There’s nothing like a good musical sequence in a movie – they figured that one out pretty well when they invented musicals. But what are some of the best uses of musical numbers in movies and TV shows that don’t fit into the traditional ‘musical’ genre? When done wrong, it’s strange and disjoints the production (here’s looking at you, Riverdale) and seems to have been done for no other reason than to have a musical number. When done correctly, it’s a memorable part of the movie that becomes iconic and enhances its overall effect. Here are some of my picks for the best musical numbers in non-musical movies.
- The 40 Year-Old Virgin – Age of Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In
Okay, maybe this is cheating slightly, given that the medley was originally written by James Rado and Gerome Ragni for the 1967 musical Hair. The musical focused on hippie counterculture and US reaction to the Vietnam War and has been covered by US group the 5th Dimension to widespread acclaim in 1969.
Director Judd Apatow’s use of Age of Aquarius in his 2005 debut as a metaphor for Steve Carrell’s titular virgin finally getting a notch on his bedpost is so much more effective than a cheap sex scene would have been. First of all, you have to give props to Carrell’s surpisingly good singing voice. His questionable cover of The Beach Boys’ Kokomo for the Netflix comedy series Space Force appears to have been a red herring (although to be fair to Carrell, Kokomo isn’t the greatest source material.) The reuniting of the cast in a sunny meadow to dance around a maypole is funny and a much more satisfying ending than fading to black once the central characters get to the honeymoon suite.
Paul Rudd and Seth Rogen also lend their voices to the soundtrack version which is equally funny – you can tell a good time was had both recording and filming the track . Not for Jonah Hill who cameoed in the film however – apparently, he got heatstroke while filming the final scene. Maybe a better wardrobe choice than a woollen poncho and jeans could have prevented that!
2. Starsky and Hutch – Don’t Give Up On Us Baby
The gloriously cheesy movie remake of hit 1970s TV show, Starsky and Hutch, is another great comedy in the Judd Apatow vein. Owen Wilson and Ben Stiller as freewheeler Hutch and by-the-book cop Starsky is an enjoyably hyperbolic take on the TV serial upon which it is based. Think The Naked Gun, but made in the 2000s. What’s not to like?
You’ve got a guest appearance from Snoop Dogg, and the iconic red Ford Gran Torino with the white stripe on centre stage. But the highlight of the film for me was Starsky accidentally adding a gratuitous cocaine from an evidence bag to a coffee as a sweetener whilst over at Hutch’s. Cue the discovery of an acoustic guitar, cue a great music moment in a non-musical film.
Two Disney-esque animated bluebirds appear on Hutch’s shoulder as he sings a sweet rendition of David Soul’s Don’t Give Up On Us, Baby. And it sounds like the most authentic conveyance of the song’s meaning I’ve ever heard, much to my surprise. Who knew Lightning McQueen had such a great singing voice?
3. 2001: A Space Odyssey – Daisy Bell
If you’ve got a TikTok account, you might have come across this Victorian ditty once or twice. At the very least, you’ll have some deeply hidden memory of the iconic chorus (“Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer, do…”) It’s a pleasing remnant of the days of music hall, vaudeville entertainment in Britain that preceded pop and rock ‘n’ roll.
One of its most famous uses, however, is in the 1968 film by Stanley Kubrick. 2001: A Space Odyssey tells the story of the crew of fictional US Spacecraft, Discovery One. The crew are sent to investigate signals being sent out by an alien monolith, but don’t bargain for the supercomputer onboard their ship becoming malevolent towards them. Eventually, one of the crew is forced to disconnect the computer, namely HAL-9000.
That’s not the whole story, of course. If you want that, watch the movie – it’s widely thought of as one of the great works of cinema. But the sequence I’m referring to is an homage by the filmmakers to what they saw as the unstoppable power of the computer. As HAL-9000 is gradually unplugged, cable-by-cable, he(?) begins to regress and demonstrates something he did on his first day of operation by singing Daisy Bell. It’s decidedly creepy given how murderous HAL turns out to be, and even more so when you discover it’s based on a real-life event.
The first computer to ‘sing’ was one of those massive early machines that took up whole rooms and were less powerful than an old iPhone. In 1961, an IBM 7094 was programmed by Carol Lockbaum, John Kelly and Max Matthews to sing Daisy Bell with a musical accompaniment. That piece is widely available on YouTube and, despite how technologically outstanding it is, it’s really creepy. Intentionally or not, Kubrick uses it to fantastic effect.
4. Back To The Future – Johnny B. Goode
Ah yes, the staple of any oldies rock concert with that famous driving riff to begin everything and a bouncing romp for the next two-and-a-bit minutes. As fantastic it is, it does start to drown in the sea of songs made after it that sound exactly the same. That’s what’s so great about the famous scene in 1985’s Back To The Future in which Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) joins the band at his parents’ prom night in 1955.
You really get a sense for the newness of the rock ‘n’ roll revolution that Chuck Berry arguably spearheaded in 1950s America. Dances got faster, music got better, much to the chagrin of the old guard (McFly famously utters the line, “Your kids are gonna love it!” after an indulgent, psychedelia-esque guitar solo as the guests at the prom watch on in confusion.)
Fox doesn’t actually sing in the movie (it’s dubbed over,) but his guitar playing and Chuck Berry-esque dancing is the result of four weeks of practice on top of years of guitar experience and extensive sessions with Madonna’s choreographer. It’s a cheesy take on the birth of rock ‘n’ roll but a great way to start to get acquainted with 50s rock music if you’re not familiar.
5. Baby Driver – Bellbottoms
Problematic casting decisions aside, the film Baby Driver about Ansel Elgort’s titular getaway driver is a testament to the dedication and skill of director Edgar Wright. Since hearing the song Bellbottoms by the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion in 1995, Wright envisioned it as the perfect song for a car chase.
22 years later, Wright’s dream became a reality. Okay, this one doesn’t feature characters singing and dancing like the other picks, more miming along to the track itself. But watch the scene, and see how well the music fits in with a red Subaru WRX evading police across Atlanta. Wright has stated that the movie was built on top of its soundtrack, and was years in the making.
That’s what prompted me to add it to my list – if you are watching it, however, be warned that Kevin Spacey stars as some may find this triggering.