From the moment that 1955's Blackboard Jungle featured Bill Haley & the Comets' "Rock Around the Clock" & propelled it to become rock & roll's first #1 hit, rock & film have always made for ideal bedfellows.
There's something about a good song that can conjure up mood & feel in a way that a thousand pages of dialogue cannot, just as there is something powerful about the way film imagery is composed that can push an already-remarkable song over the top. Even songs that stand alone as bonafide classics can evoke wonderful film moments in their own right—just think of The Beatles' "Twist & Shout" in Ferris Bueller's Day Off, The Ronettes' "Be My Baby" in Dirty Dancing, or even Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" in Wayne's World. Heck, movies like American Graffiti & Dazed & Confused take this phenomenon & build an entire film it, such that they are almost their own mini-genre. (In hindsight, all this begs the question of not why did MTV come along, but rather, how did it not come sooner?)
But with thousands of classic instances of rock music & film coming together—there are literally a dozen examples in Wes Anderson's films alone—the idea of ranking the very best is an insanely daunting & impossible task. Not that that's ever stopped me before. What follows is my Top 5 list of the greatest use of rock songs in non-rock films, which is to say, "regular films," i.e., not musicals, documentaries, or concert films. (That is—& will be—a list unto itself.)
These are not necessarily the greatest songs or the greatest films, but rather, an attempt to find the perfect marriage between a great song & a great film, such that they form a synergy unique to what each is capable of providing on its own.
To quote David Bowie—himself no stranger to music & film—it is a matter of "sound & vision."
5. "Everybody's Talkin'" by Nilsson, Midnight Cowboy (1969).
There is a flipside of failure to the American Dream that is so repressed, we often forget that the success of the American Dream—as opposed to its failure—is the exception, not the rule. No film captures this better than Midnight Cowboy, starring Jon Voight as a dumb hunk from Texas who heads to New York City in search of fortune by becoming a gigolo for rich Manhattan ladies, only to decline into impoverishment & failure. Weaving in & out of the film's opening like a ribbon of highway, Nilsson's definitive reading of Fred Neil's "Everybody's Talkin'" plays like an elusive golden ring, summing up the American Dream in 11 words or less: "I'm goin' where the sun keeps shinin', through the pouring rain..."
4. "The End" by the Doors, Apocalypse Now (1979).
Throughout 1967's "Summer of Love," The Doors' self-titled debut sat lodged behind the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band on the US charts, an ominous harbinger of the dark days of 1968 & 1969 ahead. The LP's unforgettable finale is where Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now begins—"The End," a psychological nightmare of unconscious fears & desires, thus making it a perfect match for Apocalypse Now's Vietnam War reading of Conrad's Heart of Darkness. The horror of war is matched only by Coppola's beauty of editing, until all of the madness & failure resolve in Jim Morrison's haunting prophecy: All the children are insane.
3. "Mrs. Robinson" by Simon & Garfunkel, The Graduate (1967).
Perhaps the greatest example of a great song coming from a great film. The Graduate was a watershed moment in the partnership of rock & film, as the movie featured several recent Simon & Garfunkel songs—most notably, "The Sound of Silence" in the airport moving-ramp opening—but it was the new tune that ended up getting all of the attention. Originally conceived as some bouncy filler for Dustin Hoffman to drive his Alfa Romero to, "Mrs. Robinson" proved so effective that Simon & Garfunkel were called into the studio to complete the song, which went on to become their second #1 hit. Check out the stripped-down original version (starting here at 6:24), which catches the song at the crossroads between the throwaway afterthought it was & the classic rock staple it became.
2. "Tiny Dancer" by Elton John, Almost Famous (2000).
It's 1973, & rock & roll had reached the end of its 1st Golden Age. In the place of rock giants like the Beatles, the Stones, & Hendrix, hip bands were fighting to become the "next big thing" as pop stars like Elton John came in to fill the gap, while further driving the wedge between rock & pop. Almost Famous is about a fictional rock band trying to weather this era, internally & externally, as seen through the eyes of the wunderkind boy reporter who covers their tour for Rolling Stone. No scene sums this up better than the jaded-turned-exuberant singalong to Elton John's "Tiny Dancer," capped by the film's famous "You are home" line. Writer-director Cameron Crowe, who spent his teenage years covering bands for Rolling Stone in this era, once said the film was 90% nonfiction. One imagines that if this scene didn't happen in real life, it should have.
1. "Born to Be Wild" by Steppenwolf, Easy Rider (1969).
In compiling this list, I was struck by how many film/song combinations utilized motion. "Everybody's Talkin'" caught Jon Voight walking (& later riding on a National bus) en route to the Big City, "Mrs. Robinson" had Dustin Hoffman driving his Alfa Romero, & "Tiny Dancer" found its cast singing on a tour bus; even Apocalypse Now's use of "The End" was effective because of its ability to conjure the mad psychological restlessness of a war veteran's mind.
But the rock-song-using-film to end all rock-song-using-films is 1969's Easy Rider, about a long, strange motorcycle trip to run drugs from one end of the country to the other. Of course, the "plot" (or lack thereof) is little more than an excuse to document the counterculture's obsession with rock, drugs, & film. Some parts hold up better than others, but no one can deny the power of this opening sequence when Peter Fonda & Dennis Hopper first hit the road to the tune of Steppenwolf's "Born to Be Wild."
Quite simply, no song has better captured the feeling of breaking out onto the open road better than "Born to Be Wild," & no film has illustrated it better than Easy Rider.
Just try to not think of it the next time you kick it into high gear on the highway.