Since the dawn of film, music has always been an essential component. A director’s use of a particular song can become synonymous with a scene and bring an added layer of emotion. The use of music in 2019 was no exception and it was hard narrowing this list down to just ten. The movies here used music, either as needle drops or performed, to give audiences insight into the narrative or their character.
Honorable mentions: “Don’t Kill My Vibe” from Teen Spirit, “Just a Girl” from Captain Marvel, “Hard Times” from Happy Death Day 2U, “Sweet Virginia” by The Rolling Stones in Knives Out
“Slip Away” by Perfume Genius – Booksmart
Like many films to be discussed on this list, there were numerous songs I could have borrowed from Booksmart (sorry, Alanis Morrisette!). In the end, I went with a moment that was a perfect union between the song and the emotions of the characters. Perfume Genius’ “Slip Away” comes about as Kaitlyn Deaver’s Amy takes the plunge (literally and metaphorically) into a swimming pool inspired by her crush Ryan (Victoria Ruesga). As Amy swims silently amongst the bodies of her peers, the song’s momentum touches on her emotions. Throughout the four years of high school she, herself, has slipped away and through the cracks without anyone knowing the real her. The song’s momentum perfectly dovetails with her happiness at being included and embrace who she is. Sure, the moment is ruined with the realization that Ryan is into someone else, but it’s a sequence of true freedom.
“Shake It Off” – Little Monsters
The numerous uses of “Shake It Off” aren’t presented as needle drops, per se, but they are a key element of this comedy involving a group of kindergartners trapped in a petting zoo during a zombie invasion. As little Felix (Diesel La Torraca) tells his uncle, Dave (Alexander England), Felix’s teacher Miss Caroline (Lupita Nyong’o) is known to sing Taylor Swift to her students. For Dave, this is sheer torture, as he has to hear “Shake It Off” on the way to the petting zoo where their field trip is so, if anything, it acknowledges how Swift’s ubitiquity on the charts is annoying. But, more importantly, Taylor Swift’s music becomes a symbol for what makes Miss Caroline so wonderful: she’s popular, sweet, and light. You can’t help but smile and start moving when Miss Caroline is around, just like you can’t resist singing a little Tay-Tay in your car or at karaoke night.
“Good Vibrations” by The Beach Boys – Us
This is technically two songs in one. It starts after Kitty Tyler (Elisabeth Moss) has asked her husband Josh (Tim Heidecker) to check out a strange noise. After playfully ribbing her, he asks his Ophelia, a rights-free Alexa, to play the peppy Beach Boys tune. The family, and the audience, are lulled into a false sense of security by the song, until it ramps up right as the Tyler’s “others” enter the house to wreak havoc. Poor Kitty is left crawling on the floor in her own blood as the Beach Boys’ “excitations” are all that’s left. It culminates with a brief moment of levity, as Kitty asks Ophelia to call the police only to have it play NWA’s “Fuck the Police.” Those voice-controlled speakers never get it right, do they?
“Truth Hurts” by Lizzo – Someone Great
For those who say Jennifer Kaytin Robinson’s Someone Great last year on Netflix this was their first time hearing Lizzo. Lizzo’s song of women scorned works perfectly as Jenny (Gina Rodriguez) dances around her apartment, pantsless, in the wake of her boyfriend breaking up with her. She’s compelled her best friends to come spend the day with her and drunkenly breaks into performing the breakup anthem. The song works best once bestie Erin (DeWanda Wise) shows up and the two let loose. From Rodriguez’s dancing with no pants to Wise immediately getting into things the minute she crosses the threshold, the performance is a wonderful moment for the woman who has just had enough.
“Crimson and Clover” by Tommy James and the Shondells – The Sun is Also a Star
Karaoke has the power to make someone incredibly vulnerable and remarkably romantic. It’s the most authentic portrayal of the grand gesture one can have in a movie that isn’t a flat-out musical. On top of being criminally underseen, Ry Russo-Young’s The Sun is Also a Star also has one of the sweetest romantic moments involving music we had in 2019. Star-crossed lovers Natasha (Yara Shahidi) and Daniel (Charles Melton) spend the day together in New York right before the former will be deported out of America. They end up at a karaoke lounge where Daniel decides to croon one of the sexiest songs in history, “Crimson and Clover.” As if the camera’s close-ups on Melton’s face as he sings aren’t already swoony, the movie uses the song to play out a montage as Natasha envisions the life she might have had with the man.
“You Keep Me Hanging On” by Vanilla Fudge – Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
This was one of two movies where I was full to bursting with musical moments, but that’s unsurprising considering Quentin Tarantino has made his career on the power of music. Now, I know the song I picked probably isn’t what most would have done, but using Vanilla Fudge’s cover of “You Keep Me Hanging On” is just a fantastic song to encapsulate the 1960s and the sense of danger in the film’s climax. (Interestingly, Tarantino would use another cover of the song in Death Proof.) In this case, the film’s epic guitar solo is played in the lead-up to the Manson family breaking into Rick Dalton’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) house. The anticipation rises with the guitar chords, only for it to be dampened as the song kicks into lyrics as the family makes themselves known to Cliff Boothe (Brad Pitt). It’s all downhill from there but that guitar lick appropriately sets the scene to the gruesome climax that ensues.
“Hide and Seek” by Chuck Mangione – Ready or Not
In 2017, Jordan Peele reminded us how creepy old music could be with “Run, Rabbit” in Get Out. Well, clear the way because Chuck Mangione gave us something new to make our skin crawl with his “Hide and Seek” song in Ready or Not. Mangione’s presumably cute children’s song is the theme for the Le Domas’ “game” of hide and seek Grace (Samara Weaving) must play. The lyrics themselves are utterly terrifying: “Anywhere you’ve fled / I’m going to find you….Don’t you make a noise / Or I am going to find you.” By the time the song plays again at the film’s climax, hearing the spoken word “Who wants to play a game? It’s time to play hide and seek” has told us all we need to know about what’s going to happen to these characters.
“Gimme More” by Britney Spears – Hustlers
Lorene Scafaria made my job 1,000 times harder because I could have picked ten songs from Hustlers alone. My apologies to Fiona Apple’s “Criminal,” but not only is Britney Spears’ 2007 comeback song “Gimme More” a fantastic way to anchor time and place, it showcases the sheer amount of excess that isn’t discussed in pre-recession movies. As the iconic line, “It’s Britney, bitch” kicks in we watch Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) and Destiny (Constance Wu) buy an expensive car. The song plays as Wall Street guys make million-dollar deals, meanwhile the other women in the strip club are demanding what they want, whether that’s more time money or their boyfriend to calm down. The song also takes an added air of interest considering the song came as Spears was in the grips of a debilitating mental breakdown, making its inclusion indicative of the fallout the characters will soon feel.
“In the Still of the Night” by The Five Satins – The Irishman
Like Tarantino, Martin Scorsese is the king of needle drops. Nearly every one of his movies has a rollicking soundtrack that you could listen to alone and get a perfect feel for the era he’s focused on. The Irishman is surprisingly muted in that there aren’t any specific needle-drops short of one, The Five Satins’ “In the Still of the Night.” It’s a quiet, melodic song of melancholy and nostalgia that evokes Frank Sheerhan’s (Robert de Niro) memories of the past and his time with Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). Like the song, Frank is remembering his own metaphorical “night in May” where anything seemed possible. “In the Still of the Night” is a love song and you could easily say it’s used to show the respectful admiration and, yes, platonic love the two men share. It conveys everything Frank can’t tell Hoffa directly.
“L’Amour Toujours” by Gigi D’Agostino – Uncut Gems
This final one might be a cheat as its actually the film’s end credits song, but I can’t imagine a film as wild and chaotic as Uncut Gems playing with anything else. This 2000-era dance song has such a dreamy, hazy feel not unlike the beautiful opal that captivates everyone in the film. When the dust has settled on Howard’s (Adam Sandler) series of actions what better way to underscore, and maybe undercut, all that than with a bouncy song you can dance to?
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