An Essay about the Best Music Scenes in Movies by James Bonner

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 music's influence on movies and television is so profound and everyone watches something; movies, and television harness the power of music to inspire emotion, you can't be upset that a song might be exercised to manipulate our feelings without feeling something.

Moments in a film that are enhanced 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, and 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 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, added 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 is 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 films 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 popular scenes involving music in his movies that some people might expect to see on this list, and I did consider including the dance scene from Pulp Fiction but decided it didn't quite fit.

I never considered the scene in Reservoir Dogs, where he 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 specific 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 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 as Harold Crick, and Maggie Gyllenhaal, as Ana Pascal, is fantastic.

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). In the scene, Will Ferrell is sitting on the couch playing Gyllenhaal’s dusty guitar and singing out of tune, the scene feels genuine and raw, but what makes the scene great is when Maggie Gyllenhaal starts 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 effects 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 scenes, and having watched the film the entire way through made the talent show and confrontation at the pep rally all that much better. There are several great life lessons scattered about this otherwise contemptuous 80’s trigger of a movie, believe it or not. One of those life lessons should have been that every film 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 eventually led me to his project, 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 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, and we stopped talking. This isn’t particularly relevant to the scene, it’s just nice to be able to boast that Markéta, the first and only Czech to win an Oscar (the Oscar was for Best Original Score for the movie Once) and I was friendly for a few months.

 13.) Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle 

Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle is 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 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, we’re always wrong—at least in front of people that matter. And because we hide these parts of ourselves eventually those parts will disappear, 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 me to skip school so that we could go to the movies, I’m not a hardcore cinephile, I won’t question your devotion to film if you don’t care for The Seventh Seal or Nosferatu, but I do enjoy movies. And I’m not going to hide behind snobbery and pretend cheesy Hollywood blockbusters aren’t sometimes great, 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 such thing as pretentious meters hitting 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 the movie may be simply unknown. It's Kind of A Funny Story has an underlying darker theme, and that is because Craig, played by Keir Gilchrist, like Dante, has to explore the more difficult sides of humanity to escape it. Craig forces himself to realize that it’s his 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 pulls 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 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 disappeared 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 the 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 film, 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 more people might appreciate and value music’s transcendent qualities. Music for August, played by 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 ahead of its time. Besides this scene, which is so good, there are several great scenes; one where “Wizard” Wallace, Robin Williams, is wandering through Washington Square Park playing Van Morrison’s “Moondance” on the harmonica, and I prefer the version of “Moondance” to the original. In another great scene, August finds himself in a guitar duel with his father, and neither of them knows 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 are looking for the babysitter's 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 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 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, only two years after I was born, and I’m pretty sure it was the first movie I watched with a theatrical music interlude, the parade scene, the parade scene set a precedence for what a great music scene should incorporate. The movie has remained a lifelong favorite of mine. I was inspired by Ferris’ ability to explore life’s great experiences, as they come, and then to squeeze the marrow out of each experience. This is the extreme of what creating our lives looks like, and so it’s something to strive toward. For Ferris Bueller to illustrate this by hijacking a parade float and singing to the entire city of Chicago is a testament to John Hughes's genius and music.

 6.) The Big Chill

The first 200 times I watched The Big Chill, I was clueless about what it was about, and I wouldn’t know for another twenty years, still, the movie is ingrained 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 will you 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. The Fifth Element is so unique in how it explores themes it shouldn’t be a surprise the film also has one of the greatest music scenes in cinema history. This scene from The Fifth Element is awe-inspiring and beautiful, in part probably because the song is impossible for a human to sing. Some notes 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 an entirely different level. This is an unforgettable scene from this remarkable 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, it inspired me to write this list. I watched the movie recently and started asking myself why I love the scene as much as I do. 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 of 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 many 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 who doesn't know exactly where it came from.

 2.) Beetlejuice

Beetlejuice is a movie that, like so many on this list, has followed me throughout my life. The film 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 utilized music in his films, I wish he had taken more risks with music in ways similar 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, a group of people sitting around on a bus singing along to a classic song that has nothing to do with anything that any 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 Perks of Being a Wallflower, you’ll know what I mean when I say that this scene always makes me feel, “infinite.” 

 

          There you have it, the greatest music scenes in cinema history. If any of these films are unfamiliar to you, watch them, but if you’re easily triggered watch the scenes, I uploaded above instead of watching Revenge of the Nerds and Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle. In conclusion, I left another great scene for your enjoyment. Thank you for reading, and please share your thoughts (and your favorite music scenes) in the comments below.

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