The needle drop – this is the term used by directors when choosing a pre-existing song and used it the overall theme for a movie or for a particular scene. Quentin Tarantino, Francis Ford Coppola, and Martin Scorsese are masters of the needle drop and, thus, their movies are included in this list. Keep in mind that there are no music composed originally for the movies in this list so you will likely be familiar with many of the songs here.
The End (The Doors)
Jim Morrison originally wrote The End as a breakup song, a 12-minute dirge that audiences cannot help but identify with. But with its explicit references to incest, patricide and violence, coupled with Morrison’s animalistic vocalizations, it quickly became more than a breakup song. It’s considered as a pop masterpiece that continue to make The Doors among the best rock groups of all time.
When The End was used in Francis Ford Coppola’s legendary Apocalypse Now (1979), its mythic stature only increased. The film tackles the American involvement in the Vietnam war, a disaster in itself although the film itself is rightly considered as among the best films of all time.
As The End plays in the background, helicopters rise from the horizon like mythical beasts while below the forest is being engulfed in a napalm bombing, which will kill thousands of civilians along its path. The dirge is as evocative of the horrors of war as the images onscreen are.
Tubular Bells (Mike Oldfield)
No other horror film sent children in the 1970s to their parents’ bedroom to look for a sense of safety and security than The Exorcist (1973). Linda Blair’s powerful performance here still sends shivers down our spines more than 40 years after the movie was released, and the music used in the opening sequence evokes creeping doom even today.
Tubular Bells is a progressive rock song composed by Mike Oldfield, and it’s the perfect accompaniment to John Carpenter’s iconic soundtrack used in the later parts of the movie. In Tubular Bells, the evocative synths and tinkling piano riffs set the tone for the creeping doom ahead, a sense of being in the middle of horror yet still being blissfully ignorant about it.
And yes, children of the 1970s still have nightmares of seeing Linda Blair climbing the stairs – body bent backwards and cackling like the devil herself. With Movie Tavern screening movies of yesteryears in its Retro Cinema, we may yet see the children of the 21st century also being spooked by The Exorcist.
Layla (Derek and the Dominoes)
Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990) was the most influential film of the 1990s, a landmark crime epic that critics consider a classic for all time. The legendary director is peerless when it masterful pairing of pop music with visual images, and his use of Layla as the goons are gunned down and die a grisly death is a prime example of his genius.
Layla is, of course, Eric Clapton’s classic song that became a radio hit in the early 1970s. Its forlorn piano outro underscores the tragic, if telegraphed, end of the goons, a great example of how music can set the tone for a scene.
Day-O (The Banana Boat Song) (Harry Belafonte)
Tim Burton is known for his horror movies, many of which are original concepts. His best work, in our estimation, is Beetlejuice (1988), a horror comedy with an adorable protagonist.
While most demonic possesses depicted onscreen are characterized by screaming, the one on Beetlejuice is characterized by singing! The juxtaposition between the demonic possession and the calypso standard makes for a hilarious sequence that we just can’t forget. The ludicrousness of the song just adds to the hilarity of the situation.
Hip to Be Square (Huey Lewis and the News)
Christian Bale is such a compelling actor that he becomes the character, he inhabits its skin so well that we can’t distinguish between where Bale, the actor, ends and where his onscreen character begins. We loved him in Batman and in The Machinist, and we loved him even more in American Psycho (2000).
His portrayal of a Wall Street psychopathic is made even more powerful with the film’s soundtrack, especially Hip to be Square. This was a hit single with an upbeat tempo but when it was used in a grisly scene, it became a great song to depict the 1980s hollow man. In the scene, Bale’s character dispatches his rival while alternating between horrific axe thwacks and critical assessments, all while being happy about it.
Imagine (John Lennon)
Call John Lennon an idealist with a utopian vision but you will agree that he was among the greatest musician of our time. His wish list for world peace and universal understanding ends The Killing Fields (1984) on a high note.
Imagine is, of course, the former Beatles’ best-known song and, even today, it’s still widely used to promote his ideals, as incongruous as these may be amidst the cynicism. In The Killing Fields, the song underscores the tearful reunion between an American journalist and his Cambodian translator.
Indeed, songs can make or break a movie or a scene! So be on the lookout for familiar songs used in new and old movies, and analyze their impact on the scene.