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The 10 Most Ironic Uses of Songs in Movie History

26 December 2016 | Features, Other Lists | by Ethan Colburn

A song choice can make or break a scene and can add another layer to an already great piece of art. While certain songs seem to be the most appropriate fit possible for that film such as “My Heart Will Go On” in The Titanic or “Born to be Wild” in Easy Rider, others can shock the viewer because of its contrast to the situation. While a song may originally seem to contrast the situation at hand, the scene can often change the meaning of the song.

This list will be focusing on the use of songs that may at first appear to not match the mood of the scene, however when analyzed bring out an entirely new meaning. Because of this, the list will not include original songs, or songs that matched the mood of the scene perfectly (sorry, “Where is my mind?” in Fight Club).


10. Don’t Be Shy – Harold and Maude

Harold and Maude is one of the great New Hollywood films. Its beauty goes beyond the shock factor of the love story between a 20 year old and an 80 year old that intrigued and disgusted many movie goers at the time of its release.

The brilliant opening sequence begins by focusing on Harold’s feet as he walks down the stairs preparing for his fake suicide attempt. The camera remains focused on his lower body as he moves through the room.

In a somewhat melancholy song about opening up ones self up, the last thing the audience expects is a suicide (or a supposed suicide). While it could foreshadow Harold opening up in the future, he is seemingly closed off at this point in the film, which is what makes this use ironic. In this way, the scene is fitting for the film, however seemingly out of place in its singular usage.


9. Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien – Inception

Christopher Nolan almost scratched the use of this song after Marion Cotillard joined the cast, as she played Edith Piaf in La Vie En Rose five years prior, however audience members were very glad he didn’t. It was a strange song to have during action scenes, however proved very successful in Christopher Nolan’s unique thriller.

The irony presents itself in the contrast between both the lyrics and tone of the song and the action. This song is fitting because much of it is about memories, which pertain directly to dreams. This is another example on this list of a song that was originally a love song being used for a different construct.

In this case, the director is using it to convey the regret (or lack thereof) of the situation that the characters got themselves into. However, the song could also be a romantic reference, referring to the past relationship of Cobb and Mal. Hans Zimmer enjoyed the song so much, he attempted to slip it into the movie at different speeds to mess with the audience (referencing the movie’s notion that the real world appears to move much faster when in a dream).


8. Sound of Silence – The Graduate (Ending Sequence)

It is difficult to imagine The Graduate with any other soundtrack than that written by Simon & Garfunkel. They perfectly embodied the isolation that Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman) is experiencing.

While there is not much irony in most of the song choices in the movie, it is ironic and slightly off-putting when Mike Nichols chooses to reprise Sound of Silence for the ending sequence. After Benjamin epically steals Elaine (Katherine Ross) from her wedding, they run out of the church together smiling and jump onto the nearest bus.

Had the film ended 30 seconds earlier, all the audience would have seen is them happily running off together. However, the shot of the two of them in the back of the bus lingers for longer than is comfortable and Simon & Garfunkel’s Sounds of Silence begins playing again.

The viewer begins to understand that this is not the happy ending that the previous scene would have them think, and that the characters are not grappling with the consequences of what they have just done. It also implies that Benjamin is feeling the same isolation that he felt during the opening sequence. This existential ending is yet another reason Mike Nichols’ The Graduate was such an innovative film for the time it was released.


7. I Got You Babe – Groundhog Day

Groundhog Day, a movie about a man who is forced to relive the same (Groundhog) day over and over, chose to use “I Got You Babe” by Sonny & Cher for Phil (Bill Murray)’s alarm song.

It was an interesting choice to make a movie about finding love, where the main character is forced to wake up alone every day listening to a song about two people who can rely on one another. One of the mornings after Phil had hooked up with Nancy, he hears the song and is frustrated again.

It is also interesting, as it is not until the middle of the movie that Phil realizes that he is actually searching for love. In this way, the film is reminding you of Phil’s loneliness without making Phil seem like he needs anyone at all. You could argue that this foreshadows the end of the movie because the last time the song plays is the only time this song is not used ironically.


6. The End – Apocalypse Now

Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now begins with a famously ambitious opening scene depicting the Vietnam War. This epic opening immediately establishes the tone of the film. Starting a film with a song called “The End” certainly gives it the post-apocalyptic feeling that Francis Ford Coppola desired.

The Doors was a perfect choice because the absurd lyrics capture the PTSD that Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) is experiencing, along with the band’s frequent protests of the Vietnam War. Francis Ford Coppola made a bold statement he attempted to by placing a song about an ending at the beginning of his film, superimposing the ceiling fan and the helicopter being another important one.

This film was a notoriously difficult production, with the opening sequence being one of the more difficult pieces to film. The irony lied in beginning a film with “The End,” implying that the film is beginning where many stories end.



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  • Wasabi

    The End by The Door?
    I thought it would be included in this list since the thumbnail shows it.
    It is one of ironic songs in movies history. Intro to Apocalypse Now, who could forget that scene and songs

    • Andreas Theocharous

      no. 6

  • Ana

    Great list. I would add – or at least give an honourable mention to – two of the song choices in The Crying Game: using Percy Sledge’s ‘When a Man Loves a Woman’ and Tammy Wynette’s ‘Stand by your Man’ when, unbeknown to the male protagonist, the lounge singer he was falling for was not a woman.

  • Cesáreo

    Another good ironic use is Ordinary Worl by Duran Duran in Layer Cake (2004), playing during the beating at the cafe. Probably the most memorable scene from that good though not brilliant movie.

  • Ted Wolf

    Great concept for a list. One that always struck me was “When the Red Red Robin Comes Bob-bob-bobbing Along” in the Conversation.

  • Horacio Machado Flores

    What about Atlantis by Donovan in Goodfellas?

  • tea & snark

    I never liked “What A Wonderful World” in Good Morning, Viet Nam; to me it seems too easy-yet-cheap.

    That Louis Armstrong himself had a rough life (yet was still able to make such a song, unironically) makes it worse.

    Like the “Singing In The Rain” sequence, or the entire phenomenon known as “Wicked”, I view it as a weakness or flaw if an artist has to resort to (or rely on) taking something beautiful or happy and has to destroy that thing (in the sense of never being able to enjoy it again in the real world) to get his effect. Especially if what was destroyed was the creation of another artist. That’s a coward’s shortcut – it’s harder but better to generate original expression.

    • Brad Weiss

      Don’t you think “destroyed” is a bit of an exaggeration? How is a song/it’s meaning/the artist/your day “destroyed” by being used in an entirely separate work of art?

      Do you mean to say you can never hear “Singing In The Rain” the same way again, because if you do, I would hardly look at the effect as cheap or easy, but rather profound, if it sticks with you to such a degree.

      • tea & snark

        There’s nothing profound about trashing something someone else built.

        It takes no talent to stick a knife through someone else’s painting. It’s hack work.

        • Brad Weiss

          Again, all those melodramatic claims you are making are just silly. Who is sticking a knife through what painting? The metaphor is ridiculous.

          I would propose that a better one is that somebody has made a copy of the painting and drew a mustache on it, superimposed a caption, or ironized it some other (similar) way, which can span the gamut from childish vandalism to, yes, profundity. I stand behind the word. Satire absolutely can be profound. But whether it is or isn’t (which is subjective) the painting (the original) certainly has not been “destroyed” by another person re-imagining it.

          And I stand by my second point, which you either ignored or missed, as well: that if it does seem irreparably changed to you (meaning you can never look at it quite the same way again), is that not an act of artistic mastery?

          • tea & snark

            To create is hard.

            To destroy is easy. But it only means something if what is destroyed is valued.

            Don’t know how to create something people will value? Cheap hack formula: take something someone else built and destroy that – use that to get the effect you don’t know how to create yourself.

            I like irony but not when it’s used as a crutch.

          • Brad Weiss

            Nothing has been destroyed.

            If you believe something has, then what?

  • Klaus Dannick

    “In Dreams” in Blue Velvet is my personal #1 pick on this topic; and there are so many good ones in Goodfellas that it’s difficult to pick only one (though most fans would likely select “Layla”).

  • Deadly_Moogly

    Adagio for Strings in Platoon is quite powerful too; perhaps not enough ironic however…

    Hard not to at least mention Eye of the Tiger for Rocky 3 (though it’s more iconic than ironic)

    Old Habits Die Hard (Alfie)?

    You Could Be Mine (Terminator 2)?