Whether it’s an original song or an application of a pre-existing tune, the proper musical cue in a movie is often the difference between a good scene, and one that both sears into your brain and sticks to your soul. (And, for the songwriter, a royalty paycheck for life!) We’ve witnessed this magic at the movies every year, dating back to the introduction of the talkies, and 2019 was no aberration.
In a glorious 12 month-span, we got A-listers belting out iconic Disney tunes, a Bruce Springsteen cinematic love letter, and 50-year-old Jennifer Lopez slinking around a pole to a 1997 Fiona Apple alt-rock staple. Quentin Tarantino dusted off his vinyl collection for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, while Martin Scorsese made sure to devote minute one of his 209-minute opus The Irishman to the the doo-wop classic “In the Still of the Night.” There’s also Cats… but enough about Cats.
Of all the fantastic music moments in 2019 movies, these were the ten best. (Warning: Mild spoilers ahead!)
10. Will Smith, Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen do Disney (Aladdin/The Lion King)
In its continued bid to take over the world, Disney released fancy new versions of two beloved Millennial favorites. Let’s save the ire about these pointless cash-grabs for another time: Fact is, Aladdin and The Lion King were monster money-makers that featured noteworthy stand-out performances.
Start with Will Smith, who was a congenial delight as the larger-than-life blue Genie. His energetic and fully committed performance culminated in a rousing rendition of the zippy classic “A Friend Like Me.” Over in the African jungles, Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen — er, rather, their lively vocals — were so winning as sidekicks Timon and Pumbaa, respectively, that they upstaged Beyoncé and Donald Glover. We could all use a little of the pair’s problem-free “Hakuna Matata” philosophy.
9. Ed Sheeran’s “Hey Jude” critique (Yesterday)
Ah, a good self-effacing star turn will never get old. The latest example: Ed Sheeran in Yesterday, a comedy forged on the bonkers premise of “What if The Beatles' music never existed?” The answer: Sheeran would still be a mega-successful singer-songwriter, apparently, albeit a misguided one. In an amusing appearance, he befriends overnight sensation Jack (Himesh Patel) — one of the few people on Earth who still recall the Fab Four’s repertoire — and instructs him to change the title of “Hey Jude” to “Hey Dude,” because “Jude” is too old-fashioned. “It’s definitely gonna be one of the best songs of the generation!” he later enthuses from the recording booth. And yet, “Shape of You” remains untouched.
8. The Sondheim Salute (Joker; Knives Out; Marriage Story)
Apparently, there was a memo circulating around Hollywood titled “Please insert a Stephen Sondheim song in your movie.” How else to explain the use the 89-year-old Broadway composer’s work in three prominent films? In Knives Out, a private investigator (Daniel Craig) — stuck on a case and in his car — puts in his earbuds and croons the lyrics to “Losing My Mind,” from Follies. Joaquin Phoenix, wearing his exaggerated caked-on makeup, gets accosted by a group a group of finance guys while singing A Little Night Music perennial “Send in the Clowns” in Joker. And Marriage Story features two Company classics, in “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” and “Being Alive.” The latter serves as the drama’s emotional crescendo, as a newly divorced Adam Driver dashes to the mic in a piano bar and sings every word with his heart wide open. Bravo.
7. Young Elton John wows ‘em at the Troubadour (Rocketman)
The cast and filmmakers and Elton John himself made it clear during the press rounds of Rocketman that this movie was to be considered a musical fantasy, and not a straight biopic. As if someone would believe that John, as effortlessly played by Golden Globe and SAG nominee Taron Egerton, literally shot into the sky and disintegrated into a firework in the 1980s. For the most part, the creative liberties were used to dazzling effect, and the piece de resistance was this 1970-set scene at the famed Troubadour, when nervous novice John warbles “Crocodile Rock” in his first American show. He’s so dynamite that he levitates while playing the piano, ultimately landing a record deal. In real life, John still hasn’t landed.
6. Two kids, World War II and a David Bowie dance (Jojo Rabbit)
Jojo Rabbit isn’t like most World War II movies — and not just because the titular main character, a sweet and lonely 10-year-old boy, converses with a bumbling imaginary friend named Adolf Hitler. Director Taika Waititi infused his whimsical satire with an eclectic modern soundtrack, capped by use of a 1977 David Bowie banger in the closing scene. That’s when Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) hears that the war is over, and says goodbye to the Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) hiding inside his family’s home. The unlikely friends give each other one last look and start moving their limbs in celebration as “Heroes” plays in the background. A scene that could have been absurdly twee is instead surprisingly moving. And, fine, slightly twee.
5. An introvert emerges onstage via an Alanis anthem (Booksmart)
Well, we’ve all stomped around and belted out Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know," though usually from the privacy of our own bedroom. In Booksmart, the break-up anthem is used to embolden an introvert (Kaitlyn Dever) on the eve of her high-school graduation. Throughout most of the coming-of-age flick, Dever’s Amy and her more outgoing bestie (Beanie Feldstein) bounce from one classmate’s shindig to another in a bid to hang with the cool crowd. Amy wants to go home, but during during a raucous round of karaoke in a darkened room, her crush asks her take a turn at the mic. Amy slowly rises, the sound briefly fades out, and she goes for it at full blast. It’s a major turning point for the character, and a courageous one.
4. High schoolers cut loose to The Boss (Blinded by the Light)
It’s 1987 in a working-class part of London, and 16-year-old Javed (Viveik Kalra) has just discovered Bruce Springsteen. Now he’s obsessed with the Boss’s wisdom, and wants to share his passion with the world. Or, at least, his fellow high schoolers. He takes over the in-house DJ booth and puts on the record to the 1975 classic “Born to Run.” What results is an ecstatic sequence in which he and his best friend saunter through the halls — and then in a soccer field, and then near a highway (presumably jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive?) in a bout of sheer, unrestrained joy. The positive energy radiates off the screen.
3. The climactic encounter with the Manson Family (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood)
Quentin Tarantino has long shown a knack for memorably punctuating his violence with song. The soundtrack that accompanies his wistful ode to his L.A. roots is a time-capsule beauty, with cuts from Simon & Garfunkel and Deep Purple. Indeed, as the narrative builds to the fateful night when Charles Manson’s family drove up to Cielo Drive in August 1969, there's additional suspense in wondering how Tarantino would put his unique spin on the horrific events, and which music he’d use to score it. Cut to Brad Pitt’s too-cool stunt man Cliff Booth drop-kicking the cult members (and would-be savages) to a 1967 Vanilla Fudge version of “You Keep Me Hanging on.” The cover is raw and acidic and slowed to perfection, and its arc befits the over-the-top events that unfold onscreen.
2. Renee Zellweger takes us somewhere special (Judy)
Renee Zellweger said she took the role of Judy Garland to examine “the human side” of the icon. Indeed, Judy Garland had always seemed like a heavily medicated, frequently drunk caricature in her later years. True to her word, Zellweger portrayed Garland with a potent mix of empathy and grace — and her final scene as her is a melancholic marvel. In a recreation of her final London concert in 1968, Garland kneels by the stage for her signature song: “It’s about hope, and we all need that,” she proclaims, before launching into “Over the Rainbow.” If you don’t have a lump in your throat by the she reaches “once in a lullaby,” you’re dead inside.
1. J.Lo becomes a "Criminal" (Hustlers)
There may have been more important scenes on the screen this year, but none as flat-out jaw-dropping, and frankly, awe-inspiring as the one in Hustlers when a scantily clad Jennifer Lopez slithers up a pole with rattlesnake-like smoothness and spins around as if she’s water circling a drain. Lopez, also a producer on the film, wanted her tough-talking, stiletto-strutting performer, Ramona to make her introduction via a cover version of Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game.” But writer-director Lorene Scafaria suggested Fiona Apple’s sultry “Criminal.” Ramona, after all, also instigated a scheme in which she and her fellow strippers swindled their male clients out of money. In other words, she was about to be a bad, baaaad girl. No wonder why they followed the leader. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to hit the gym.