The movies have a long history of glorious rock & roll moments. Whether the story is about gangsters, lovers, warriors or vampires, the right song can jolt an ordinary flick into something loud and wild. So behold, the 30 all-time greatest rock & roll moments in film history: from Goodfellas to Hot Tub Time Machine, from Elvis to the RZA, from Lloyd Dobler to Spinal Tap to the Dude. (We’re not talking show tunes here, so no “Let Me Entertain You” from Gypsy or “I’m Tired” from Blazing Saddles. And no TV, so apologies to Mad Men‘s “Tomorrow Never Knows” and Community‘s “Roxanne.”) These are just a few of our favorite eruptions of cinematic rockingness. Play these movies loud.
And this is why Elvis is the King. Not because he made dozens of these movies, most of them total cheese. Not because they’re all full of corny scenes where he can just stroll into the local gym and get begged to do a song like this. ("C’mon Everybody" is no relation to the Eddie Cochran rockabilly classic of the same name, except they're both awesome.) No, he's the King because of the superhuman confidence he brings to every moment. That's also why he brings the seductively leotarded Ann-Margret to an orgasmic frenzy with just the quiver in his voice. He makes her Sweden-sired hips undulate right next to his, for the ultimate cinematic hip-shake battle royale. And what a battle it is – though Elvis would be the first to admit that even the King can't outwiggle Ann-Margret.
Listen to the girl, as she takes on half the world. This music is what it sounds like inside Scarlett Johansson’s heart at the end of the movie, a heart that’s like a honey-dripping beehive full of lust and anguish and guitar feedback cranked up to 10. “Just Like Honey” has the same Phil Spector “Be My Baby” beat that opens Mean Streets and Dirty Dancing. Yet director Sofia Coppolla uses this punk love song to make the finale seem inspirational, as if all of Scarlett’s wounded romanticism is ringing out loud like the Jesus and Mary Chain’s guitars. In real life, Scarlett also got to sing this song with the band for their 2007 reunion at Coachella.
Brooklyn, the summer of '89: city heat, race riots, trigger-happy cops, crack, poverty, pizza and a boombox on every corner blasting hip-hop. Spike Lee sets the scene right in the streets of the hood, kicking off the action with Rosie Perez dancing through the credits to Public Enemy: "1989! A number! Another summer! Sound of the funky drummer!" Chuck D, Flavor Flav and the Bomb Squad bum-rush the show and go for what they know. Rosie does her best to fight the power her own way, by shaking ass in a sports bra and boxing gloves.
The Nineties-est moment of all time. Drew Barrymore plays a psycho teen from Seattle (every Nineties movie had one of those) who finds salvation in punk rock. She goes to see her fave riot grrrl band, screaming along with the lyrics ("I will have my cake! And I will eat it too! Just like you!"), banging her head, eyes closed in rapture. Nothing can ruin this moment of rock & roll bliss, not even that tool Chris O’Donnell showing up. Settle down, Beavis – Drew needs her rocking-out time.
James Taylor and Dennis Wilson in a '55 Chevy – a couple of rock stars acting in Monte Hellman's classic indie film, the ultimate existential road trip. They're a pair of hippie con men, rolling into a new town, cruising the local hot-rod spot looking for a sucker they can lure into a high-stakes drag race. They find the tough guys hanging out in the burger-joint parking lot, blasting the Doors, posing by their muscle cars, waiting for the good times to start. But the music warns that the good times are already over.
One of the true cinematic masterpieces of our time. This is perhaps the film's most poignant scene, with Rob Corrdry as an ordinary loser who can only live out his fantasies in the privacy of his own garage, singing to "Home Sweet Home" on the radio and playing his Tommy Lee drum solo on the dashboard. He handles his inner torment in true metalhead style: He gets mega-wasted and pretends he's in the Crüe.
The coda to Gus Van Zant's devastating tale of young American hustlers in the heartland. River Phoenix stands on the open road, looking at the wheatfields under the spacious skies of Idaho. "I'm a connoisseur of roads," River says. "I've been tasting roads my whole life." The accordion and banjo fade in, as if a ballad about Irish kids turning tricks in London could be an elegy for the American dream. Rest in peace, River Phoenix. Have a nice day.
In real life, junkies are the second-most boring people on earth. (They had the Number One slot locked up until the recently invented category of "People who complain about how Girls is unrealistic.") But Trainspotting's "Lust for Life" opening hijinks somehow make these Scottish drug addicts seem like a barrel of giggles. Ewan McGregor and his criminal-minded pals run down the street, ducking the law and laughing at all the fools around them who choose life.
Some of the most awesomely terrible dancing ever captured by a camera crew – and that's just part of what makes this a perfect rock & roll moment, from a perfect teen flick. Everybody loves Pretty in Pink for all the new wave John Hughes put on the soundtrack – the Smiths, Echo and the Bunnymen, OMD, etc. – but the best moment comes when Jon Cryer's Duckie serenades Molly Ringwald with his rendition of the Otis Redding soul classic. The Duckman's goofball moves cannot remotely be described as "cool," "funky" or even "human," but he needs this song to express all the bottled-up emotion he has for Molly, because he can't tell her himself. So it's slapstick comedy, but it's also true romance: a very rock & roll combo. Despite the Duckie legacy, Jay-Z and Kanye sampled this song anyway for "Otis," which was open-minded of them.
Vietnam movies seem to get all the cool songs, but it's only because Francis Ford Coppolla showed them how. Apocalypse Now wasn’t the first great film to use "The End" – that would be Scorcese’s 1968 Who’s That Knocking On My Door? But as "The End" crawls through Martin Sheen’s war-ravaged brain, Apocalypse Now taps into the late Jim Morrison's heart of darkness. It brought the posthumous Morrison cult to a whole new level; a couple of years later, Jim appeared on the cover of the Rolling Stone with the best headline ever: "He's hot, he's sexy and he's dead."
There are so many vampire movies out there, but none of them has a beginning anywhere near as cool as this one. It starts in a New York goth club, where the children of the night groove to Bauhaus' "Bela Lugosi's Dead." Vampire power couple David Bowie and Catherine Deneuve move through the dance floor, looking for tasty-looking trollops to seduce into a night of four-way bat-sex. They pick up a couple of foxy black-leather goth punks and lure them back to the vampire pad. But that's where the fangs come out. Before you know it, these two club kids are a plasma cocktail. Undead, undead, undead.
The Stones have inspired countless classic screen moments, from "Tell Me" in Mean Streets to "Satisfaction" in Apocalypse Now to "I Am Waiting" in Rushmore. And "Gimme Shelter" is the Robert De Niro of Stones songs – every director wants to put it in every movie, whether it belongs or not, because it never fails to make a big impression. But it takes real imagination to dig up this lost gem from side two of Tattoo You. Like all the music in Adventureland, it sums up the Eighties suburban-nowhere ambience of this trashy Midwestern amusement park. "Tops" plays in the background as mall-rat queen Lisa P (Margarita Levieva) makes her grand entrance, while a couple of local geeks (Jesse Eisenberg and Martin Starr) stare in awe: "That ass is a higher truth!"
Carlos does for Seventies terrorism what Goodfellas did for the mob, chronicling the epic rise and fall of a real-life criminal empire. Edgar Ramirez plays Carlos the Jackal as a self-styled revolutionary guerrilla, carrying himself like a rock star and falling hard for his own celebrity image. The soundtrack is full of postpunk bands like Wire and the Feelies. The icy death-disco groove of New Order sets the perfect tone of big-city alienation, as Carlos relaxes in the bathtub after casually tossing a bomb into a London bank.
Michaelangelo Antonioni's tour of Swinging London breaks open with this scene. David Hemmings stumbles into a mod club where the Yardbirds are playing, during the brief period when both Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck were in the band. The hipster fans stare blankly like robots while the Yardbirds do the proto-Zeppelin thrash "Stroll On," a none-too-subtle rip of "Train Kept A-Rollin'." But when the gum-chewing Beck gets mad at his equipment and smashes his guitar, he unleashes a frenzy of mob violence. Is this a critique of modern alienation? Let's just say those mutton-chop sideburns on Page are definitely a critique of something.
The wah-wah essence of pimp-strut funk. Richard Roundtree's Shaft swaggers out of the subway and through the sleaze of 1970s Times Square, stopping the traffic cold with his sheer badness, walking to the beat of his own personal theme song. Isaac Hayes tells you who this guy is (a black private dick), what he does all day (he's a sex machine to all the chicks) and what people say about him (one bad mother). This is the song we all wish could be the soundtrack of our lives.
The film is full of unforgettable performances by charismatic stars: Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding, Janis Joplin. This is not one of them. Instead, it's a dreamily psychedelic guitar instrumental, droning over the final morning of the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, waking up the sleepy hippie kids for a bright new day in the California sunshine. The band is basically anonymous, because the audience is the star. The morning is fresh and full of promise. This could have been the utopian moment Robert Plant was trying to capture in Led Zeppelin’s "Going to California," as the children of the sun begin to wake.
Right before Ratner's first date with Stacey (the young Jennifer Jason Leigh), Damone gives him a five-point crash course in dating etiquette that ends with the most important advice: "When it comes down to making out, whenever possible, put on Side One of Led Zeppelin IV." Ratner can't even get that one right – the closest he gets is "Kashmir," from Physical Graffiti. (The sight of Ratner at the wheel, while Robert Plant sings, "I am a traveler of both time and space" – what a comical mismatch.) But that just adds to the agonizing awkwardness of the whole night. Besides, as fans have argued for years, "Kashmir" makes much better makeout music than "The Battle of Evermore."
Richard Linklater's classic portrait of small-town Texas in the summer of 1976. As your stoner uncle will tell you, Linklater depicts the Seventies aura so authentically, you can practically brush your teeth in the bongwater. The music is a constant presence in these kids' lives, whether it's "Do You Feel Like We Do?" on the car radio or "Hurricane" in the pool hall. But the best moment comes when that last high school bell rings and Alice Cooper whips the students into a riot. School's out, com-plete-ly.
The Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA worked with director Jim Jarmusch, giving this cult-classic crime film a haunted hip-hop soundscape. Forrest Whitaker lives the solitary life of a hit man, living by the code of the samurai. After he steals a Lexus, he drives through the deserted late-night city streets, brooding to this mystical deep cut from the Wu’s Killah Priest. He’s so spiritually isolated, all the scenery outside his window looks like some other planet. His car is the loneliest spot in the universe.
Something about "Tiny Dancer" brings the drama – it also provided the love theme for a very special episode of WKRP in Cincinnatti. (The one where the visiting Russian diplomat falls in love with Bailey.) Cameron Crowe made it the highlight of Almost Famous, his autobiographical account of hitting the road as a young Rolling Stone writer. He's on the tour bus with the band, but he's a total outsider in this scene, not to mention a kid. The band guys sit in stony silence, pissed at each other, until the Elton John song on the radio coaxes them to sing along. Golden-goddess groupie queen Penny Lane leads the chorus. The drummer taps his sticks on the vinyl bus seat. Harmony is restored. Penny tells the boy that he's home, and he realizes that she's right.
And oh, how they danced, the little children of Stonehenge. The Tap's druid-metal epic remains popcorn-pukingly funny no matter how many times you've seen it, because they get every musical detail right. For some reason Spinal Tap aren't in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame yet, though it's only a matter of time. No one knows who they were, or what they were doing, but their legacy remains.
We're trying not to keep repeating directors on this list, but Martin Scorsese is the exception to every rule, including this one. In fact, you could pack this entire list with Scorsese films – you could stock a Top 30 from Goodfellas alone. He can jolt you with a song you've never heard, or bring new drama to one you thought you already knew. Goodfellas has his most famous examples, from "Then He Kissed Me" to "Layla" to "Jump Into the Fire," but this one always seems to come as a shock. A bar fight turns into a bloodbath, as Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci stomp another gangster to a pulp. (He really should have shut up about that shinebox.) And what's playing on the jukebox? A gentle folkie love-beads hymn from Donovan. (Ione Skye's dad!) "Atlantis" takes on a strange new malevolence, even as De Niro and Pesci seem lost in their own version of Donovan's reverie.
Nobody makes cinematic mix tapes as brilliantly as Quentin Tarantino. He keeps finding new ways to weave music into the action, from the Delfonics in Jackie Brown to Santa Esmeralda in Kill Bill. Even his World War II movie has a David Bowie jam. Reservoir Dogs put him on the map with the "Stuck In the Middle With You" torture sequence, but this Pulp Fiction moment has the edge as the sentimental fave, if only because you can watch it without blowing lunch. A hit man and his boss' wife do the Twist to Chuck Berry, acting out a sexual attraction that can only have bloody results. John Travolta resists at first, but as he gets lured into Uma Thurman's orbit, the killer turns into a dancer.
The Dude abides! And after he gets reunited with his car and his Creedence tapes, the Dude needs to catch up on his abiding. So he celebrates behind the wheel on his drive home – smoking, drinking and drumming on the roof of his car. If you don't play air guitar to this scene, you must be some kind of Nazi. (Although say what you want about the tenets of National Socialism – at least it's an ethos.)
Spoiler alert: This is the last scene, in case you haven’t seen Rushmore yet. At the after-party for Max Fischer's new play, everybody moves to the dance floor. Miss Cross takes off Max's glasses, looks into his eyes, sees them as the eyes of her dead husband. Then two of the most miserable characters in the movies share a farewell dance. The DJ puts on a 1973 pub-rock oldie by the Faces, written and sung by the late, great Ronnie Lane. Max and Miss Cross begin to sway to the music as the credits roll. Best ending ever, man.
One of the most unbelievably sad moments ever captured on film, as P.T. Anderson takes a harmless bit of Seventies soft-rock fluff and turns it into a heartbreaking requiem for basically everybody in the movie, if not America in general. It’s a druggy L.A. pool party at Burt Reynolds' mansion, in the coked-out stupor of the Seventies. All the porn stars are there to make the scene: Julianne Moore, Mark Wahlberg, Don Cheadle, Luis Guzman (former president of the Greendale ceramics club). The phone rings in the kitchen – just some kid looking for somebody who isn't there. You realize how completely doomed all these party people are, and how savagely they are going to break the hearts of everybody they ever touch. Oh, what a lonely boy.
A carload of suburban-loser party commandos cruise the wastelands of Illinois. Another Saturday night with no girls, no future, no particular place to go. Then they pop in a cassette of "Bohemian Rhapsody." Suddenly, they’re not losers anymore – they turn into an epic choir of rockness. They are the coolest guys on earth, even if nobody knows it besides them. No flick ever did a funnier job of showing how music functions in the day-to-day lives of those of us who live for it. This scene has been imitated to death – the Wayans brothers did a great parody in White Chicks. But nobody can top the original, as Wayne, Garth and their pals explode into galileos and magnificos.
Who else but Cameron Crowe could create a moment like this: John Cusack stands outside Ione Skye's house, holding up a boombox. He's playing their song, "In Your Eyes," to remind her of their shared memories, but also to express everything he wishes he knew how to tell her himself. Crowe turned this into a Romeo & Juliet balcony scene for the ages. (And turning a prog-rocker like Peter Gabriel into prom fodder was a mighty strange achievement in itself.) When they filmed it, Cusack's boombox was actually playing Fishbone, but it doesn't really matter what the music is. The whole point of the scene is making you think of the song you would play on that boombox, if you had to do it right now.
The dawn of Beatlemania: John, Paul, George and Ringo race down the street, chased by their fans. Everybody gets swept up in the high-speed excitement of that mega-reverbed opening guitar chord. The Beatles might be trying to run away from the lust-crazed, clothes-tearing, screaming girls, but they can't stop grinning, especially John – they love this bit. (Who wouldn't?) The girls chase the band, but everybody's madly in love with the chase, enchanted hunters of the rock & roll thrill. This scene tells you all you need to know about how the Beatles revolutionized the entire concept of fun. But they were just getting started.
This is where it all begins – and really, this is as far as it could go. With this moment, director Martin Scorsese invented a whole new way to use rock & roll to tell a story, right in the opening scene of his Little Italy street-crime tragedy. Late at night, small-time gangster Harvey Keitel hears the Phil Spector teen romance of "Be My Baby" playing in his head. It's the soundtrack to his memories, all his dreams and fears, all his Catholic guilt, all his New York groove. The song sums up his world in three minutes, except we can already tell it's about to explode. Every movie tries to do this same trick now (Dirty Dancing even swiped the same song), but nobody does it like Scorsese. After Mean Streets, neither music nor the movies would ever be the same.