The 14 Best Moments of Music Integrated Into a Movie Narrative
I'm excluding soundtrack themes or musicals—we're on the lookout for songs that are actually part of the story
There’s no shortage of outstanding film music—in fact, movie soundtracks just might be the most underrated genre of the last 100 years. But I’m excluding soundtrack music from consideration here, or even movie musicals, where the story is translated into unrealistic song interludes.
For the purpose of this list, I’m only considering music integrated into the unfolding storyline of a drama or comedy or romance. This is a small subset of what we consider film music, yet these songs have produced some of the most memorable moments in movie history.
Just consider the film Casablanca, perhaps the most beloved movie of the black-and-white film era, and boasting a remarkable cast, an oft-quoted screenplay, and a compelling story. Yet when film lovers discuss this classic, the first scene they mention is usually the moment when nightclub pianist Sam plays “As Time Goes By” for the two brokenhearted lovers Rick (Humphrey Bogart) and Ilsa (Ingrid Berman).
That’s what we’re after here—not just a catchy song or iconic theme, but music that comes to the forefront of the story.
I’d like to hear your favorites—please share them in the comments. In the meantime, here are my choices for the best music-driven narrative moments in cinema.
The protagonist, the only member of a deaf family with hearing, decides to pursue a career in music at Berklee—but desperately needs to pass this audition to get a scholarship.
I’m starting my list with the most recent example. I decided to watch this film solely on the basis of seeing this video clip. Like many of the scenes I’ve chosen, this one celebrates the power of music to express and communicate even in situations where it might seem unlikely, or perhaps impossible. I highly recommend the film, which won the Oscar for Best Picture, but still hasn’t found as large an audience as it deserves.
The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
A prisoner (played by Tim Robbins) takes over the controls of the penitentiary loudspeaker, playing a duet from Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro for the convicts.
Is there a movie moment that conveys more intensely the liberating power of music? And that’s true even in a prison. To underline the liberation, Morgan Freemen speaks the following lines with the song in the background:
“I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singing about. Truth is, I don't want to know. Some things are better left unsaid. I'd like to think they were singing about something so beautiful, it can't expressed in words, and it makes your heart ache because of it.”
This movie was a disappointment at the box office, generating only $58 million in ticket sales, but is now a recognized classic with an intensely loyal cult following. And much of that is due to its defiance of all the usual conventions of the prison film, never with more refreshing boldness than this scene.
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to The Honest Broker to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.