Citizen Dame 5: Uses of Pop Music in Film

This week we’re celebrating the anniversary of Say Anything, the movie that told us if a man’s willing to blast Peter Gabriel outside your window, he’s a keeper. In all honesty, the use of pop music in this film became synonymous with it and inspired us to look at our own connections to music in the movies. The rules are simple: The music has to be already in the world (i.e. no musical numbers written for a musical) and that’s it. Let us know your favorite uses of pop music in the movies in the comments below!

Kristen’s 5

This is actually a topic I love and have written on extensively before. There’s something about how music is adapted for the screen that gets me. I was so excited to see a few other Dames had already utilized some of my choices so I’m gonna try to takes one that haven’t already been mentioned. It was hard because the last time I looked at this topic I had, like, 30 choices.

“Midnight Special” by Creedence Clearwater Revival in Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)

I’ve loved this opening scene since I saw the movie in the ’90s and I think a lot of that has to do with the use of CCR. “Midnight Special” sets the tone for this type of movie: one to watch on a dark and stormy night. The music is a callback throughout the film, culminating at the end with John Lithgow’s deranged character in the final scene mentioning his love for the band. I also think the song is used to great effect because of Dan Aykroyd and Albert Brooks, singing along like two old friends. Little does the audience know that things are about to take a terrifying turn. “Do you want to see something scary?”

“All These Things That I’ve Done” by The Killers in Southland Tales (2005)

Southland Tales is a two and a half hour fever dream that either is deep political allegory mixed with religious discussion or a complete mess that makes absolutely no sense at all. (What did you all really expect from the director of Donnie Darko, though?) Regardless, I absolutely love this scene and there’s little explanation for it short of I love the composition. The weird Andrews Sisters-esque nurses, Justin Timberlake’s dancing and beer guzzling, the lyrics about “holding one,” considering Timberlake plays a PSTD-riddled soldier. It works in a movie that’s 98% unworkable.

“Tiny Dancer” by Elton John in Almost Famous (2000)

Anyone who knows me should have prepared for this to be on my list. Any discussion of pop music in film HAS to include Almost Famous. In high school my scene analysis project for film class was this moment, though I’ll spare you the 2,000 word paper I wrote. For me, what this movie showcases is how unifying music is. The band members of Stillwater are all at odds. They’re not speaking to each other. But this song comes on and they’re able to sing together and realize what they love, the music; the music is what keeps them together. It’s beautiful and I still dream of the day where I’m in a room and someone will start singing this for us all to join in on.

“When Doves Cry” by Prince in William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet (1996)

I almost picked another song from this movie, “Young Hearts Run Free,” but went with this instead. I had to have a Baz Luhrmann movie on this list and didn’t want to recall the praise for “Roxanne” (which is my second favorite musical number next to “Tiny Dancer.”) Luhrmann is great at juxtaposing pop music with editing and framing and I love it here. The rapid cutting to show the Venice Beach world set to a gospel choir performance of a Prince song? I love it! And Quindon Tarver has a beautiful voice.

“Don’t Kill My Vibe” by Sigrid in Teen Spirit (2019)

I don’t want to spoil anything from the movie, but suffice it to say this is the highlight of a movie and a soundtrack I’m obsessed with. Elle Fanning performs this during the climax of Teen Spirit and it’s a rallying cry for any person who has felt stepped on or ignored. The way Fanning performs it is nothing short of fierce. (Teen Spirit is out this weekend, by the way!)

Karen’s 5

“You’ve Lost that Loving Feeling” by the Righteous Brothers in Top Gun (1986)

It’s cheesy and funny and so iconic. Pete “Maverick” Mitchell uses the dazzling musical stylings of the Righteous Brothers, plus the help of some of his Top Gun class, to woo a woman in a bar. While the night doesn’t work out quite the way he hoped, the scene is adorable, and frequently parodied. And Tom Cruise isn’t even shy about the fact that he’s, well, not a very good singer. Yeah, I’m being kind.

“Twist and Shout” by the Beatles in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1985)

In 1985, everyone was dancing along, not only in the streets of Chicago, but in their seats at the movie theater. This jam is pure and utter delight. It exists for no other reason than to just be a crazy, fun, showstopping spectacle. And to show that Ferris Bueller can and will do whatever he wants. It’s a good time. You know you’re grooving a bit just playing the video.

“I Say a Little Prayer for You” by Dionne Warwick in My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997)

There’s just something about a random sing-along in the middle of a non-musical movie where everyone gets in on it and then goes right back to what they were doing. That’s exactly what we get with this hilariously joyous rendition of Dionne Warwick’s cheesy song. And Julia Roberts just sits there, watching it all happen, wanting to crawl under the table but also secretly enjoying the hell out it. Also, I definitely wanted lobster oven mitts after this. Never got them, though.

“I’m Just a Girl” by No Doubt in Captain Marvel (2019)

After all the whining from boys who were upset that Captain Marvel was going to be a (gasp!) girl who talked about (gasp!) being a girl, the movie came out and was, predictably, awesome. One of the many things that made it such fun was the soundtrack of every 90s teenage girl. And the musical cue of No Doubt’s “I’m Just a Girl” right as Carol is about to face off against the dude who always tries to hold her back? Sheer perfection.

“Can’t Help Falling in Love” by Elvis Presley in Crazy Rich Asians (2018)

With an album full of beautiful cover songs, none compare to Kina Grannis’s exquisite rendition of “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” The crazy rich wedding may have been completely over the top, but through Grannis’s beautiful vocals and guitar, this gigantic event becomes quietly intimate and special. I may actually love Grannis’s version better than the King’s!

Lauren’s 5

“Ghostbusters” by Ray Parker, Jr. in Ghostbusters: Answer the Call (2016)

This might be cheating a wee bit, given that this is the actual theme song of the Ghostbusters franchise, but whatever, I do what I want. Every time I watch this film and hear those first few bars, I get chills, reminding me at once of my childhood and then that the same theme is introducing a new set of female Ghostbusters. It’s also just a really good song.

“Bad Moon Rising” by Creedence Clearwater Revival in An American Werewolf in London (1981)

I have other issues with this film, but the use of CCR’s “Bad Moon Rising” is one of the finer needle drops in cinematic history.

“Immigrant Song” by Led Zeppelin in Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

I’m a sucker for these kinds of anthems during fight scenes, but I love the thematic layers in using this song, the rhythm of the cutting in the scene, the sense of energy and general awesomeness. Taika Watiti has fantastic sensibilities.

 “Roxanne” by The Police in Moulin Rouge (2001)

Moulin Rouge has not aged terribly well in some aspects, but the use of The Police’s “Roxanne” really makes the entire scene, from the tango elements to the terrifying nature of Satine’s sacrifice. It’s quite a frightening sequence.

“Red Right Hand” by Nick Cave in Scream (1996)

I love this song (who doesn’t love Nick Cave?), and its use in Scream is invigorating and inspired, a meta-narrational indulgence in the sheer fun of slasher films.

Kim’s 5

I sit here thinking over my choices and these are the first examples which popped into my head. I can’t help but think they might be a little lame but, then again, my music taste is a little lame. So here goes nothing.


All of Bad Times at the El Royale (2018)

Sorry, I’m not sorry. I’m still convinced this movie was made for me and the soundtrack reflects this. Drew Goddard brings together an amazing collection of music that not just gives Billy Lee something sexy to eat pie to, but actually sets the environment.


“Stuck in the Middle with You” by Steelers Wheel in Reservoir Dogs (1992)

When I think of the use of popular music in film, the iconic sequence from this film is the first one I think of. Reservoir Dogs is by far and away my favorite Tarantino movie, and his use of the song definitely changed how I viewed it in popular culture.

Guardians of the Galaxy 1

All of Guardians of the Galaxy (1 and 2) (2014/2017)

Guardians of the Galaxy served as my introduction to the work of James Gunn and I found myself absolutely blown away by his use of music. Yes, the song selection is delightful; however, he works with the beat and the rhythm in a hypnotic way. The use of popular music in these films not only defines the environment, but it (in some cases) changed how I saw the films.


“Pocketful of Sunshine” by Natasha Bedingfield in Easy A (2010)

Remember when “Pocketful of Sunshine” was everywhere? I absolutely hated this song. However, Easy A sums up my experience with the Natasha Bedingfield pop tune. I hated it, then I didn’t mind it. Suddenly, I found myself singing along in the shower. The sequence cracks me up every time I see it.

10 Things I Hate About You

“Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” as sung by Heath Ledger in 10 Things I Hate About You (1999)

I feel like I’ve been writing about this movie a lot lately. I have admitted my love for it is shameless. (And I believe this is the second time “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” makes this list in some form.) The Frankie Valli classic is probably one of my all-time favorite songs. The use of the ballad in the teen movie is absolutely pitch perfect and shows us Heath Ledger as those of us ’90s kids remember him. He’s adorable, likable and I’m sure some of us wish he’d serenade the whole football stadium for us, too.



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