Movie Songs

10 Movies That Forever Changed Iconic Pop Songs

May 30, 202411 Mins Read

There’s a real art to perfecting a needle-drop moment, and movies sometimes succeed or fail based on how well they select pre-existing music to accompany certain scenes. Choosing already recorded music can be a good alternative to entirely new scores being composed, but these song selections have to be done with care, and it can sometimes be wise for filmmakers to stay away from music that people know well (and perhaps already associate with other things).

That means, essentially, that it’s extra risky to take popular songs and fit them into a new movie, just because other movies might’ve used them already, or they might be so iconic they’ll likely prove distracting. So, when a movie takes a huge song and not only uses it well, but changes the way you think about that song going forward, that’s a big deal. The following films all do this with popular hit songs, and all use said songs memorably enough that, after seeing the movies in question, you may not be able to hear the song on its own without thinking of the movie it’s now linked to.

10 ‘Robot Dreams’ (2023)

“September” – Earth, Wind & Fire

Dog and Robot hanging out at the beach in Robot Dreams
Image via Bteam Pictures

A unique (and uniquely moving) animated movie, Robot Dreams was one of several great animated movies released in 2023, getting nominated for Best Animated Feature at the Oscars (though The Boy and the Heron and Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse always seemed like the front-runners). The plot of Robot Dreams is simple, being about a lonely dog named Dog who buys a robot companion and has a great time, until the two become separated, and the film then becomes about them trying to find each other again.

Robot Dreams manages to be funny, emotional, and narratively satisfying all without dialogue, with both the animation and music playing a huge part in telling the straightforward but impactful story. “September” by Earth, Wind & Fire is heard throughout the film, effectively becoming its theme song, in a way, and getting continually remixed and re-interpreted depending on the scene. It’s perhaps one of the most beloved R&B/disco songs of all time, but Robot Dreams manages to utilize it so effectively that it almost feels like it was made for the film.

Watch in theaters

9 ‘Kingsman: The Secret Service’ (2014)

“Free Bird” – Lynyrd Skynyrd

Galahad onloading his gun at a church in Kingsman: The Secret Service.
Image via 20th Century Fox

Matthew Vaughn doesn’t always use needle drops perfectly (and neither is his filmography the most consistent one out there), but when he gets things right, his style of high-octane action is well-served by popular/exciting music. And, indeed, there probably isn’t a better use of music in any of his movies than “Free Bird” by Lynyrd Skynyrd being used in the legendary/infamous church fight sequence in Kingsman: The Secret Service.

It’s a brutal action sequence involving Colin Firth one-man-army-ing his way through various churchgoers after everyone in the building becomes murderously violent, thanks to a signal from various SIM cards. “Free Bird” might seem like one of those legendary rock songs that’s just too popular – and perhaps even overplayed – to consider using in a movie, but this ludicrously violent and well-choreographed scene in Kingsman: The Secret Service just wouldn’t be a same without a little Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Rent on Apple TV

8 ‘Goodfellas’ (1990)

“Layla” – Derek and the Dominos

Goodfellas - 1990 (7)
Image via Warner Bros. 

There are too many great Martin Scorsese needle drops to count, but none hit quite as hard as the use of “Layla” (well, the second half of said track at least) underscoring the aftermath of various violent scenes in Goodfellas. Robert De Niro’s character, Jimmy Conway, is said to have ordered various gang members of his killed after a large-scale heist, with this montage underscoring the extent of his murderous plan.

This version of “Layla,” by Derek and the Dominos, might not be as well-known as the shortened and acoustic version later recorded by Eric Clapton (Derek and the Dominos was a short-lived band he fronted), but it’s the one that’s been immortalized thanks to Goodfellas. It was a successful epic rock song before 1990, but hearing the second half of this 7-minute-long track without thinking of the classic Scorsese film is pretty well impossible.


Release Date
September 12, 1990

Martin Scorsese

145 minutes

Rent on Apple TV

7 ‘All of Us Strangers’ (2023)

“The Power of Love” – Frankie Goes To Hollywood

Adam and Harry lying in bed together in All of Us Strangers
Image via Searchlight Pictures

One of the best romance films of the past few years (perhaps even of all time), All of Us Strangers is haunting, dreamlike, and, when it wants to be, kind of soul-crushing. It tells the story of a man reconnecting with his parents, somehow, even though they passed away years earlier, and, all the while, also striking up a romance with another man who seems to also be dealing with pervasive loneliness.

It has an engaging soundtrack, too, using music from the likes of Pet Shop Boys, Blur, and Frankie Goes to Hollywood. It’s the last of those artists who gets used the most memorably, with “The Power of Love” (admittedly not their best-known song, given “Relax” exists) used in a shattering way right at the film’s end. It continues to play into the credits, and after watching All of Us Strangers, proves to be a difficult song to listen to without thinking about how emotional the final act of that 2023 film gets.

Watch on Hulu

6 ‘American Psycho’ (2000)

“Hip to Be Square” – Huey Lewis and the News

Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman wielding an axe in American Psycho
Image via Lionsgate Films

One of the joys that comes with setting a movie in the 1980s is having an excuse to use plenty of music popular during said decade, with American Psycho arguably doing so before it was cool (1980s nostalgia became much bigger during the 2010s). And, honestly, it’s hard to look past any song that isn’t “Hip to Be Square” by Huey Lewis and the News, which has been forever (and hilariously) corrupted by one of American Psycho’s most iconic scenes.

Patrick Bateman even talks about the song and its placement within the band’s body of work before committing a murder while it blares in the background, so it’s more than a standard non-diegetic needle drop. Just look at the comments under the video for “Hip to Be Square” on YouTube. Good luck finding a comment that doesn’t reference American Psycho in some way.

American Psycho

Release Date
April 13, 2000

Mary Harron


Watch on Peacock

5 ‘Saltburn’ (2023)

“Murder on the Dancefloor” – Sophie Ellis-Bextor

Saltburn - 2023
Image via Amazon MGM Studios

Saltburn is a comedy of the darkest sort, revolving around one young man inserting himself into the life of an upper-class family, slowly revealing darker and darker aspects of his personality. Things start stylish and kind of fun, but Saltburn – though divisive – does succeed in building up tension and getting gradually wilder and wilder, all leading up to an ending that’s hard to forget, regardless of whether you actually like it or not.

Without divulging specifics/spoilers, the early 2000s pop hit “Murder on the Dancefloor” by Sophie Ellis-Bextor plays throughout the ending sequence, and though it’s likely a nostalgic song on its own (owing to it being more than 20 years old), it now feels – for better or worse – a bit like “the Saltburn song.” In the end, the film ensured “Murder on the Dancefloor” had a spike in popularity (particularly thanks to TikTok) potentially comparable to that of Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill,” after that song was featured in the fourth season of Stranger Things.


Release Date
November 17, 2023

Emerald Fennell

127 minutes

Watch on Amazon

4 ‘Boogie Nights’ (1997)

“99 Luftballons” – Nena

Alfred Molina as Rahad Jackson in a silver robe holding a gun in Boogie Nights
Image via New Line Cinema

Even though it has to contend with Paul Thomas Anderson’s stylish direction and a great ensemble cast, the music used throughout Boogie Nights still manages to shine. The music used throughout is generally well-picked, and there’s also a great deal of it, given the film’s 2.5 hours long and covers a great deal of ground. Having some of the story take place in the 1970s and some in the 1980s also necessitates the use of popular music from two separate decades.

Nena’s “99 Luftballons” underscores part of Boogie Nights’ most intense sequence, which sees several characters trying to scam a drug dealer by selling him baking soda while trying to pass it off as cocaine. The ‘80s new-wave/rock hit is already iconic on its own, but the way it’s used to build tension that reaches an explosive crescendo in Boogie Nights is expertly done, tying both song and film together surprisingly well.

Boogie Nights

Release Date
October 7, 1997

Paul Thomas Anderson


Main Genre

Watch on Paramount+

3 ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ (2014)

“I Want You Back” – The Jackson 5

Guardians of the Galaxy - 2014 (4)
Image via Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

There are many reasons to like the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, and all within James Gunn’s trilogy represent the superhero genre at its best. One thing these films tend to do particularly well, though, is select memorable needle drops, with such music being worked into the films well because the main character, Peter Quill, has two memorable (and awesome) mixtapes, and later obtains a Zune player, too.

Some of these songs were massively well-known before any Guardians of the Galaxy movies were released, but for anyone who’s seen the movies, it can now be hard to listen to some of the songs they used without thinking of the trilogy’s brand of sci-fi action/adventuring. “I Want You Back” by The Jackson 5 might be one of the most famous of the songs used in the first movie, and it now feels strongly tied to the ending, particularly the image of a now infant Groot dancing to the song whenever Drax isn’t looking.

Guardians of the Galaxy

Release Date
August 1, 2014

121 minutes

Watch on Disney+

2 ‘Reservoir Dogs’ (1992)

“Stuck in the Middle with You” – Stealers Wheel

The ear scene in Reservoir Dogs with Michael Madsen
Image via Miramax

Quentin Tarantinoexploded onto the film scene in the 1990s, with his early crime movies feeling fresh while also taking inspiration from older movies the writer/director clearly held in high regard. Tarantino also became well-known straight away for taking songs (some well-known, and some sort of forgotten), and pairing them perfectly with scenes in his movies, perhaps never doing so better than he did with Stealers Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle with You” during the most infamous scene in Reservoir Dogs.

The song was a decently popular hit when first released, but now it’s been forever associated with a sickening act of cruelty/violence (albeit most of it off-screen… still horrifying, though). The overall feeling of the song shouldn’t mix well with such a sadistic sequence, but somehow it does, and was an early indication of Tarantino’s uncanny ability to pick perfect – yet unexpected – songs to accompany his movies.

Watch on Criterion

1 ‘Aftersun’ (2022)

“Under Pressure” – David Bowie and Queen

Aftersun is a decade-defining film, being one of the best of the 2020s so far and also potentially being up there as one of the most impactful coming-of-age movies ever made. The plot is simple, but it’s executed in a way that’s tremendously moving, essentially being about a woman piecing together memories of a holiday she had with her father when she was a child, at a time when he was clearly battling some personal demons while trying to hide that anguish from his daughter.

It’s a slow and sometimes perplexing film, but Aftersun all comes together in a staggering final scene that changes everything, and features the iconic song “Under Pressure,” a collaboration between David Bowie and Queen. It’s one of the better-known Bowie songs, and is up there with the most famous of all Queen’s tracks, but no matter how many times you’ve heard it before, your perception of it will be impacted by the way it’s used in Aftersun, for better or worse.

Rent on Apple TV

NEXT: The Best B-Movies of the 1980s, Ranked

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