90s Music Goes to the Movies

We intentionally dedicated last week to ’90s songs, rather than albums or movies or TV shows; the decade is too big to cover in great depth in a single week. But as Rob alluded to in his essential Soundtracks with Elastica Songs piece, a lot of great ’90s tunes turned up in a lot of great (and not-so-great) ’90s movies, for reasons both artistic and mercenary. So here we’re taking a look at how some of our Top 90 Songs of the ’90s fared in movies that actually came out during the ’90s, with a big assist from film fan and music enthusiast Sara Batkie. A lot of them involve Scenes of Teen Partying.

90s Music at the (90s) Movies

“Fake Plastic Trees” (#61) in Clueless (1995)
“Wah wah wah.” This is how Cher Horowitz reacts to Radiohead in Clueless, with the band standing in for all complaint rock that typically plays on college radio or at least does in Cher’s version of California. I didn’t realize until looking the soundtrack up that it’s actually an acoustic version of the song as its appearance in the film itself is brief and pretty muffled. It is notable, however, for backing the scene that introduces Josh, Cher’s ex-stepbrother and eventual love interest, a plaid-and-Amnesty-International tee-shirt-wearing foil to Cher’s candy-colored Beverly Hills princess. Like Thom Yorke’s sweetly abrasive crooning on the soundtrack, which is otherwise a mix of peppy pop rock numbers by Supergrass and Smoking Popes and sunny covers of Mott the Hoople and Kim Wilde, Josh doesn’t fit his surroundings at first glance. But Clueless remains a classic of its genre for its inclusiveness, from Di and Murray to stoner Travis, even teachers like Ms. Geist and Mr. Hall. In the end, just like Josh and Cher, “Fake Plastic Trees” works with the film because of its differences, not in spite of them. – Sara Batkie

“Lovefool” (#82) in Romeo + Juliet (1996)
Here’s some more list-making trivia for you: “Exit Music (For a Film),” the song directly below “Lovefool” on our list, was written for the movie that made “Lovefool” famous: Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet. For a lot of people (which is to say for me), neither “Lovefool” nor “Exit Music” is the song most associated with that movie or its soundtrack; for me, it’s either “#1 Crush” by Garbage or, perhaps moreso, “Talk Show Host” by Radiohead, a B-side that appeared on the soundtrack album (“Exit Music,” which was, indeed, music that played over the credits in the film, did not appear until the release of OK Computer the following year). The spare riff to “Talk Show Host” plays, if I recall correctly, over a nicely lit shot of young Leonardo DiCaprio walking toward the camera in a sort of brooding haze (the video below is not even really a video, but lacking a proper clip of the song in context, it pretty much gets to the point). “Lovefool” just plays in a party scene, I think, but Michelle’s blurb about the song is correct: it’s hard not to think of that movie when you hear the song, not least because the official music video basically recuts several chunks of the movie to make it appear as if “Lovefool” is playing for most of it.


“Bittersweet Symphony” (#67) in Cruel Intentions(1999)
Rob was gonna write about this one but then the Mets got in the playoffs. It’s too bad, because I think Rob could articulate better than anyone the slow-mo catharsis of the Verve’s song playing over the final moments of this seminal and semi-sleazy teen take on Dangerous Liasons. So, spoiler alert: as Sarah Michelle Gellar gives her phony-ass eulogy for Ryan Phillipe, the song slowly rises in the background, cranking as her comeuppance via photocopied and disseminated diary is complete, before cutting over to Reese Witherspoon donning shades and driving out of town to, well, I’m not sure where, because isn’t she a teenager? Is she going to start over in a new town? And if so, what grade will she enroll in? Also, Witherspoon and Phillipe got married and had kids in real life; that feels significant somehow. Another great takeaway from this scene is that no high schooler of any age, sophistication, or gender, apparently all high school students create lavishly illustrated zines as their journals. Boy, Rob really would’ve nailed the emotion rather than the nitpicks here. I think it’s an especially great use of this song because the movie has a certain faux-sophistication that really vibes with the song’s similarly semi-sophisticated orchestral-Rolling Stones riff.

“Laid” (#71) in American Pie, But Not Really (1999)
Truly, 1999 was some kind of teen-movie renaissance. In addition to Cruel Intentions, that year saw the release of She’s All That, Ten Things I Hate About You, and American Pie, the sex-comedy throwback that nonetheless seemed pretty sex-positive back in the day, especially before its positivity was perhaps diluted by a series of approximately seventy-five direct-to-DVD sequels starring various relatives, associates, and (I assume) clones of Stifler. “Laid” was sort of an unofficial theme song to the movie, and I say “unofficial” because I’m not sure it actually ever plays during American Pie, but became so associated with the film through its trailer that variations on the song recurred throughout the series, including a nauseatingly terrible cover by Matt Nathanson that I believe was featured in the third film, American Wedding. Teen movies of the ’90s were far more likely to toss together a grab-bag’s worth of 15 or 20 vaguely on-trend bands and have their songs play for ten to fifteen seconds during party scenes than to actually use those songs to score memorable scenes, which is why the most memorable music cue in the entire American Pie saga happens during the trailer for the first movie. But once in a while, this approach would lead a teen movie to stumble into something iconic; I have to say, probably the most recognizable ’99 teen movie cue is post-makeover Rachel Leigh Cook coming down the stairs to the strain of Sixpence None the Richer’s “Kiss Me.” But that song didn’t make our list.

“Born Slippy” (#45) in Trainspotting (1996)
Much like the drugs its characters are intent on using, Trainspotting and its soundtrack are an instant rush. The film quite literally hits the ground sprinting with Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” backing up a run from the law and doesn’t let up until Underworld’s “Born Slippy (Nuxx)” which closes things out as Renton walks into his new life. Both songs unfold beneath versions of his famous “choose life” monologues but much has changed between them, particularly for Renton, who by film’s end has betrayed his friends for a duffel full of money. Trainspotting‘s use of music would prove hugely influential in its preference for pre-existing songs over a specially composed score, and it’s difficult to pick a favorite cue from so many classics (Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day,” Blondie’s “Atomic,” even the deployment of the Habanera from Bizet’s Carmen is inspired.) But as Underworld’s opening synths echo seductively, spurring Renton into action before shifting to a churning club beat that matches his determined state of mind, it feels like director Danny Boyle may have saved the best for last. Supposedly a sequel to Trainspotting is in the works; as is often the case with these things, I’m curious but dubious. For me at least, Renton and the gang already had the perfect send off. – Sara Batkie

Bonus Tracks: Everything in A Life Less Ordinary (1997)
I’ve gone on record RE: my love of A Life Less Ordinary, both in print and in the podcast last week. What Rob and I allude to in said podcast is that we both voted for songs that appear on this soundtrack on our individual lists, only to see them not make the list, not even close. Rob chose the title track by Ash, certainly one of their best songs, and the subject of the music video below. I (and also Jason) voted for “Leave,” by R.E.M., a spectacular case of vote-trashing, because R.E.M. wrote a bunch of hit songs in the ’90s that weren’t seven-minute siren-riff album tracks from, at best, their fourth-most popular record of the decade. But New Adventures in Hi-Fi is also their best record (PERIOD) and “Leave” is arguably its epic centerpiece. Hearing this great song pop up in this movie, its driving bleat soundtracking a tense chase scene, was sort of a dream-come-true moment for me, pop-culturally (see also “Fuckin’ in the Bushes” turning up in the movie Snatch). Trivia: the version of the song that’s actually on the soundtrack album is a quieter version, heard briefly in the movie before it kicks into gear with the proper version, and so doesn’t offer the actual running-through-the-woods rush of the real version). Not only did Rob and I both vote for Life Less Ordinary songs, but one of the Oasis B-sides Rob mentions considering for his list is “Round Are Way,” which is the end-credit theme of this movie (though sadly not on the soundtrack). Outside of the ’90s, the movie also has a great scene set to “Beyond the Sea,” so basically, for all of its flaws, it has maybe the best use of music of any of Danny Boyle’s many great music-using movies.

“Smells Like Teen Spirit” (#1) in Pan (2015)
OK, this isn’t a movie from the ’90s, and it’s not even a movie I’m 100% certain is good, but again, this feels significant: the week we published our big ’90s list, the movie Pan came out in thousands of theaters, unexpectedly featuring our #1 song in a scene where hundreds if not thousands of pirates and/or slaves chant the song as Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman) makes his entrance, speak-singing along to himself. It’s a bonkers moment in a bonkers movie that is, of course, basically lifted from Moulin Rouge! by Romeo + Juliet visionary Baz Luhrmann. It’s done better in that movie, as most things are, but that Joe Wright wanted so badly to emulate Baz Luhrmann in his stupid Peter Pan origin movie very much endeared me to the movie, at least in the moment. The whole thing is very much an ongoing battle between Wright’s lovely, inventive visuals and a truly terrible and misguided screenplay; when the movie pauses to rip off Moulin Rouge! with a cover of a bitchin’ 90s song (and later the Ramones!), Wright briefly and improbably wins out over the bad writing. The power of ’90s!