From savvy needle drops to actual movie-musical numbers, the movies went pop in a big way in 2019. Well chosen songs provided their respective films with an extra dose of earnest emotion (“Rocketman,” “Blinded by the Light,” “Wild Rose,” “Marriage Story”) but also served as the less savory soundtrack for stripping (“Hustlers”), murder (“Us”) and even Naziism (“Jojo Rabbit”). There was no shortage of brilliant instrumental scores, too, of course. But here are 15 moments when songwriters or music supervisors — and the directors they collaborate with — stepped up with choices that moved and amused us.
Home invasion victims accidentally dial up N.W.A in “Us”
In Jordan Peele’s horror/satire, there’s a fictional voice recognition app called Ophelia that would be ripe for a lawsuit, if civilization somehow survives the doppelganger revolution. Because as the Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker characters are about to meet their violent ends, a demand to “call the police” ends up being heard as a request for N.W.A’s “F— Tha Police.” As Universal Pictures film music president Mike Knobloch told Variety, “Obviously there’s an initial joke, but then it’s a pretty significant use of that song. … Two minutes could be an eternity when you’re talking about a needle drop in a film. So you have creatively all the considerations of: Is it the right energy? Does it feel right against the sequence? Does it propel the story?” At one point Peele was considering a song by the Police for the slot. But sometimes the biggest and broadest gag is the best, and N.W.A made for the most indelible soundtrack to a nerve-rattling murder scene since “Singin’ in the Rain” in “A Clockwork Orange.”
A 1980s Peter Cetera music video parody is dropped smack in the middle of “Frozen II”
Disney’s sequel to its animated blockbuster had no shortage of songs attempting to replicate the earnest bombast of “Let It Go,” including the currently Oscar-nominated “Into the Unknown.” That one’s not bad, although you could argue that Anna and Elsa’s numbers here come off as perhaps a little too self-conscious in their zeal to be “quest songs.” As with the first “Frozen,” it’s the more comedic tunes written by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez that are really hard to beat. Olaf the snowman’s “When I Am Older” is superior musical-comedy writing because it has such a darkly ironic undertone, echoing kids’ naive belief that anxiety and uncertainty are things that get shed with adulthood. But for sheer, smirky fun, there’s nothing like “Lost in the Woods,” which is not only musically fashioned in the style of one of the power ballads Peter Cetera had a smash with after quitting Chicago, but which recreates the directorial mien of an early MTV video, too. Normally, Disney and Pixar films stay well away from the kind of pop culture spoofing that is the exhausting bread-and-butter of other animation studios, but a rare exception was made here, done subtly enough that you don’t have to be in on the joke — as anyone under 30 or 40 probably won’t be — to pass the three minutes. (Having Weezer cover the comically treacly tune over the end credits, in much the same way they recently covered “Africa,” is a coup de grace.)
Eddie Murphy’s Rudy Ray Moore invents hip-hop, kind of, in “Dolemite Is My Name”
The bawdy biopic has too many delicious setpieces to name, but it’s gratifying that the movie’s crystallizing moment is a musical number, in which Moore discovers his personal and artistic salvation in the early ‘70s by sort of stumbling into a prototype of rapping. Probably there was no such single revolutionary moment in real life, in which a band kicked in just as the failed comedian was trying out his new, rhyming kind of storytelling in front of an audience for the first time. And we can hardly give Moore credit for the invention of hip-hop when there were people like Gil Scot-Heron around. But as portrayed in an early nightclub scene in the film, the debut performance of “The Signifying Monkey” is as much of a Star Is Born moment for Murphy-as-Moore as “Shallow” was for Lady Gaga’s Ally. It doubles nicely as a Genre Is Born moment, too.
Nilsson provides a dreamy wakeup to a recurring nightmare in “Russian Doll”
This is from a television series, not feature film, but these media are all a blur now, right? And life is nothing but a blur for Natasha Lyonne’s Nadia, who’s blessed to have more lives than a cat, and doomed to go through them all in aggravatingly quick succession. It’s easy to draw parallels between “Russian Doll” and “Groundhog Day” — both of them dramedy masterpieces — and especially in the way Nilsson’s “Gotta Get Up” echoes that earlier film’s “I Got You, Babe” as an instant signifier that we’re back to square one. But there is a difference. With apologies to Sonny and Cher: Could you really ever hear Nilsson too many thousands of times?
A British-Pakistani kid discovers the Boss is singing his life in “Blinded by the Light”
Gurinda Chadha’s film is not afraid to go from street realism to purely operatic — a span that Bruce “Badlands”/”Born to Run” Springsteen has obviously covered in his career. The drama gleefully sheds any of its early documentary-style feel at the moment when Viviek Kaira’s character puts on a cassette of “Dancing in the Dark” and realizes that this American rocker with whom he should share so little in common has exactly articulated all his pent-up rage, frustration and suppression, and is liberated by it. Lyrics flash across walls and the neighborhood is racked by gale-force winds as the teenager finds his voice via a cheap tape deck. That sounds terrible, on paper, doesn’t it? But watching it on screen, you may swoon to remember the first time you realized rock stars could see into your head, too.
Fiona Apple inspires stripping, and scheming, in “Hustlers”
Not many of us previously thought of the Fiona Apple catalog as the stuff of stuffing twenties into thongs, but Jennifer Lopez, bless her booty and heart, makes the marriage seem inevitable. One reason why Apple’s early signature song, “Criminal,” works so well in this early “Hustlers” scene, though, is because it’s as much clinical as it is sexual. And there’s something purely analytical happening visually in this scene, too, that makes it more than just a dirty-dancing rabble-rouser. While Lopez is strutting her stuff on the runway, and the customers are caught up in a frenzy, Constance Wu is projecting calm amid the storm as she coolly sizes up what’s working about J.Lo’s act and how she can adopt it. As much as the song works for its ostensible strip-joint purpose, it’s really the soundtrack to a quiet epiphany, where, with one sustained, observational gaze, we see in Wu’s eyes the promise of an entire life of crime, as it were.
Margot Robbie shimmies into a Playboy Mansion hootenanny in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”
Quentin Tarantino’s film has about a hundred terrific marriages of image and music. Well, that’s an exaggeration: there are only about 60 needle drops in his movie. But picking one highlight is difficult. Should it be the use of the Vanilla Fudge’s “You Keep Me Hanging On,” one of the few more FM-sounding tracks in a literally AM-based soundtrack, as the companion music for the final explosion of pent-up violence? Or, just preceding that, “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron” to show us just how much Rick Dalton is really an overgrown kid? Good choices, all, but maybe the one that most embodies the spirit of the movie is the use of the Buchanan Brothers’ “Son of a Lovin’ Man” to give Sharon Tate something carefree to dance to at the Playboy Mansion. Rather than being a sex boom, Robbie’s Sharon Tate is practically the picture of innocence. Eyes closed, smiling, boogying, she’s presented as everything that was most charming and blithe about to the ‘60s, to the point that, for a couple of minutes, the Playboy Mansion seems like the most wholesome place on earth, in Tarantino’s pre-despoiled bubblegum Eden.
Bob Dylan sings “Isis” as if his life, and wife, depended on it in “Rolling Thunder Revue”
When Martin Scorsese sifted through untold hours of concert and backstage footage from Bob Dylan’s experiment in troupe touring in 1975, he didn’t decide to let a lot of songs play out in full in his mostly true documentary. But some performances demand to go un-truncated. One, of course, was Joni Mitchell’s off-stage rendering of “Coyote,” in which she’s almost Garbo-esque in defying you to take your eyes off her, even as she’s furiously getting down to business on an acoustic guitar. But the real centerpiece of the film is Dylan’s reading of “Isis,” an epic ballad that felt much more relaxed in its studio version on the “Desire” album but which he and a raging band turned into a steamroller on stage. It’s as if the whiteface makeup conferred upon him the power — or desire — to become more emotive on stage than he ever had before, or would again subsequently. He spits out the verses so vociferously you’d almost swear he was pissed at Isis, not in love with her, but maybe those things are close enough in rock ‘n’ roll. The song has a happy outcome, unlike Dylan’s marriage at the time. Some have psychoanalyzed his renditions of “Isis” at the time as representing a last-ditch attempt to claim or reclaim his personal domestic passion. That may be reading too much into his performance; maybe the play, or the playfulness, is the thing.
Elton John’s family shares movie-musical misery in “Rocketman”
“I Need Love” might not count as many people’s favorite scene from the Elton biopic. It’s the catalog song probably the least amount of viewers are familiar with. And it’s just dour. But as his mum and dad and other relatives sing about how lonely they all are, it’s a reminder that villains are hard to come by, even in a family as sometimes cruelly dysfunctional as Reginald Dwight’s. As a forlorn interlude in which everyone speaks their pain, it’s not as magnificent as its obvious forebear — the full-cast sing-along to Aimee Mann’s “Wise Up” in “Magnolia,” 20 years earlier — but it’s on the right track. And it does establish that “Rocketman” means to be a full-on movie musical, before you get to the more joyful song-and-dance setpiece that is “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting.”
The Beatles uber alles in “Jojo Rabbit”
First of all, major chutzpah points to the surviving Beatles and whatever estates and license holders were involved in signing off on a song pick that correlates Beatlemania with Hitler-mania. It comes awfully close to being a cheap joke, but it’s an awfully good one, when the German-language version of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” is used for the “Hard Day’s Night”-style montage of hysteria that opens Taika Waititi’s constantly tone-shifting WWII comedy-drama. Maybe, like some of the other early scenes, it’s too in love with its own irreverence for its own good, yet credit is due for a choice that’s that offbeat and on-the-nose all at once. And it makes a nice bookend for the far more earnest choice of David Bowie’s “Heroes” as a wrap-up that also happened to have been re-recorded in deutsche.
Ian McKellan is the paws that refreshes in “Cats”
Here’s where things may get controversial, because is there anything good to be said about “Cats”? Actually, there is, but you need to go looking for it from scene to scene, and not so much in the movie as a whole, where you may leap to the same conclusion as the rest of civilization. Finding moments that work in a film you’ve already determined doesn’t can be a tricky business. There are a few in this target for schadenfreude to end all schadenfreude — most of all, McKellan getting his solo number as Gus the Theatre Cat, showing how the aspirational qualities of show business transcend age (or in this case, species) limits. His short but wryly affecting turn in the film takes the “ow” back out of “meow.”
Bruce Springsteen follows his bliss into Glen Campbell’s catalog in “Western Stars”
Springsteen’s filmic live rendering of his “Western Stars” can be credited with many things, but an overall lightness of spirit isn’t necessarily one of them. So it’s a relief and maybe a catharsis when, at the end, for a barn-set encore, he pulls out a cover of Campbell’s “Rhinestone Cowboy.” Some viewers have considered the choice campy, in some way. It’s not — the song is lyrically smart enough to have come from Springsteen’s own pen. He might be taking the piss out of things just a little bit by ending on that note, but the oldie’s aspirational spirit is something any of Springsteen’s down-on-their-luck antiheroes would recognize. It’s also just fun.
Jessie Buckley becomes an a cappella Judd in “Wild Rose”
The show-stopper in this drama of a Scottish woman who dreams of country music stardom is supposed to be — and probably is — “Glasgow,” the climactic performance number, an original tune (co-written by Mary Steenburgen) that’s been shortlisted in the Oscars’ best song category. But the most affecting moment comes earlier, when Rose-Lynn Harlan, working as a housecleaner after getting out of prison, is convinced by the matron whose house she cleans to look into a laptop computer’s camera and make a video of herself to send to BBC Radio DJ Bob Harris. The song she sings seems to spring out of her own heavy-laden heart, even though country enthusiasts will recognize it as Wynonna Judd’s “Peace in This House.” Jessie Buckley spends much of the rest of the film performing in a more bravura fashion, but this scared, weary, forlorn, initially a cappella ballad is the one that convinces you she really does have a voice, and soul. (Avoid the band-accompanied version on the soundtrack album, which doesn’t do it justice.) Buckley deserves to be in the Oscar conversation. For a minute or two, you’ll believe she belongs in a Grammy contest, too.
Edward Norton slow-dances to Wynton Marsalis trumpeting to Thom Yorke in “Motherless Brooklyn”
Yorke’s Oscar-shortlisted “Daily Battles” is one of the better things about Norton’s neo-noir. In addition to the vocal version by the Radiohead singer that pops up a couple of times, there’s an instrumental jazz version, performed by Wynton Marsalis on the soundtrack (and mimed by an actor on screen), for an uptown club scene set in the 1950s, with Norton’s character tentatively taking to the dance floor with Gugu Mbatha-Raw. A Tourette’s-stricken white guy dancing with an African American beauty in Harlem during the segregation era — could anything be more romantic, or anxiety-inducing? Yorke’s music feels like it inherently has both those qualities, so it’s a good fit.
Adam Driver finds misery loves “Company” in “Marriage Story”
The movies (and TV) sure loved characters loving Sondheim in 2019. Daniel Craig absent-mindedly warbled “Losing My Mind” as a comic aside in “Knives Out.” Jennifer Aniston sampled a bit of “Sweeney Todd” in “The Morning Show.” “Send in the Clowns” was an inevitable pick for “Joker.” And both Driver and Scarlett Johansson get their moments covering the maestro in Noah Baumbach’s film. It’s the Driver musical monolog that sticks — it plays out, at length, and it drives a theme home while offering a bit of a vacation from all that increasingly tense dialogue. Hearing him sing “Being Alive” allows you a respite, most of all, from worrying about whose side you’re on, or whose side the movie is on. Because we should all, always, be on Stephen Sondheim’s side.