The perfect song in a movie can turn a good scene into a great scene and a great scene into something unforgettable. Some directors are so good at pairing a pre-existing song with the action on the screen that it becomes an art form in itself. For instance, this whole list could have been made up of nothing, but Quentin Tarantino and James Gunn picks, but we wanted to provide more variety—although, rest assured, both directors are represented. Without further ado, here are the most iconic needle drops in cinema history.
Fight Club – Pixies: Where is My Mind?
The ending of Fight Club contains one of the coolest needle drops of the ’90s, and considering the competition, that’s saying a lot. What makes Fight Club‘s inclusion of the Pixies classic “Where is My Mind?” so memorable is that the weirdo pop song—one of the band’s less abrasive offerings—is juxtaposed with the destruction of several skyscrapers.
The combination of the jangly opening guitar part with the wholesale destruction of an entire city skyline gives the scene a dreamlike quality. Add in Edward Norton and Helena Bonham Carter holding hands as the buildings collapse in front of them, and you’ve got possibly the best end scene of David Fincher’s career.
Kick-Ass – The Dickies: Banana Splits
If you ever wanted to watch a 12-year-old use the C-word while hacking a bunch of gangsters limb from limb, then 2010’s superhero satire Kick-Ass is the movie for you. The scene in question finds a young Chloe Grace Moretz carving up a room full of gangbangers set to the frenetic tune of…a children’s show theme song?
While it’s true, the Banana Splits was one of Sid and Marty Kroft’s acid trips for children that aired when your parents were kids, the version of the theme song that plays during the introduction of Hit Girl is a sped up cover by punk legends The Dickies.
The absurdity of a punk band covering a kids’ show theme mixes perfectly with the absurdity of a pre-teen assassin with a worse potty mouth than Joe Pesci in Goodfellas. The result is one crazy, awesome fight scene featuring a needle drop to match.
Say Anything – Peter Gabriel: In Your Eyes
This needle drop has actually outlived the movie it comes from. Say Anything never quite reached the status of ’80s classic like other teen comedies from the era like The Breakfast Club or Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, but its one defining scene is arguably more iconic than anything found in those other movies.
The image of John Cusack standing outside with a boombox over his head has been parodied by everything from Deadpool 2 to Family Guy. The scene has permeated the pop culture landscape to become just one of those things that everyone knows, even if they can’t tell you where it originally came from.
American Psycho – Huey Lewis & The News: Hip to be Square
This is another needle drop where part of the reason it works so well is because the tone of the song clashes with what’s going on in the scene. In American Psycho, Patrick Bateman uses “Hip to Be Square”—a jaunty new wave tune—as music to commit a brutal murder to.
As Christian Bale takes great glee in swinging an axe into Jared Leto’s waiting flesh, Lewis’s lyrics about working out and watching what he eats are playing happily in the background. It’s a classic scene that only reaches its full potential thanks to the inclusion of the milquetoast “Hip to Be Square.”
Guardians of the Galaxy – Redbone: Come and Get Your Love
All three Guardians of the Galaxy films are stuffed full of memorable needle drops to the point where choosing just one is almost impossible. “Almost” being the key word. When all is said and done, there was really only one choice to represent the entire Guardians franchise, and that’s “Come and Get Your Love.”
It’s the first song that Star-Lord plays in Guardians of the Galaxy, and the song Rocket plays at the end of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love” is the alpha and the omega of the Guardians series and a testament to James Gunn’s ability to choose the best song for the moment.
Back to the Future – Chuck Berry: Johnny B. Goode
You just got your parents to fall in love and avoid vanishing from existence altogether. What are you going to do for an encore? Well, if you’re Marty McFly, the answer is to play the hell out of a song that’s an oldie to you but doesn’t exist yet in the current timeline.
Technically, “Johhny B. Goode”‘s inclusion in Back to the Future creates a paradox: How could Marty know “Johnny B. Goode” in 1985 if Chuck Berry only wrote it because he heard Marty play it in 1955?
Time paradoxes aside, the “Johnny B. Goode” scene in Back to the Future is so iconic it’s impossible to imagine the movie without it.
Reservoir Dogs – Stealers Wheel: Stuck in the Middle With You
You can’t make a list of iconic needle drops without including Quentin Tarantino, and you can’t include Quentin Tarantino without mentioning the ear-slicing scene from Reservoir Dogs. You couldn’t throw a rock in the 90s without hitting a Tarantino ripoff—the man was practically his own genre—but the one thing that really separated the wannabes from the real deal was Quentin’s innate sense of what song to put where.
Nowhere is that more evident than in the scene where Michale Madsen dances to “Stuck in the Middle With You” while cutting off a cop’s ear with a straight razor. It’s a brutal scene, but it’s also kind of beautiful, thanks to the way the music and the visuals seamlessly meld together until you could swear the song was written specifically for that scene and not twenty or so years beforehand.
Wayne’s World – Queen: Bohemian Rhapsody
Thanks to Wayne’s World‘s most famous needle drop, a whole generation of kids learned how to head-bang. Scenes in movies where the main characters drive around singing along to the radio are commonplace now, but they were practically unheard of before Wayne’s World came along. While it would be hard to argue that Wayne’s World wouldn’t have been successful without the inclusion of Bohemian Rhapsody, the reverse is certainly true.
Obviously, we’re not saying that 1992’s Wayne’s World somehow retroactively willed a song from 1975 into existence, but it was responsible for putting the, at the time, almost twenty-year-old song back on the top of the music charts. In many ways, the 90s was the 70s Part II, and nowhere is that more evident than the renewed popularity of “Bohemian Rhapsody” following the release of Wayne’s World.
Kill Bill – Tomoyasu Hotei: Battle Without Honor or Humanity
We know, we already did Tarantino, but he’s so good at needle drops that we just had to put him on the list twice. The song “Battle Without Honor or Humanity” is associated so strongly with Kill Bill that we almost didn’t include it because we thought it had been written specifically for the film. Imagine our surprise when we discovered the song had come out a few years before the movie(s).
There is no better music to hype one up for a smorgasbord of kung-fu action than “Battle.” The way it starts off with palm-muted guitar strumming and then explodes into that iconic “Dun, Dun, Dun!” is just perfect. No notes. Chef’s kiss. Just thinking about the song makes us want to grab a katana and challenge Lucy Liu to a duel.
2001: A Space Odyssey – Richard Strauss: Also Sprach Zarathustra
You may not know it by name, but the famous music that plays at the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey is without a doubt burnt into your brain. The only needle drop on this list to be written two centuries ago, “Also Sprach Zarathustra” also has the distinction of being the only needle drop based on a book, Friedrich Nietzche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra. The song is so unique that according to Wikipedia it’s not even a song but rather a “tone poem.”
No matter what you call it, though, “Also Sprach Zarathustra” is such an integral part of 2001, considered by many to be one of the greatest movies ever made, that the film wouldn’t even have that distinction without it.