Y tu mamá también. 2001. Mexico. Written and directed by Alfonso Cuarón. Image courtesy of IFC Films/Photofest. © IFC Films

The Perfect Scene, the Perfect Song

MoMA staff share some favorite movie song moments.
Sep 24, 2020

Of the many pairings that transcend their constituent parts—coffee and donuts, chocolate and peanut butter, Hall and Oates—film and song are among the most transporting. Together, to paraphrase Frank Herbert (and Jamiroquai), they allow us to travel without moving. Since we could all use some unfettered travel these days, we asked colleagues in MoMA’s Department of Film and Creative Team to share some of their favorite cinematic song-and-scene pairings. Their responses took us to some beautiful, and often surprising, places...

Natasha Giliberti, Video Producer, Creative Team

35 Shots of Rum (2008) – “Nightshift
Jo, a college student, lives with her father Lionel, a train conductor in a housing complex in the suburbs of Paris. They have a very special but somewhat codependent relationship; since Jo’s mother passed away, she takes care of Lionel. She makes him dinner, does his laundry, and stays very focused on her studies, seeming to forgo her own needs and desires as a budding young woman. But sexual tension has been rising with Noé, their upstairs neighbor. In this scene Joe, Lionel, Noé, and Gabrielle (another neighbor, who has a huge crush on Lionel) go out on the town and end up at a bar where there’s dancing. At first Jo dances with her father, but when the Commodores’ 1985 hit “Nightshift” comes on Noé swoops in. Noé and Joe kiss passionately for the first time. It's the perfect coming-of-age moment, and makes me feel like a teenage girl every time I watch it. The song “Nightshift” isn't even about love or romance—its a tribute to Marvin Gaye and Jackie Wilson—but because of its use in this film, it has gained a slot at the top of my list of sexiest songs of all time.

The Great Beauty (2013) – “Far l’amore (club mix)
Jep Gambardella, Italian socialite and “king of the high life,” is turning 65 and on the verge of an existential crisis. He’s starting to wonder whether all these years of nonstop partying, pleasure, and excess have brought any meaning to his life. In one of the film’s earliest scenes, Jep throws a huge, raging party to celebrate his birthday at his apartment in Rome. Set to Bob Sinclar’s club mix of Raffaella Carrà’s “Far l’amore,” it beautifully showcases the absurdly lavish Roman social scene of which Jep is “king.” An ex–porn star emerges from a miniature model of the Colosseum, a pregnant woman in a belly shirt dances sexily (and is she drinking?), Jep makes out with a girl half his age on a dance floor. At one point the camera turns upside down while Jep dances blissfully. The constant beat seems to echo the repetitive nature of these people’s lives: eat, sleep, party, repeat. As absurdly excessive as this soirée is, watching it through post-pandemic eyes, I wouldn’t mind being there.

Bronson (2008) – “It’s a Sin
Charles Bronson (Tom Hardy) is Britain’s most dangerous prisoner. He is so violent that none of England’s prisons can handle him, even when he’s placed in solitary confinement. After several transfers, Bronson ends up in a psychiatric hospital, where he is heavily drugged. In this scene, the patients at the hospital have a dance party in a huge ballroom to the Pet Shop Boys’ “It’s a Sin.” The ballroom is strangely ornate, but the doors are caged in and guarded. Bronson emerges from a group of dancing psychiatric patients, and stumbles, drooling, toward the door. A guard motions for him to go back and keep dancing. It’s a dark scene, but I found it hard to look away—and I must have listened to that song a hundred times afterward.

Jason Persse, Editorial Manager, Creative Team

Blue Velvet (1986) – “In Dreams
David Lynch’s return to arthouse prominence, nearly a decade after his midnight-movie breakout Eraserhead, is a lush, violent, frequently hilarious journey through the underbelly of an idyllic American Everytown. Lurking behind this Norman Rockwell facade—impeccable lawns, gleaming firetrucks—is a criminal underworld led by a depraved Dennis Hopper and his coterie of henchmen and confederates, including Ben (an impossibly louche Dean Stockwell), whose lip-sync pantomime of Roy Orbison’s 1963 hit “In Dreams” signals that we may be trapped in a nightmare ourselves.

Dazed and Confused (1993) – “Hurricane
Looking for a reliable (some might say even say clichéd) recipe for magical movie moments? Simply add one great song to a slow-motion shot of people walking. As Sasha Jenson puts it in Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused, “Sounds stupid, doesn’t it? It works.” Just ask such slow-motion-walk practitioners as Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson...and Linklater himself, who combined Bob Dylan’s 1976 single “Hurricane” and a then unknown Matthew McConaughey to create one of my favorite slo-mo struts.

Zabriske Point (1970) – “Careful with That Axe Eugene
Speaking of slow motion, Michelangelo Antonioni’s ill-fated, uh...trip through the late-1960s American counterculture may have been loathed by critics and ignored by audiences, but it did boast one hell of a final scene. Over the course of roughly five minutes, a massive house explosion is rendered in glorious detail by cinematographer Alfio Contini, to a revised version of Pink Floyd’s “Careful with That Axe Eugene.” Talk about mind-blowing.

Carson Parish, Theater Manager, Department of Film

Killer of Sheep (1978) – “Shake a Hand
In the middle of Charles Burnett’s austere, melancholic masterpiece, the film ruptures and the emotions spill out. Kids leap from rooftop to rooftop, climb along the bars of apartment windows, and hurl stones across an open alley, all to the languorous yearning of Faye Adams’s 1953 “Shake a Hand”: “Your troubles I’ll share/let me know and I’ll be there.” The pairing is spellbinding; Burnett manages to channel an entire film’s worth of unspoken words into two minutes of social commentary. The moment is so vivid that it later became the cover image for rapper Mos Def’s own aptly titled 2009 masterpiece, The Ecstatic.

La Nana (The Maid) (2009) – “AyAyAyAy
After a film of remarkably high tension—with tremendously low stakes—Sebastián Silva lets his title character loosen up a bit in the last few moments. Silva’s restrained compositions are matched only by Catalina Saavedra’s surreal performance as the territorial maid entirely consumed by her sense of duty and dignity. At the end of the film, we’re treated to her (and our) first and only release, as Pedropiedra cathartically croons “te vas, te vas, tes vas, te vas” and Saavedra begins to lock into the groove.

The Decline of Western Civilization (1981) – “Nausea
“It's a fucking movie representing fucking L.A. DANCE! You want people in Philadelphia to see a bunch of deadbeats?” As the credits break into close-ups and freeze-frames of perma-leathered fans moshing in the pit to a band ominously identified as “X,” we know we’re not in Kansas (or Philadelphia) anymore. Penelope Spheeris’s vengeful portrait of LA’s raging hardcore punk scene at the dawn of the Reagan years remains the godmother of all music docs, thanks to a head-splitting soundtrack chock-full of live performances by Black Flag, Germs, Circle Jerks, and others, which can only be listened to with the volume at 11. All these years later, it turns out Spheeris’s thesis was right: We may have reached the apocalypse after all.

Marta Zeamanuel, Department Assistant, Department of Film

Crooklyn (1994) – “El pito (I’ll Never Go Back to Georgia)
While Crooklyn is one of the warmest, most personal portrayals of a family you’ll ever see, it’s also rich with rowdy neighborhood characters whose lives inevitably color the 1970s coming of age of its young heroine, Troy. On a summer evening run for snacks, Troy comes upon a scene that has transformed a convenience store aisle into a makeshift nightclub. Making his indelible film debut as Connie the Bodega Lady, RuPaul, in baby pink hot pants and a bleach-blonde afro, dances flirtatiously as the repeated proclamation “I’ll never go back to Georgia!” blasts from a stereo. Giving voice to a Southern Black migrant forever turning his back on Jim Crow, the Joe Cuba Sextet borrowed this signature line from Dizzy Gillespie’s “Manteca,” threading it through a jubilant Latin boogaloo anthem filled with whistles, hand claps, wild calls, and uninhibited laughter. An ecstatic defiance fills the air as Connie’s mile-long limbs sway in slow motion during a raunchy rendition of the jerk, while her can’t-believe-his-luck dance partner excitedly shuffles around her. Mouth agape, Troy is transfixed as she reaches for a bag of chips and locks eyes with the towering Connie, absorbing this moment of spectacular abandon.

Inherent Vice (2014) – “Vitamin C” and “Journey through the Past
With drums that steadily march into crashing cymbals, a martial bassline, and antsy guitar string pops, CAN’s 1972 “Vitamin C” opens Inherent Vice by pulling us straight into the chaotic mysteries facing Doc Sportello, a stoner private investigator who’s just been approached for help by Shasta, an old flame whose new boyfriend has gone missing. Among the characters that trip Doc up in this 1970s California–set comedy are shady real estate developers, a nefarious entity called the Golden Fang, an ex-heroin addict turned snitch for Republican activists, and the LAPD. By the moment CAN’s frontman, Damo Suzuki, follows his barely comprehensible mumbling to urgently call out “Hey You!,” the stage is set for the earnest yet intoxicated Doc to clumsily guide us through an ever-expanding labyrinth.

If confusion and menace hinder Doc’s investigation, an enduring commitment to the “one that got away” keeps him going. Upon receiving a postcard from Shasta detailing a memory from their past, Doc flashes back to that moment: During a statewide marijuana dry spell Shasta and Doc, having maniacally extracted a possible dealer’s address from a ouija board, run shoeless in the rain, winding up in front of a closed dry cleaners and an empty lot. Their wild goose chase ends with them folded into each other on the ground, laughing, kissing, and in love. Throughout this scene, Neil Young’s words echo with the longing Doc still feels—even if he won’t fully admit it to himself—asking if his lover’s restless heart will come back to his on a journey through the past. The song crystalizes Doc’s intentions, suggesting that he can’t help but stay true to Shasta, even if she won’t do the same.

Isabel Custodio, Content Producer, Creative Team

Mauvais sang (1986) – “Modern Love
Denis Lavant's frenetic sprint in Mauvais Sang may be the best way to dance to David Bowie’s "Modern Love." Unable to control his emotions (in a hopelessly romantic film which both demands and rejects that discipline), he punches his gut, and spirals into gymnastic leaps and flips. It's an electrifying sequence that adds a pitch-perfect sense of restlessness to this modern heist drama. Impossible to replicate, though Noah Baumbach’s homage in Frances Ha comes close.

45 Years (2015) – “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes
"Would the two lovebirds kindly take to the floor for the first dance?" Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and Geoff (Tom Courtenay) rise from their table at their anniversary party to dance to "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" by The Platters, the same song they danced to at their wedding 45 years earlier. Passive listeners like Geoff sway to the song's rhythm, mistaking its romantic melody for a romantic message. But Kate, now acutely attuned to the state of her marriage, seems to suddenly hear the song for the first time. "Tears I cannot hide / So I smile and say / When a lovely flame dies, smoke gets in your eyes." The song is not a fitting first dance for lovebirds—it never was. One shot, slowly closing in on Rampling's exquisite disillusionment, tracks her gradual but definite realization that their relationship also never meant what she'd assumed it had. The song, the film, and, one senses, the marriage, end.

Sean Egan, Senior Producer, Department of Film

Y tu mamá también (2001) – “Si no te hubieras ido
The end of a long journey. Tequila in a beachside bar. Secrets laid bare and kept close. When Luisa asks her teenage traveling companions, Tenoch and Julio, for a random number and letter to enter into the jukebox, Juan Antonio Solis’s mournful 1999 song “Si no te hubieras ido” is the perfect, and perhaps only, song to play. As Luisa turns and gazes directly into Alfonso Cuarón’s camera, we know the end of this romantic triangle is near, but not before one last epic evening.

You can watch all of the clips from this article in the YouTube playlist below.