Some songs are used so well in certain movies, that filmmakers should write those tracks off, as they will never be able to use it better. With this list, I’m not highlighting tracks that are obnoxiously overplayed in films and TV shows, but rather, songs that were used to perfection in one movie, and should thereby be banned from every other film. I also chose songs that, despite being used flawlessly once, they are still used often today.
Example: after “Tiny Dancer” appeared in Almost Famous, it’s almost as if the song was retired from movies. It’s popped up on a few TV shows, but I can’t recall hearing it in a movie since 2000 (yeah, except you, Ted 2). Same with “Then He Kissed Me.” Adventures in Babysitting and Goodfellas had their way with it, and for the most part, the track has been left alone.
I hope you enjoy the list, and do feel free to share the tracks you think should be retired from films.
“Also Sprach Zarathustra” by Richard Strauss
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Unless it’s being used ironically (as it is, brilliantly so, for Tom Cruise’s introduction in Magnolia), there’s no reason “Also Sprach Zarathustra” should continue being used in movies. 2001 all but owns this song. The two will forever be married, as they remain one of cinema and music’s finest unions.
“Born to be Wild” by Steppenwolf
Easy Rider (1969)
“Born to be Wild” is used constantly in movies, but it’s first, and best, appearance was during the opening credits of Easy Rider. Some movies, like Borat, use the song as a throwback to Easy Rider, which is really the only acceptable way to use it.
“Stayin’ Alive” by The Bee Gees
Saturday Night Fever (1977)
There’s a general theme to this post, and that is, the first movie to use a song typically uses it best. No exception here. “Stayin’ Alive” started and ends with Saturday Night Fever. Period.
“Ride of the Valkyries” by Richard Wagner
Apocalypse Now (1979)
I mean come on. No explanation needed.
“Adagio for Strings” by Samuel Barber
Elephant Man (1980) and Platoon (1986)
This is actually an even split, as Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” is used expertly in two films, David Lynch’s quietly devastating The Elephant Man, and Oliver Stone’s autobiographical war film, Platoon. Up to you to decide which film uses it better (my vote is for The Elephant Man – that ending), but the point is no other film should assume they can get away with using this track.
“The Weight” by The Band
The Big Chill (1983)
“The Weight” will always be tied to that glorious static shot in The Big Chill. It’s the morning after a particularly adventurous night of drink and drugs, and the camera sits still, all the way in the back of the kitchen, as we watch each person wake up and begin their day. The scene ends with one of the best lines in film history, as Jeff Goldblum slumps over, staring into the hollow void of his coke hangover. I won’t ruin the line here for those who haven’t seen the film, but my God, what a gem.
“Oh Yeah” by Yello
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)
Even though Yello’s “Oh Yeah” is almost always used for humorous meta reasons, once you’ve seen Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, there’s no denying what film owns this track.
“Fight the Power” by Public Enemy
Do the Right Thing (1989)
It’s unfathomable to me why any other movie or TV show would choose to use this song. I can’t imagine having stones big enough to think I could use “Fight the Power” better than it is used in Do the Right Thing.
“Gimme Shelter” by The Rolling Stones
Goodfellas (1990), Casino (1995), The Departed (2006)
Between these three modern classics, it’s safe to assume that “Gimme Shelter” is forever linked to Martin Scorsese Pictures.
“Stuck in the Middle with You” by Stealer’s Wheel
Reservoir Dogs (1992)
“Stuck in the Middle with You” pops up in TV shows more than it does in movies, and it’s smart for filmmakers to avoid it. Michael Madsen and his playfully psychopathic dance moves, after all, do own the track.
“Bad to the Bone” by George Thorogood & the Destroyers
Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1992)“I can’t let ya take the man’s wheels, son.”
“Jessie’s Girl” by Rick Springfield
Boogie Nights (1997)
Night Ranger’s “Sister Christian” (the first track we hear on Rahad Jackson’s “Awesome Mix Tape #6”) doesn’t appear often in movies, but “Jessie’s Girl” is everywhere. Seems silly, because as far as I’m concerned, the only movie setting this song should be played in is Rahad’s bitchin’ pad.
“Where is My Mind” by The Pixies
Fight Club (1999)
I remember watching Welcome to Me recently, and during the 20 seconds it chose to use The Pixies’ “Where is My Mind,” my head went straight to Edward Norton and Helena Bonham Carter standing in silhouette, watching the buildings fall. I was completely taken out of Welcome to Me, just as I am every film (other than Fight Club) that uses this song.
“Clair de Lune” by Claude Debussy
Ocean’s Eleven (2001)
“Clair de Lune” has appeared in a shitload of movies, but for my money, it has never been used better than during the silent dénouement of Ocean’s Eleven. Perfect, just perfect.
“Gymnopedie No. 1” by Erik Satie
Man on Wire (2008)
Like “Clair de Lune,” “Gymnopedie No. 1” has some serious mileage to it, having been featured in films for the past 45 years. But the moment Philippe Petit took his first step out onto that wire, “Gymnopedie No. 1” was forever linked to Man on Wire.