Reporter's Notebook

Your Favorite Songs in Cinema
Show Description +

Readers and staffers recommend the most memorable use of songs in movie scenes. To submit your own, with a brief explanation of why it’s so effective and why you love it so much, please email

Show 9 Newer Notes

Track of the Day: 'School' by Supertramp

From reader Dan Paton:

I saw your Miami Vice/“In the Air Tonight” note and immediately thought of this: The opening scene of the pilot of the NBC/TNT show Southland and its amazing use of “School" by Supertramp. (I grew up listening to Supertramp and their album Crime of the Century was always my favourite.) This scene is even further into the TV arena than Miami Vice, so it might fall outside your boundaries for the cinema series, but it’s something that has always stuck with me. It’s rookie cop Ben Sherman’s first day on the job, and he is doing crowd control at a homicide scene:

The show used the haunting harmonica opening from the first track “School,” played over top of low-frame-rate shaky cam footage with no sound, quick-cutting among the confused throng of people around the scene. The producers cut out the song’s lyrics, jumping right to the instrumental break in the middle of the first verse. As the music builds to the child’s playground scream, the music cuts out to show an onlooking woman screaming instead, which jolts Sherman awake to what’s going on around him. Thus, while Sherman has graduated from the academy, this homicide is his first day at school.

(Track of the Day archive here. Pre-Notes archive here. Submit via hello@.)

Gary in Saskatchewan, our serial contributor to the cinema series, delivers another solid track: Danny Elfman’s orchestral “Ice Dance” in Edward Scissorhands. (Full instrumental version here.) As Gary puts it, “This scene captures a brief moment of magic before everything falls apart.”

The end of the scene also strikes an ironic note regarding the recent domestic violence allegations against Depp.

(Track of the Day archive here. Pre-Notes archive here. Submit via hello@.)

Isabella Kwai selects a Nico song from a wonderful soundtrack:

Once, on a flight from Australia, I watched three Wes Anderson films back-to-back and gave myself a bad migraine. But can you blame me? Clever and whimsical, Wes Anderson’s music choices are as colorful and precisely-exacted as his cinematography. One of my favorite examples is the scene in Royal Tenenbaums where Richie meets his adopted sister Margot at a bus station (also, he’s secretly in love with her).

“These Days” has a strange story behind it. Although the song was first released in 1967 by singer Nico, she didn’t write it. Instead, it was plucked from a demo that 16-year old Jackson Browne recorded and sent in to the same publishing label. Browne went on to release his own version of it, six years later. Nico’s cover, with its addition of strings, has an lush urgency to it that Browne’s version doesn’t convey, but nevertheless, it’s his lyrics that make the heart of the song.

Maybe it’s the slow-motion of Margot Tenenbaum stepping down from that funny green bus in her fur coat, or Browne’s young lyrics, or Nico’s deep croon. Whatever it is, in this film, the song drops us right in the middle of an indie romance. It’s a tribute to capturing that gut-punch, unable-to-breath moment—you know, the one when you really see someone you love for the first time.

Another reader, Noam, adds: “The fragility of the music and characters matches perfectly. It’s a perfect scene.”

A reader, Christian, keeps our cinema series alive with The Righteous Brothers closing out Top Gun:

You can crack jokes all day about this movie’s comic-book politics and repressed sexuality, but if you can sit through it and not feel something as the freeze-frame end titles begin, I don’t understand you:

RIP, Goose.

(Track of the Day archive here. Earlier archive here. Submit via hello@.)

A reader, Patrick O'Connor, writes:

I was looking at some of your recent “Track of the Day” movie scenes. Thanks for these nuggets of beauty and inspiration. I was reminded of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, a film about the former editor at French Vogue who suffered a massive stroke and ended up suffering from Locked-in Syndrome, where he could hear and understand all that was going on around him but unable to communicate in any way except by blinking his eye.

There is a scene in the film where he is remembering back to a trip he took to the city of Lourdes with his mistress. They are driving in a convertible and her hair is flailing in the wind while the opening guitar riffs of U2’s “Ultraviolet (Light my Way)” is playing and the camera is positioned as if the viewer is in the back seat.

I will never forget that scene. It’s such a powerful combination of image and sound that elicit freedom and movement from a man trapped in his own body. It is one of the most visually stunning moments in cinema for me and also an awesome song.

(Track of the Day archive here. Submit via hello@.)

This entry for our cinema series comes from a reader in Bend, Oregon:

The movie Billy Elliot (UK, 2000) is about a boy in a coal-mining town in northern England who wants to become a professional ballet dancer. (The movie was adapted into a musical.) His goal does not go over well with his family or in his town, especially given the setting during the bitter coal miners’ strike of 1984-85. Billy’s frustrations come to a head in a dance scene:

The song is The Jam’s Town called Malice, itself a hard-hitting expression of frustration. (It was #1 on the British charts when it was released in 1982.) It’s a wonderful scene, even out of context. The volume is a bit low in the video, so crank it up.

Billy Elliot is played by Jamie Bell, and the only other film I’ve seen him in—and I coincidentally just saw it a few weeks ago—is Nymphomaniac, the deeply dark 2013 psychosexual study from Lars von Trier. Bell plays a baby-faced professional sadist known as K, and he lets out his aggression with a riding crop rather than tap shoes. The film is pretty forgettable, but the casting choice is canny.

(Track of the Day archive here. Submit via hello@)

A reader, Joseph, calls the soundtrack to Antonia Bird’s Ravenous “one of the most under-appreciated scores of all time, not surprising for a gory dark comedy about cannibalism in the American west”:

The film itself deserves more credit than is generally warranted for its bitter, bloody takedown of 19th century American imperialism and manifest destiny, but honestly the music is some of the most dramatic and hilarious that I think has ever been set to moving image. Yes, the music itself is funny. It is also bone-chillingly suspenseful in other moments, seamlessly blending both Americana and horror-film idioms.

In this clip you get a sense of just how good it is at building the tension of the scene, followed by a desperately needed catharsis that is delivered by an amazing fiddle and banjo-fueled chase, only briefly glimpsed here.

(Track of the Day archive here. Submit via hello@)

The latest reader entry for our cinema series comes from Al Berg:

From the movie The Doctor, Laurie Anderson singing “Strange Angels” perfectly captures the heightened sensibility and wonder of life as death approaches:

If, like me, you haven’t seen the movie yet, here’s part of the synopsis to better understand the scene:

Dr Jack MacKee is a successful surgeon at a leading hospital. He and his wife have all the trappings of success, although Jack works such long hours that he rarely has time to see their son and has become somewhat emotionally dead to his wife. His “bedside manner” with his patients, in many cases seriously ill, is also quite lacking. [...]

Returning home from a dinner party, Jack has a coughing fit. His wife Anne is shocked when he coughs up blood all over her and the car. In an examination, Jack has a sample of a growth removed from his throat. The biopsy comes back positive for cancer. [...] As Jack experiences life as a patient, there comes a clearer understanding of the emotionally void hospitals, some doctors, and his own colleagues can display. He befriends June Ellis, a fellow cancer patient who has an inoperable brain tumor.

(Track of the Day archive here. Submit via hello@)

Gary in Saskatchewan, the reader who highlighted “Wise Up” in Magnolia and “Lux Aeterna” in Requiem for a Dream, serves up another solid selection for the cinema series, this time from the 1999 French film, La Fille Sur Le Pont (The Girl on the Bridge). Its premise:

Adèle (Vanessa Paradis) is a 22-year-old woman whose life seems to have been a long series of miscalculations; she’s never had much luck with love, life, or career, and is standing on a bridge overlooking the Seine one night, contemplating suicide, when she’s approached by a man named Gabor (Daniel Auteuil). Gabor announces he’s a knife-thrower who needs a new human target for his act. Would Adèle be interested?

Gary points to an incredibly tense, sensual scene from the film:

Here’s another song [Marianne Faithfull’s “Who Will Take My Dreams Away?] that is now inseparable in my head from the scene it accompanied—and that’s exactly what should happen with a good film editor:

The sensuality and sadness of the song enhances those elements in this scene of two damaged people: a woman who had nothing left to live for, and a man who wants just one more shot at redemption. Both are helping each other to move on.

If you have a favorite scene from a film that entwines a song in a really artful way—even if you’ve already submitted one—please send it our way, along with any thoughts you may have on its meaning: Update from reader Al Berg:

Gary’s great pick of a Marianne Faithfull song reminds me of one of my favorites: Marianne singing “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan,” which perfectly fit the tale of the heroine, played wonderfully by Susan Anspach in the quirky film Montenegro. The story is about a bored housewife who ditches her mundane world and cuts loose with a free-loving band of characters. The song was also appropriately used in Thelma and Louise.

(Track of the Day archive here)

A reader brilliantly blends our cover-song series and our cinema series by noting an emotionally complex and devastating scene from director Tomas Alfredson:

I can’t think of a cinematic cover song better-deployed than Julio Iglesias’s disco-fied version of Charles Trenet’s “La Mer” at the end of 2011’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

Those who have read the book or seen the film or the classic BBC/Alec Guinness series will understand the tortured love-hate, self-or-country dynamics at work in the scene. Those who haven’t … will need to in order to fully appreciate it! The scene is way too layered and complex to summarize. Suffice it to say that the wistful, nostalgic lyrics, contrasted with Iglesias’s jauntily triumphant treatment of the tune, perfectly match that complex dynamic, as well as the larger story arc: the downfall, redemption, and return of loyal English spymaster George Smiley to his beloved Circus (MI6), seen at the very end.

And in every way, led by the music but extending to the coloration and the wide shots, the scene breaks cleanly with the beautifully brooding, dark, discordant, claustrophobic film that preceded it. If you’ve ever wondered just how much “design” contributes to the emotional feel and weight of a great film, this engaging look at TTSS's palette and patterning is a fascinating primer.

(Track of the Day archive here. Submit via hello@)

No series on the artful use of songs in cinema would be complete without the haunting violin of composer Clint Mansell, performed by the Kronos Quartet, which stalks the tragic characters of Requiem For a Dream throughout the film and culminates in this closing montage:

The reader who flagged that score, Gary, also submitted the song we posted from Magnolia, “Wise Up.” He ties the two together:

A parallel to the Aimee Mann track, “Lux Aeterna” links all the characters in this film together in their respective tragedies. Beautiful and bleak.

(Track of the Day archive here. Submit via hello@)

Another excellent pick from a reader:

In this sequence from Magnolia, everyone is reaching their tipping point, with their fates in the balance. It’s almost like the director set up the whole movie just to bring all the disparate characters together with this one song.

Aimee Mann dominates the soundtrack as a whole and is inextricable from the film, directed by the genius Paul Thomas Anderson (whose Boogie Nights will definitely see an entry or three for this cinema series).

Update from reader Marc:

Just wanted to say: I love Aimee Mann, love “Wise Up,” love Magnolia, and double-special love that scene from Magnolia with that song.


I am also a horrible person, so I can’t stop re-imagining “Wise Up” as Elmer Fudd leading a protest: “Wise up, evwybody!  Wise up and fwow off youah oppwessahs!”

That is all ...


(Track of the Day archive here. Submit via hello@)