Filmmakers often hire popular musicians to create catchy, original hit tracks, cementing a movie in both cinematic and sonic lexicons. We can thank The Bodyguard for Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” and, more recently, A Star Is Born for Lady Gaga’s instant karaoke classic “Shallow.”
But the true mark of a great filmmaker is the ability to give an already released, well-known track new life onscreen. Think “Layla” by Eric Clapton in Goodfellas or “Tiny Dancer” by Elton John in Almost Famous.
This week we have a new addition: Madonna’s 1992 single “Rain” in the Safdie brothers’ 2019 hit Uncut Gems. Who would have thought ’90s icons Adam Sandler and Madonna would have a critically acclaimed partnership a week before 2020? Certainly not me — but hey, I’m not complaining.
This year, pop songs featured prominently in some of the year’s best movies. After all, what better way to connect with audiences increasingly distracted by their phones than to plop in an unexpected but familiar chorus? It worked for Pulp Fiction and Bridesmaids.
Uncut Gems (2019) | “Rain” by Madonna (1992)
Uncut Gems is sonically dense and visually chaotic. So it’s a surprise when Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) walks into his Manhattan apartment, where he keeps his mistress, and finds it empty and dark. It’s an eerie moment of calm in an uncomfortably tense movie. The only noise is Madonna’s “Rain” blasting from the speakers.
My colleague Miles Klee calls it the film’s needle-drop scene. “It’s sort of the only moment you get a breather,” Klee says. People in his theater even let out uneasy laughs. “That’s when you realize you’re not going to be able to predict anything that happens through the rest of the story.” The scene is heavy and vibe-changing — just like rain.
Marriage Story (2019) | “Being Alive” by Stephen Sondheim (1970)
I am by no means a Sondheim queen. So much so that I had no idea who wrote “Being Alive,” or that it was made famous in Company, until about five minutes ago. But the scene of omnipresent actor Adam Driver singing at a Broadway bar after a tumultuous divorce battle must be included on this list. It’s one of only two scenes in Marriage Story that got me to put down my phone and actually pay attention to the MacBook overheating my lap. (The other is Scarlett Johansson’s screaming match with Driver, which turned into one hell of a meme.)
Plus, we got this fun little mashup video of Beyoncé getting emotional while Driver sings.
Booksmart (2019) | “You Oughta Know” by Alanis Morissette (1995)
No scene yelled “Gay Rights!” louder than an angsty theater kid belting out a seminal ’90s pop ballad (which is possibly about Uncle Joey from Full House?). Love, Simon wanted the accurate representation that Booksmart has.
Lady Bird (2017) | “Crash Into Me” by Dave Matthews Band (1996)
Greta Gerwig single-handedly turned DMB’s “Crash Into Me” from dorky-uncle music into a cool art-student jam. Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) and Julie (Beanie Feldstein) lying on the hood of a car holding hands and staring out into the Sacramento, California, sky perfectly captures suburban teens’ oscillation from sentimentality to angst.
So I’ve read. I was a preschooler in 2003, the year the film takes place. Lady Bird had “Crash Into Me” for its senior-year anthem. In 2015, I had “I Wanna Get Better” by Jack Antonoff’s band Bleachers.
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011) | “Orinoco Flow (Sail Away)” by Enya (1988)
I could tell you my full body cringes upon hearing the poppy, joyous song my dear aunt listens to while she cooks. Yet it is also the soundtrack to the climactic, violent scene of this thriller. It’s the perfect juxtaposition of hallucinogenic music with distributing torture.
Or, you could just read Miles Klee’s equally intense ode to “Orinoco Flow (Sail Away),” the MEL Song of the Summer for (now) 31 years.
Bridesmaids (2011) | “Hold On” by Wilson Phillips (1990)
Kristen Wiig in a gaudy bridesmaid gown and Maya Rudolph in a wedding dress jaggedly dance as if they’re little kids at a sleepover: What more could you want in a scene? Wilson Phillips appearing and performing their hit song in glittering tops? You got it.
No song could better end a film all about complicated female friendships. Whether you’re Megan (Melissa McCarthy) shitting in a sink, Lillian (Rudolph) planning an out-of-control wedding or Annie (Wiig) trying to piece your life together after a year of setbacks, sometimes you’ve just got to dance it out with your girls and hold the fuck on.
Crossroads (2002) | “Open Your Heart” by Madonna (1996)
In her first (and only) starring role, reigning TRL queen Britney Spears sings “Open Your Heart” by top ’90s diva Madonna. The two legends reportedly met for the first time in 2001 when Spears filmed Crossroads.
In a widely panned film that screenwriter Shonda Rhimes might want you to forget, Lucy (Spears) dancing across her bedroom and singing into a spoon under a framed photo of Madonna’s debut album cover (her best) is the only scene worth remembering. This was the metaphorical passing of the pop torch — until they actually kissed on stage.
Pulp Fiction (1994) | “You Never Can Tell” by Chuck Berry (1964)
All those twentysomething couples in last-minute Tarantino-inspired Halloween costumes have Chuck Berry to thank. The rock ’n’ roll pioneer’s teenage-love anthem “You Can Never Tell” scores the most memorable scene in a film full of signature moments.
Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman) and Vincent Vega (John Travolta) dance in Quentin Tarantino’s film. It’s another example of the power sonic reprieve has in a high-stakes film. After countless scenes of gore, violence and somehow even more blood, Tarantino lingers on Wallace and Vega dancing it out. They twist. They jive. They rehab Travolta’s career.
Do The Right Thing (1989) | “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy (1988)
At the time, Public Enemy’s song was still relatively new and not yet a classic. But Spike Lee’s 1989 film has one of the best opening credits in film. In 2015, Lee revealed he was inspired by Ann-Margret dancing in the opening scene of Bye Bye Birdie.
While the political rap anthem “Fight the Power” plays, Brooklyn native and Fly Girl Rosie Perez dances energetic and carefree for nearly four minutes against a background of graffiti and brownstones. It’s everything Lee stands for summed up in a single shot. Put this scene in the Louvre.
Blue Velvet (1986) | “In Dreams” by Roy Orbison (1963)
Of course, director David Lynch offers a masterclass in calmly using rock ’n’ roll classics to creep me the fuck out. In Blue Velvet, Ben (Dean Stockwell) lip-syncs “In Dreams” while a bright fluorescent work light used as a microphone illuminates his face, which is caked in white makeup. Lynch cuts to the dangerous Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) transfixed and mouthing along. One guy flails in the background as the retro music blares. The scene is deeply uncomfortable and incredibly Lynchian. Even weirder, in his book Lynch on Lynch, the director writes that Stockwell mistook the work light instead of a candle-style table lamp as the prop microphone. No one knows who put the work light there! What isn’t so great is that I’m not going to be able to sleep tonight.