So this is an enormous question to tackle, as music is such an integral element of movies. In fact, one of the reasons I absolutely love music is that it feels like the buddy cop for all the Arts. Dancers dance to music. Plays often incorporate music—and if nothing else it is played between scenes. Even art galleries often play classical music at openings.
If the visual arts are 2013 Blake Griffin throwing down a vicious dunk, music is the lob pass thrown by Chris Paul.
As to make this question more manageable, let’s set some parameters: no scores, no musicals, no biopics, no animated movies, and no soundtrack music. (Though those would all be awesome lists that we may cover someday!)
For today, we’re focusing purely on diegetic music (which is a fancy word for music in a movie that the characters can hear). We’re looking at music that the characters are either performing, singing-a-long to, or at least interacting with.
I came up with eight finalists. To help make heads or tails of this exercise, I am going to rank each song using four categories on a scale of 1-10:
The movie: How good is this movie?
The song: How good is the song?
Importance: How integral is this song/scene to the movie’s plot?
Performance: How hard are the characters throwing down?
I’m sure there are more amazing choices I missed. Nonetheless, in no particular order, here’s what I got:
Inside Llewyn Davis — “Hey Mr. Kennedy” by Jim Berkey
Movie: 8 | Song: 7 | Importance: 4 | Performance: 10
As a professional folk musician, I feel a kinship with this movie. But, putting that aside, the music and performances are brilliant—it’s T Bone for goodness sake! For my taste, I’m more into Llewyn’s “Fare the Well” or the pristine “500 Miles” by the faux-Peter, Paul, and Mary trio.
But come on, Oscar Isaac, Justin Timberlake, and Adam Driver, doing THIS??! Unreal! I’ll say this, the new Star Wars movies would have been better if the plot pivoted around Isaac and Driver touring behind this project.
Almost Famous — “Tiny Dancer” by Elton John
Movie: 10 | Song: 10 | Importance: 7 | Performance: 7
I’m toeing the line of my own rules with Almost Famous. It’s basically a biopic, but Stillwater (regrettably) is not a real band—so I’m counting it! Also, I tried not to push the bounds by using this scene instead of “Fever Dog.” But this is probably the best film on the list, and I had to include it.
The ‘Golden God’ scene prior to this is an all-timer. And the way this scene captures the tension of love, frustration, and uncertainty, that can occur with deep, but shifting friendships is sublime. Say what you will about this song—overdone, overused, corny. Nah. It’s a masterpiece.
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off — “Twist and Shout” by The Beatles
Movie: 9 | Song: 9 | Importance: 8 | Performance: 10
This was a bit of a legacy pick. I’m not a huge Ferris Bueller guy and “Twist and Shout” honestly may not make my top 100 Beatles songs. But that says WAY more about The Beatles than this song.
That being said, it’s iconic! This is literally the first thing I thought of when I started this list. And I’ll tell you one thing, this is the unanimous first pick in the performance ranking. Absolutely electric work by a young Mr. Broderick.
Lord of The Rings: The Return of the King — “Edge of Night” lyrics by J.R.R. Tolkien
Movie: 10 | Song: 6 | Importance: 3 | Performance: 6
This is the exact opposite of “Twist & Shout” for me, this is a pure passion pick. If I’m making a ranking and I can somehow fudge it to include LoTR, I’m going for it.
Pippin’s performance of “Edge of Night” is not critically important to the story, so it gets low marks in that category. Also, the Steward of Gondor is such a wet blanket, kinda a bummer he’s on here… The lyrics are by Tolkien, which I’m super into. And Billy Boyd’s voice is… good?
I will say, he busts out this song on a recent LOTR reunion Man’s still got it. Tip my cap to that.
Garden State — “New Slang” by The Shins
Movie: 6 | Song: 7 | Importance: 7 | Performance: 3
If I were Greta Gerwig making my version of Ladybird, this movie/song would be my “Crash Into Me” scene. I still remember seeing this movie in the theatre when I was 15. It rocked me. I listened to the soundtrack every day for a year and it kicked off a decade of Shins, Nick Drake, and Iron & Wine fandom (the latter two I still listen to all the time).
Yes, I tried to rewatch the movie recently and honestly couldn’t make it all the way through… But sometimes you gotta rep the OGs.
Scott Pilgrim Against the World — Sex Bob-omb vs. the Katayangai Twins
Movie: 8 | Song: 7 | Importance: 8 | Performance: 10
Another branch on the Garden State tree of personal history, this movie is about a 22-year-old bassist. I saw it when I was 22 and playing bass for the Media Theatre outside of Philly, so… yeah.
Also as far as non-musical, non-biopic, non-animation music movies go, this is a real player. Very Houston Rockets. Takes big swings—and misses—but is always in the mix. I found it hard to pick a song. I actually love “Launch Pad MaQuack” early on because it reminds me of my rehearsals and sets such a tone for what’s to come. But this scene just feels like the pinnacle of the movie.
Midnight in Paris — “Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall In Love)” by Cole Porter
Movie: 10 | Song: 10 | Importance: 9 | Performance: 8
This movie is maybe in my all-time top ten? (…Maybe not?? I’m not sure. But I do adore it.)
Regardless of ranking, I know Midnight in Paris personifies the exact sense of how I want movies to make me feel. And in very Inception-esque fashion, the deeper Owen Wilson’s Gil goes in this movie, the deeper I fall.
I know there’s controversy around Woody Allen, and I support that. As a creative force, this does feel like Allen at his best. I love how this song becomes a through-line in the movie, even returning to it at the end, thus the high marks in the ‘importance’ category.
A Star Is Born — “Shallow” by Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper
Movie: 8 | Song: 10 | Importance: 9 | Performance: 10
I mean… yeah. In a lot of ways, this feels like the 2017 Warriors of this list. It is otherworldly “Hollywood” with a viagra-fueled, upper-class and uppercase H. Gaga is amazing. I’m not sure what to say, she really just goes “there.” Bradley looks, sounds—oozes—amazing. They’re kinetic.
I know some who are higher on this song than I am. I know some who are lower on it than me. But I’ll put it like this: press play on this video and let me know if you turn it off before it’s over?
Picking a completely subjective winner for no other reason than…why not?
Good lord. Rewatching all of these songs/scenes again, it’s a murderers’ row. Pulls at the heartstrings! Midnight in Paris got the highest score, going 37/40. For all my #middleearth friends out there, I want to go “Edge of Night.”
But enough of me holds on to some semblance of objectivity to know better. My choice—like if the question is “marry, fuck, kill”, my marry—is “Tiny Dancer.” Not sure I’ve ever watched the scene and not had all the feels. But I think we all know the only real answer here…
The winner is: “Shallow” from A Star is Born.
Two superstars, good coaching, a phenomenal system, and terrific execution. This is how you win a championship.