Nothing sets the tone like a nice musical cue, and nothing says "Don't mess with this guy" like a nice rock cue. Movies and rock have gone together for a long time, but genre film too often indulges in big lush scoring or quirky-but-appropriate techno, missing the simple pleasures that a good rock lick can bring to a movie moment. Are these the best examples? Much like rock, no two fans will agree entirely. So let's compromise. Here's nine, in no particular order. You add the one that should totally be here but isn't, and then arrange them to suit your own taste.
The Song: "Magic Carpet Ride," by Steppenwolf
Star Trek has always suffered from a certain stodgy air. Apparently along with eliminating poverty, disease, and hunger, they also dumped pop culture. Data plays the violin and paints? Screw that. If he want to understand the human experience he should be jamming with holodeck Hendrix and lighting guitars on fire. Either way, it's about time somebody on Trek played something cool, and equally fitting that it be the inventor of Warp Drive. Cochrane put a stereo in his warp prototype? Awesome! That's why the humans quickly established a leadership role in the Federation. They had their priorities straight.
The Song: "Johnny B. Goode," by Chuck Berry, covered by Tim May and Mark Campbell
B2tF had a lot of sweet rock in it. Credit Huey Lewis, whose stuff is so timelessly cool that it's still getting radio play. But the big rock moment here is Marty going all Van Halen on Johnny B. Goode. It's got one of the greatest opening guitar licks in rock history, and when Marty cranks into it the whole movie goes from pretty darn awesome to wildly awesome. Those kids in 1955 sure loved it. And you know you loved it, too. Don't lie.
The Song: "Wake Up," by Rage Against the Machine
So you're a group of ragtag freedom fighters working against a huge computer-controlled alternate reality. And when your crew rolls into the matrix they like to indulge in awesome leather coats and hot sunglasses, and then somebody suggests that you soundtrack the moment. What do you pick? Say what you will about Rage Against the Machine (and you can say plenty), but the intro lick underneath that mass entry into the Matrix (and revisited at the very end of the film) is a line of finely cut awesome on a mirror. And it's a nicely layered moment: It's the right group name (the crew is Raging against the Machine, after all), with the right song name (they're there to Wake people Up), at exactly the right moment in the movie. Friggin' awesome.
The Song: "Lapti Nek," by the Max Rebo Band
That's right. 1983. Not 1997. Not 2004. 1983. Want to realize how inescapably cool Lapti Nek was? Listen to Jedi Rocks (the inescapably stupid R&B number with the harmonica player and the backup singers from the inescapably idiotic special edition RotJ). Jedi Rocks almost bookends the special edition trilogy with Fail. Got your "Han Shot First" T-shirt? Now you need one that says "Jabba ain't runnin' no blues club". He's runnin' a disco strip joint, and if you don't like it there's a pit with a rancor in it that we'd like to introduce you to. Bitches.
The Song: "Bad to the Bone," by George Thorogood and the Destroyers
George Thorogood gets a lot of love in the movies, and much of it devolves into silly cliches (children in leather jackets, for instance). But this one serves several purposes. Most importantly, the song is a celebration of bad-to-the-bone-ness. It's upbeat and cool, not mean and menacing. Its presence casts the T-800 (Ahnold) in a different light than the ominous music cues that introduce him. More important, the song accompanies him sparing the life of the bartender, even after mauling the thugs within. This is a different terminator, with a different purpose, and the cue helps us realize that quickly. It also makes it easier to stomach the quips Ahnold hands us for much of the rest of the movie. (Editor’s note: The genre also made good use of the song during its first-ever onscreen appearance: John Carpenter’s Christine.)
The Song: "La Grange," by ZZ Top
(slide to 1:30 to find the song clip)
Harry Stamper (Bruce Willis) is as stock as stock characters get, but gets credit because he's one of the few characters introduced in Armageddon that isn't accompanied by indulgent Aerosmith crap (I love Aerosmith as much as the next guy, but come ON!). The snippet of "La Grange" that introduces Stamper is very small, but establishes him quickly as an old-school blue-collar hardass, exactly what we expect, and exactly the kind of role Willis can play in his sleep. Never mind that Willis actually does play Harry more or less in his sleep--Stamper's cool because ZZ Top tells us so. And we all know better than to disagree with ZZ Top.
The Song: "Sabotage," by the Beastie Boys
Again we get a moment where the right song by the right group is played at exactly the right moment in a film. In this case, a whole new Jimmy Kirk, having been Sabotaged by timeline shenanigans, has become a Beastie Boy. Get it? The whole cue serves to inform us in a matter of moments that this is not the Kirk we knew, boldly going where no man has gone before. This one's a narcissistic sociopath--the only genius level offender in the midwest--and he doesn't care a whit what you think. Or how classic your car is. Or whether he's just an academy cadet. Or if your skin is green (as long as you're hot). Bring it, Jim.
The Song: "People are Strange," by The Doors, covered by Echo and the Bunnymen
"I think you're really gonna like living in Santa Carla," says mother-of-two Lucy. Such a simple, hopeful line. And it's followed by a cavalcade of Cali-coast misfits, freaks, and weirdos for two straight minutes. And in those two minutes we establish a heck of a lot, most notably that this little family on the mend is most certainly not in Kansas (or in this case Arizona) anymore. "People are Strange" establishes Santa Carla as exactly the kind of dead-end community where self-styled individualists can get lost in the haze and a gang of punk vampires can thrive. This is a town where a horror movie is about to happen, and "People are Strange" clues us in right off the bat.
The Song: "Flash's Theme," by Queen
Sweet breakdancing angels! Does it get better than this? I say thee NAY! Ultimately, the entire soundtrack to Flash Gordon is just one massive great rock moment, but Queen's main theme has the iconic "AH-ahhhh!" lyric we all know and love. It really cannot be denied that without the Queen soundtrack, this movie would have been terrible, consigned to the dusty corners of the bargain VHS bin at the skeezy indie video store you used to visit for porn. But Mercury, May and company put this movie on their backs and carry it to rock-operatic heaven. With Queen on board, it effortlessly transcends bad into camp classic territory that'll keep it in our movie libraries forever. He'll save every one of us, indeed.