), used non-diegetically (i.e., not sung, performed, or played by characters in the film).

"This is where I grew up."

Timothy Lawrence

  1. The scene that concludes the sixth season of Mad Men (2013), set to “Both Sides Now” by Judy Collins.
  2. The August 8, 1969 montage near the end of Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019), set to “Out of Time” by The Rolling Stones.
  3. The opening of Apocalypse Now (1979), set to “The End” by The Doors.
  4. The closing montage of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011), set to “La Mer” by Julio Iglesias.
  5. The way The Irishman (2019) uses “In the Still of the Night” by the Five Satins as its anthem, though I am also partial to the song’s use in Dead Ringers (1988).

Joel Bourgeois

  1. Serious Man (2009); the final scene/end credits; “Somebody to Love” by Jefferson Airplane.
  2. Shrek (2001); opening; “All Star” by Smash Mouth.
  3. Spider-Man 3 (2007); Peter Parker embraces the symbiote; “People Get Up and Drive that Funky Soul” by James Brown.
  4. Chungking Express (1994); various; “California Dreamin'” by the Mamas & the Papas.
  5. American Graffiti (1973); opening; “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley & His Comets.

spider-man 3 - people get up and drive that funky soul

Travis Kyker

  1. The bookend uses of Donavan’s eternally creepy Hurdy Gurdy Man in Zodiac (2007).
  2. Bob Dylan sings how The Times, They Are A-Changin’ over Watchmen’s (2009) opening credits.
  3. Leonard Cohen introduces the arriving prostitutes with Sisters of Mercy in McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971).
  4. Doc and Shasta check out a lead to Neil Young’s Journey Through the Past in Inherent Vice (2014).
  5. One of the best film openings ever: Miami Vice’s (2006) in media res sting operation set to Numb/Encore by Jay-Z and Linkin Park.

Robert Brown

  1. The Sandlot (1993): The boys playing baseball under a shower of July 4th fireworks is set to the Ray Charles rendition of “America the Beautiful”  (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fWCYvllZn1E)
  2. Jingle All the Way (1996): The Johnny Mathis rendition of “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” underscores the irony of a mob of Christmas Eve shoppers fighting over lottery balls in the Mall of America. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JpXKyo-ZeVI)
  3. Spider-Man 2 (2004): The B. J. Thomas “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head” montage. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nL8hVXSDmNM)
  4. The Tree of Life (2011): Zbigniew Preisner’s “Lacrimosa” accompanies the creation sequence. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wKkDxAiMIIY)
  5. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013): This is only half cheating. “Space Oddity” begins diegetically, sung by Kristen Wiig’s character, but gives way to the David Bowie song playing non-diegetically. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HEwtPwkeXjw)

tree of life lacrimosa

Tom Upjohn

  1. The Graduate‘s opening, set to Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence”
  2. The final moments of Fight Club, set to the Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind”
  3. The devastating “Expectations vs. Reality” sequence from (500) Days of Summer, set to Regina Spektor’s “Hero”
  4. Donnie Darko‘s closing montage, set to Gary Jules’ cover of “Mad World” by Tears for Fears
  5. Moriarty’s entrance into the courtroom in the season 2 finale of Sherlock,  set to “Sinnerman” by Nina Simone

But I think we can all agree that the actual best needle drop is Fred jousting the black knight in Scooby-Doo 2, set to “Wanted Dead or Alive” by Bon Jovi.

A.C. Gleason

All the best ones have been taken, so…

  1. A Knight’s Tale

a bigger splash

Joshua Gibbs

  1. “Ooh La La,” by The Faces. Slow motion dance shot that closes out Rushmore.
  2. “Sometimes,” by My Bloody Valentine. Bob and Charlotte’s taxi ride in Lost in Translation.
  3. “Emotional Rescue,” by The Rolling Stones. Ralph Fiennes dances in A Bigger Splash.
  4. “Still,” by Geto Boys. The crew demolishes a printer in Office Space.
  5. “My Funny Valentine,” by Matt Damon. Tom Ripley figures a few things out on his own while playing Chet Baker’s classic at a piano bar.

I made this list without looking at the list I made last time this was a prompt (seven years ago): a few of the same/similar entries. For anyone who wants to look, here it is.

Timothy Lawrence

A graduate of the Torrey Honors Institute at BIOLA University, Timothy Lawrence teaches great books through Emmaus Classical Academy in Southern California. He writes essays and fiction and counts the Coen Brothers and George Lucas among his personal heroes.

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