Greatest Montages in Movies (and their Songs)


In many, many movies, montages are used to show a passage of time in which a protagonist gets better at something by doing several short seconds of work while pump-up music plays. For examples, see virtually every ’80’s movie.

But I think there’s something to be said for the montage used in a poetic light. While, yes, a montage can show a passage of time that could otherwise not be properly shown, the simple combination of music and images can be much stronger than that. When used right, a montage can become the greatest moment of a film, as it is in two of the examples I post here. This is because it demands so little of the viewer, yet can be wholly more intricate and affecting than any other film technique. While all of these montages are strengthened by the context of their respective movies (save maybe Watchmen‘s montage), they can still be deeply affecting without.

Not only that, but a montage can draw out a certain power of music that audio alone can’t. While all of the songs in these clips are beautiful, they are universally enhanced by the images (this works in reverse as well) they are presented with.

Here are some of my favorites.

Watchmen – Opening Credits

Song: “The Times They Are A-Changin’ by Bob Dylan

Say what you will about the movie, but it’s hard to argue that the high point wasn’t the opening 6 minute montage set to Bob Dylan’s classic, “The Times They Are A-Changin.’ ” The montage covered the entire alterante history backstory of Watchmen, and it seems like you’d miss a lot of information presented there without having read the graphic novel first. That said, it’s an incredibly well shot and beautifully laid-out montage that still contains a huge array of American historical milestones. What I like most about this particular montage is the way that its a perfect representation of the way that we see history, through singular moments usually just still images (the images actually speed up more as the montage progresses in time).

Unfortunately, you’ll have to click through to watch, but it’s definitely worth it.

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Bob Dylan | The Times They Are A-Changin’

American Beauty – Ending

Song: “Any Other Name” by Thomas Newman

Narration by Kevin Spacey

It’s probably a bit much to put this on here. American Beauty is the movie that I consider my favorite when asked, and this montage perfectly sums up why. I don’t want to spell out exactly what it is because doing so would ruin a huge part of the movie (as would watching the video, so don’t watch it if you haven’t seen the movie (but go out and see the movie)) but it’s, well, beautiful. Unlike most montages, this one only ever goes backwards. It details a lot Lester’s past and is only ever directly in the present. Because that’s where the beauty is.

Honestly, after watching it again, I feel like if I woke up to this every day I would be a happier man. Quieter maybe, but more content with what I’ve been given. It’s a weirdly wonderful pick-me-up.

And I’ll say it again, it’s beautiful.

WARNING: MASSIVE SPOILERS CONTAINED
(watch the movie if you haven’t seen it. Seriously. Now.)
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Thomas Newman | Any Other Name

Donnie Darko – Ending

Song: “Mad World” by Gary Jules (Tears for Fears cover)

Donnie Darko is a movie that in my opinion, has its fair share of problems and were it not for the simply incredible cover of  “Mad World” by Gary Jules, I think I would have not regarded the movie much at all. But in its last six or seven minutes it uses the montage to create a long moment of beauty by drawing out each of its characters and their connections to titular character Donnie and their emotions at a very critical point. These few minutes make the movie for me, and the fact that the Jules cover is now more well-known for being in a Gears of War commercial that utilizes the song amateurishly at best is sad, because it really does properly belong here in the last minutes of Donnie Darko.

WARNING: VIDEO CONTAINS SPOILERS

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Gary Jules | Mad World (Tears for Fears cover)

Up – Married Life

Song: “Married Life” by Michael Giacchino

This is the second movie where the montage is its best moment. That isn’t to detract from the rest of Up, a Top 3 Pixar movie and masterpiece in many, many ways, but good lord is this one a tour de force of emotion. So much so that it’s hard to imagine that they put it in a kid’s movie. Actually, I take that back. I don’t think we give kids enough credit, they may miss a lot of stuff, but they pick up on a lot of stuff, too.

Anyway, it feels weird to write anything about this one because it’s so complete. So just watch this surprisingly excellent quality Youtube video of it. Even if you’ve seen the movie a million times before, I doubt this wouldn’t get you.

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Michael Giacchino | Married Life

Garden State Teaser Trailer

Song: “Let Go” by Frou Frou

I’ve actually posted this here before, as a part of a brief post on trailers. It might be cheating a little to put this up here, as its not exactly a montage in the sense that I’ve been using it throughout the rest of this post. It simply doesn’t have any outside context beyond itself; it doesn’t belong within anything else. Yet, it does fit the premises of the word traditional sense and is a perfect example of a montage being utilized for emotional impact. Garden State itself isn’t actually very well represented in this trailer, instead it just goes for a sort of feeling. I honestly want Zach Braff to make another movie, becuase I think Garden State was a very solid jumping-off point, and was a good sign of potential. Sure, it could’ve been better, but if the trailer’s any indication of what Braff was going for, then there’s definitely something there.

The other big thing about this trailer was that it entirely destroyed his Scrubs character. While Braff had had his dramatic moments, he’d still been mostly pretty goofy. In this trailer, Braff looks like someone entirely different, which I think is a fairly notable feat.

(The Where the Wild Things Are trailer was also a potential one to use, but the movie sucked too much for me to justify it.)

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Frou Frou | Let Go

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4 Responses to Greatest Montages in Movies (and their Songs)

  1. Tommy says:

    Unfortunately I’ve only really seen Up in it’s entirety out of all of these movies. But I have to admit that it is one of the only movies that made me cry within the first 15 minutes. Jesus I love that movie.

    • Samuel says:

      They’re all pretty excellent movies, though maybe not Watchmen so much. And Donnie Darko has its faults.

      But you’ve never seen American Beauty? It’s far and away my favorite movie, you definitely need to watch it.

  2. Kirsten says:

    I saw Up with my other roommate Amanda in an empty theater at like midnight last summer..thank God we were the only ones in there. We were crying like babies during that part of the movie.
    I need to watch Donnie Darko again, last time I watched it I fell asleep for like three minutes and got extremely confused.

    • Samuel says:

      It is really sad, but I think that’s a testament to just how good it is. It’s only four minutes without dialogue and it’s strong enough to illicit that kind of response.

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