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 None 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@.)

A reader recommends a smooth, psychedelic song by Tommy James and the Shondells (whose music video is worth watching as well):

Okay, [like Miami Vice and Southland,] this isn’t a movie, but Breaking Bad is arguably the most cinematic TV show ever, and it’s almost like the whole plot was written around this montage being the musical punchline of the entire series—or is it just me? It’s just me, isn’t it? Oh well, really great sequence anyway.

An even more brilliant use of a song in Breaking Bad was the very last one, in the very last scene, starting with the opening lyric, “Guess I got what I deserved”:

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

Jim Doherty keeps the cinema series going:

Your question about film work immediately made me think of a mother number from Harry Nilsson. Scorsese’s use of “Jump Into the Fire” in Goodfellas is one of my all-time favorite musical moments in a movie. The tension of Ray Liotta’s character Henry Hill tracking the helicopter and wondering whether it is real or just a vision along with the menace of that song. Nearly perfect.

The only version of that scene I could find on YouTube is a trippy mashup version that swaps out the helicopter with the parachuting elephant in Operation Dumbo Drop—which definitely works on its own level:

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

A reader writes, “‘Hey Jude’ worked rather well in those scenes depicting the Prague Spring of 1968 in The Unbearable Lightness of Being.” That’s Marta Kubišová’s voice, in her native Czech. She’s one of the most iconic cultural figures of Cold War Czechoslovakia:

During the Prague Spring [a brief period of liberalization in 1968 that ended when the Soviet Union and other members of the Warsaw Pact invaded Czechoslovakia to halt the reforms], Kubišová recorded over 200 SP records and one LP, Songy a Balady (Songs and Ballads, released in 1969), which was immediately banned from stores. Her song “Prayer for Marta” became a symbol of national resistance against the occupation of Warsaw Pact troops in 1968. In 1970, the government falsely accused her of making pornographic photographs leading to a ban from performing in the country until 1989. She was a signatory of the Charter 77 proclamation. Her first LPs after the Velvet Revolution in 1989 were a re-issue of Songy a Balady and a compilation of old songs, titled Lampa.

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

From reader Thaddeus:

Dr. Strangelove is one of my all-time favorite movies (I’d probably call it #1 if somebody threatened to chop a limb off to make me choose) and this scene has always been my favorite. I’ve watched the movie since I was tiny (it’s my dad’s favorite too), and I can’t remember ever not being able to appreciate the irony. It’s probably a big part of shaping my odd sense of humor.

Vera Lynn’s full version of the song is here. Some quick background:

“We’ll Meet Again” is a 1939 British song made famous by singer Vera Lynn with music and lyrics composed and written by Ross Parker and Hughie Charles. The song is one of the most famous songs of the Second World War era, and it resonated with soldiers going off to fight and their families and sweethearts. The assertion that “we’ll meet again” is optimistic, as many soldiers did not survive to see their loved ones again.

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

I’ll be honest: Mulholland Dr. is my favorite movie ever and has been for years. (My colleagues can attest to the Mulholland Dr. poster pinned inside my cubicle.) So naturally I was excited to see it at the very top of the BBC’s newly released list of the 100 Best Movies of the 21st Century (so far).

The film is filled with unforgettable moments (including that one), but the most heartbreaking and narratively significant is the one that takes place in Club Silencio. After an introduction entirely in Spanish, the singer Rebekah Del Rio takes the stage as if in some kind of trance and begins a gorgeous rendition of “Llorando” before an audience of two.

The scene may be dialogue-free, but it communicates so much—in the tears of its two main characters Betty and Rita, the way they lean on each other for comfort, their look of horror when Del Rio falls to the ground and her disembodied song continues without her. Much like Mulholland Dr. itself, the “Llorando” scene is that much more powerful for operating on a completely different plane of language and emotion than the one we use every day.

And then maybe after you’re done being devastated (it may take years), you can find this funny:

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

Here’s a fun movie! And by “fun movie” I mean, “one of the most transformative cinematic experiences I’ve ever had.”

Gummo, the first film Harmony Korine directed (he had previously written Larry Clark’s Kids), is bleak and weird, so it only makes sense that its opening sequence would foreshadow that. The use of the folk singer Almeda Riddle’s “My Little Rooster” is as jarring as the visuals it accompanies: a starved-looking, shirtless boy wearing pink bunny ears smoking a cigarette on a dirty overpass.

There’s almost nothing sentimental about the film that follows, and yet and yet the homey strains of “My Little Rooster” hint that there’s a very real humanity underlying the twisted narrative to come. (Side note: I almost wrote about how a later Korine film, Spring Breakers, used Britney Spears’ “Everytime,” but I’ll let someone else take that up another time.)

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

I’ll admit to being one of those people who—despite a good tolerance for nonlinear stories, plotlessness, unlikable characters, and general melancholy—is very much not a fan of Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation. I enjoyed the performances of Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson, but the whole “alienated American in a foreign country” premise had absolutely no resonance for me.

That said, the soundtrack is undeniably wonderful. When the film deploys My Bloody Valentine’s “Sometimes” after Charlotte and Bob spend an exciting night out, the song both lifts and transforms the scene. The handheld camerawork, the mottled city lights, and the quick glimpses of nighttime crowds all take on an extra beauty, thanks to the track’s heavy distortion and wistful, otherworldly vocals.

I may not have loved Lost in Translation, but I’d rewatch this scene any day.

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

Reader Cole Paffett recommends one of his favorites:

The song is “Think” by Kaleida, as heard in John Wick, starring Keanu Reeves. The scene is the beginning of the Red Circle pool club scene, where Keanu’s character is quietly eliminating the bodyguards of his target (Game of Thrones’s Alfie Allen):

The song has a quiet efficiency to it, echoing hitman John Wick’s merciless efficiency in dispatching Yosef’s bodyguards. “Think” also has a “chill-out” vibe, meshing perfectly with the chill atmosphere of the pool club. There’s an undercurrent of intense emotion in the scene by John Wick as we see him professionally and ruthlessly kill anybody who comes between him and Yosef.  “Think” matches that intensity, making for a memorable scene.  As we learn earlier in the film, John Wick isn’t the Baba Yaga (bogeyman); he’s the man you send to kill the f****** bogeyman.

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

Tonight marks the season-three debut of Amazon’s tremendous series Transparent. If you haven’t been watching, you have made a grievous life error—though happily one that is quite easy to rectify. (Be sensible, though: Start with season one.)

For those unfamiliar, the show follows the Pfeffermans: Maura, née Mort, a former Los Angeles pater familias (the great Jeffrey Tambor, who just picked up his second consecutive Emmy for the role) who, after 20 years of secrecy, has decided to openly live her life as a woman; Maura’s ex-wife; and her three adult children, who are all working through their own sex-, gender-, and identity-related questions as well.

What is perhaps most remarkable about Transparent is that the Pfeffermans are a decidedly dysfunctional and self-absorbed clan—the show is a bit like Arrested Development with gender complications added—yet they are portrayed with astonishing empathy and affection. And utterly crucial to this tricky tonal balance is the title theme by Dustin O’Halloran.

A wistful piano waltz, O’Halloran’s melody is the perfect mood-setter, at once melancholy and reassuring. Yes, it seems to say, we’re all deeply screwed up and likely to make many terrible life decisions. But somehow—somehow—it will probably all work out. With every Transparent episode, I can literally feel the music easing me into precisely the right state of mind to appreciate the show’s emotionally complicated charms. For fans and future fans alike, here is an extended version of O’Halloran’s theme. Happy viewing:

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