- Movies have the power to change the meaning of a song by using it in a contrasting way, forever associating it with a specific scene.
- Familiar songs in movie soundtracks can have a bigger impact on audiences due to their pre-established familiarity and emotional connection.
- Movies can shift the general perspective of music in the public zeitgeist by using songs in unexpected and powerful ways that resonate with the themes of the film.
The best movies incorporate popular songs into their soundtrack to enhance a scene, but it’s a rare few that are able to actually completely change the meaning of a track by juxtaposing it with the action. On the topic of iconic movie scores, what usually comes to mind are sweeping orchestral themes lovingly penned by names like Danny Elfman, Hans Zimmer, or John Williams. Copyrighted or otherwise pre-existing songs can have an even bigger impact due to audiences having pre-established familiarity with them, helping them to link the emotions of the music to that of the action.
In rare cases, however, a film can use its action to warp the pop-cultural perception of a song, forever associating it with the scene. This usually happens when sharp editors and directors take the opportunity to choose a less-obvious track that somehow works for their purposes better, despite being far from the intention of the original artist. It’s clear that movies have become a powerful force for shifting the general perspective of music in the public zeitgeist.
10 You Make My Dreams (Come True) By Daryl Hall and John Oates
500 Days Of Summer
Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s chemistry in 500 Days Of Summer propelled the film into the running for greatest romantic comedy of all time. The movie does an incredible job at infecting the viewer with the whirlwind romance of Tom’s literal Summer fling, thanks in no small part to Hall & Oates’ upbeat anthem “You Make My Dreams (Come True)”. The song’s lyrics are a powerful testimony to the transformative power of love, but the movie uses the track to warp Tom’s world into an elaborate flash-mob dance number, complete with a cartoon bird, simply because he was happy to get laid.
9 I Got 5 On It By Luniz
Jordan Peele’s second horror movie was laden with visual metaphors, but the soundtrack also contributed to the madness with the inclusion of rap duo Luniz’s “I Got 5 On It”. Beyond being twisted into a frightening remix used in the film’s climax, the movie recontextualizes the lyrics of the jaunty hip-hop track to allude to Us’ themes. The song describes the act of chipping in five dollars to go halfsies on a ten-dollar bag of weed, which reflects the movie’s motif of two halves making a whole, with each of the Wilson family members grappling with a shadowy doppelgänger.
8 Sea of Love By Cat Power
Juno is a bittersweet coming of age story that grapples with the topic of teenage pregnancy in an emotionally vulnerable yet humbly funny way, establishing a thoughtful tone enhanced by the use of Cat Power’s “Sea Of Love”. The original lyrics describe a singer willing to do anything to be with their loved one, throwing themselves into the sea in the hopes that their affection will keep them safe. This only makes the tragedy of Juno’s conflicted love for her newborn all the more painful, as she gives up her child to what she knows will be a stable, loving mother rather than try to hope for the best, throwing caution to the wind as a teen mom.
7 Orinoco Flow By Enya
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
David Fincher’s dark mystery thriller wasn’t afraid to shy away from depictions of depraved torture, sexual violence, and criminal corruption, but knew when to inject dark moments of levity that could only work in a David Fincher. As the sadistic Martin Wennerström prepares to torture Daniel Craig’s character to death in an isolated basement, he puts on none other than “Orinoco Flow” by Enya. The original song’s carefree message about sailing down the Orinoco River in the spirit of discovery is lost echoing through the brutalist walls of Wennerström’s torture chamber, making the happy-go-lucky pop song into a dark omen.
6 Ride Of The Valkyries By Richard Wagner
Francis Ford Coppola’s tale of madness in the face of the Vietnam War was one of the defining movies covering the era, releasing only four years after the end of the war itself. One of its most famous scenes forever changed the context of Richard Wagner’s epic orchestral piece, Ride of the Valkyries. The noble horns and triumphant strings are warped into an ugly cry for war by the deranged Colonel Kilgore, reveling in the horror of his actions. Since its use in Apocalypse Now’s helicopter strike scene, “Ride Of The Valkyries” has become synonymous with aerial superiority in pop-culture.
5 Singin’ In The Rain Performed By Gene Kelly
A Clockwork Orange
Not content to simply ruin an upbeat, popular song for an entire generation, Stanley Kubrik went further with the perversion of a classic broadway number popular enough to have spawned a movie of the same name. Popularized by Gene Kelly’s performance of the titular song in 1952’s Singin’ In The Rain, the violent testament to sin that is A Clockwork Orange forever tarnished audience’s warm memories of the ditty by having the psychopathic Alex sing it as he assaults his hapless victims. The chilling scene was only made all the more disturbing by Alex’s cheerful cover of the broadway hit.
4 Bohemian Rhapsody By Queen
The rock sensation Queen needed no favors from the movies to cement their legacy as one of the greatest musical acts of all time. Yet their rock-opera anthem “Bohemian Rhapsody” was given a new lease on life nearly 20 years after its original release with its gut-bustingly hilarious inclusion in Wayne’s World. Underneath the bombastic instrumentation and bizarre lyrics, “Bohemian Rhapsody” was always Freddie Mercury’s confessional, reaffirming his sexual identity to himself. But Wayne’s World repopularized the song as simply a fun track to blast in the car and sing along with friends to, heedless of the deeper meaning.
3 Goodbye Horses By Q Lazzarus
Silence Of The Lambs
The dulcet tones of artist Q Lazzarus were short-lived, the talented singer having a tragically limited music career. Still, the use of her single “Goodbye Horses” in an unexpected scene in The Silence of the Lambs cemented her pop-song history as a one-hit wonder. The lyrics are hard to parse, with theories on cocaine use, death, and actual horses all having been floated as the song’s subject matter. Whatever the case, it’s unlikely that Buffalo Bill’s disturbed psyche fit into the original vision, forever popularizing the song by linking it to the serial killer’s detached sense of self.
2 It’s Hip To Be Square By Huey Lewis & The News
Patrick Bateman has long been in the running for Christian Bale’s best role, the psychotic business executive’s character being given depth by his obsession with unexpected music, including Huey Lewis & The News. Curiously, Bateman himself is aware of the song’s actual message, regarding the importance of following trends. The film itself uses this danceable tune to highlight Bateman’s obsession with conformity in the face of his atrocities, playing the song diegetically from Bateman’s speakers as he brutally murders Paul Allen. A far cry from Huey’s intention, “It’s Hip To Be Square” has been forever changed by its use in the bloody drama-thriller.
1 Smile By Jimmy Durante
A modern-day take on films like Taxi Driver and The King Of Comedy from behind the eyes of a classic supervillain, Joker’s examination of mental health and the lack of resources provided by a cold, uncaring society is made all the more poignant by Jimmy Durante’s “Smile”. The oldies classic is as straightforward as it gets, Durante’s warm, hoarse voice telling the listener to smile, advocating for hope in the face of adversity. Joker twists this message, using the song to emphasize the character’s acceptance of laughter in the face of tragedy at the cost of his empathy and humanity.