There’s something special about a movie with a good soundtrack. Like, a really good soundtrack. This is especially true of the romance and romantic comedy variety, as movie music plays a pivotal role in connecting us to a character’s every emotion. Tragically, not everyone is a fan of a full-on movie musical. Yet almost every moviegoer can appreciate a well-placed song in a film, ideally one you can sing along to. In fact, some romcoms wouldn’t be half as effective without that one epochal song, or scene set to a song.
So, in honor of the power of a song, here are a few of the most iconic musical moments in non-musical romantic films—long live the totally and completely out of place musical number.
10 Things I Hate About You
It would be extremely remiss to kick off this list with anything other than 1999’s hit teen romantic comedy, 10 Things I Hate About You. There are a number of memorable scenes in this movie that help set it in stone as a modern-day classic. Arguably the most impactful moment comes when Patrick (Heath Ledger) tries to win back the favor of the headstrong Kat (Julia Stiles) in an entirely unexpected way, particularly for his cool guy persona.
Using the money from Joey’s problematic prom bribe, Patrick pays the school marching band to accompany him in a swoon-worthy rendition of Frankie Valli’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” during Kat’s soccer practice. If Heath Ledger’s dimpled grin and evasive dance moves aren’t enough to cement this scene in the romcom hall of fame, then the look on Kat’s face should do the trick.
She’s actually seeing him defy teenage humiliation, just to say he’s sorry. This is a more extreme version of what we saw earlier in the film, with Patrick risking his bad boy status to get closer to Kat at Club Skunk (“I can’t be seen at Club Skunk”).
Whereas before he was motivated by money and his bet with Joey and Cameron, now we can see he’s begun to develop true feelings for the combative Kat and is willing to go the extra mile for her… all the way to detention.
My Best Friend’s Wedding
A movie chock full of sing-happy characters, My Best Friend’s Wedding seeks to make the estranged figure of Julia Roberts’ Julianne stand out in contrast. We know that her only motivation throughout the movie is to break up best friend Michael (Dermot Mulroney) and his fiancée Kimmy (Cameron Diaz), and that she missed her chance to be with Michael due to an inability to accept love. Often, we are so distracted by her commitment to breaking up the two that we forget these other defining character traits.
The scene that best shows her discomfort with public displays of affection comes when Julianne pretends to be engaged to her gay friend, George. Naturally, he decides to tell a highly fabricated “how we met” story over dinner with Michael and Kimmy’s entire family. Just when you think Julianne couldn’t possibly look more aggrieved, George outdoes himself by breaking out into a fervent performance of “I Say a Little Prayer.” Julia Roberts has truly mastered the look of barely-restrained panic at this point.
Suddenly, the seemingly momentary lapse into song is prolonged by a member of the wait staff, who eagerly hops over to the piano to pick up the tune. Now the entire restaurant has joined in, Kimmy’s Southern belle relatives acting as George’s back-up singers.
This moment is also crucial for finally giving us an idea of Michael’s lingering feelings for Julianne. Not only is he visibly jealous of their engagement (which he admits to later on) he seems all too aware of how much this gesture goes against who Julianne is as a person. The look on Dermot Mulroney’s face during this musical number is just priceless.
13 Going On 30
It’s hard to believe this film is almost 15 years old, already past its titular preteen years and halfway to its thirties. Part of its charm comes from two very nostalgia-heavy song breaks, with Jennifer Garner’s Jenna leading her work party in a video-perfect “Thriller” and then later a group of misfit young girls in “Love is a Battlefield.” Both highlight Jenna’s youthful energy, particularly at the start of the film when she most emulates the naive thirteen year old magically transplanted into an older body.
For Matty (Mark Ruffalo), the Jenna he dances with to “Thriller” is his childhood best friend back once more — lost through years of social climbing and a radical transformation that Jenna has yet to discover about her adult self. The thirteen-year-old Jenna is bringing her former, silly preteen self into the cutthroat adult life she’s (unbeknownst to her) settled into.
Their dance to “Thriller” in particular stands out as one of the best moments in 13 Going on 30, while also making you wonder how everyone knew the music video’s choreography that well. It’s also fun to see Mark Ruffalo try to dance — at least before his character has a crisis about Jenna’s reappearance and leaves the party abruptly.
One of the most influential romance films ever made, Casablanca shares a trademark of most other movies of the time — a subtext-heavy performance in the middle of a smoke-filled bar. However, what makes this particular musical moment so important are the many-layered political implications of the film’s song choice. I’m of course referring to the singing of “La Marseillaise,” a crucial scene for both Humphrey Bogart’s Rick as well as for the film’s tone.
The scene begins with German soldiers at Rick’s nightclub belting out “Die Wacht am Rhein,” or “The Watch on the Rhine,” a song originally meant as a call to arms for the German people. In the Nazi-infested time period Casablanca is set in, it has a very sinister connotation indeed. Upon hearing the German soldiers, Victor Laszlo, husband to Rick’s past flame Ilsa, immediately goes over to the club’s band and demands that they play “La Marseillaise” — the French national anthem.
They only begin to play the revolutionary piece after a nod of affirmation from Rick. To the crowd at the nightclub, consisting predominantly of those living under the thumb of the German war machine, the Germans’ song had in effect been a taunt. They all quickly join in with Victor, their numbers overpowering the Germans in both volume and passion.
Beyond the political history, Rick’s allowing the band and Victor to sing “La Marseillaise” is a pivotal moment for his character. It shows he is perhaps not nearly as neutral towards current affairs (or cannot remain so) as he has insisted he is for the majority of Casablanca.
Pretty in Pink
John Hughes is no stranger to a good dance break, and his 80s romcom-drama Pretty in Pink leaves just enough room for one very energetic frolic. “The Duckie Dance,” an almost five-minute-long scene starring irrepressible sidekick Duckie (Jon Cryer), wouldn’t win any lip sync battles on Drag Race but is still an altogether wonderfully out of place moment.
Duckie jamming out to Otis Redding’s infectious “Try a Little Tenderness” is a great big breath of air and lightness in between some more angsty scenes. It’s an especially good bit of humor right before Duckie blows up at Andie (Molly Ringwald) for going out with rich kid Blane.
Unfortunately, he pretty much behaves like the worst kind of self-pitying nice guy for the remainder of the film. Perhaps his dance scene was meant to help endear audiences to Duckie, despite how unendingly grating he is on Andie. Does it work? Not really, at least not in a modern day rewatch. Is it still immensely enjoyable as a dance number and momentary diversion from the plot? Hell yes.
Despite the slightly played-out overworked female protagonist plotline, 27 Dresses manages to maintain high levels of rewatch-ability among modern romcoms. It even has something for those who kill for a good sing-along.
This notable scene is of course when Jane (Katherine Heigl) and snarky wedding columnist Kevin (James Marsden) are stranded at a bar after Jane hydroplanes their car down a hill. Just your standard scenario for a good “characters who butt heads find common ground and then later hook up” sort of plot development. While at the bar, Jane and Kevin get roaringly drunk and soon find themselves bonding over their favorite part of a wedding.
The drinks kick in and our protagonists jump onto the bar top, singing “Bennie and the Jets” at the top of their lungs to an enthusiastic crowd. A sudden revelation about their shared love for the “Keller wedding”, which Kevin pretended to hate, as well as a knockout (in the minds of the intoxicated) performance, signals an important change in their relationship.
What is probably the most relatable part of this scene, though, is the utter lack of correct lyrics being sung to the Elton John hit. It’s overall a playful and extremely funny lead up to the pair’s first kiss.
The Shape of Water
There is a lot going on in 2018’s Best Picture winner, a film that encompasses fantasy, thriller, and romance all in one incredibly immersive production. If you saw this movie then you know that one scene that audiences either loved or which pulled them out of the film completely, and caused a good deal of head scratching as well. If you are a member of the former, myself included, then you are fondly thinking of this musical moment in The Shape of Water.
Morale is low — the Amphibian Man’s health is deteriorating and mute heroine Elisa (Sally Hawkins) knows she must release him soon despite her love for the creature. She is sitting across from him at the kitchen table, visibly frustrated and upset over being unable to express her feelings at that crucial moment.
Suddenly, a spotlight appears and we are able to hear what she’s unable to say out loud — the words to “You’ll Never Know, Just How Much, I Love You” from the film Four Jills in a Jeep. The scene sweeps into a black and white dance number between Elisa, in a white gown, and the Amphibian Man. She sings to him what she has wanted so badly to express verbally.
Beyond her love, though, Elisa is finally getting a voice that is not restricted by the interpretations of others. Del Toro nods to old Hollywood in the gorgeous routine, while also giving us a brand new perspective and insight into the deceptively timid lead character.
(500) Days of Summer
Finally, one of the most unexpected musical moments in romantic movie history comes in 2009’s (500) Days of Summer. The fully choreographed number to “You Make My Dreams” by Hall & Oates is not only completely random, but also does a fantastic job of illustrating Tom’s feelings in that moment. Besides the fact that he has just spent the night with Summer, the song choice illustrates all of his dreams and expectations for romance with the woman of his dreams having (apparently) coming true.
He’s seeing the world through the most intense pair of rose-colored glasses, and the strangers joining in on the dance are all his new best friends. As a character, Tom is without a doubt easily consumed by quick emotion, as seen in this celebratory scene. The underlying message of the film can be perfectly summed up in its tagline: “This is not a love story. This is a story about love.”
The overwhelming joy we see him having at this moment perfectly demonstrates Tom’s character and feelings of love during the film. Tom’s amorous bliss is very much one-sided, yet he does not try and delve deeper into things (ie; actually try and understand Summer as more than the idealized woman of his dreams) and instead allows himself to be swept along in the power of his feelings.
It’s what makes 500 Days such a great film and this scene so effective. The fact that there are no other scenes like this in (500) Days of Summer, and the fact that it’s such a stereotypical musical scene (complete with happy, animated birds!), makes the moment stand out even more.