For Our Consideration: The Best Uses of Preexisting Music in Movies This Year

By  · Published on October 18th, 2016

Awards Rejects

Listen all y’all, it’s “Sabotage” for the win.

Every year, the Academy Awards honor the best original song in a movie, and often it’s a track you don’t recall the placement of in that movie (it likely played during the end credits) and you may never think about the tune again after the Oscars are over. Meanwhile, you’ll never forget about the use of “Stuck in the Middle With You” in Reservoir Dogs and “In Your Eyes” in Say Anything… So, instead of wondering what will win the little gold man (it’ll be something by Lin-Manuel Miranda from Moana), let’s consider the best cues involving pre-existing music in movies this year.

“Sabotage” (The Beastie Boys) in Star Trek Beyond

Okay, so there is an actual frontrunner for this non-award. One of the highlights of the latest Star Trek movie is its use of “classical” (from 23rd century perspective) tunes like this and Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.” They are actually diegetically present and explained well for being there. Not only that, but “Sabotage” is integral to the plot, used by the heroes of the USS Enterprise as a kind of weapon against their Krall horde enemy. The song is overused in movies, also featuring prominently in this year’s miniseries The People v. O.J., but it’s still a very cool and fun choice here.

“Give It Up” (Kutiman & Princess Shaw) in Presenting Princess Shaw

Arguably this year’s best music documentary, Presenting Princess Shaw follows a unique story of the creation of a song. But YouTube mashup artist Kutiman and his latest muse, Princess Shaw, didn’t write the tune specifically for the movie, so it can’t be nominated for even a best song in a documentary award. Still, it’s the whole point of the movie and maybe the most enjoyable over-played song in a movie since “California Dreamin’” in Chungking Express. Another great Kutiman and Shaw mashup in the film, “Stay Here” also deserves recognition.

“Jump Into the Fire” (Harry Nilsson) in A Bigger Splash

This song will forever be primarily associated with Goodfellas, so much that it’s amazing any other movies and TV shows have even bothered to feature it. But finally after 26 years we have at least a second-best use of Harry Nilsson’s dynamic and unusually hard-rocking “Jump Into the Fire.” Like in Scorsese’s film, here it’s again employed for an intense sequence involving characters in time of great stress, though this time it’s allowed to play out in full to keep the energy going with the single soundtrack choice.

“Calendar Girl” (Neil Sedaka) in Deadpool

For many Deadpool fans, Juice Newton’s “Angel of the Morning” gets the best use in the movie, in one of the most hilarious opening title sequences of all time. Or there’s also memorable appearances from Salt n Pepa’s “Shoop,” DMX’s “X Gon’ Give It to Ya,” and George Michael’s “Careless Whisper.” But the sex montage, which is set to a relatively literal choice like “Calendar Girl,” is just the most delightful sequence in part for its use of such a catchy old-timey tune. Who’d have ever expected that we’d end up thinking of pegging every time we hear Neil Sedaka’s voice?

“Freedom ‘90” (George Michael) in Keanu

Speaking of movies with notable George Michael music, the one with four of the former Wham! singer’s tracks needs to be mentioned. The drug trip where Keegan-Michael Key is inserted into the iconic “Faith” video is cute, and the the carful of hardcore thugs singing along with Key’s character, Clarence, to “One More Try” is funny but that kind of thing has been done before. Before that, though, the best moment involves “Freedom ‘90” when those thugs first discover the soft rock stylings of Michael on Clarence’s iPod and it plays in the background as he tries to explain why it’s his shit.

“Hello Stranger” (Barbara Lewis) in Moonlight

Similar to the use of George Michael in Keanu, which is a comedy about masculinity, Moonlight employs a lot of music that we don’t expect to be associated with certain characters, albeit in a less exaggerated manner. Barry Jenkins’s film is a drama that also plays with ideas of masculinity, among other stereotypes and notions of representation, and when we finally hear this jukebox selection that’s previously been discussed unnamed, it’s not what we’ve anticipated. It’s also a humorously literal song for the moment, lightening up some of the tension of its scene.

“Fearless” (Pink Floyd) in Everybody Wants Some!!

You know you’re going to have some good soundtrack choices in a Richard Linklater movie, especially one that’s a spiritual sequel to Dazed and Confused. There’s the “Rapper’s Delight” singalong and the scenes at various clubs and concerts that make this even more of a musical than its predecessor. However, the most interesting use of a tune is when Wyatt Russell’s character, Willoughby, explains what makes “Fearless” a work of art compared to commercial junk like Van Halen. The song plays in the background as he talks, so the audience gets an illustrative lesson, as well.

“We Go Together” (Sausage Factory Singers) in The Secret Life of Pets

If you don’t want a whole animated feature about foodstuffs interacting and singing, especially when it’s as dumb and raunchy as Sausage Party, the brief surreal fantasy sequence in the more family friendly animated hit The Secret Life of Pets is plenty. And funnier in its bizarre, Busby Berkeley-inspired and Grease-tuned and disturbing yet still PG-rated-violence-laden smorgasbord of ridiculousness. It makes you crave meats, and it’ll have you humming “We Go Together” while you eat them. Forever, like rama lama lama ka dinga da dinga dong.

String Quartet №8” (Dmitri Shostakovich) in The Lobster

Many of the best uses of pre-existing music in movies are with the employment of classic compositions in place of an original score. As usual, Yorgos Lanthimos has done this with his latest surreal feature, employing pieces primarily for strings that add a harsh tone to a number of already uncomfortable moments. The best is the recurring excerpt from the fourth movement of this Shostakovich piece, which can be heard in scenes involving a fight, a faked choking death and more.

“Bohemian Rhapsody” (Queen) in Suicide Squad — Official Trailer 1

Forget the actual movie, although there are other decent tracks in Suicide Squad as well as some really cliche uses of good music. As many critics have noted, the highly anticipated and extremely disappointing DC Extended Universe installment peaked with its first trailer, which employs “Bohemian Rhapsody” – already too heavily associated with a scene from Wayne’s World – to perfection. It’s a shame we all loved it so much that apparently Warner Bros. responded by trying to cut the movie more like that trailer with similar music cues. The other Suicide Squad trailers are better than the movie, too.

Related Topics: , ,

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.