The musicto community picks their most impactful songs in film
Music has a magical quality in our everyday lives, but on the big screen, juxtaposed with images 70 feet wide and 50 feet tall, the power of songs in film increases tenfold. It moves us to tears, joy, laughter, fear.
Yet, eliciting an emotional response from audiences isn’t the only purpose of music in cinema. A film score can suggest specific locations. Early Hollywood director John Ford infused his films with basic folk songs evoking America’s old west, for example. Music is used as foreshadowing. Who can forget the suspense-building John Williams score for Spielberg’s Jaws, often with a seat-clenching red herring effect?
Songs in movies can suggest time, class, different cultures and subcultures. It controls shifting emotions from scene to scene, adds ironic contrast in some contexts and punctuates characters’ deep inner conflicts in others.
And in a darkened cinema, strangers on either side, music’s true magical power in film is the capacity to bond us all in a shared experience.
11 most powerful songs in film from the music to community
Here’s what some of the people in our musicto community social network have to say about their additions to this list of 11 powerful songs in film:
Anthony Willis – Toxic (from Promising Young Woman)
A classic movie needle drop is a symbiotic thing—the movie leeches some of the vital energy or cultural significance from a piece of music and, at the same time, gifts that music with a new context that sometimes changes the song forever. Think of Judd Nelson punching the air to “Don’t You Forget About Me.”
This version of the classic Britney Spears hit “Toxic,” written by Cathy Dennis and arranged here by film composer Anthony B. Willis, takes a pop tune and twists it into something dark and eerie, presaging one of the most shocking and memorable moments in feminist revenge thriller Promising Young Woman. The hook is instantly recognisable as it emerges from the initial fog of strings, but the plodding rhythm and hollow, atonal sound tells us that this familiar and joyous pop song has been transformed into something bleak and sinister. It’s the perfect way to signal to the audience that we need to question what we think we know.
The Kinks – Powerman (from The Darjeeling Limited)
Not only is this just a super rad tune, I discovered it by watching this movie. The Darjeeling Limited is not my favorite Wes Anderson movie, but “Powerman” is definitely my favorite Kinks song. It makes for a great slow motion action scene. As always, Wes Anderson’s choice of music compliments his incredible sense of cinematography. I love this scene in the movie. It is a very symbolic scene in regards to the characters and plot of the movie, but I don’t think the song is symbolic of what’s happening here at all. I can’t be totally certain of that theory, but I like to think it’s proof that a really great song can fit any scenario…because it’s that good.
Robert Schwartzman – It’s You (from Palo Alto)
The whole concept of the 2013 film Palo Alto is about high school, teenage love and those bad decisions that just feel so right. This whole song captures that. By the title, you’d think it’s a sweet love song. It’s slow and it sounds so pure. But the thing is, you end up thinking if it’s even the right definition of young love after a few listens. And every time I listen to this, it feels like the first time, for some reason. It never fails to move me.
Dungen – Var Har Du Varit (from Self Discovery for Social Survival)
A poetic expression from Maria about this powerful song in Self Discovery for Social Survival:
Dancing on water is more than a calling
Here wind is holy and I ask permission to learn from her moment
To be in the hands of something greater
To see more than the eyes may ask for
If I move slower
Will I be able to capture the light at the bottom of the oceans alter
Is self discovery truly found in social survival
Is it in the permission to become the moment
To become something different
To be open and broken
Is all of this found only in the moment
The Doors – The End (from Apocalypse Now)
“The End” by the Doors as featured in the beginning of Apocalypse Now. It’s honestly the first thing that jumped to mind when I saw this brilliant prompt about powerful songs in film inside musicto’s Circle social network. I think it’s so perfect for the movie it could have been written for it, perfectly capturing the ominous and claustrophobically immersive tone of the film.
Sarah Schachner – Naru’s Way (from Prey)
I’m a big fan of the Predator franchise, but that doesn’t mean everything should be the same as what we came to expect from each of the movies. I know aliens as fiction are pure fantasy, but the movie Prey inspired me from the start because of the views, the nature, the sound and the music—it delighted my ears and my mind. And then the story began and it didn’t feel like a Predator movie but rather a drama. I love the story of this young woman Naru and her dog Sarii, trying to become a worthy hunter of her Comanche tribe while having wildlife as aly and background scenery somewhere in Canada’s forests and plains of the 1710s. Throughout the movie, she fights and becomes braver, having confrontations with a bear and many ambitious colonizers. In the end, she overcomes all menace with wisdom and intelligence, everything makes sense emotionally, despite it being a fiction movie. This is what cinema is all about. The music—the soundtrack, composed by Sarah Schachner—is an essential part of it.
Des’ree – I’m Kissing You (from Romeo + Juliet)
Baz Lurhman’s Romeo + Juliet is one of those movies that makes you want to go back and read all of Shakespeare—especially if you’ve just finished watching 10 Things I Hate About You (“The Taming of the Shrew”).
I was going to go for the introduction to Romeo and Radiohead’s stunning “Talk Show Host,” but I suspected that Joshua Thomas was up for that, so I’m sticking with the same movie and going for Des’ree’s “I’m Kissing You.” What an incredible performance, what a match made in heaven, amongst those star-crossed lovers, doomed to die, but done so shockingly innocently.
The sheer beauty—and yes, beauty of a young Leonardo di Caprio and Clare Danes meeting through the fish tank and then falling in love—incredibly shot and acted and with this song in the background. Truly one of my favorite pieces of movie music.
John Williams – Theme (from Schindler’s List)
I have chosen the soundtrack from the movie Schindler’s List. It is an incredible composition that expresses a deep sorrow. A sorrow that can never be relinquished.
In other words, it enhances the emotion tenfold. I have never heard any other track or song that could go so well with a movie (thus far). It elevates the movie to a whole different dimension and brings out the pure essence of the film. I really cannot add more description, the theme speaks for itself.
Richard Wagner – Die Walküre (from Birth)
There are so many powerful songs in films that I don’t know where to start. I’d initially knee-jerked the Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower,” which plays beautifully, on both diegetic and extra-diegetic levels, in the underrated Rush (Zanuck, 1991), starring Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jason Patric. Many other songs in many other movies also came to mind. I seriously had to hold my Bob Fosse-movies obsession back!
In the end, Jonathan Glazer’s Birth (2004) rose to the top of my personal list of powerful songs in film. I love this movie. Even more so, I love Glazer’s use of Richard Wagner’s “Die Walküre,” performed by Georg Solti and the Vienna Philharmonic, as it plays over a long—uncomfortably long—close-up of Anna’s (Nicole Kidman) face. You don’t need context to understand her emotions in this shot. Not only does the music speak for the character’s silence, Nicole Kidman inhabits all of the emotional weight of the piece itself.
The story may be difficult, but of all the songs in film I’ve experienced, this is absolutely the most powerful use of image and music that I’ve ever witnessed.
Ludovico Einaudi – Experience (from Mommy)
I am a big movie/TV watcher and this scene from Mommy was the first to come to mind. The video contains tiny spoilers, so if you want to watch the film, I recommend not watching the whole clip.
Mommy is a haunting, emotional and simply beautiful film. It’s about a mother and her troubled teenage son. This clip is Diane’s (the mother) daydream about her son’s life and what it could be if different choices had been made with different circumstances. It’s very hard not to get emotional while watching the scene, especially when you watch the film from the beginning.
The scene starts slow and then builds up to this almost explosive finale that leaves you in tears. As much as music makes our life happier and better in so many ways, it’s equally important to feel all our feelings, good and bad, happy and sad. And this clip and the incredible music bring out those emotions we tend to sometimes keep bottled up, not wanting to face them. It’s beautiful, powerful, incredibly emotional and worth every tear.
John Murphy – In the House, in a Heartbeat (from 28 Days Later)
It was a Friday night, in late February 2003. I squeezed into one of the cramped seats of Teatro Rivoli, in Porto, Portugal, to watch the pre-release premiere of Danny Boyle’s post-apocalyptic film 28 Days Later. The director was in attendance, as was the writer, Alex Garland. I couldn’t imagine then the cultural impact that this relatively low budget zombie flick would have had.
It has been almost 20 years since, but I still remember the visceral impact of John Murphy’s “In the House, in a Heartbeat.” Playing over the film’s final confrontation, initially so subdued you’re not even sure it’s there—a simple, repetitive pattern slowly emerges, building up velocity. The piano is first layered with an acoustic guitar, then an electric guitar, a bass, drums, in an unstoppable crescendo that culminates in a climax of synthetic, distorted noise, dragging you to the edge of the seat as your heart races and you find yourself rooting for the infected zombies as they rampage through the mansion.
Check out our musicto community’s previous playlisticle: 7 Top Cowbell Songs!