Top Ten Musical Moments from Film
scowl. A scintilla of tension, held or released. A rifle report. A kiss. Cinema is composed of privileged moments, born of pulp and transfigured as art. In Scenes, a writer will study one of these moments. The approach is up to the writer. They may analyze the scene from a technical standpoint, discuss the dramatic elements in play, or find personal correspondences. Enjoy.
More than any other medium, cinema is reliant upon a number of independent art forms. It is music, however, with which film seems to have the most integral and mesmerising relationship. Well-composed musical scores serve as a kind of narrative extension, an always-evolving subtext. However, it is also a quirk of the medium to produce amazing musical moments within the context of the story itself. This diegetic or onscreen music can be even more crucial than the score, so woven into the fabric of the time and place of the narrative. Such scenes are both isolated and encompassed within the world of the film, offering a strange but exhilarating experience for the audience—especially by existing within dramatic movies rather than musicals.
As with any list, there are no doubt glaring omissions that I should be slaughtered for (only in the comments section, please) but I hope I have captured some moments that are either a pleasure to recall or will be enjoyed for the first time. The capacity for the cinema to dazzle is no better expressed than through such exceptional set-ups: a perfect culmination of the light and magic film has to offer…
10. Big, with Tom Hanks and Robert Loggia
An instantly iconic scene and one of the most self-contained moments in recent cinema history. Remember what an enjoyable goof Tom Hanks used to be? You should, because he was. This termite resurrection of screwball comedy rings true and has a casual and affecting father/son poignancy to it. The winning set-up has a kind of simple, logical pleasure—just watching the strange physicality of the music is satisfying.
Hanks picks up the essence of this scene again in Road to Perdition, duetting with Paul Newman on a smaller and more somber tune—the unspoken moment and collaboration works well again. Both scenes share with the audience a vulnerable moment always on the verge of collapse. It’s a remarkable scene of expert visual comedy and a defining moment of ‘80s popular cinema. If Hanks were to do it today, the keyboard would be smashed to pieces under his overfed frame. Still, it’s hard not to remember it fondly.
09. Rio Bravo, with Ricky Nelson and Dean Martin
This seemingly incongruous moment in the film slowly becomes both humorous and human. In fact, if it wasn’t for this wholesome scene, Rio Bravo wouldn’t be the film it is. Howard Hawks, so dedicated to the idea of collective resolution, binds the men through music and song. Now we believe they’ll stand firm in gunfire; now we’re sure they won’t buckle under the pressures of the coming fury.
In this, the group’s defining moment, the battle is already won. Dean Martin’s voice is so steady, so reassuring and so patient that we can’t help but believe in what the men are fighting for—it’s like the moment that night turns to morning, full of loss and hope. Ricky Nelson’s support on guitar is just that, support. Once Martin bravely strikes out on his own, Nelson gives him the accompaniment he needs. With Stumpy on harmonica, the men are almost a unit. All it takes is a smile from John Wayne, the final addition to this sweet melody—his agreeable silence coloring the space between the sounds.
08. Ironweed, with Meryl Streep
As an example of the emotive use of digetic music in film and as a key to understanding a character, this scene hasn’t been surpassed. Helen Archer stands there, exposed and vulnerable, seeing not just seeing what she wants to see or hearing what she wants to hear, but what she needs to see and what she must hear to keep on going, to struggle through the Depression and to carry on hoping that the good times aren’t gone forever. It’s not an easy moment; it’s embarrassing, awkward and tragic, like looking at the past through shit-tinted glasses.
Still, beyond this, lying underneath is true love, the apt, unpolished and sincerely romantic camaraderie of misfits. It’s this romance which sustains her, in place of the comforts taken away from her by an imploded economy. Helen cares for herself, living in her own world despite its fundamental collapse. The dreamy camera allows us to believe for a short time too. Even though the bubble bursts, just for a while she’s the star Phelan tells her she was born to be. It’s not much, and only just enough for her.
07. Deliverance, with Billy Redden and Ronny Cox
Arthur ‘Guitar Boogie’ Smith’s Feuding Banjos is used to chilling effect in Boorman’s notoriously grotesque film. Billy Redden’s cold, dead-eye stare still disturbs, seeming to seethe something I have never quite understood (and hope I never will). If Redden appears unusually dexterous, don’t be fooled. Those aren’t his magic fingers. Someone is standing behind Redden, arms through his shirt, playing the instrument. This seems to give the character a kind of entropic indifference. In truth, the young boy had a bad experience on set, despised Burt Reynolds and, in particular, Ned Beatty, perhaps not fully aware that the comments of Beatty’s character—“Talk about genetic deficiencies—isn’t that pitiful?”—were not from the man himself.
The scene offers a false sense of understanding between the native intelligence of the locals and the patronizing wit of the misadventurous tourists: a brief yet unnerving parallel of the later call-and-response assault that will always define the movie. Redden’s character ends the frenetic rendition in a grimace of joy. It’s not entirely clear if it’s because he is enjoying the participation of Cox or because he has defeated him in this symbolic duel. Now a short-order cook and dishwasher, Redden turned up a few years ago, reprising his role in Tim Burton’s Big Fish.
06. Vivre sa Vie, Anna Karina
The dead-pan ludicrousness of Anna Karina waving herself around in the café to the jukebox is a beautiful thing. No more beautiful than the actress herself, a self-conscious prettiness that reflects so well the tensions of the carefree aestheticism of the nouvelle vague style—in every sense the French rock n’ roll. This is a perfect little throwaway scene that holds more power than the rest of the film. It means nothing in any context. But with the context removed it really thrives. The passive approval of the onlookers makes sense in Godard’s disconnected film. Obsessed with American tropes, the director ripped the music right out of a beach movie. As if momentarily possessed by the need to be cinematically cool, Karina takes to the floor and exorcises her American demons.
At the center of the sequence is an extended POV shot, just to let us know that we’re not just watching her, she’s watching us, too. This shift in perspective is typical of the (over)thoughtful director to whom even fun has its theoretical structures to manipulate. More than anything else, however, the scene is a seductive illustration of the momentous power of the cinema, the peculiar combination of light and sound that creates something out of nothing—by the time the scene is over, you’re with it all the way, having a fantastic time, wondering how the hell you ended up there, feeling so good for no apparent reason. Karina’s brief pondering at the end makes you think rather than feel. The scene is like a pointless smile, as if such a thing can exist.
05. The Sweet Smell of Success, with the Chico Hamilton Quintet
Everything is in unison here: the crystal clear picture of James Wong Howe, the fluid camera of Alexander McKendrick, the greased and sleazy portrayal of Sidney Falco from a hot-to-trot Tony Curtis, spouting the shoot-to-kill rapid fire dialogue of Clifford Odets and Ernst Lehman. All these elements gel together because of the frenetic jazz of the Chico Hamilton Quintet, feeding the incessancy of the seedy, acid-scarred world through the relentless rambling of the drums and flirtatious clarinet.
What makes this scene such a classic is the way that the crux of the film—the meddling of outside interests in the innocent romance between Steve the Guitarist and Suzie Hunsecker—is treated as one sinuous, inevitable agitation. The swanky hyperbole doesn’t stop: the interference in the flow of the language, in people’s lives, in the music and in the editing is infuriating. Sydney’s world is a pattern of such interruptions, just like the sickly sweet stop-start jazz of Chico and his band. The key to their world is intrigue, splitting truth into a thousand miniature executions at every moment of every day—and things move fast; by the time this two and a half minute tune has run its course, a slimy stone has been overturned and all the bugs are running for their lives.
04. The Night of the Hunter, with Robert Mitchum and Lillian Gish
The most scintillating scene on the list, within a film that is itself something of an anomaly. The enticing, fiendish baritone of Preacher Powell is almost soothing. Menace grins somewhere beneath, lying in wait for the weakness to present an opportunity. But to the rumbling chorus the sweet and earnest melody of the righteous responds, a wonderful moment in the film—an almost fabulous moment, like something out of Aesop: the cunning fox taunting the mother hen.
A keen musician and singer, Mitchum acquits himself well; his silky voice is heavy with lust and his mouth almost too full of it. This memorable moment is delicately poised—a gentle silence and nocturnal peace fractures ever so slightly under the weight of each incrementally worrisome verse. The a cappella hymnal is frightening and beautiful; frightening because of the seduction and seductive because of the wickedness. It’s a real pity that Charles Laughton never directed another film; anyone capable of staging such a scene, letting smooth iniquity find a voice, possesses a rare talent.
03. Gilda, Rita Hayworth
If ever the word ‘strut’ seemed appropriate, it’s here. Rita Hayworth manages to unfurl her sexual peak through the three sumptuous minutes of this luscious song. If aliens landed in 1946 and wandered onto the set of Gilda, they would think our planet such a wondrous, beautiful place—full of joy and sensuality. Shimmying away from the sexual repression of the period, Hayworth is an incandescent force, pulling at the crowd in a sort of reverse striptease: loading more and more sex into the number without ever exposing her true self.
She seems to be mocking the implied homosexuality of Johnny and Mundson at an almost hysterical pitch—flaunting herself—on show and available to anyone man enough to take her. Known for its outrageous flammability, black and white film stock found its true nemesis in the siren Gilda: an inextinguishable flame whose dangerous burning within Vidor’s movie almost destroys the whole damn show. What a sweet way to go.
02. Blue Velvet, “In Dreams”
The swooning gentility of Dean Stockwell’s Ben perfectly offsets the needy psychosis of Hopper’s Frank in this mesmerizing and worrying rendition of Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams.” This staged, hokey scene shows the bizarre and threatening range of Ben’s character: a sort of camp, ethereal mobster—a man capable of hurting you in many obscure ways. The horrid danger is all-pervading: framed by the languorous, drug-phased setting and soft, romantic lighting, Ben’s performance fulfills some sort of desperate need for his cronies.
Like Lynch, they cling on to these remnants of harmony and melodrama to sustain them. Frank wants this entropy, hates it, loves it, despises it, can’t live without it. It’s a delicate fix of clarity and beauty in a world of violence and vagary. Orbison’s morbid ballad scents the room like the last rush of sickly-sweet air from a collapsed lung. As in all of Lynch’s best moments, this scene disturbs the emotions in all the right and wrong ways, an ashamed delight of sorts. It’s this performance, perhaps more than any other scene in the film, which really excites in Blue Velvet: the preposterous abandon with which the characters express themselves is unbelievable and, until this moment, unthinkable.
01. Apocalypse Now, Playboy Bunnies
One of Walter Murch's ideas for the audio design of Apocalypse Now was a ‘far out juxtaposition between context and sound.’ Nowhere is this idea better expressed than in the trippy scene that seems to bridge the real and unreal within Coppola's lurid vision of war. The men float onto this outpost as if into another world—a mirage that seems sustained by the sheer force of male desire. The dancers dangle themselves before the bloodthirsty crowd, eager for a violent climax. It’s horrid, vulgar and recalls one of Willard’s earlier musings: ‘the more they tried to make it like home, the more they made them miss it.’ So desperate to keep the fantasy together, the desire turns into a fear of losing it. Always out of reach, the dream is scared away. Some try hanging on to it for as long as possible, disappearing with it into the night.
What's so effective about the scene is the hallucinogenic incongruity of it—you get the feeling that Willard, so far gone mentally, can deal with anything but this. Sex has never seemed a worse idea than here, in the asshole of the world. The taunting junkfunk and gyrating girls must feel like a bayonet in the groin to the men, to whom this sensual assault is a frustration that will no doubt find relief in violence. The fence dividing the whooping American fantasists from the sour-faced, realist locals shows just how far from home they all are. In terms of raw power and spectacle, Coppola has created a stunning piece of history: a pornographic dream escaped from the mind of a bored, frightened, horny grunt.