For film nerds, there is no better musical education than the soundtrack. Filmmakers who are privy or dialed into superior music, be it new or an unearthed gem, are capable of opening up our musical universe. A good soundtrack song will not only evoke memories of the film, but can also push at the boundaries of our tastes. Don’t like vocal jazz? Sure. But how can you resist Nina Simone at the end of Before Sunset? Not a fan of hip hop? Okay, but once you’ve seen Do The Right Thing, I don’t know how you could possibly resist Public Enemy. That’s what a good musical movie moment can do.
But what about a great musical moment? Well, folks, a great musical moment can take a sad, tired song you hate and transform is completely. Deployed correctly, all the negative associations you have with that song will dissolve and all that will remain is whatever emotion it is the filmmaker kicked up in you. Hearing the song will recall beautiful shots, delightful performances and a well-told story. Many thanks to Dustin Rowles, Courtney Enlow and Genevieve Burgess for help with this collection. It’s by no means comprehensive, so feel free to add yours below.
“My Cherie Amour” — Almost Famous: This is the obligatory Almost Famous entry and also the original inspiration for this list. With much love and respect for Stevie Wonder, I always found this song one of his cheesier efforts. Now whenever I hear it all I see are Penny Lane’s glorious legs and poor William Miller’s lovesick expression. On an absolutely perfect soundtrack, it’s a stand-out.
“Both Sides Now” — Love Actually: I apologize for the truly terrible quality of the video below. This was a tricky one to grab. Regardless of your feelings about Love Actually, you cannot possibly be immune to a heart-broken Emma Thompson. I’m a huge fan of Joni Mitchell myself, but before this film “Both Sides Now” had worn out. I blame Judy Collins. If this blurry video isn’t doing it for you…
“On A Clear Day You Can See Forever” — Breaking Bad: There probably should be many more TV shows on this list, but Breaking Bad and its soundtrack is at the forefront of my mind. The cooking montages on that show have always been delightful and they often accompanied by incongruously swinging or chipper music. I first encountered “On A Clear Day You Can See Forever” in the musical of the same name. a) That is one weird musical. b) This song was never cool. Not when Barbra sang it. Not even when Sinatra sang it. But when it’s backing up Jesse and Walt? Fantastic. Tip of the hat to their use of “Crystal Blue Persuasion” as well.
“Stuck In The Middle With You” — Reservoir Dogs: This list could probably be back to front Tarantino but this is my favorite example of Quentin’s powers of transformation. Stealers Wheel never sounded so compelling.
“Baby I Love Your Way” — High Fidelity: This may be a minor cheat because it’s Lisa Bonet’s marrow-melting cover rather than Peter F*cking Frampton himself that redeem this song. But what a redemption.
“Good Vibrations” — Vanilla Sky: Once again, I’m not slighting The Beach Boys in general, but come on, the bridge of this song is entirely composed of “la las.” Maybe your stronger association with this particular ditty is poor Charlie from Lost, but to me it will always invoke “TEEEEECH SUUUUUUPPPPPOOOOOOORRRTTTTT.”
“Here Comes My Baby” — Rushmore: Wes Anderson knows his way around a soundtrack from the Seu Jorge Bowie covers of The Life Aquatic to classical music meets Hank Williams vibe of Moonrise Kingdom, his musical choices are precise, incisive and incredibly atmospheric. Does good old Cat Stevens even need redeeming? Well, yeah. I mean Harold and Maude is fantastic, but there’s only so much 60s honeyed strumming one can take.
“Your Song” — Moulin Rouge: Still cheesy? YOU SAY THIS IS STILL CHEESY? Well, I say your MacGregoring incorrectly. Fine, if you must, you can pretend this is about “Roxanne,” but the burning immature passion that burbles out of young Christian endows Elton John’s cheesiest song with new meaning. At least, that’s what it did for me.
“One” — Magnolia: Aimee Mann’s indie yowl took this groovy Three Dog Night song to new heights. The Magnolia soundtrack is an all-time great and while the sing-along “Wise Up” gets all the attention, I think this song perfectly and bafflingly captures PT Anderson’s tapestry of pain.
“Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You” — 10 Things I Hate About You: Well this is dirty pool, isn’t it? There’s now a third layer to this song made up entirely of Ledger nostalgia. So beautiful once, and young.