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December 4, 2007 |

By John Williams | Guides | December 4, 2007 |

A lot of music to get to below, so I’ll keep this brief. Dustin once wrote a very entertaining guide — actually one of the first things I ever saw on the site — about great TV and movie scenes set to music. This guide focuses on great scenes of musical performance in movies, even if some of them are lip-synced. I take it everyone understands that difference, so I’ll move on to my second brief caveat, which I think applies to all Pajiba guides: This is highly subjective, not to mention incomplete even on that level. There are dozens of other performative moments that I cherish. I’m sure at least one omission that I love more than some of these will be mentioned in the comments. The problem is, I have to eat. The hours I’ve spent recalling movies and surfing YouTube to prepare this have been quite thrilling. Really. But now I’m faint and need protein. Enjoy:

Annie Hall, “Seems Like Old Times” by Diane Keaton.

Not to play the role of crusty old man, but what the makers of romantic comedies seem to have forgotten is the sadness. And by sadness, I don’t mean the mismatch obstacles of Knocked Up, or the vicious hectoring of The Break-Up. I mean the inherent wistfulness of the human desire to love and be loved. Watch Diane Keaton in this clip, then try to picture Katherine Heigl doing something similar while Seth Rogen watches from the bar and realize how far we’ve fallen:

Guys and Dolls, “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” by Stubby Kaye.

OK, maybe I do want to play the crusty old man, but just once more, and then I’m done. There are any number of … numbers from Guys and Dolls that could have made this list, but we’ll let this one stand as an example of the movie’s overall appeal. As Nicely-Nicely Johnson, the equally wonderfully named Stubby Kaye sings of a dream about sin and lack of redemption for Sister Sarah Brown and other soul-savers from the Salvation Army. (Kaye’s humble nod in the sisters’ direction after the first chorus — around the :40 mark — is reason enough to watch the clip.) Befitting a musical inspired by the work of Damon Runyon, the lyrics are sharp:

And there I stood,
Nicely passin’ out the whiskey
But the passengers were bound to resist
For the people all said beware
You’re on a heavenly trip
People all said beware
Beware, you’ll scuttle the ship
And the devil will drag you under
By the fancy tie ‘round your wicked throat
Sit down, sit down, sit down, sit down
Sit down, you’re rockin’ the boat

In short, those who insist in 2007 that, broadly speaking, humanity is always improving, well, they have to contend with things like this, from 1955:

Spinal Tap, “Heartbreak Hotel” by Spinal Tap.

In what we can probably all agree is the funniest movie of all time, every one of the band’s arena performances is priceless, from the Sir-Mix-a-Lot forerunner “Big Bottom” to the mystical epic “Stonehenge.” But I still have the softest spot for this brief musical moment away from the clamoring throngs, when Spinal Tap, standing before Elvis Presley’s grave at Graceland, try to harmonize their way through one of the King’s most famous tunes:

Don’t Look Back, “To Sing For You” by Donovan and “It’s All Over, Baby Blue” by Bob Dylan.

A friend the other night complained about Bob Dylan as a representation of the fact that popular music is so often judged on elements of personality that are extraneous to the music. Well, yeah. I’m not sure that the trend is entirely unique to music — it seems hard to dispute that interest in the work of Kerouac and Warhol, to name just two, was fueled by their magnetism or studied lack of. But yes, it’s true in music as well, and this scene demonstrates it neatly. In a hotel room, Dylan and Donovan hang out with their posses and trade ditties. Many fans have argued that the scene definitively shows Dylan showing up his fellow singer. True on one level, but I think things are more complicated than that. Donovan offers “To Sing For You,” sounding a bit like Dylan with smoother edges and blander lyrics, but when Dylan says “Hey, that’s a good song, man,” his devilish smile shouldn’t convince us that he’s simply mocking Donovan. Still, when Dylan takes the guitar and belts out the first verse of “Baby Blue,” it’s clear that the room — including Donovan — is riveted. It feels like both talent and personality holding the listeners captive, but however you read the scene, it’s an intimate classic:

The Wizard of Oz, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” by Judy Garland.

One of my favorite movies has plenty of terrific musical moments — being a big Cowardly Lion fan, I’m partial to “If I Only Had the Nerve” and “If I Were the King of the Forest” — but it’s hard to argue with this choice (though I’m sure some will try below). This might be the most iconic moment in the history of American film — Dorothy, the most famous of Kansans, expressing her hopeful wanderlust, singing the most gorgeous tune to have ever been witnessed by only a dog:

The Muppet Movie, various songs by the Muppets.

I’m not going to enthusiastically push for the fourth song in the montage below — Miss Piggy’s rendition of “Never Before” — but the other three are gold. “Rainbow Connection,” “Movin’ Right Along” and “Can You Picture That?” — a hat trick of genius. Plus, Dr. Teeth and The Electric Mayhem might be the best name for any band ever, human or muppet. Animal’s back-up vocals in “Can You Picture That?” is probably my favorite part, but there’s plenty of competition:

About a Boy, “Killing Me Softly” by Hugh Grant and Nicholas Hoult.

Yes, the conceit of someone salvaging a performance in front of a skeptical audience is not new — see: Napoleon Dynamite’s dance after Pedro’s speech — but this example is a little different. For one thing, nothing is really salvaged. The audience ends up at least as disdainful as it began. That’s the audience in the movie — the audience at the movie is charmed. Maybe it’s the way Marcus (Hoult) murmurs, “This is for my mum” before he starts, or the way Will (Grant) doesn’t know when to stop, but this scene proves that loyalty and love require sharing embarrassment when necessary:

Hedwig and the Angry Inch, “Wig in a Box” by John Cameron Mitchell.

The campy, heartfelt, sparkling Hedwig reaches its summit with this sequence, in which Hedwig turns a lonely night in the trailer park into a glammed-out rave. The singalong segment near the end isn’t really built for home viewing, but in a theater I’m sure it’s a big hit:

Talk to Her, “Cucurrucucu Paloma” by Caetano Veloso.

Taken out of context, this scene might come across as cinematically inert, but even that doesn’t detract from the delicate beauty of the performance by Veloso, a brilliant Brazilian singer and songwriter:

Purple Rain, “Purple Rain” by Prince.

Clips from Purple Rain are constantly being removed from YouTube, so catch this particular one while you can. Songs written for movies shouldn’t be this good. And the presentation of them shouldn’t be so goofy:

Back to the Future, “Johnny B. Goode” by Michael J. Fox.

“Watch me for the changes and try and keep up, OK?”

From the perspective of 33, I can appreciate the subtler qualities of this moment — the chronological (and racial) inversion of the appropriation of African-American music, or the way that appropriation will morph into guitar wankery, or just the silliness of Fox lip-syncing to these vocals (sung by Mark Campbell). But the scene’s still most notable — like the rest of the movie — for its well-orchestrated sense of fun:

Junebug, “Softly and Tenderly Jesus is Calling” by Alessandro Nivola.

This is my favorite musical performance in any movie, because it so effectively functions as both song and exposition. The hymn is gorgeous and perfectly performed (seemingly live, no less), enough to give Christopher Hitchens goosebumps. The Chicagoan urban-sophisticate George (Nivola) is visiting his home in North Carolina with his wife, Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz, the knockout in light blue). The scene is so perfect because it doesn’t need a gasbag like me to further explain it, but gasbags don’t know when to stop, so …

Watching George sing, Madeleine doesn’t just realize there are facets of him that have been hidden from her — which is conveyed strikingly enough — but how smooth those facets are. George doesn’t just know this hymn, he’s sung it many, many times. His knowledge of it both vocally and lyrically (there are long stretches when he never glances at the open hymnal in his hands) is bone-deep, maybe the best example of the show-don’t-tell maxim that I’ve ever seen:

Guides | December 4, 2007 |

Interview with a Pajiba | Pajiba Love 12/04/07

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