The time flips to 6 a.m. and “I Got You Babe” blares from the radio—it is Groundhog Day. Again. The record player switches to “Unchained Melody” as Molly takes to her potter’s wheel. A group of British prisoners of war and, years later, a group of teenagers in Saturday detention whistle the “Colonel Bogey March.” In each film—Groundhog Day, Ghost, The Bridge Over the River Kwai, and The Breakfast Club, respectively—the scenes became memorable for their use of songs written years before the movie’s production. Excluding songs specifically written for a movie (like “Ghostbusters” or “Moon River”) and those used simply in a soundtrack (like “Sound of Silence” or “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head”), here are my picks for the greatest songs prominently featured in non-musical movies. In no particular order.
Reality Bites (1994), “My Sharona”
Even to this day, when this song is played, someone will inevitably do the two-fisted, semicircle, Winona Ryder/Janeane Garofalo dance.
Casablanca (1942), “As Time Goes By”
“Play it, Sam.” An iconic scene from an iconic film.
Young Frankenstein (1974), “Puttin’ on the Ritz”
After nearly 40 years, this still makes people laugh out loud. Gene Wilder and Peter Boyle are genius. “Soooopuh DOOOpuhr!”
Pretty in Pink (1986), “Try a Little Tenderness”
Seriously, Andie? You chose Blane over this?
Almost Famous (2000), “Tiny Dancer”
A simple scene that perfectly captures the essence of the entire film.
Pulp Fiction (1994), “You Never Can Tell”
John Travolta first strutted on the screen to the Bee Gee’s “You Should Be Dancing” in Saturday Night Fever. But it his dancing to the Chuck Berry classic, in Tarantino’s megahit, that will indelibly be etched in people’s minds.
Say Anything (1989), “In Your Eyes”
Young John Cusack. Peter Gabriel on the boombox. Swoon.
Magnolia (1999), “Wise Up”
It’s as if Aimee Mann’s song is so powerful that the soundtrack finally breaches the barrier between background and narrative. A truly strange, unique, and beautiful moment.
The Big Chill (1983), “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg”
A moment of true joy.
Wayne’s World (1992), “Bohemian Rhapsody”
The movie that catapulted the Queen 1975 mini-opera hit back onto the Billboard 100 list.
Risky Business (1983), “Old Time Rock and Roll”
One of the most parodied movie moments of all time.
A Clockwork Orange (1971), “Singin’ in the Rain”
Kubrick’s juxtaposing the classic, feel-good song with the senseless violence made the scene (and the movie) all the more unsettling. An inspiration for many later films, like: Reservoir Dog’s use of Stealers Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle” and American Psycho’s use of Huey Lewis and the News’ “Hip to Be Square.”
Back to the Future (1985), “Johnny B. Goode”
Who cares if Michael J. Fox didn’t sing or play the guitar, it is electrifying.
Dirty Dancing (1989), “Love is Strange”
Alas, the song “Time of My Life” that inspired us all—including Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in Crazy, Stupid, Love.—to attempt the lift, was recorded for the movie. But equally memorable is the scene with Baby and Johnny dancing and acting out this Mickey & Silvia song. (Though Baby’s sister singing “Hula Hana” is my personal favorite.)
My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997), “I’ll Say a Little Prayer”
A year before Will & Grace came out on air, this was what first made America want a gay BFF.
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), “Danke Schoen”/”Twist and Shout”
Admit it: We all wished we lived in a city like Chicago where, apparently, during impromptu parades, people spontaneously start dancing on stairs.
Honorable mentions: Beetlejuice (1988), “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)”; Top Gun (1986), “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling”; Blue Velvet (1986), “Blue Velvet”; Do the Right Thing (1989), “Fight the Power”