An Essay about the Best Music Scenes in Movies

Harmony on Screen: Exploring Cinematic Brilliance in the Top Music Scenes That Strike a Chord

Music has a remarkable way of enhancing and enriching our lives, whenever I meet a person that claims to not listen to music—although it doesn’t happen often—it’s an allegation that I cannot comprehend. In part, because the influence music has on movies and television is so profound, and everyone watches something, movies and television harness the power of music to inspire emotion, and you can't be upset that a song might be exercised to manipulate our feelings without feeling something. Moments in film that are manipulated by music are noteworthy in and of themselves; when Simba is hoisted by Rafiki on Pride Rock as “The Circle of Life” plays in The Lion King, in the closing scene of The Breakfast Club, the opening scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the closing scene of Fight Club, the montage in Rocky IV, the pottery scene in Ghost, and of the closing scene of Apocalypse Now (and others—I’ll make that list at some point).

And then there are scenes in movies that are not simply heightened by the music—where the music is supplemental, tacked on to the scene after the fact in a dark room with the director and music director staring at a computer screen dubbing sound bites during post-production—but that are synergetic with the music that accompanies them; scenes where the music doesn’t merely coat the action but is at the heart of it. I love these scenes in movies.

In this list, I didn’t include scenes from dance movies like Dirty DancingFlashdance, and Footloose, and I didn’t include scenes from movies based on the lives of musicians such as, Walk the Line and Bohemian Rhapsody. I also did not include anything by Quentin Tarantino, I mention that only because there are at least two noteworthy scenes involving music in his movies, and I did consider including the dance scene from Pulp Fiction, but decided it didn't quiet fit. I never considered the scene in Reservoir Dogs, where what’s his face dances around the room to “Stuck in the Middle With You,” while torturing the cop, because it's not a great scene. It very much had the potential to be, it had the potential to be one of the most iconic scenes in cinema history, unfortunately, it missed the mark. I’m not dismissing Tarantino’s relationship with music, that relationship is one of the most important parts of what makes his movies so good, just not good enough for this list.

The list of  scenes below, although I still feel like I’m forgetting at least one great scene that I cannot seem to place, are the best music scenes in movies that, among other things, help to channel the “why,” of why music is so important to us.



* Back to the Future

Back to the Future. I’m not sure that there is a lot that I can say about this scene that hasn’t already been said, it’s so iconic that leaving it off the list is impossible. A list of the great music scenes in movies that have disregarded Back to the Future can’t be taken seriously. So, Chuck Berry, eat your heart out. 


16.) Stranger Than Fiction 

I spent a few years, while I was in college, probably somewhere between ’04 and ’08, watching those low budget indie films that have since become hugely popular. I wouldn’t say that Stranger Than Fiction is as obscure as most, nevertheless it was a movie that I happened upon and enjoyed. This scene from Stranger Than Fiction with Will Ferrell, Harold Crick, and Maggie Gyllenhaal, Ana Pascal, is a good one. Sometimes it’s music that allows us to be relatable with one another, and to seem more human (that’s represented as well in a particular scene in the movie Drive with Ryan Gosling). Ferrell, sitting on the couch playing Gyllenhaal’s dusty guitar and singing out of tune, is good, but what makes the scene great was when Maggie Gyllenhaal started mouthing the words as she watches him play.


 15.) Revenge of the Nerds 

Revenge of the Nerds did not age well. I grew up watching this movie, my parents weren’t all that particular about what my sister and I should and should not be watching as children. I think we’re better for it. My issues are rooted more in the lifelong affects of teacher induced Ritalin as a child, and having a couple of unimaginably bad relationships in my mid-, and late twenties, not at all from watching Revenge of the Nerds when I was 8.

I would watch the movie the whole way through but just for the end, for these final two climactic scenes, and having watched the movie the entire way through made the talent show and confrontation at the pep rally all that much better. There are a couple of good life lessons scattered about this otherwise contemptuous 80’s trigger of a movie. One of those life lessons should have been that every movie from then onward needed to conclude with a bizarre musical number that overtly influenced the viewers’ emotions for little to no reason. You may not like the movie, but it is inarguable that this scene is fantastic.


 14.) Once 

Once, was a movie that I discovered in tandem with my uncharted-deep-dive-into-music phase lasting from ’97 to ’08. I happened upon Glen Hansard, an Irish singer/songwriter, and the music he was making with his band, The Frames; which would eventually lead me to The Swell Season; Glen Hansard’s project with the incredible Czech musician, Markéta Irglová. Once, is a fictional account of the then couple coming together, making music, and falling in love—it’s a great indie film. It’s interesting too, everyone’s heard of the song “Falling Slowly,” and yet no one has any idea who The Swell Season, Glen Hansard, or Markéta Irglová are, let alone have heard of this movie, Once. It’s a shame.

While living in New York a few years after The Swell Seasons’ debut album was released, the movie came out, and after watching it I had heard that Markéta Irglová was living in the city. I reached out to her, and we started chatting on Instagram or Twitter, I can’t remember which. We tried several times to meet for coffee, but our schedules never allowed that to happen, and unfortunately our conversation stalled, we stopped talking. This isn’t particularly relevant to the scene, it’s just nice to be able to boast about the fact that Markéta, the first and only Czech to win an Oscar (the Oscar was for Best Original Score for the movie Once) and I were friendly for a few months.


 13.) Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle 

 An odd movie to be on this list, I know, but when you have a scene like the one where John Cho, Harold, and Kal Penn, Kumar, are driving in a stolen car on their way to White Castle when “Hold On,” by Wilson Phillips starts playing, exceptions are going to have to be made. Other than this just being a really great scene, I like that it illustrates how shame, one of the most difficult emotions in our collective emotional repertoires, will influence who we are, and how we’ll keep a part of ourselves hidden from everyone for little reason other than that we’re afraid of what others might think, but we’re always wrong to be afraid—at least in front of people that matter. And because we hide these parts of ourselves eventually those parts will disappear, and it could be a part of us that we value and that regulates or emphasizes other characteristics and behaviors that we might also openly value and appreciate. “Break free, break from the chains.”


 12.) My Best Friend's Wedding 

My mom would often encourage my sister and I to skip school so that we could go to the movies, I’m not a hardcore cinephile, I won’t question your fealty toward film if you don’t’ care for The Seventh Seal or Nosfuratu, but I do enjoy movies. And I’m not going to hide behind snobbery and pretend that I don’t like cheesy Hollywood blockbusters, especially when they have a scene like this one from My Best Friend’s Wedding. When a scene is great, it’s great, and there’s no pretentious meter that’s going to hit too low for me. My Best Friend’s Wedding is a great Rom-Com, and skipping school to see it in theatres with my mom was well worth it, especially since the entire family still sings along with this scene every time we’re together and it might be on.


 11.) It's Kind of A Funny Story 

It’s Kind of a Funny Story is one of several underrated movies on this list, and perhaps it's possible that the movie is simply unknown. It's Kind of A Funny Story does have an underlying darker theme, and that because, Craig, played by Keir Gilchrist, like Dante, has to explore the more difficult sides of humanity in order to escape it. Craig forces himself to realize that it’s his own inhibitions that are at the root of his ability to express himself, that may seem obvious, and yet we seldom recognize it within ourselves until we’re pushed or pulled out of our comfort zones. This scene drags the viewer from a shared reality into the mind of someone desperate to express himself but both too terrified to, and uncertain of how to do it. It’s through music that he finally allows himself to let go. To illustrate that with the song, “Under Pressure,” written and performed by Queen and David Bowie was the ideal way to portray that.


10.) August Rush 

August Rush has kind of dissolved into the piles of forgotten movies of the recent past, even I started to forget about it, and I love the movie. The music is fantastic. Khaki King’s guitar parts are unbelievable. Yes, August Rush is an abstract and ideationally far-reaching attempt to explore the nuances of music at depths deeper than almost anyone else has attempted in film; it was a bit ambitious. Nevertheless, it didn’t fall completely flat, there is so much about this film that is so good; if Robin Williams’ role/performance was better August Rush would likely have been a huge success, although if, when you watch the movie, you think of Robin Williams’ character as an Epilogue to his movie, Hook, where an older Peter Pan’s gone a little sideways; he’s gathered a bunch of orphaned children to replace the lost boys and his last connection to his youth is through music, his character becomes considerably more interesting.

Director Kirsten Sheridan hoped that more people might appreciate and value music’s transcendental qualities. Music, for August, Freddie Highmore, is as essential as breathing, and love, and I suppose most people weren’t ready to accept that characteristic of music, so maybe August Rush was a bit ahead of its time. Besides this scene, which is so good, there are a number of really great scenes; one where “Wizard” Wallace, Robin Williams, is wandering through Washington Square Park playing Van Morrison’s “Moondance” on the harmonica, and I actually prefer the version of “Moondance” to the original. Another, where August finds himself in a guitar duel with his father, and neither of them know who the other is. Hopefully watching this reinvigorates at least a spark of interest for the movie.


 9.) Adventures in Babysitting 

“Nobody leaves this place without singing the blues.” I’ve always loved Adventures in Babysitting. A teenage babysitter and three kids in downtown Chicago looking for the babysitters disgruntled friend; they are forced into the position to come up with the cash to repair the damaged car while also running from a small handful of car thieves hot on their tracks. I suppose, it’s only a matter of time before they stumble into a blues bar and are forced to sing their way out of their impossible predicament. Damn though, when Elizabeth Shue is confronted with the blues, even Robert Johnson can’t keep up. This scene is way too often overlooked, and frankly so is the movie. 


 8.) Dan in Real Life 

Dan in Real Life is grossly underrated. The movie remains one of Steve Carroll’s best films. Watching this scene makes me feel like I’m actually sitting in someone's family room watching a talent show. It's also much more than that; we’re witnessing how a single song might inspire, translate, and explore the personal lives of anyone. Carroll’s character, Dan, in this moment faces and accepts the truth of tragedy one final time before he lets it go. The scene is awkward, lighthearted, and enjoyable, and it’s just such a good music scene interposed in this movie.


7.) Ferris Bueller's Day Off

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off was released in 1986, two years after I was born, and I’m pretty sure it was the first movie that had a theatrical music interlude that I really appreciated, for myself. The movie has remained a lifelong favorite of mine. I, like everyone else, I’m sure, found inspiration in Ferris’ ability to, not only explore life’s experiences, as they come, but to then squeeze the marrow out of each experience. This is the extreme of what creating our lives looks like, and so it’s a something to strive toward. To have illustrated that by hijacking a parade float and singing to the entire city of Chicago is a testament not only to John Hughes, but to the power of music.


 6.) The Big Chill 

The first 200 times I watched The Big Chill, I didn’t have a clue what it was about, and I wouldn’t know for another twenty years, still the movie is engrained within me, and was a huge part of my childhood. This scene is largely responsible for that, because regardless of how old I was or what I might or might not understand, this scene was one that I could always relate to, and always will be able to relate to. Although it's a shorter scene than the others, it is still one of my favorite music scenes. Besides, where else are you going to find Kevin Kline, William Hurt, Glenn Close, Jeff Goldblum, and Tom Berenger, dancing in the kitchen to The Temptations, in such a relatable way? 


 5.) The Fifth Element

The Fifth Element is one of the greatest science fiction films of all time. The movie is so unique and explores a variety of themes; the idea that the film would have one of the best music scenes is both unimaginable and completely obvious. This scene from The Fifth Element always leaves me awe-inspired, in part probably because the song is actually impossible for a human to sing. There are notes that are unreachable for human vocal cords. The performance was done by Inva Mula, an Albanian opera singer, also known as, Maiwenn Le Besco, who took this scene to entirely different level. This is an unforgettable scene from an unforgettable movie, and I’m not sure how my list could be complete with it.  


 4.) The Wedding Singer 

I am not an Adam Sandler fan. I think most of his movies are awful, however, when he does a movie right, the movie isn’t just good, it’s great. The Wedding Singer is outstanding. I can't say enough about this scene, in fact it's responsible for inspiring me to write this list. I was watching it recently, and started asking myself why I love the scene so much. It’s a simple love song, nothing too much more fantastical than the average guy with his guitar writing a love song to his girlfriend; the song is simple, plain even, and yet it is largely responsible for establishing this movie's presence in cinema history. I remember when it came out, and everyone knew every word to the song, almost by osmosis. It was just a part of us, suddenly, and always will be. 


 3.) Big 

When people say that they don’t make movies like they used to, watching this scene in Big, with Tom Hanks, Josh, and Robert Loggia, Macmillan, without context, as just a big kid and his boss walking through a toy store and happening upon the piano, in a moment that would sear the movie cinematic history, it’s kind of impossible to argue with that. This scene reminds us, whether consciously or unconsciously, to embrace the child within us, and teaches us that there are ways of being childlike that are not juvenile or immature.

The scene was filmed at FAO Schwartz, a New York City toy store, and I’ve been there a number of times. This iconic piano is still there, although it’s roped off to guests, the employees recreate the number several times a day for onlookers, and there's never a single person standing there watching that doesn't know exactly where it came from.


 2.) Beetlejuice 

Beetlejuice is a movie that, like so many on this list, has fallowed me throughout my life. The movie was released four years after I was born in ‘88, and has been a family favorite since my parents saw it in theatres probably on opening day. This is one of the most iconic scenes in cinema history. People could write papers about how brilliant, imaginative, hilarious, and captivating this scene is, and had anything about the scene been different it wouldn’t have been nearly the same. We learn here too, that music is not only meant to inspire and provoke and enthuse us, but also to amuse and to frighten us. Tim Burton has always exercised the use of music in his films, I wish he took more risks with music in ways similar as to this scene from Beetlejuice.


1.) Almost Famous 

The quintessential music scene in movies. The one from which all others are compared, and rightly so. I don’t know if I have ever been able to watch this without tearing up, at least a little. If you think about it, the scene is completely arbitrary, group of people sitting around on a bus singing along to a classic song that has nothing at all to do with anything that any one of them is experiencing. What makes this scene great is different for everyone. What it is for me might best be described by Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower. If you’ve read the book then you’ll know what I mean when I say that this scene always makes me feel, “infinite.”

          So, now you know, and if you can come up with those scenes that are still escaping me please comment and let me know. I'll make sure to include them in their respective spots on this list. If you haven't seen one of these movies, you should (if you're easily triggered or have issues with gratuitous nudity and/or profanity, I would research Revenge of the Nerds and Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle before watching, just watching the scenes might be enough)...and I was saving this for the end, just because:


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