17 Song Performances from non-musical movies we love

AV Club
We sing the praises of 17 musical moments from the non-musical movies
By Danette Chavez, Katie Rife, Laura Adamczyk, Erik Adams, Gwen Ihnat,
Alex McLevy, Cameron Scheetz, Sam Barsanti, Randall Colburn, and Patrick Gomez
Monday 12:00 AM

I Put A Spell On You
<span style=colorffffff class=has inline color><strong>i put a spell on you<strong><span>

One of the magical things about a well-done musical is its ability to make bursting into song and dance seem organic to the world of the film. Pulling that off is a tricky achievement even when the audience walks in expecting it, but it’s an almost unfathomable thing to accomplish as a left turn in an otherwise non-musical story. Unfathomable is not impossible, though—and succeeding at it is worth celebrating. Omitting any scene where the showstopper was performed in a character’s professional capacity (Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom’s “Anything Goes” opening or Forgetting Sarah Marshall’s puppet show, for example), here are 17 of the best musical moments from non-musical films.

Billy Madison, “Billy Madison’s Victory Song”

From Opera Man to “Lunchlady Land” to “The Chanukah Song,” music was a key part of the Adam Sandler brand in the early days of his career. But when it was time to film his 1995 star vehicle, Billy Madison, the comedian traded his acoustic guitar for a symphony. “Billy Madison’s Victory Song” is built upon classical strings and woodwinds, giving the interlude a stirring sense of grandeur that makes the out-of-nowhere verse from a thought-dead clown that much funnier. What truly elevates it, though, is the sequence’s sloppy, grade-school choreography. Billy’s third-grade pals wag their fingers in unison as they tell him to “work real hard and stick it out” and later the entire gang—including Norm Macdonald’s drunken Frank—march through the grass before swiveling their hips to the beat: “Do you have any more gum, more gum, more gum, more gum.” It’s the perfect blend of overwrought and under-rehearsed, a clever fusion of the film’s offbeat absurdity and childlike dopiness. Also, it gives us the everlasting image of a grinning, flannel-clad Macdonald marching with loony authority while struggling to remember both his lyrics and choreography. [Randall Colburn]

Simple Men, “Kool Thing”

Hal Hartley’s brilliantly deadpan cinema captured the spirit of ’90s-indie cool in a way that still feels like a hidden treasure; the fact that his oeuvre is still largely underappreciated only adds to this mystique—college sophomores aren’t exactly flooding dorm-room walls with Henry Fool posters, even if they should be. But the apex of his knack for slacker-slick scenes might be the dance sequence from Simple Men. After being double-crossed by his girlfriend during a robbery, bitter and heartbroken Bill (Robert John Burke) picks up his fresh-out-of-college brother Dennis (Bill Sage), and the two attempt to find their long-estranged, recently-released-from-prison father, all while laying low from the cops. This leads them to a rural farmhouse where they meet Kate (Karen Sillas) and Elina (Elina Löwensohn), and odd relationships ensue, highlighted by a late-night dance, set to Sonic Youth’s “Kool Thing.” Everything about it is great, from Sage’s earnest efforts to Hartley MVP Martin Donovan only half paying attention while his character’s crush slow-dances with Bill. [Alex McLevy]

First Wives Club, “You Don’t Own Me”

It’s practically in Bette Midler’s contract that she gets to sing at least a tight 16 in every project she’s in. Goldie Hawn was a known musical theater performer (even releasing a self-titled country album in 1972 with the help of Dolly Parton), as was Diane Keaton, who appeared in the original Broadway production of Hair. So it’s not too surprising that First Wives Club wove in a relatively mundane musical moment halfway through the film when the three women reminisce about a song they sang for a friend’s birthday in college. But this is just a teaser for the movie’s triumphant ending: a fully scored performance of Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me,” in which the ladies proudly declare their independence once and for all. More movies should conclude with the main characters skipping down an empty New York street as they, for some reason, start singing softer and softer until the credits roll. [Patrick Gomez]

500 Days of Summer, “You Make My Dreams Come True”

What’s the opposite of a walk of shame? It probably looks a lot like Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s stroll of joy in 500 Days Of Summer, the morning after his character, Tom, sleeps with his beloved Summer (Zooey Deschanel). Tom heads out to work, as the irrepressible bouncy synths of Hall And Oates’ ’80s pop hit play, his happiness causing fountains to erupt. The sequence builds in a subtle, friendly manner; as the smiles Tom receives on the street graduate to actual greetings, his confident swagger eventually leads to a straight-up group dance number, emphasized by a gleeful marching band. The fantasy sequence so clearly captures the morning-after glow, pointedly hued in Summer’s signature shade of turquoise, that the animated bluebirds don’t even seem like a stretch. The exuberance of the dance (which Gordon-Levitt happily commits to) makes the transition out of it all the more painful; the next time we see Tom he’s in the amber-shaded dregs of the relationship, on the flip side of all that radiance. [Gwen Ihnat]

Step Brothers, “Por Ti Volaré”

There’s a running joke in Adam McKay’s Step Brothers(somehow simultaneously one of his most grounded and most chaotic comedies)that Will Ferrell’s immature adult man Brennan Huff is an extremely talented singer who—due to some childhood bullying from his younger brother Derek (Adam Scott)—suffers from so much anxiety about it that he can’t actually sing in front of people. Eventually, Brennan and his new similarly immature step-brother Dale Doback (John C. Reilly) are forced to grow up, get jobs, and leave behind their childish dreams of starting an entertainment empire… until Brennan starts working with his brother’s helicopter leasing company and is tasked with organizing the prestigious Catalina Wine Mixer. After the singer from the ’80s Billy Joel cover band that Brennan hired flips out and the event starts to go off the rails, Brennan and Dale take the stage to try and perform a song that will bring everyone back together. What follows is four minutes of unrestrained joy as Brennan belts out a rendition of “Por Ti Volaré” so beautiful and emotional that everyone in the audience is overcome with feelings of love (and pure animalistic passion). It is exquisite. [Sam Barsanti]

Anchorman: The Legend Of Ron Burgundy, “Afternoon Delight”

Earlier in the Will Ferrell musical-non-musical canon, trusted San Diego journalist Ron Burgundy poses a tough question to his on-air colleagues: “Do you really want to know what love is?” The answer: Something like the sticky-sweet close harmonies of Starland Vocal Band, whose sole No. 1 hit the Channel 4 News Team spontaneously erupts into during an office bull session. Like so much of Anchorman, “Afternoon Delight” was an on-set addition. Ferrell, Paul Rudd, Steve Carell, and David Koechner were considering performing the song on the promotional circuit when director Adam McKay said, “Forget that, I’m going to have you do it in the movie.” When it came time to shoot the scene, the quartet had barely prepared—but they still nailed it, delivering an off-the-cuff rendition (Carell handling high harmonies, of course) that underlines the song’s barely hidden sexual subtext with Koechner’s “skyrockets in flight” sound effects. Coincidentally, this wasn’t the only 2004 film comedy to feature Ferrell, a ’70s period setting, and “Afternoon Delight”: The original recording puts a button on an awkward prison encounter in Todd Phillips’ Starsky And Hutchadaptation from that year. [Erik Adams]

She’s All That, “The Rockafeller Skank”

There are plenty of unrealistic moments in this 1999 rom-com (Freddie Prince Jr.’s Zack doing that “impromptu” spoken word performance about a hacky sack?!) but its most egregious is the prom dance led by pied piper Usher. The choreographed routine is memorable, but seems like out of a completely different movie—and that maybe because it was such a last-minute addition that choreographer Adam Shankman has said he had “about two hours” to plan the scene. In 2019, director Robert Iscove said producer Harvey Weinstein (ugh, remember him?) insisted on reshoots to have Usher (playing a “campus DJ,” because that’s totally a normal thing) explain how the students knew the routine. Though that may have ultimately muddled things even more: It’s not inconceivable that a dance club would plan performance to Fatboy Slim’s “The Rockafeller Skank,” but just when did wallflower Laney (Rachel Leigh Cook) and HBIC Taylor (Jodi Lyn O’Keefe) attend the group practice? [Patrick Gomez]

I’m Thinking Of Ending Things, “Ballet Sequence”

A Charlie Kaufman movie doesn’t need any help being weird, butI’m Thinking Of Ending Things steps things up (so to speak) with an extended American In Parisstyle ballet sequence that seems to come out of nowhere in its second half. It’s not completely random (musical Oklahoma! is one of the film’s many recurring pop-cultural references), but it is disarming. And then it’s funny, and then it’s strangely moving as dancers representing the film’s stars, Jessie Buckley and Jesse Plemons, channel their characters’ dying relationship into elegant, tender, vulnerable movement. And yeah, it is strange that this is all taking place in the hallway of an empty Midwestern high school that may or may not be a figment of an old man’s imagination. But weird can also be delightful and inspiring if you just give yourself over to the dance. [Katie Rife]

My Best Friend’s Wedding, “I Say A Little Prayer”

That My Best Friend’s Wedding is anchored with primarily Burt Bacharach/Hal David songs is just one of the many understated charms of the movie. There’s the candy-colored “Wishing And Hoping” bridal sequence of the opening credits and Cameron Diaz’s commitment to bad karaoke with “I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself.” But the standout has to be George’s (Rupert Everett) luncheon sing-along to “I Say A Little Prayer,” publicly serenading Jules (Julia Robert) as the rest of her best friend’s bridal party chimes in: starting with a bold line from the mother of the bride and building with some backup from the bridesmaids. Eventually the entire seafood restaurant erupts in the chorus. Jules may be squirming, but that’s only because Rupert Everett is walking away with the whole movie. [Gwen Ihnat]

The Jerk, “Tonight, You Belong To Me”

Steve Martin’s major motion picture debut is wall-to-wall foolishness, revolving around a lovable simpleton who never noticed the differences between himself and his adopted parents, rejoices the first time his name appears in the phonebook (and dies because of that listing), and earnestly declares things like “This is the best Pizza In A Cup ever.” It’s inventive, Carl Reiner-directed foolishness, but foolishness nonetheless. And so it comes as a great shock—and really helps define The Jerk’s unique point of view—when all that lets up for two-and-a-half minutes of seaside crooning from Martin and Bernadette Peters. Their duet on the old standard “Tonight, You Belong To Me” is incredibly tender stuff, lit partially by moonlight and bonfire and imbued with the curious chemistry between Martin and Peters’ lovestruck characters. It’s a breather from the comic free-for-all surrounding it—though maybe not the type the star and filmmakers were hoping for. “I thought the scene was touching and I couldn’t wait for it to come on screen, hoping the audience would be as affected as I’d been,” Martin later wrote of an early test screening. “The movie was rolling along with lots of laughter. Then the song came on. Mass exodus for popcorn. Song over, audience returns for laughs.” Here’s hoping they made it back in time for the scene’s coronet kicker. [Erik Adams]

Hocus Pocus, “I Put A Spell On You”

Remember what we said about Bette Midler? Although with Dirty Dancing choreographer and Newsies director Kenny Ortega at the helm and Broadway leading lady Sarah Jessica Parker and Sister Act’s Kathy Najimy by her side, it would have been silly if this 1993 Halloween comedy didn’t pause the action for a musical performance. Hocus Pocus gets bonus points for making the Sanderson sisters’ rendition of “I Put A Spell On You” (especially arranged for Midler by future Hairspray composer and lyricist Marc Shaiman) essential to the plot: Don’t listen to their harmonies or the song’s title will become literal, and you’d “dance, dance, dance until you diiiiieeee.” [Patrick Gomez]

Blue Velvet, “In Dreams”

Trying to determine the best musical moment from David Lynch’s filmography would be like trying to suss out the finest application of seasoning on cuisine; everyone’s going to have a different degree of preference. For some, it’ll be the trip to Club Silencio in Mulholland Drive; others may find they can’t stop thinking about the moment in Wild At Heart when Nicolas Cage croons Elvis Presley’s “Love Me Tender” to Laura Dern. And then some will likely remember that unforgettable ending to Inland Empire, practically a short film unto itself (though maybe the mid-movie performance of “The Locomotion” is more your style). But for many, the first real encounter with Lynch’s facility for iconic music scenes in his work is Dean Stockwell’s lip synch of Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams” from Blue Velvet; the scene not only captures an essential element of Lynch’s strange tale of a young man (Kyle Machlachlan) who falls in with a dangerous gangster (Dennis Hopper) and winds up in a hallucinatory nightmare, but does so with just the right blend of whimsy to properly convey the tone and tenor of the auteur’s singular vision. [Alex McLevy]

10 Things I Hate About You, “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You”

In updating Shakespeare and the teenage romantic comedy, 10 Things I Hate About You also puts an old cinematic standby, the serenade, on its ear. When Aussie bad boy Patrick Verona (Heath Ledger) makes wooing Kat Stratford (Julia Stiles) his after-school job, he never imagines falling for the prickly, brainy teen—let alone “[sacrificing] himself on the altar of dignity to even the score” after he inadvertently insults her. What’s the most embarrassing situation he can conjure? An impromptu performance of “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” accompanied by the marching band, on the same field where Kat has soccer practice. It’s an incredibly disarming moment, as Patrick/Ledger shows great vulnerability (and coordination), and it works as intended; Kat forgives him and then some. But Patrick and the viewer are both aware of just how absurd the gesture is, even if you can somehow manage to shuffle-ball-change while belting a Frankie Valli classic (which Ledger personally picked because he thought the original choice, Divinyls’ “I Touch Myself,” wasn’t romantic enough.) [Danette Chavez]

Young Frankenstein, “Putting On The Ritz”

Much of the humor in Mel Brooks’ classic 1974 horror-comedy Young Frankenstein comes from wordplay and silly sounds: the inexplicable whinnying of a horse every time someone says the name “Frau Blucher,” for example, or the indecipherable Germanic muttering of Brooks regular Kenneth Mars as the local constable, Inspector Kemp. But stars Gene Wilder and Peter Boyle supersede them all when they step into the spotlight as creator and monster for a vaudeville rendition of “Puttin’ On The Ritz.” Despite his wild eyes and shaggy hair, Wilder cuts a debonair figure as he sings the verses, waving his cane as he tap dances around Boyle’s undead refrigerator in platform shoes. Then comes the punchline, as Boyle pushes out, “Putting on the ritz!”, in an atonal, barely articulated voice that falls somewhere between a wheeze and a bellow. It’s a simple joke, but it’s an endlessly hilarious and rewatchable one, largely due to Boyle’s all-in facial expressions and lumbering attempts at tap dance. [Katie Rife]

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, “Twist And Shout”

In Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, everyone’s favorite truant (Matthew Broderick) plays hooky and has an action-packed afternoon in Chicago that most of us could only dream of a Cubs game, Art Institute visit, fancy lunch, Ferrari ride. But when Ferris’ sourpuss pal Cameron (Alan Ruck) still claims that he hasn’t seen anything special that day, Ferris takes it upon himself to commandeer afloat in the city’s annual Von Steuben parade, lip-synching to not only “Danke Schoen” but also The Beatles’ version of “Twist And Shout,” whipping the downtown crowd into an absolute frenzy. Choreographer Kenny Ortega helped Broderick nail down those parade-pleasing moves, allowing Ferris to believably bring the whole city together in a single performance. The scene even led to “Twist And Shout” reappearing on the Billboard charts, decades after the song was first released. [Gwen Ihnat]

Lost In Translation, “Brass In Pocket” and “More Than This”

Every karaoke song is a wish, one the singer thinks is secret but which quickly becomes blatantly obvious—whether it’s for the object of their affection to love them (love them, say that they love them) or merely for the courage and skill to pull off the bleating vocals of a song like The Cranberries’ “Zombie.” In Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation, one needn’t dig too far below the surface (or at all) to understand what each character is getting at with their song choice. With her rendition of The Pretenders’ “Brass In Pocket,” Scarlett Johansson’s lost newlywed, Charlotte, gestures at flirtation, but mostly plays it straight in asking for attention from Bill Murray’s washed-up actor, Bob Harris, whose sobering “More Than This” by Roxy Music lays bare his loneliness and yearning. The scene allows both actors to operate within their most effective modes: Johansson, flat and understated; and Murray, at once hammy and seriously sentimental. [Laura Adamczyk]

Beetlejuice, “Day O (The Banana Boat Song)”

Tim Burton’s oddball comedy masterpiece Beetlejuiceis loaded with imaginative moments that burrow themselves into the brain like giant, paranormal sandworms, but none welcomely haunt your memories quite like the “Day-O” dinner party scene. When attractive couple Adam and Barbara Maitland (Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis) die and become attractive ghosts, they’re forced to defend their beloved home by scaring away its snobbish new residents, the Deetzes (Catherine O’Hara and Jeffrey Jones). Before they’re desperate enough to ask wildcard “bio-exorcist” Beetlejuice (Michael Keaton) for help, the Maitlands attempt to commandeer the Deetzes’ dinner party with a spirited sing-along to “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song),” compelling guests to dance and lip sync to the sonorous voice of Harry Belafonte. The plan backfires when Alex and Barbara discover the attendees were delighted by the possession, and how could they not be? There’s a timeless charm to Belafonte’s version of the Jamaican folk song that not even stuffy metropolitan types could deny, and its incongruousness with the film’s cartoonish, nouveau-goth aesthetic make the scene all the more indelible. Beetlejuice may have ensured a generation of kids would never look at shrimp cocktail the same way again, but it also introduced them to the eternal magic of The King Of Calypso. [Cameron Scheetz]

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2 thoughts on “17 Song Performances from non-musical movies we love

  1. Hi Mr D., Hope you are settling into your new place. Hoping you can shed some light on this issue, I ordered the Hocus Pocus wine from the NYRP site and today got and email it was cancelled! The website also no longer has them for sale. I am wondering if it was a trademark thing and they were pulled or did something just happened to my order. Lol

    Take care,

    1. Thanks Jill, I don’t know what could have happened unless they sold out. I’ve seen it advertised on magazine sites. But I emailed Bette’s assistant and asked about it. I’ll post if I get an answer. Don

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