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.