5. Edgar Wright
Edgar Wright’s musical influences have always made way in his features, with great musical moments in the three films that comprise the Cornetto Trilogy – the use of Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” in “Shaun of the Dead” still feels fresh.
In “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” music plays a central role in the film. With the main character being part of the fictional band Sex Bob-Omb, there are plenty of musical moments to choose from, but one of the highlights of the film is a scene in which Brie Larson’s character performs the Metric-penned track “Black Sheep.” Wright’s experience directing music videos is evident throughout the film. The visuals are in perfect harmony with the music and at no point does it feel that the music was simply slapped over a scene.
His biggest showcase of musical influences came with 2017’s “Baby Driver,” a film in which the music acts as a character in its own right. In “Baby Driver,” the music is happening within the scene, which means that at least one character hears it, giving way to a diegetic soundtrack.
Ansel Elgort’s lead character cannot perform a proper getaway without choosing the perfect song beforehand and synchronizing it to what’s happening around him. This can be seen as a meta-reference to the act of filmmaking.
The movie starts with Baby selecting “Bellbottoms” by the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion to play as he drives the getaway car following a bank robbery. Other highlights of the film include “B-A-B-Y” by Carla Thomas and “Harlem Shuffle” by Bob and Earl as well as the two songs chosen for Lily James’ character, “Deborah” by T. Rex and “Debra” by Beck, who previously contributed songs to the “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” soundtrack.
4. Quentin Tarantino
The fact that Quentin Tarantino is a huge fan of music is no secret. He has created some of the most memorable moments in film and has always showcased his unique taste in music throughout his filmography.
Given the impact of his song selections, his method of choosing them might seem a bit too simple. He stated that whenever he is in the process of writing a movie, or simply has the idea of a movie in his mind, he starts playing things from his massive record collection and eventually something will click.
One thing he puts a lot of emphasis on is the opening credits song as a way of finding the personality of the entire film. It’s no surprise then that most of his opening sequences have become iconic, and the music selections have become synonymous with their use in the film.
In “Jackie Brown,” Tarantino set the opening credits to Bobby Womack’s “Across 110th Street.” The song sets the tone for the rest of the movie and the various 70’s-inspired soul and funk selections that follow. “Pulp FIction” jumps right out of the gate with Dick Dale’s American surf rock version of “Misirlou,” a stomping intro that tells us all we need to know about the film in roughly one minute.
For “Kill Bill,” Tarantino employed Wu-Tang Clan member RZA to produce the soundtrack, and the first film is noted for its pitch-perfect use of the Nancy Sinatra classic “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down).” The song fit the movie so well that it’s hard nowadays to listen to the song without thinking of the two-parter revenge epic.
A huge fan of Ennio Morricone, Tarantino tried several times to work with the legendary composer (Morricone refused to score “Inglourious Basterds” due to the sped-up production) and has used his music several times before finally getting him to compose the score to “The Hateful Eight.” This brough Morricone an Academy Award, his first in a competitive category.
3. Coen Brothers
Joel and Ethan Coen have directed quite a few films that are now considered classics, and their tremendous gift of partnering scenes with the perfect song is testament of their talent. Their incredibly varied influences inform their musical selections and give use some truly memorable sequences.
Look no further than “The Big Lebowski,” probably one of the biggest cult movies ever. The Coen brothers create an elaborate sequence depicting the Dude’s drug-induced fantasy in which he dreams of Gutterballs – an adult film starring him and his love interest, Maude, complete with an appearance from Saddam Hussein, all of it set to Kenny Rogers and the First Edition’s version of “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” played almost in its entirety.
The soundtrack to “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” was produced by T-Bone Burnett, who worked closely with the writers/directors as they were still working on the script, in order to make sure that the soundtrack was an integral part of the movie instead of a piece of support. The music used in the film is mostly folk music specific to that time period.
The track “I am a Man of Constant Sorrow” is used in several variations within the movie (and appears in even more variations on the soundtrack). It is the centerpiece of both the movie and the soundtrack, as it carries the trio through their journey. The soundtrack went on to become a bestseller and was even awarded the Grammy for Album of the Year, establishing its legacy.
2. Stanley Kubrick
Stanley Kubrick is known as a perfectionist. His directing style has brought along some controversy due to the supposed stress he would put his actors under in order to ensure he could get the perfect take. More so, he used to spend an unusually lengthy amount of time in the editing room, again making sure every scene is perfect. His addiction to music played a large role in this as well. In his search for the perfect piece of music to score his scenes, he would sometimes spend weeks before finding it.
Highlighting one particular moment in Kubrick’s filmography to showcase his revolutionary use of music is an almost impossible task, but one could settle on “2001: A Space Odyssey” as an example of how he transformed the way music was used in film.
For this classic film, Kubrick initially commissioned a film score by Alex North, which he decided against using during post-production. He instead chose pieces such as “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” by Richard Strauss and “Lux Aeterna” by György Ligeti to bring to life his science fiction masterpiece.
By deciding against commissioning the composition of original music and instead opting to use pre-recorded tracks of classical music, Kubrick treated music like an actor in its own right. Music was no longer just an add-on to a scene, an extra decorative feature. Instead, the classical music he so carefully picked was there to heighten each scene and add to the overall plot, much like an actual character would.
1. Martin Scorsese
Martin Scorsese has been a major influence on most of the filmmakers on this list, especially with regards to the use of music in film. His song choices do so much more than just set the mood of the scene or of the whole movie. His selections actively influence the action in the movie, as Scorsese designs the scenes around the music, not the other way around.
Several of his collaborators spoke admiringly of Scorsese’s passion for music and the way it intertwines with the idea of the film in his head. Even years before shooting a scene, when it is still barely an idea, Scorsese will know exactly what song he wishes to use.
“Mean Streets” was the breakout film for Scorsese, Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel, and the scene in which Keitel watches as De Niro enters the bar with two girls on his side to the tune of “Jumping Jack Flash” by the Rolling Stones can be seen as the true starting point of a cinematic partnership that will continue to yield iconic moments throughout the years.
The Rolling Stones are at the center of a few other Scorsese scenes with “Gimme Shelter.” The track makes appearances in “Goodfellas,” “Casino” and, most notably, “The Departed.”
Pairing one of the greatest long takes in cinema history with The Crystals’ “And Then He Kissed Me” in “Goodfellas” is another example of how well Scorsese understands and executes his vision.
One would think that a pop song like The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” wouldn’t work set against the gritty opening sequence to “Mean Streets,” but Scorsese found a way to combine music and visuals in a way that managed to subvert expectations and change the way people think of music in film, paving the way for numerous other directors to try to follow in his footsteps.