Some movies have killer alt rock soundtracks. Others feature actors doing killer musical performances. But how many combine the two? I’m talkin’ bout killer alt rock performances BY actors in movies. Am I talking bout Rock of Ages? No. Am I talking bout Michael J. Fox singing Johnny B. Goode in Back to the Future? Also no, but closer… The following is a list of the top 10 indie-certified musical performances in film. Songs that capture the essence, or straight up ape the style of the alternative tunes we’re all so fond of for the greater good of film.
Elf (2003): Zooey Deschanel – “Baby It’s Cold Outside”
Okay so this one is a bit unfair considering Zooey Deschanel is now knocking out number one hits every other week with the folk duo She & Him, but before Zooey was everybody’s favorite AM pop nostaligist, she was everyone’s favorite manic pixie dreamgirl in movies like Almost Famous and Elf. Her climactic performance of Frank Loesser’s 1944 Christmas classic in the latter was especially beneficial to her career, showing the world she could do more than just act (and look good in a green felt cap).
Before Sunset (2004): Julie Delpy – “A Waltz for the Night”
Like Richard Linklighter’s entire “Before” trilogy, “A Waltz for the Night” is raw, intelligent and intensely intimate. Written by Delpy for the film, the song leads way to one of modern cinema’s great cliffhangers: does he stay or does he go? Luckily for fans of the film, this question was answered 9 years later with 2013’s Oscar nominated (and still somehow underrated) Before Midnight.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000): Tim Blake Nelson – “In the Jailhouse Now”
George Clooney and John Turturro may be lip-synching, but Nelson’s voice is all his own in the Coen Brother’s loopy, depression-era tale of three escaped convicts from a Mississippi chain gang who hit the road to retrieve their loot. With top-shelf blues, bluegrass and gospel music performances peppered throughout, O Brother, Where Art Thou falls firmly within the Coen’s usual musical standards.
Blue Valentine (2012): Ryan Gosling – “You Always Hurt the One You Love”
Ryan Gosling has dabbled with indie rock before (see the video for his band’s bizarre, children’s choir-assisted debut single here) but it’s his ukelele performance of “You Always Hurt the One You Love” from Blue Valentine that is perhaps best known to fans. Providing a heartbreaking bit of lyrical foreshadowing in the film, the song is as bittersweet and intoxicating as the Derek Cianfrance film.
Once (2007): Glen Hansard Marketa Irglova – “Falling Slowly”
Shot on a shoestring budget of $160,000 (US), it’s the songs of Hansard and Irglová—musical collaborators with the band The Swell Season prior to making the film—that make Once the gem it is. Although the project was delayed countless times due to funding issues, when it finally did see the light of day in 2007, it started racking up awards including the Oscar for Best Original Song for “Falling Slowly”. Personally though, nothing beats the polka-inspired lo-fi pop of “Fallen From The Sky”.
Crazy Heart (2009): Jeff Bridges – “Hold On You”
Based on a 1987 novel of the same name, Crazy Heart earned Bridges the 2009 Academy Award for Best Actor. Handling all the film’s vocal duties himself, Bridges took what many critics considered a conventional story and elevated it with his revelatory portrayal of washed up country singer Bad Blake. Sure, country music may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but this is country sung by Jeff Bridges we’re talking about here.
Juno (2007): Michael Cera and Ellen Page – “Anyone Else But You” (by Moldy Peaches)
You may not be harassing them to quit their day jobs, but Michael Cera and Ellen Page’s film-ending duet was a fitting send off to one of 2007’s most pleasant big-screen surprises. Released in 2004 by Kimya Dawson and Adam Green, “Anyone Else But You” was something of a hidden treasure until the immense popularity of Juno made it an indie standard. If you can play guitar and were born between the years of ’85-’90, chances are you, at some point played this song with an ex.
Inside Llewyn Davis (2013): Oscar Isaac – “Fair Thee Well”
For our second entry from the Coen brother’s canon, we have Oscar Isaac’s searing final performance of “Fair Thee Well”. Based on a fictional Greenwich Village musician at a crossroads in his career (and music history in general) Llewyn Davis is a confounding möbius strip of a film. With plotting that cleverly resembles a folk song (complete with repeating refrains that ultimately bring the story back to where it starts) and some unforgettable acoustic performances from the Justin Timberlake, Adam Driver, and others, this is a must see for film buffs and folk fans alike.
Magnolia (1999): Aimee Mann and Cast – “Wise Up”
Tom Cruise, John C. Reilly, and others inexplicably breaking out in song during the emotional climax of a film may not sound like the best of ideas, but it’s hard to argue with results. No matter how many times I see it, this scene always kills.
Empire Records (1995): Renée Zellweger and some other guy – “Sugar High”
The 90’s outfits! The counterculture dancing! The anodyne, Hollywood-friendly pop punk (tell me Renée Zellweger doesn’t sound like a knock-off Courtney Love here!) There is so much to love about this clip that it almost makes me forget how embarrassingly predictable and stupid this movie really is. Lets just say this one fits comfortably into the guilty pleasures category.
Honourable Mentions: Adam Sandler – “50 First Dates”, Heath Ledger – “10 Things I Hate About You”, Various artists – “9 Songs”, Steve Whitmire – “The Muppet Movie”, Joaquin Phoenix – “Walk the Line”, Anna Kendrick – “Pitch Perfect”