There are few filmmaking devices as misunderstood as the musical montage. Often dismissed as a poor director padding out their film, or a blatant hook to sell a song off the back of it.
When used badly, a montage can sink a film totally, but when employed correctly, with the right mix of visuals, cutting and music then magic can truly happen.
Below are 7 of the best montages of all time.
Boogie Nights: Machine Gun
This is a very 90's take on the montage, with dialogue and regular action as part of it but like any good montage - this is where we see Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg) actually become a star and how he does it. The choice of music, Machine Gun by The Commodores not only fits the time but also, with no lyrics allows the actors the chance to have some fun with the late 70's setting - there are subtle nods to Saturday Night Fever and Dallas in there and there is nothing funnier than the cheesy dancing of Marky Mark & John C. Reilly, cos you know it is probably very realistic.
For a darker movie, this is one of the few truly fun interludes, made all the more important by the next one - the death of Little Bill at the turn of the decade to Charles Wright's "Do Your Thing".
This film has arguably the best use of music in almost any film, but as montages go there are few if any better than 'The Death Montage'. As Jimmy Conway becomes more paranoid about the famed Lufthansa heist, he begins tying up loose ends, starting with Johnny "Roast Beef", his wife and their beloved Pink Cadillac. The choice of the piano based outro from Derek & The Dominoes 'Layla' is inspired, as each layer of music builds, another, more grisly discovery is made. This is one of the few montages where voiceover actually adds to it, with Ray Liotta's Henry giving us a commentary of who was dead and why, even offering his own wry sense of humor. Again the genius also comes with what follows, that even best laid plans go awry and no sin goes unpunished. What could be seen as Jimmy's most triumphant moments are quickly juxtaposed with his worst.
Rocky IV: Hearts On Fire
Sly Stallone learned early about the value of music and while any one of the 'Gonna Fly No'" training montages or 'Eye Of The Tiger' moments from the first 3 movies could easily make this list, it was Rocky IV where the idea actually moved on, as did the montage as a plot device.
In many ways, the movie fits that earlier mentioned padding, there are several montages in the movie, all are excellent for their choice of imagery, tension and actually fitting the story.
However it's John Cafferty's belter that takes centre stage and steals the film, Rocky running up a mountain rather than the steps of the Philly Library is a striking image. The Italian Stallion's lo-fi training against the hi-tech Russian machine gets the blood pumping with the song, which fits the tempo of both guys pushing themselves to and past their limits.
The masterstroke is adding some of soundtrack composer Vince DiCola's own arrangement and jolt cuts to the end of the song (the outro never appears on any album version), as the song hits it's climactic horns, Rocky is literally on top of the world screaming Drago's name... he and the viewer are ready for the war ahead and the outcome is assured.
The Karate Kid: You're The Best
Anyone born before 1997 instantly knows this song and the sequence that it was part of.
After months of training and fear, Daniel LaRusso is finally in the tournament he doesn't think he can win. As Joe Esposito sings the verse, you see Daniel's confidence and belief grow. With each shock win and chorus everyone, including the viewer begins to believe The Karate Kid is indeed 'The Best Around' making Johnny's famous 'Sweep The Leg' moment all the more galling and dramatic. Anyone born after '97, probably knows it cos it's been parodied so much... which is a shame.
Ferris Beuller's Day Off: Danke Schon/Twist & Shout
Often the peaceful interlude right before this, with Dream Theatre's cover of 'Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want' makes these kinds of lists, and it is a very cool piece of movie history in it's own right - existential but accessible but almost immediately after comes one of the most fun scenes of all time. While it does stretch the montage theme to it's limit, the action is rarely focused on Ferris himself who steals the role of Grand Marshall, more the reaction of the city. While he begins mock crooning "Danke Schön", it very quickly becomes a full on party with 'Twist & Shout' - The Beatles version of course.
It's also one of the few times a full song is used, usually there is a cut down or reduced version but we get the full rock out experience, complete with the classic drum outro. The highlight is Ferris's dad dancing in his office, completely oblivious to his sons involvement. If you don't love this scene, then there really is no pleasing you.
Revenge Of The Nerds: Mission Impossible
While Bone Symphony's 'Put One Foot...' is the most remembered montage, the best is arguably when the nerds break in to the Pi dorm, for the totally unacceptable today, but acceptable in the 80's purpose of rigging cameras to spy on naked women.
In itself, the scene is a parody of both the show, and of the movie's ancestor, Animal House - which saw a horse used and was crying out for the use of Lalo Schifrin's iconic theme to Mission Impossible. We get it here and despite it now being quite disturbing a premise, it is is still one of the most fun moments of 80's film.
Die Hard With A Vengence: Summer In The City
While relatively short, the opening montage of John McClane's third outing is among the best uses of music in an action movie. As the siren like organ and drums bring in the movies title, we cut to New York at sunrise, representing the calm before the storm. The lyrics of the song fit the hustle and bustle and is then punctuated by the mother of all explosions taking out a department store and most of it's block.
In a minute and ten seconds, it sets not only the tone that New York and McClane are "about to have a very bad day" but that you're not going to know whats coming. It's still one of the best intros to a movie ever, but as a montage it's arguably also one of the best!
What's your favorite? Include it in the comments below or vote in the poll!