With the music-savvy heist film Baby Driver starring Ansel Elgort (our new cover story) out June 28, check out 10 essential music moments from famous car chase scenes in TV and film, featuring everyone from James Bond to Marge Simpson.
“Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows” – The Simpsons
When two moms need to blow off a little steam by burning some rubber and ditching the cops in a high-speed pursuit, what’s the soundtrack to their mid-life crisis? Lesley Gore’s sugar rush of a hit from 1965, of course. In the episode “Marge on the Lam,” Marge and her neighbor Ruth Powers are on the verge of reenacting Thelma & Louise and with the law on their heels Ruth fires up her tape deck for some car-chase accompaniment — only to have “Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows” come on. Ruth promptly swaps it out for Guns N’ Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle.” But Chief Wiggum, hot on their trail, fires up Gore’s aural confection himself and unashamedly sings along. Hey, he has good taste: this 97-second earworm was produced by Quincy Jones and written by Marvin Hamlisch — who, remarkably, will appear again on this list.
“Mona Lisa Overdrive” – The Matrix Reloaded
Believe it or not, the Matrix films feature more great music than repurposed Rage Against the Machine songs — a lot more actually, if you can overcome the kneejerk rage directed against the Matrix sequels and open your ears. For the stunning highway chase in the middle of The Matrix Reloaded, electro-fusion group Juno Reactor composed a 10-minute suite so cool it’ll make you want to don Ray-Bans and a black trenchcoat. “Mona Lisa Overdrive” starts off as a lush orchestral piece with shrieking strings straight out of Ennio Morricone’s “A Silhouette of Doom” and a vibrating trip-hop synth bass — all of that accompanying Morpheus and Trinity’s slow-speed pursuit out of the city. Once they get on the highway “Mona Lisa Overdrive” triples the BPM and settles in for a killer industrial melody perfect for the club or this car-fu ballet for the ages. It makes you long for the days when driving a Cadillac CTS was actually a stylish thing to do.
Chromatics’ “Tick of the Clock”/ All of Cliff Martinez’s music – Drive
Most of the best car chases in movie history (Bullitt, The French Connection, What’s Up Doc?) have no musical accompaniment at all. Drive almost falls into that category, so minimal is composer Cliff Martinez’ music throughout — punctuated only by a few songs by other artists, such as Chromatics’ “Tick of the Clock” in the opening scene. When Ryan Gosling’s unnamed driver is tailed by cops while acting as a perp’s getaway driver, Chromatics season the ambient sounds with only a light electro pulse, like a heartbeat quickening. Then they add a soupçon of synth-bass to turn that heartbeat into a pumping piston. Sometimes it fades away altogether, and all you hear are the fuel-injected sounds of Gosling’s Chevy Impala. He balances his own spare beats with others’ songs seamlessly throughout the rest of the film. How Martinez mastered the art of understatement so completely when he once played drums for The Red Hot Chili Peppers is one of music’s great mysteries.
“The Game Has Changed” – Tron: Legacy
Tron: Legacy has it all: the rare use of CGI for deliberately artificial, painterly effect, not some phony attempt at photorealism; Michael Sheen as a psychotically smiling, cane-twirling nightclub owner; Jeff Bridges waxing rhapsodic about “digital jazz, man”; Olivia Wilde in a Louise Brooks bob sharing her love of Jules Verne; oh and before we forget, an incredible score by Daft Punk. For the lightcycle chase, the duo combine a muted pulse with drum machines, Hans Zimmer horn blasts, and a string section going into Philip Glass overdrive. It crackles with speed. A shame director Joseph Kosinski tried to repeat himself three years later to zero effect by having M83 score the aptly titled Oblivion.
“Italia a Mano Armata Theme” – Death Proof
Quentin Tarantino set a scene of extreme violence to an obscure orchestral work by an Italian composer? I know, I know, your mind’s totally blown. But these needle drops always work, even if it’s been his shtick for the past 15 years. For the final showdown between Kurt Russell’s murderous driver, who gets a thrill from mowing down innocents on the road, and the gang of girls he’s done wrong, Tarantino splices in Franco Micalizzi’s main theme to the 1976 crime caper Italia a Mano Armata, also known as A Special Cop in Action. It sounds like Lalo Schifrin meets James Brown, with those hella horns setting up Kurt Russell inevitably crying “Basta!” With all the death and destruction in this movie, the one thing Tarantino never dares kill is the funk.
“Bond 77” – The Spy Who Loved Me
We all focus so much on the Bond title songs that we forget how good the instrumental scores in this series have been. (John Barry’s soundtracks for Thunderball and The Man With the Golden Gun are as chock full of leitmotifs as any John Williams Star Wars score.) Marvin Hamlisch gave us one of the best, transforming the James Bond theme into a silky disco groove in scenes like the one where Roger Moore’s 007 drives his iconic Lotus Esprit against baddies on a motorcycle, in a car, and in a helicopter. Hamlisch suggested this “Bond ’77” theme, as it was called, was inspired by the Bee Gees’ “You Should Be Dancing,” but there’s a little Nile Rodgers-style guitar chucking on there too. It’s debatable whether nobody did it better as Bond than Roger Moore. But with Hamlisch’s score, no one made it look easier than Moore — or had more fun.
“Foggy Mountain Breakdown” – Bonnie & Clyde
Okay, literal-minded among you, we know “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” is anachronistic in Bonnie & Clyde: the film is set in the early 1930s while Earl Scruggs didn’t record the song until 1949. Who cares? This joyous bit of finger-pickin’, largely responsible for popularizing bluegrass with the general public upon its initial release and again with its appearance in Bonnie & Clyde 18 years later, is the perfect ironic counterpoint to bloody murder and mayhem the doomed bank robbers unleash. It plays during most of their chases down dusty roads and it captures Bonnie & Clyde’s cluelessness about violence and its consequences — and even calls to mind the psychological theory that happy music can make you do bad things.
The Doof Warrior – Mad Max: Fury Road
One common screed against popular music, from the Leavises to Allan Bloom, is that the glandular impulses inspired by guitar riffs, thudding bass, howled vocals, and shaken hips is not different from percussive martial music that urged peasant soldiers to slaughter on the battlefield in centuries past. That martial music inspired violence, while rock music inspires lust — but doesn’t untrammeled lust ultimately lead to violence, they argued? The Doof Warrior, shredding his double-necked, flame-throwing guitar, is the physical embodiment of those fears, as he blasts heavy jams from the roof of a truck to drive on Immortan Joe’s forces to retrieve his disobedient brides. It’s music for our lizard brains — for that part of us that only wants to drive fast, get laid, and go out as legends.
“Scotty Tails Madeleine” – Vertigo
Yeah yeah, this isn’t a car chase, I know. But it’s a “tailing” sequence, one car closely following another as part of an act of detection. Jimmy Stewart’s private dick Scotty is trying to figure out what’s the deal with Madeleine, the haunted wife of a friend of his. Bernard Herrmann’s score here, relying on a low clarinet and bassoon, both evokes the fog horns of San Francisco Bay, where a pivotal scene is set, and paints a sonic portrait of Scotty’s growing suspicion of, but attraction to, Madeleine. Most music in car chase scenes will simply add to the action — Herrmann’s music gets inside Scotty’s head, a far more dangerous place to be than any blacktop.
“I Will Follow Him”/”Wipe Out” – Scorpio Rising
You know, I don’t even know if this is a chase scene at the end of Kenneth Anger’s experimental 1963 short, but this neo-Nazi biker gang sure does seem to be going somewhere fast. Anger, a Hollywood devotee with avant-garde ambitions, was obsessed with celebrity, beauty, and the relationships among fame, pop music, the counter-culture, and fascism. In Scorpio Rising, his homoerotic fascination with leather-clad bikers and their buff bods becomes something darker as it goes along — we see this gang appropriating Nazi symbolism as their own before revving their engines and heading somewhere fast. Is it the law that’s chasing them? Another gang? Or are they themselves chasing death? No matter. Their journey is scored by Anger’s unauthorized sampling of early ‘60s pop hits, a medley which reaches its climax at the end with the one-two-three punch of Gene McDaniels’ “Point of No Return,” Little Peggy March’s “I Will Follow Him,” and Surfaris’ “Wipe Out.” Of all the scored vehicular mayhem on this list, Scorpio Rising is perhaps the least known but the most influential: it invented the idea of the pop-song score. Film students Martin Scorsese and George Lucas watched Scorpio Rising and ended up making their own feature-length movies with pop scores: Mean Streets and American Graffiti.