If you asked me to pick a song that will probably still be played 200 years from now that song would be Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird.” That doesn’t mean I love the song, although I am fond of it. It’s just that “Free Bird,” particularly its noteworthy double-guitar solo at the end, has become one of the most profound cultural artifacts of the last 50 years. It’s as instantly recognizable as Ravel’s “Bolero” or Rossini’s “William Tell Overture,” and continues to stand out no matter how many technically superior guitar works have come along since. “Free Bird” is that perfect mix of hard enough to keep the scrubs out and accessible enough that you never find it douchey to be played.
It’s also just an incredibly exciting piece of music, which is why some of film’s greatest moments have been centered around it. Today we’re going to celebrate all that “Free Bird” has meant to the movies.
Otherwise known as that flick where Cameron Crowe started going down the tubes, Elizabethtown is kind of a mess of a movie. Orlando Bloom plays a man whose life is falling apart and ends up on a journey across America following the death of his father. At the eulogy for his dad, a relative reunites his Skynyrd cover band for a rousing rendition of “Free Bird” that turns crazy when a flying bird prop catches fire from the stage lights. The band plays throughout the ensuring carnage, perfectly getting across the somewhat ham-handed message of the movie that life is about persevering through battles. It’s easily the best part of a pretty awful film.
FORREST GUMP (1994)
“Free Bird” is a song eternally associated with death. Skynyrd regularly dedicated it to the late Duane Allman at live shows, and after the death of the several band members in a 1977 plane crash it became rock’s most famous up-tempo dirge. Forrest Gump used it in part to have Robin Wright’s character Jenny contemplate escaping her unhappy, drug-filled life by jumping out of a window. She ultimately decides against it, but “Free Bird” is used to ratchet up the tension considerably to make the audience think she might.
This film honestly deserves more praise. Six couples road-trip towards a karaoke contest, and while the writing and characterization is admittedly hit or miss, Duets felt like the mainstream culmination of a lot of desperately sad indie films from around the same time. One of the most moving moments comes from Andre Braugher, a convicted felon whose journey with a disillusioned family man encourages him to go straight. Circumstances don’t allow it, though, and Braugher sings a touching a cappella version of “Free Bird” as the cops surround the stage, ultimately committing suicide-by-cop at the end.
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KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE (2014)
The movie that inspired me to go exploring for “Free Bird” in film was last year’s surprise action hit Kingsman. If you had told me the most exciting thing on the screen one year would be Colin Firth murdering a hundred people in a church to a classic-rock staple, I would have asked you what the going price for such good hallucinogenics was on the street these days. It’s a fight scene we’ll still be talking about decades from now, and “Free Bird” only makes it all that more amazing — not least because it cleverly reverses the song by ending with soft, almost silent piano notes reminiscent of the intro.
THE DEVIL'S REJECTS (2005)
But my absolute favorite use of “Free Bird” in a movie? It has to go to the end of The Devil’s Rejects. Absolutely nothing else like it has ever been seen. It’s a mixture of Vanishing Point, Thelma & Louise and Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid, but more than all three of those combined. The murderous Firefly family chooses to go out of the film in a hail of bullets, determined to take as many of the cops who fear and hate them down as possible. There is no redemption to be had; the only emotion we get is the three remaining killers’ mutual love and respect for each other and a hatred of the rest of the world. It’s one of the most beautiful, terrible things ever committed to film, and one of the reasons it works is because “Free Bird” has become the code-song for how to die. May it never change.