The 25 greatest uses of rock music in movies

Ranking the most memorable occasions rock music took movies to the next level. SCHWING!

The 25 greatest uses of rock music in movies
Sam Law

Done right, there are few moments in film more adrenaline spiking or emotionally impactful than those soundtracked by an inspired choice from the catalogues of our favourite bands. The best songs can set the mood, change the tone, anchor the intended time period or switch the momentum in all the time it takes to hit play. Some are fresh cuts written with the movie in mind, some are pulled deep from the filmmakers’ personal collections. All of them bring that intangible something – depth of feeling, real world connection, unwritten subtext – that simply cannot be sourced anywhere else.

After an almighty screening session, we’ve managed to whittle down our top 25, excluding cuts confined to soundtrack albums or played solely over the closing credits. This is the internet in 2020, of course, so we’ll inevitably have missed a few of your personal favourites. Don’t hold back in the comments section…


25. Fall Out Boy – Immortals (Big Hero 6, 2014)

This 2014 Disney/Marvel collaboration is brilliant for a whole host of reasons. From iconic central ‘healthcare’ robot Baymax to its San Fransokyo setting (fusing Californian cool with the hectic Japanese metropolis) to the deft handling of themes as diverse as friendship, loss and the value of unfettered creativity it’s must watch. The inclusion of original Fall Out Boy composition Immortals over a pivotal powering-up montage is really just the pop-punk cherry on top.

24. Refused – New Noise (Friday Night Lights, 2005)

Strapping on the pads, helmets and mouthguards for an East v West Texas college football derby in Houston’s mammoth Astrodome, you’d want a song to get pumped. Although we have to wonder whether Umeå’s hardcore trailblazers Refused have ever chucked around a pigskin in their lives, their totemic anthem New Noise is most certainly a track that fits the bill, encapsulating the adrenalised atmosphere of a stadium about to explode every bit as well as it’s detonated a million rock club dancefloors.

23. No Doubt – Just A Girl (Captain Marvel, 2019)

The long overdue big screen bow for Captain Marvel herself, Carol Danvers came overloaded with expectation, both in terms of the appearance of the god-like character’s implications for the broader Marvel Cinematic Universe and her feminist importance as the first solo titular female superhero of the current generation. Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s movie pulled off a remarkable balance of important ideas, breezy atmosphere and kickass attitude. Played over the final skirmish, No Doubt’s signature tune reflects all those elements whilst also pogoing home the story’s pivotal late-'90s period.

22. System Of A Down – Lonely Day (Disturbia, 2007)

Nowadays, any kind of collaboration between Los Angeles stadium-metal eccentrics System Of A Down and Hollywood wildcard Shia LaBeouf would trigger all sorts of weirdness alarms. Back in 2007, however, the use of Lonely Day over a montage of one bored teen’s house arrest proved a far more literal affair, with Daron Malakian’s mournful tones the perfect accompaniment to the vague melancholia of being ditched by your friends and trapped in the house. The ever-so-faint malevolence of System’s sound also harks to the film’s central serial killer conceit.

21. Blue Öyster Cult – Don’t Fear The Reaper (The Stand, 1994)

Okay, okay, we’re cheating a little here. The mammoth 1994 adaptation of Stephen King’s apocalyptic masterpiece started development as a feature-film, before morphing into a four-part miniseries on ABC. For Generation VHS, however, its 366-minute runtime was experienced as one sprawling standalone, and the (still spine-chillingly relevant) opening credits – charting the deadly effect of weaponised flu Project Blue on a Californian military institution – are pure cinema. Blue Öyster Cult’s signature tune is the ideal soundtrack, eerily foreshadowing the story’s themes and perfectly reflecting King’s intended aesthetic of fading Americana.

20. The Runaways – Cherry Bomb (Guardians Of The Galaxy, 2014)

Has any movie in recent memory had a more instantly recognisable (or narratively poignant) soundtrack than Guardians Of The Galaxy? The cassette-mixtape given by his dying mother to a wide-eyed Peter Quill is the tie that binds him to his Earthly roots even as his intergalactic adventure inexorably transforms him into the legendary Star Lord. Played over the pre-final battle montage, The Runaways’ classic comes loaded with just the right balance of playfulness, attitude and incendiary promise. They’re your ch-ch-ch-cherry bombs!

19. KISS – God Gave Rock & Roll To You Ii (Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, 1991)

Well, of course there’s got to be an entry in here featuring Bill S. Preston, Esq. and Ted ‘Theodore’ Logan. Our pick is this climactic spot from their second outing – our last look at the famous duo, thus far. “We’ve been to the past,” they greet a baying crowd, Bill with a full-length ZZ Top beard and Ted rocking a vintage Robert Plant goatee. “We’ve been to the future. We’ve been all around the afterlife. And, y’know, the best place to be is here. The best time to be is now. All we can say is, ‘LET’S ROCK!’” An epic ending needs an epic soundtrack, and KISS’ cover of Argent classic God Gave Rock & Roll To You measures up just about right.

18. Dropkick Murphys – I’m Shipping Up To Boston (The Departed, 2006)

Martin Scorsese’s credentials as a master filmmaker aren’t just grounded in the visual arts, but also his ability to pick soundtracks that economically help locate the story and drive the narrative forward. In adapting Hong Kong classic Infernal Affairs for an English-speaking audience, he needed a setting – and characters – every bit as loud, proud and full of character as the original. The moment Boston – and the Irish mob – were chosen, there was almost an inevitability that the Dropkick Murphys’ hard-hitting sounds would be deployed. Even still, the use of I’m Shipping Up To Boston over the montage of Leonardo DiCaprio’s Billy Costigan transforming himself from police academy graduate to lowly street hood is especially stirring stuff.

17. Cannibal Corpse – Hammer Smashed Face (Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, 1994)

One of the all-time great metal cameos almost didn’t happen. Rising comedy star Jim Carrey had tapped rising death metal supremos Cannibal Corpse as the band he wanted to appear in his zany '90s comedy, but their European tour clashed with shooting. Such was Carrey’s fandom, however, that the film’s schedule was re-worked to include a fish-out-of-water skit as the titular Pet Detective gurned his way through a death metal show. It’s still not clear why a high-tech anti-whaling operation would base himself in the basement of a pounding metal club, but the scene remains a hilarious and incredibly memorable treat.

16. Richard Cheese/Disturbed – Down With The Sickness (Dawn Of The Dead, 2004)

He might be better known these days as a director of mega-budget comic book adaptations, but Zack Snyder actually cut his teeth with this deliciously vicious remake of George A. Romero’s 1978 zombie classic, granting his walking dead high-speed and dragging a then-dormant subgenre kicking and screaming into the 21st century. Snyder’s something of a rock connoisseur, too (let’s not forget this is the guy who put My Chemical Romance’s Desolation Row over the Watchmen credits) and he brilliantly drops Disturbed’s Down With The Sickness twice over the course of his widescreen carnage – once in Richard Cheese’s lounge version played over the tongue-in-cheek, mall-set opening credits and in its original form over the tongue-through-cheek closing scroll.

15. George Thorogood & The Destroyers – Bad To The Bone (Terminator 2: Judgement Day, 1991)

In fairness, the sheer badassery of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s iconic T-800 didn’t really need any emphasising at the outset of this mega-anticipated 1991 cyborg sequel, but just like everything else in the film it was gleefully overegged all the same. Having just beamed in from a post-apocalyptic future, the nude Arnie utters the iconic line, “I need your clothes, your boots and your motorcycle…” before taking apart a biker bar and striding out fully clad. George Thorogood’s snarling country-rock classic kicks in as the bar’s owner ill-advisedly attempts to stop the relentless killing machine. Snatching the barkeep’s shotgun and shades while sparing his life, the iconic outfit is complete and the irony strikes: this guy might be bad to the bone (or, rather, metal endoskeleton), but he’s also somehow this movie’s heroic underdog. Gulp!

14. Bauhaus – Bela Lugosi’s Dead (The Hunger, 1983)

If you’re going to cast David freakin’ Bowie in your shady '80s erotic horror, you better damn well make sure the soundtrack is on point. Fortunately, director Tony Scott was leaving nothing to chance, employing iconic English goth-rockers Bauhaus in the opening scene, invoking the Hungarian icon who made Dracula famous with their iconic single Bela Lugosi’s Dead. Nothing much happens in the scene, but the atmosphere pulsates like an open vein. A shoutout, too, to Lady Gaga’s open homage in the opening episode of American Horror Story: Hotel, soundtracked by She Want Revenge’s ravenously sexy Tear You Apart.

13. Metallica – Master Of Puppets (Old School, 2003)

Along with the use of For Whom The Bell Tolls over the opening credits of Zombieland, the use of Master Of Puppets in old-dudes-at-college comedy Old School proves that there’re few bands better than Metallica to throw some contrasting bombast up against scenes of knockabout comedy. We’re picking the latter, because it got there first and the scenes of Will Ferrell bundling skateboarding slackers and creaky OAPs into a blacked-out van – not to mention almost giving a suburban housewife a heart-attack with his snarled “IF YOU TELL ANYONE ABOUT THIS I’M GOING TO FUCKING KILL YOU!” – still makes us chuckle to this very day. YOU’RE OUR BOY, BLUE!

12. Pixies – Where Is My Mind? (Fight Club, 1999)

“Trust me, everything’s going to be fine,” gargles Edward Norton’s unreliable, un-named narrator to twisted love interest Marla Singer, through a self-inflicted gunshot wound in the side of his mouth as a cityscape explodes outside. “You met me at a very strange time in my life...” Having just discovered that the story’s chaotic antihero Tyler Durden is a figment of his own fractured imagination, and it’s he himself who’s masterminded Project Mayhem there’s an overwhelming release of chaos and catharsis as the credits roll. Pixies’ off-kilter classic Where Is My Mind? encapsulates that cocktail of emotion, while also slyly nodding to the psychological revelations with which the shell-shocked audience are still grappling.

11. AC/DC – Back In Black (Iron Man, 2008)

If you’re trying to establish the runaway rock'n'roll swagger of a handsome, genius, billionaire weapons dealer rolling into a warzone to showcase his wares with a tumbler of whisky in hand, you need a band with balls as big as AC/DC’s. The use of Back In Black in the opening scene of the whole MCU also emphasised the potential big time credentials of Iron Man – who, lets not forget, was very much a second tier superhero back in 2008. The much less interesting Iron Man 2 went a shade too far with a whole AC/DC soundtrack album, but that film’s opening scene deserves a shoutout, as well, for its inspired use of Shoot To Thrill as Tony drops thunderously into the Stark Expo.

10. Tenacious D – Beelzeboss (The Pick Of Detiny, 2006)

Every other song on this list is important to the atmosphere and emotional impact of the film in which it’s featured, but none is integral to the actual outcome of the story like Beelzeboss. An expansion of sorts on the ‘greatest song in the world’ concept they’d coined with Tribute, the climactic track of Tenacious D’s full-length movie The Pick Of Destiny is the sound of their almighty rock-off: an amalgam of their acoustic-driven classic rock and The Devil’s filthy heavy metal. Headbangingly impactful, belly-achingly funny and mind-searingly memorable, it’s undoubtedly the best thing that came out of this enjoyable, albeit flagrantly indulgent buddy flick.

9. Little Richard – Long Tall Sally (Predator, 1987)

Every scene of John McTiernan’s action sci-fi landmark is a work of testosterone-streaked art. The moment we meet Dutch’s musclebound ‘rescue-team’ on the red-lit interior of an attack-helicopter thundering over the Central American jungle practically bulges off the screen, however. Evoking the gung-ho attitude of American soldiers dropping in to fight their real life unseen enemy in Vietnam, the use of Little Richard’s runaway classic could be read for all kinds of subtext. Honestly, it makes this list because it adds another layer of impossible cool to a passage featuring two future U.S. state governors polishing their death-dealing hardware and debating whether chewing-tobacco really makes you a "goddamn sexual tyrannosaurus".

8. Rage Against The Machine – Wake Up (The Matrix, 1999)

Featuring everyone from Rob Zombie to Ministry to Rammstein, the soundtrack to the Wachowskis’ game-changing, perception-shattering epic The Matrix was a veritable who’s-who of pre-millennial rock. The best track of a brilliant bunch drops at the very end, after Keanu Reeves’ Neo has accessed his full powers as The One and is telling the human race’s digital masters (on the other end of a payphone, natch), “I'm going to show them a world without you, a world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries, a world where anything is possible. Where we go from there is a choice I leave to you…” before taking flight like a trenchcoated Superman. It’s hard to imagine a better fit for the film’s allegories and the final shot’s momentum than Rage Against The Machine’s seminal Wake Up.

7. Rammstein – Feuer Frei (XXX, 2002)

Long before the Fast & Furious franchise had morphed from gritty street-racing drama to globe-straddling quasi-superhero nonsense, XXX had given Vin Diesel a chance to flex his chops as the world’s least secretive secret agent, Xander Cage. Adhering to an everything-cranked-to-11 mindset, Queens Of The Stone Age, Hatebreed and Drowning Pool also crop up on the soundtrack, but none make as much impact as Rammstein who appear as the movie sets out its stall in the opening scene, delivering a characteristically incendiary performance of signature tune Feuer Frei live in Prague. Fire at will, indeed.

6. Muse – New Born (Haute Tension aka Switchblade Romance, 2004)

One for the strongest of stomachs, Alexandre Aja’s merciless psychological slasher-thriller High Tension (Switchblade Romance in the UK) plays out like death metal in celluloid form for the most part: all slashed throats, severed heads and DIY equipment repurposed with eye-wateringly evil intent. Its most spine-chilling musical moment comes as the piano tinkle and propulsive riffage of Muse’s New Born plays over the scene where our ‘heroine’ Marie overcomes her crippling fear to pursue the faceless antagonist into the night. The Teignmouth trio were already massive in France at this point, but the song was likely selected on artistic merit, to foreshadow the picture’s shift into less in-your-face insidiousness and the jaw-dropping (chest-hacking) narrative rug-pull to follow…

5. Eddie Vedder – Long Nights (Into The Wild, 2007)

A subtly heartbreaking, beautifully lyrical telling of the story of ill-fated American adventurer Christopher McCandless, Sean Penn’s Into The Wild required a soundtrack every bit as freewheeling and achingly plaintive. Luckily, Sean’s old friend, Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder was on hand to deliver a whole record’s worth of melancholic folk-rock which would become his debut solo LP. Our highlight, Long Nights, plays over the opening scene, at the end of McCandless’ journey as he sets out unaccompanied against the stark grandeur of the Alaskan wilderness. 'Have no fear', Eddie croons, evoking the perilous call of the wild, 'for when I'm alone, I'll be better off than I was before…'

4. Smash Mouth – All Star (Shrek, 2001)

Excessively mocked as it has been, there’s a brilliantly iconic turn-of-the-millennium quality to Smash Mouth’s All Star that’s never been better tapped-into than in the opening scene of Mike Myers’ ogre-centric animated classic Shrek. Bridging the ye olde fairytale aesthetic and contemporary attitudes of the movie, it’s pretty important in setting the tone. Not as much, however, as it is in establishing the loud, obnoxious, but ultimately loveable quality of our title character as he goes about his daily routine, flushing the pages of a traditional fable down the toilet, ‘showering’ in swamp slime, gruesomely brushing his teeth and scaring off local villagers. Its ingenious inclusion has doubtless fed into All Star’s enduring appeal and online ubiquity, right to this very day.

3. Black Sabbath – Paranoid (Kong: Skull Island, 2017)

Ever since Francis Ford Coppola deployed Richard Wagner’s Ride Of The Valkyries to such iconic effect in Apocalypse Now, there has been a fashion for awesome musical moments involving swooping attack helicopters in the movies, from the aforementioned Predator right through this furry show-stopper. Again encapsulating the brash, bellicose attitude of the American military ram-raiding tropical locations, Black Sabbath’s Paranoid is the perfect accompaniment for the sheer madness of carpet-bombing Skull Island. Brilliantly, it works every bit as well as the titular Kong proceeds to take apart the entire chopper squadron with a battery of palm trees in his massive hand…

2. Iggy Pop – Lust For Life (Trainspotting, 1996)

Literally hitting the ground running, the opening sequence of Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting is one of the most iconic in all of British cinema. As Ewan McGregor’s heroin-addicted protagonist Mark Renton spiels off the iconic, incredibly pithy “Choose Life” monologue while fleeing the police, and we’re introduced to writer Irvine Welsh’s rogues’ gallery of characters, Iggy Pop banger Lust For Life thumps away urgently over the top. We can’t think of any better track to embody that scene’s – indeed, the whole film’s – blend of breathless nihilism, intoxicating heroin chic and defiant joie de vivre.

1. Queen – Bohemian Rhapsody (Wayne’s World, 1992)

“I thought we’d go for a little Bohemian Rhapsody, gentlemen?” It’s one of the greatest hard rock movies of all time, and the most iconic use of a song on the silver screen. The Alice Cooper cameo (“WE’RE NOT WORTHY!”) might be right up there in terms of memorability in this SNL skit gone feature-length. The moment Wayne, Garth and their buddies crank Queen classic Bohemian Rhapsody on their car stereo, however, to headbang along all the way from their basement TV-studio to local hotspot The Gasworks, is undoubtedly its defining moment. GOOD CALL!

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