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The 30 Greatest Rock & Roll Movie Moments

Unforgettable scenes from ‘Pulp Fiction,’ ‘Wayne’s World,’ ‘Almost Famous’ and more

Wayne's World, Pulp Fiction, Say Anything, Almost Famous

Everett Collection

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.

By Rob Sheffield

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12. Killah Priest, ‘From Then Till Now’ in ‘Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai’ (1999)

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.

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11. Elton John, ‘Tiny Dancer’ in ‘Almost Famous’ (2000)

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.

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10. Spinal Tap, ‘Stonehenge’ in ‘This Is Spinal Tap’ (1984)

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.

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9. Donovan, ‘Atlantis’ in ‘Goodfellas’ (1990)

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.

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8. Chuck Berry, ‘You Never Can Tell’ in ‘Pulp Fiction’ (1994)

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.

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7. Creedence Clearwater Revival, ‘Lookin’ Out My Back Door’ in ‘The Big Lebowski’ (1999)

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.)

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6. The Faces, ‘Ooh La La’ in ‘Rushmore’ (1998)

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.

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5. Andrew Gold, ‘Lonely Boy’ in ‘Boogie Nights’ (1998)

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.

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4. Queen, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ in ‘Wayne’s World’ (1992)

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.

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3. Peter Gabriel, ‘In Your Eyes’ in ‘Say Anything’ (1989)

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.

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2. The Beatles, ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ in ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ (1964)

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.

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1. The Ronettes, ‘Be My Baby’ in ‘Mean Streets’ (1973)

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.

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