As Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” becomes a chart-topping hit thanks to its placement in the popular Netflix series Stranger Things, one thing becomes perfectly clear — music and film (or in this case, highly cinematic television) are undeniably linked. A great song has the power to elevate a movie scene, while a well-executed scene can breathe new life into a track. But there are some song uses in films that just stand out. There’s something magical about them. It’s hard to put a finger on what makes a needle drop special, but you know it when you hear it.
Using an iconic track in a movie can do several different things. If it’s a period piece, a song can help establish the era that the film is set in. In some cases, the song exists within the world of the film — for example, it’s playing from a jukebox or in someone’s headphones. In others, the song is placed over a scene where no music would actually be playing. Rather, the song is meant to heighten a viewer’s emotional reaction.
Before we get started, you might be wondering — what exactly defines a “needle drop”? No, there doesn’t have to be a record player present. A needle drop is when a movie uses a song that wasn’t written for the soundtrack. Oftentimes, the movie’s budget dictates which — and how many — songs can be used. Movies with a bigger budget may get the rights to bigger pop hits, while smaller indie flicks tend to stick with less recognizable tracks. Sometimes, that’s for the better — if a song becomes too overused, it might not have the same impact as a track that’s lesser known.
Here are 15 of the most epic needle drops in movie history.
American Hustle — “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”
Loosely inspired by historical events, David O. Russell’s American Hustle is a groovy black comedy crime film. Part of its panache comes from its excellent use of pop songs from the 1970s, when the movie takes place. There are quite a few memorable tracks scattered throughout the film, but there’s one in particular that creates a gut-punch impact. It’s the scene where Irving (Christian Bale), accompanied by his wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), crosses paths with lover Sydney (Amy Adams) on the arm of Richie (Bradley Cooper) at a casino party. The tension is so thick you could cut it with a knife, made even more palpable by Elton John’s stunning “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.” The melancholic nature of the song pairs perfectly with our characters’ inner conflicts as they try to hold their ruse together.
The Graduate — “The Sound of Silence”
While many remember The Graduate for its use of the Simon and Garfunkel song “Mrs. Robinson” — which was actually written for the film — it’s “The Sound of Silence” that leaves the longest-lasting impression. Recent college graduate Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman) has just run off with would-be bride Elaine (Katharine Ross), who happens to be the daughter of the woman he’s been having an affair with, Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft). While their whirlwind escape seems like a great idea at first, they begin to realize the uncertainty of their futures while sitting at the back of a bus. “The Sound of Silence” begins to play, adding a layer of strain to the film’s uneasy conclusion.
Dazed and Confused — “Hurricane”
Filmed in the ‘90s but set in the ‘70s, Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused uses music as a way to instantly establish its place in time. While there are a number of era-appropriate rock tracks used in the movie, none are utilized better than Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane”. The song plays as Wooderson (Matthew McConaughey), Randall (Jason London), and Mitch (Wiley Wiggins) confidently strut into the Emporium, a pool hall that’s frequented by Austin locals. With “Hurricane” fading into the background, the Emporium takes on a new level of cool — we totally see why the high schoolers want to hang out here.
Say Anything… — “In Your Eyes”
This iconic scene from Say Anything… has inspired young people everywhere to hold up boomboxes outside of their lovers’ houses for decades — it’s even lightly spoofed in the 2010 film Easy A. There’s a good reason for this, and that’s the song selection itself. John Cusack’s Lloyd picks “In Your Eyes” by Peter Gabriel to serenade Diane (Ione Sky), as it was the song the two first became intimate to. The song’s tender lyrics and sweet guitars should have worked their charms on Diane, but she holds back for the time being. Say Anything has forever cemented “In Your Eyes” as the stuff of ‘80s teen romance dreams.
JoJo Rabbit — “Helden” (“Heroes”)
David Bowie’s music has proven itself as a powerful choice for film many times over, but Taika Waititi’s JoJo Rabbit manages to bring something new to the table. In the movie’s final moments, German boy Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) and Jewish girl Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) realize that she’s free from the grasp of Nazi Germany. In what could be considered the only appropriate response, the two begin to dance. Their moves are silly and uninhibited, complemented perfectly by Bowie’s euphoric track, “Heroes.” Except this time, it’s in German. No matter which language it’s sung in, “Heroes” feels like the perfect song for these kids to joyously boogie to.
Shrek — “Hallelujah”
When it came out in 2001, Shrek was the antithesis to the sweet, family-friendly movies being churned out by Disney. Whereas those movies relied on originally composed scores and songs, Shrek decided to go in a different direction, incorporating energetic pop songs such as “All Star” — which inspired a slew of internet memes — and Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation”. But perhaps Shrek’s best use of music comes in the latter half of the movie, as Shrek (Mike Myers) and Fiona (Cameron Diaz) both return to their respective lives as swamp ogre and princess. Rather than opt for a more popular tune, the musical directors convinced the executive producers to soundtrack the scene with John Cale’s rendition of “Hallelujah”. The powerful tune adds surprising emotional weight to the animated movie, even if most kids grew up knowing it as “the song from Shrek.”
Call Me By Your Name — “Love My Way”
Based on André Aciman’s novel of the same name, Call Me By Your Name is a sumptuous ode to one balmy, romantic Italian summer. The lush sights, smells, and sounds seem to waft right through the movie screen, and that includes the intoxicating melody of The Psychedelic Furs’ “Love My Way.” Richard Butler’s haunting vocals mingle with atmospheric synths, transforming a simple outdoor dance party into something otherworldly. “Love My Way”’s placement in Call Me By Your Name caused it to spike in popularity, hitting its biggest streaming week ever following the film’s release in late 2017.
500 Days Of Summer — “You Make My Dreams”
One of the more lighthearted entries on this list, 500 Days of Summer introduced a whole new generation to the brilliance of pop rock duo Hall and Oates. The song pops on after Joseph Gordon Levitt’s Tom finally gets to share a night with the girl of his dreams, Summer (Zooey Deschanel). Tom walks down the street with a pep in his step, greeting everyone he sees along the way. Eventually, his cheerful lilt turns into a full-blown dance, complete with an ensemble, a marching band, and a Disney-esque cartoon bird. While this movie isn’t a musical in any sense, this fun scene reminds us not to take anything we see too seriously.
American Honey — “We Found Love”
As its name suggests, Andrea Arnold’s A24-produced coming-of-age drama is steeped in American culture, but not the kind usually depicted on the big screen. This is the land of convenience stores, roadside motels, and cheap handles of vodka — not to mention a steady stream of explicit rap and the occasional country tune. That’s why Rihanna and Calvin Harris’ “We Found Love” creates such a bright spot in Star (Sasha Lane)’s weary world. She watches with unfettered desire as Shia LaBeouf’s Jake dances with his motley magazine crew through the checkout line in a fluorescent-it Wal-Mart, and the lyrics of the song become achingly true. It’s hard to think of a more hopeless place than this, and thus their love story begins.
Apocalypse Now — “The End”
While Jim Morrison, lead singer of The Doors, wrote “The End” about a particularly gnarly breakup with his girlfriend, the epic song ended up being just the right soundtrack for the opening of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. The irony was not lost on Coppola, who remarked how funny it would be if a song called “The End” was placed at the start of his movie. As it turns out, it was the right call — the hypnotic song punctuates the footage of burning treetops, giving the intro an even more ominous feel.
Guardians of the Galaxy — “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”
Guardians of the Galaxy is peppered with catchy bops from the ‘60s and ‘70s, serving as a way for Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) to stay connected with his life on Earth as he blasts through space. Director James Gunn experimented with several tunes to create just the right tone for a scene, and the results really paid off — especially at the end of the movie. Quill and the rest of his superhero team leave in his rebuilt ship, the Milano, with tunes courtesy of his mother, who left him a tape cassette of her favorite songs. One of those songs is Diana Ross’ “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” which soundtracks Guardians of the Galaxy’s electrifying, feel-good ending. It’s impossible to finish the movie without humming this song the rest of the day.
Lost in Translation — “Just Like Honey”
Lost in Translation stars Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray as a pair of unlikely friends, Charlotte and Bob, who grow close while staying at the same hotel in Tokyo, Japan. Both feeling alienated by their surroundings — and their respective lives back in the States — the two engage in intimate conversations and experience the city’s nightlife together. Their unique relationship is soundtracked by a mix of shoegaze and dreampop, right down to their eventual parting, which occurs to The Jesus and Mary Chain’s “Just Like Honey.” The hazy track adds an inexplicable sense of melancholy to their final moments and Bob’s winding taxi ride back to the airport.
Baby Driver — “Bellbottoms”
Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver strikes the perfect balance between edge-of-your-seat thriller and offbeat comedy, starting with the opening scene. Baby (Ansel Elgort) waits in his car as his cohorts swiftly rob a bank, pumping himself up with “Bellbottoms” by The John Spencer Blues Explosion. He lip syncs and grooves with the beat, just moments before gunning it in reverse. The funky song continues to play as Baby continues with his flawless work behind the wheel, and it’s clear that Baby Driver is going to be one wild ride.
Goodfellas — “Sunshine Of Your Love”
While this scene from Goodfellas certainly isn’t the most monumental in the entire movie, it’s a perfect example of how the right song can exponentially add to the drama of a moment. It takes place right after Henry (Ray Liotta) and Morrie (Chuck Low) have finished having a conversation, and we see Jimmy (Robert DeNiro) sitting at the bar. With a cigarette in hand, he’s clearly pondering something bad — later, we’ll learn that he plans to pick off members of his own gang. The camera zooms in on DeNiro’s face as Cream’s “Sunshine Of Your Love” begins to play. Something about that badass opening riff tells us everything we need to know about Jimmy’s intentions. It’s a short, simple moment, but it sticks out thanks to “Sunshine Of Your Love”.
Pulp Fiction — “You Can Never Tell”
Quentin Tarantino is a bit of an expert when it comes to placing songs in movies, and he was right on the money with his usage of Chuck Berry’s “You Can Never Tell” in Pulp Fiction. John Travolta’s Vincent Vega agrees to escort gangster Marcellus Wallace’s wife Mia while he’s out of town, so the two head to a 1950s-themed restaurant called Jack Rabbit Slim’s. At the diner, Vincent and Mia participate in a twist contest soundtracked to “You Can Never Tell”, and, well, it’s pretty much perfect. The retro swing of the song fits their utterly surreal dance sequence, resulting in a truly memorable scene from an iconic piece of cinema.