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It’s amazing what a particular piece of music can do to a scene in a movie. Whether it’s part of an original score or massively famous pop song, its implementation by a talented filmmaker can completely transform how we experience and understand a sequence, while also laying down new layers of subtext and meaning. When a director can find the perfect track to match with certain events, there are few things more special in the cinematic world – and we’ve seen many great instances of it this past year.
The time has come to look back at all of the films of 2014 and single out what can be considered the greatest movie music moments we’ve seen. Which titles made the cut and which didn’t? You’ll have to read on to find out!
SPOILER WARNING! The following article does contain some major spoilers for a few of the films on this list. Tread lightly!
Click on each image to listen to the music moment in question, when available.
Guardians of the Galaxy – "Come and Get Your Love" by RedboneThe opening of James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy is rather shocking in its tone. Rather than immediately jumping into fun, sci-fi adventure mode, the movie actually starts with a dramatic vignette about a young boy who misses the opportunity to give his dying mother a proper goodbye. As such, there was a great deal of pressure on the movie’s second sequence, as it would have to transition out of the darkness and into the light that would surround the rest of the film. And boy, did it succeed.
The dark tone continues past the Marvel Studios logo, as we get our first look at Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill on a windy, desolate planet – but the movie completely changes once he throws on his headphones, presses play on his Walkman, and begins dancing to the beat of Redbone’s "Come and Get Your Love." The upbeat groove raises the fun factor by 10,000%, Pratt’s sweet dance movies are charming as well, and ultimately the song explains exactly what Star-Lord’s real mission is: to find love, acceptance and a family. Guardians of the Galaxy has an incredible number of amazing musical sequences that come courtesy of both Awesome Mix, Vol. 1 and the early tracks of Awesome Mix, Vol. 2, but it’s this opening dance number that’s both the best and the most important.
The Skeleton Twins – "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now" by Jefferson StarshipIn playing Milo and Maggie Dean in the indie drama The Skeleton Twins, both Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader really undergo skilled transformation in their performances. Audiences have come to recognize the actors for their incredibly goofy sensibilities, familiar with their weirdo character work on Saturday Night Live, but that is entirely disguised in a rather dark story about a suicidal brother and sister coming to terms with their personal relationship and their own lives. Entirely different as their energies may be, however, what Wiig and Hader don’t lose in their turns is their tremendous charm and likability, and nowhere in the film demonstrates that better than the lip-sync sequence set to "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now" by Jefferson Starship.
There is an incredibly palpable chemistry between Hader and Wiig that really makes you believe they could be siblings, but what’s amazing about this musical moment in particular is the believable fun spell that the brother is able to cast on his sister. He pumps up the volume on the song because he really knows her and understands it’s really the only way to pull her out of her bad mood – and while it definitely takes a bit of pushing, he is believably able to break through her outer shell of anger and get her to participate in an energetic duet. It’s a wonderful light scene, and easily one of the best music moments of the year.
The LEGO Movie – "Everything Is Awesome" by Jo Li and The Lonely IslandI’ll be the first to admit it: listening to "Everything is Awesome" from The LEGO Movie is kind of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it’s a fun little pop-y hit that’s fun to sing along to with a giant grin. On the other hand, it’s so damn catchy that it sticks in your head until you want to bore it out with a drill. That may seem like a pretty extreme downside, but the truth is that it is still behind what is unquestionably one of the top movie music moments of 2014.
As we first get to know Emmet in The LEGO Movie, it’s immediately clear that he lives his life entirely by the book , following all of the strict rules for happy living and buying into all of the big fads of the moments. Of course, it’s parody at its finest, but everything is enhanced with the world’s most popular song comes over the radio and starts getting everyone working in hypnotic rhythm – while also generating a few laughs all by itself with its rather ridiculous lyrics. The track winds up coming back later in the movie and then again during the end credits, but it’s still the bright energy and tonal work in the first act that wins us over.
Snowpiercer – The Propaganda Song, performed by Alison PillThere is a lot to be creeped out by in Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer. There’s the deathly eternal winter that exists outside the train and threatens to never melt. There are the protein bars that are made of ground up insects. There are the backstories about cannibalism and murder. Even creepier than all of that, however, is the depth of the class divide on the titular train and the extent of the totalitarian rule – ingrained into children while they are still young. How is this accomplished? Through a song that explains that if the engine stops, everyone will freeze and die.
Of course, what really creates the nightmarish atmosphere of this particular music moment is how it runs in contrast with everything that the audience has experienced in the movie thus far. The colors are bright to the point where they are almost garish, people are actually smiling, and the cherub-faced schoolteacher played by Alison Pill exudes more glee than the folks from the trail of the train have experienced in their entire lives. The song works perfectly alongside this visual contrast, as the song of death and doom and praise for the evil Wilford is sung with a beautiful upbeat, tune by a throng of cheerful children. It’s tremendously unsettling, and has quite the explosive finish.
Whiplash – Andrew’s Final Drum SoloAn incredibly important part of what drives the drama in Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash is simply the extreme passion exuded by Miles Teller’s Andrew even in the face of extreme adversity – specifically in the form of J.K. Simmons’ insanely intense band leader Terence Fletcher. Andrew has clarity where it comes to what he truly wants to do with his life, and the depth of his desire makes his hands bleed and everything else in life fade into the background. So when faced with horrific embarrassment and shame at the end of the film – set up by Fletcher to fail – he doesn’t just shirk away. He shows the world what he is made of – and it is explosive and amazing.
More than just featuring a drum solo that would cause Buddy Rich to stand up and applaud, what makes the scene so significant in Whiplash is how it both perfectly settles the narrative and completes both Andrew and Fletcher’s character arcs. Almost the entire movie is made up of scenes where our protagonist is being judged and belittled and degraded emotionally, and the finale perfectly let’s Andrew explode in response, using his incredibly gifted drumming skills to tell his teacher, "Fuck you, I’m a drummer, this is what I can do." He graduates beyond Fletcher’s criticism and haranguing, and ultimately in the process earns the professor’s hard-earned respect. It’s powerful stuff, and a truly perfect ending for the movie.
Selma – "Take My Hand, Precious Lord" sung by Ledisi YoungIt’s rather impossible to imagine just how much pressure Dr. Martin Luther King was under during the days of the Civil Rights Movement. His position of leadership not only made him the man that thousands upon thousands were looking to for guidance, but also was a responsibility that put a target on his back, surely leading him to constantly fear for his own life. King’s important legacy in our country blinds us to his human weaknesses and faults to a certain degree, but that’s a big part of what makes Ava DuVernay’s Selma such a significant portrait. As such, one of the most affecting scenes in the film is when MLK makes a late night phone call to gospel singer Mahalia Jackson just so that he can "hear god’s voice."
More significant than the religious element of this scene – King was a reverend after all – is just how beautifully it demonstrates the leader’s intense fear and need for strength before traveling to Selma and fighting for the rights of his brothers and sisters. It’s a rare intimate look at the man history has painted as a legendary figure, and only helps us appreciate his intense struggle all that much more. Adding a historical angle to the scene is the fact that "Take My Hand, Precious Lord" was King’s favorite song, and was actually sung by Mahalia Jackson at his funeral in 1968.
Frank – Frank Goes Pop, performed by Michael FassbenderAs a movie that is actually about creative expression through music, there are plenty of amazing song-fueled scenes in Frank that we could have chosen for this list – from Domhnall Gleeson’s Jon’s explosive first performance with the members of Soronprfbs, to the heartfelt emotional reunion at the end. In honor of the film’s true spirit, however, we’ve chosen to recognize what is the weirdest music moment in the movie: the scene where Frank presents his personal interpretation of popular music.
Upon their arrival at SXSW, the members of Soronprfbs discover that their YouTube hit count is rather insignificant in the wider world of the internet, and after this results in Michael Fassbender’s Frank suffering a bit of a stress attack, it’s decided that he will try and write a song that is a bit more mainstream than the material the band typically produces. Of course, what we’re ultimately talking about is the concept of what’s popular being filtered through the mind of someone who has a prescription to wear a giant paper mache head over his own at all times. The resulting track is not only hilarious, but also leads to the generation of some really great reaction shots as the band works to express what they feel while standing in Frank’s tiny hotel room.
Boyhood – "Ryan’s Song" sung by Ethan HawkeBoyhood is a movie full of music moments. More specifically, it’s a movie full of moments that are accompanied by music. As we grow up, certain songs become stand-ins for certain portions of our life. From Coldplay to Vampire Weekend, our tastes evolve, and they provide the score for these time periods, like soundtracks for our memories. Boyhood is filled with these, all of which work very well, but the film’s single best musical moment is "Ryan’s Song".
Accompanied by Ethan Hawke’s acoustic guitar, the family, fractured and not seeing each other nearly enough, sits in a circle and belts out the goofy track. It’s not as beautiful as "Yesterday" or as brilliant as "Satisfaction" but it’s exactly what they need at that moment. Split by distance and frayed by bad decisions, the group hasn’t been as close as any of them would like, but in this moment, every single one of them is trying. The anger is gone. The bad vibes have melted away. All that’s left is love and a group of people who want nothing more than to be happy together. Boyhood will probably go down as one of the best musical movies of the decade. It contains a killer soundtrack, but none of those songs work better than this one—not because of the specific song but because of what it represents. (by Mack Rawden)
X-Men: Days of Future Past – "Time In A Bottle" by Jim CroceIt’s really hard not to gush about the famed Quicksilver sequence in Bryan Singer’s X-Men: Days of Future Past. Even the most cynical of viewers really has to appreciate what is being done in the scene visually, as the application of high speed cameras and practical effects are nothing short of magical. It’s funny, it’s clever, it’s thrilling, and it’s all backed up by a rather perfect song choice.
One doesn’t really ever expect to hear the dulcet tones of Jim Croce in a blockbuster comic book movie, and I can imagine some directors out there feeling the need to infuse this scene with a fast-paced song that reflects Quicksilver’s ability – but Bryan Singer makes an artistic move with "Time In A Bottle" and it is basically perfect. The speedy mutant isn’t running around the room punching out guards with anger and aggression, but instead reaches a zen like state where he is merely lightly touching things to change outcomes in real time. This funny tonal affectation needs music to reflect it, and Singer found a match with Jim Croce. On top of it all, I love that the sequence begins with Quicksilver throwing on a pair of headphones, allowing me to believe that what he has in his pocket is a collection of songs about the idea of saving time and/or moving quickly through life.
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 – "The Hanging Tree" sung by Jennifer LawrenceIn Francis Lawrence’s The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1, Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen becomes something much more than a warrior who is skilled with a bow and arrow. She becomes a symbol for the revolution. She is one of the few citizens of Panem who has shown herself to be brave enough to stand up against the fascistic rule of Donald Sutherland’s President Snow, and as a result she is used by the rebels to try and help inspire support for their cause. In the movie this is accomplished in many ways, but easily one of the most haunting and beautiful scenes has the District 12 heroine singing a somber hymn called "The Hanging Tree."
For starters, the scene offers yet another reason to be in awe of Jennifer Lawrence’s massive talent, as her soft, smoky singing voice lends the track an important solemnity that translates the tone from the scene before it – featuring Liam Hemsworth’s Gale Hawthorne recounting the tragic destruction of District 12. This hits an important emotional chord, as when the broadcast goes out, James Newton Howard’s score begins to soar, more voices join the song, and we visually see the effectiveness of Katniss’ message, as rebels storm and bomb a water dam, shorting out electricity in the Capitol. Gotta love diegetic music that actively moves the plot forward.