There are songs that elevate scenes in a film, but what makes them special?
If there’s one thing I’ve learnt after a lifetime of watching films, it’s that musical scores are epic in and of themselves. There are numerous scenes that one can think of that would have been nowhere near as memorable had it not been for the score accompanying them.
But you know what can take a film’s soundtrack right through the stratosphere? A well-placed song, especially one that is unexpected.
Now, I for one usually dislike the use of songs in superhero, sci-fi or fantasy films, not even when it is played over the credits. So, when one is used, it had better be well chosen and perfectly placed.
Here is a look at a list of songs that I feel elevated movie scenes to epic scales. Feel free to share your thoughts with us!
1 – Thor: Ragnarok
Led Zeppelin have been infamous for the sparse use of their original music in films. So, when a film does get permission to use their work, it is quite the achievement.
I first heard Led Zeppelin’s iconic ‘The Immigrant Song’ in David Fincher’s The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo. I liked the song and the visuals used in the opening credits of the film much better than the film itself.
Ever since I heard this song and its Norse mythology-inspired lyrics, I wondered if there could be some way for ‘The Immigrant Song’ to be used in a Thor film. But, how? The Thor films hadn’t used anything apart from traditional orchestral scores.
But, Thor: Ragnarok director Taika Waititi is anything but traditional.
In the opening scenes of the film, Thor is challenged by a larger than life villain and hundreds of his deadly beasts. As Thor readies himself to take on his enemies, the opening bars of ‘The Immigrant Song’ signal the start of some badass God of Thunder action. It’s a fantastic way to set the tone of the film and the character.
As outstanding as this opening sequence was, it is at the end of the climactic battle when this song is used to exemplary effect.
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Posted by Thor on Tuesday, 25 July 2017
A defeated Thor has lost an eye and any means of defending himself against the goddess of death, Hela. Beneath him, his friends and family fight an army of the living dead in a vain attempt to protect the Asgardians. Thor seeks solace in the visions of his father who sets him on the right path to finding his true power. And, finally, the God of Thunder that we have heard so much about comes to the fore and flies through the air, the screams of ‘The Immigrant Song’ accompanying him as he literally ‘fights the hordes’, that the song proclaims.
It is an epic scene made all the more noteworthy because of the song. I’m getting goosebumps just thinking about it!
2 – X-Men: Days of Future Past
One of the few X-Men films done right, there is so much to love about Days of Future Past. But, I think we can all agree that Quicksilver was pretty much the best part of this film.
We are introduced to this slightly neurotic, weaselly mutant’s super-speed prowess in his very first scene, but the magnificence of his mutation is still lost on us. Till we get to what can only be described as one of the franchise’s most daring scenes. Charles Xavier, Wolverine, Beast and Quicksilver try and break Magneto out of the Pentagon prison. How handy will Quicksilver be in this high-stakes heist?
We find out when things go decidedly pear-shaped for the mutants as they face off against a bunch of guards with guns. Time stops. Quicksilver plugs in his headphones and as Jim Croce’s ‘Time in a Bottle’ plays soothingly in the background, we watch events unfold from the speedster’s point of view. It is a stunning sequence that was incredibly hard to shoot but a masterpiece to behold.
And it is made all the more remarkable by the choice of song. ‘Time in a Bottle’ is a perfect way to describe Quicksilver’s view of the world. He moves at such speed that everything around him might as well be stuck in time. He could, in effect, bottle up time because he’s moving so fast.
The scene was so popular that director Bryan Singer included a similar but grander scene in X-Men: Age of Apocalypse and once again Quicksilver stole the show. Set to Eurythmics’ 80s classic ‘Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)’, Age of Apocalypse had Quicksilver running through Xavier’s School for the Gifted rescuing students from certain doom. The scene was longer and even more arduous to shoot. But it ended up being the only good part of an otherwise poor franchise instalment.
3 – Back to the Future
Time travel in films and television has never been the same since 1985. We can thank Back to the Future for that. This iconic film has so many fantastic moments, as do its two equally brilliant sequels.
But the moment that has always remained with me, from all three films, is the instant protagonist Marty McFly reads the dateline on a newspaper and realises he is in fact in 1955, 30 years in his past. How do you showcase the dysphoria of such a jarring realisation? With the help of the classic song ‘Mr Sandman’, of course.
Myriad versions of this song have been used countless times in films of every genre but there is just something so eerie about the Four Aces’ rendition of ‘Mr Sandman’ filling the air as the camera pans back to show Hill Valley 1955. It really brings into stark focus how out of his depth Marty is in this era.
And the lyrics fit perfectly, as well. ‘Mr Sandman’ is based on a mythical figure of the same name who sprinkles fairy dust to bring you good dreams. Being transported back in time definitely feels like a dream but unfortunately not the pleasant kind. What starts off as a rom-com is turned upside down by time travel.
The pleasant melody of the song is at odds with Marty’s state of being, and importantly, significantly different from the music that has so far accompanied the film – Marty’s guitar-inspired music band or Huey Lewis’s ‘The Power of Love’.
The song, the context and Marty’s general bewilderment crescendo into a sense of the uncanny that pulls you into the film and keeps you firmly rooted to the spot.
4 – Captain America: Civil War
The Captain America films have been pretty heavy fare. Unsurprising, considering the good Captain is a serious man who fights Nazis on the regular and is now struggling with having been trapped in ice for 70 years.
But Civil War gave us a lighter moment with a fan-favourite character we never thought we would see in the Marvel Cinematic Universe – Spider-Man – with a little help from alt-J’s ‘Left Hand Free’.
Away from the commotion and horror of terror attacks allegedly perpetuated by the Winter Soldier in Europe, 15-year-old Peter Parker is living a quiet life as Queens’ friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man when he receives an unexpected visit that is about to change his life.
Considering the lengthy behind-the-scenes negotiations that finally led to Spidey’s appearance in the MCU, the introduction we get in this film is almost tame. No web-slinging action, no rescues. Just a regular lad returning from school to the regular apartment he lives in with his aunt.
But it works because of the song used for said introduction. alt-J’s ‘Left Hand Free’ sets the tone for the character and the place he calls home – out of sync with the rest of the MCU, but with a valid claim at heroism too. It is a recent enough song for Peter to be listening to it but it is also tonally different from Henry Jackman’s score.
‘Left Hand Free’ lets us know that physically, we have moved elsewhere and, that we will be meeting someone younger and more energetic. There is a carefree vibe to the song that screams Queens, New York to the audience, even if many of us haven’t been there. As our first meeting with the brand spanking new Spider-Man, the song serves as a quiet, yet powerful forerunner of things to come.
5 – Star Trek (2009)
I will be the first to admit that JJ Abrams’ Star Trek trilogy wasn’t the best. I didn’t like his treatment of the characters and I felt his plots were too derivative of previous Star Trek shows.
Having said that, if there is a perfect way to introduce your reimagining of one of the world’s most beloved starship captains, it might as well be by using a Beastie Boys track. In the scene, a car races down a dusty highway in Iowa. The driver? A child. The car phone rings; the child’s father yells at him to return the ‘vintage’ car immediately. The child disconnects the call and screams just as Beastie Boys’ ‘Sabotage’ kicks in.
What follows is a high-speed chase as said child drives the car erratically away from a policeman before reaching the edge of a cliff and jumping out. The car is totalled; the child stands valiantly before the policeman and announces his name: James Tiberius Kirk.
We hadn’t been given much in the way of background about James T. Kirk, Captain of the USS Enterprise, in Star Trek: The Original Series, but we definitely get a flavour of his childhood in Abrams’ film.
The tone of this franchise, and the Captain Kirk that Chris Pine will give us, is well and truly set with this scene. [Spoiler alert] It is fitting that the final film in the trilogy included an in-franchise throwback to this song, bringing the characters’ arcs full circle. [End spoiler]
What did you think of the list? Which one was your favourite? Let us know in the comments below.