Movies are a powerful tool used to create an emotional response from the audience. When diegetic music is added to a scene, the audience gets to experience a character’s emotional state through song.
Unlike musicals that use music to motivate the story, diegetic music, or music that exists in the world of the film, can reveal another layer to a scene, creating an audio-visual cinematic moment that will last with the audience long after they’ve walked away from the theater.
Music performed by characters in a scene can punctuate a sequence’s meaning and importance to the rest of the film. The music serves the emotional tone, highlighting the motifs of a film and the changing relationship between two characters. Here are some of my favorite movie music moments, and what we can take away from them.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty – “Space Oddity”
In a film that isn’t afraid to dip in and out of Walter’s (Ben Stiller) daydreams and realities, one of the best daydreams Walter has is when Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig) steps onto the dive bar stage in Nuuk to perform David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.”
As one of David Bowie’s most popular songs, audiences know it and already have a deep connection to the singer’s desire to overcome his isolation. Walter, stuck in a place of isolation from his fears of the world, recognizes his hesitation as his imaginary love interest plays an acoustic version of “Space Oddity,” which slowly morphs into David Bowie’s original track.
As the song reaches its climax, Walter jumps onto a helicopter mid-take-off, taking a leap of faith to experience everything and anything. He is transformed like Major Tom, opening himself to the world without fear.
The Hangover – “Stu’s Song”
Deliberately funny songs are often criminally underappreciated, but “Stu’s Song” from The Hangover found its way into the pop culture lexicon for its mix of sincerity and dark comedy.
The song is simply about the tiger they kidnapped from Mike Tyson and were about to drug to return it. Stu (Ed Helms) took to the piano and performed a power ballad that emphasized the trio’s friendship with Doug. Not only do these friends want their friends back, but they are coming to terms with the absurdity of their drugged-out night. “Stu’s Song” is unexpectedly melodic, outrageous, and could be the synopsis for The Hangover.
O Brother, Where Art Thou – “Man of Constant Sorrow”
In desperate need of money, the Soggy Bottom Boys perform “Man of Constant Sorrow,” which becomes an instant radio hit. Not only does the song capture the state of the men’s lives after they escape from prison, but the song acted as a soundtrack to the film’s depiction of the Depression-era South.
The song appears multiple times throughout the film, slowly showing the Soggy Bottom Boys’ unknowing rise to success. Later, their song becomes their key to a party, allowing them to reach the points of their lives they were running toward after their great escape. It’s a catchy tune that takes the sorrow of the men’s lives into meaningful contentment.
Her – “The Moon Song”
Where “Space Oddity” was a song about isolation in space, “The Moon Song” is one about the peacefulness of love. Sung by Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), an AI who falls in love with Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), the song is soft, melodic, and simple as it captures the physical distance between two lovers who desperately want to be alone with each other.
It’s hopeful isolation that one will be waiting for the other but promises them that they will never feel alone. “The Moon Song” is the perfect adult lullaby for distant lovers who are dreaming of an afternoon that is a million miles away.
10 Things I Hate About You – “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You”
Heath Ledger chose to sing Frankie Valli’s classic love ballad “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” for 10 Things I Hate About You, and it has arguably become one of the best moments in rom-com history.
Ledger’s cool and charming attempt to woo Kat Valentine (Julia Stiles) was over-the-top in the best way. His ability to run up and down the bleachers while singing made the moment lighthearted and fun, but it is Ledger’s sincerity painted on his aching expression at the end of the chorus that made everyone, including Kat, fall deeply in love with his fearlessness.
The Wedding Singer – “Somebody Please Kill Me”
As Robbie Hart (Adam Sandler) starts to perform his new song for Julia Sullivan (Drew Barrymore), the audience is expecting something sweet and romantic since this is a romantic comedy. Then, he starts to shout the chorus, and the song’s intentions come to light.
The song is for Robbie’s cheating ex-girlfriend, and the pain Sandler brings to the performance is uncomfortably funny. The constant switch from a soft to aggressive performance can’t help but feel relatable to anyone who has ever had their heart stomped on by someone they once loved.
The song also serves as a connecting moment for Robbie and Julia as he is vulnerable to her for the first time, and she listens closely to his emotional outcry. She is not scared and worried like the other characters in the scene are. Instead, she is happy to be there to support Robbie.
There are so many different ways to use music in your film. You can use it to influence the world of your film, reveal a deeper layer to a romantic relationship, or create a humorous moment that gives the audience a break from the intensity of a story. Don't be afraid to experiment with music in your film, and give it the space it needs to work effectively and leave a lasting impression on the characters and the audience.
What is your favorite musical moment from film? Let us know in the comments!