Ancient Greece had nine muses, but America only needs one: sweet lady jazz. Jazz is about spontaneity, a joyful interplay with your fellow musicians in service of the jam. It’s a vibe, it’s a conversation. An interaction, an experience. It’s flow, baby. Every instrument in a jazz combo (or big band, or sextet, whatevs) has a part to play, but the saxophone can’t help but pull a little focus. It’s so shiny, for one. But it’s also deeply sexual. The sax is phallic, with the bell always positioned at crotch level, waggling in the audience’s face.
Lou Bega may have shouted out “the trumpet,” but cinema loves a sax. Nothing says “people are fixing to bone down” quite like a sultry sax solo. And when the sax man is on the screen? Hoo, baby, you are cookin’. Behold: the ultimate list of hard-core sax scenes, ranked by horn-iness.
They say jazz is all about the notes you don’t play. The toots you don’t hoot, the honks you don’t squonk. But this ranking is based entirely on a “more is more” principle. It’s about clocked horn time, and how prominent the player is to the story. These are all the best horny guys, lone jazz wolves, and big bad voodoo daddies film has to offer.
20. The Blues Brothers, “Think”
The Blues Brothers is a genuinely bizarre film, deeply boomer in its fixations and vibes. John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd found a way to monetize their love of blues, R&B, and soul — first as an after-hours bar in their Saturday Night Live days, and then in this film. It exists solely so these two men could meet their musical heroes and give them opportunities to shine. Of these performers, saxophonist “Blue Lou” Marini probably gets the shortest stick, as his introduction scene is more about letting Aretha Franklin and Matt “Guitar” Murphy spar. To give up on the sax to be a dishwasher in your friend’s diner? Sad. Still, the scene wouldn’t work as well without his sax playing and Silent Bob energy.
19. Return of the Jedi, “Jedi Rocks”
Space saxophones count, fight me. I was torn between this song and the jizz players of the Cantina Band, but settled on “Jedi Rocks” because it does the least to disguise the horn section’s terrestrial origins. Figrin D’an and the Modal Nodes at least sound like they come from another galaxy. “Jedi Rocks” sounds like session musicians on Earth, but at least the Max Rebo band put their whole Rebussies into it.
18. Some Like It Hot, A Thing for Sax Players
Tony Curtis has played a caddish sax player in not one, but two films. So let’s give an honorable mention to The Rat Race, before talking about Some Like It Hot. Curtis and Jack Lemmon play two musicians on the run from the Chicago mob. In order to get out of state, the two men dress in drag to join an all-girl band, fronted by Marilyn Monroe’s “Sugar Kane” Kowalczyk. The scene where she describes the pleasures and pains of dating sax players is some of the most hard-core sax content committed to celluloid — horny, even if not horn-y. It belongs on this list, but ranks relatively low due to technically not having the playing of a saxophone at the heart of the piece. Great read of fuckboy musicians, though.
Available to stream on Max.
17. St. Elmo’s Fire, Halloween Fight
St. Elmo’s Fire is about how the years after college are chaotic and actually kind of shitty. You’ve got no money, your well-laid plans gang aft agley, and the image you’ve constructed of yourself gets torn down by life. When faced with these challenges, you can settle. Or you can chase your dreams of being a really cool sax player in the big city. Rob Lowe chooses the latter. Is it the right choice? Lowe certainly looks cool (in a deeply ’80s way) punching dudes and ripping fat sax solos. Maybe that is a better life than settling down with your college gf. But this scene is still low on the list because what should be the craziest thing onscreen (funky sax man Rob Lowe) is almost crowded out of frame by all the other wack ’80s shit at this part. With Ally Sheedy and Judd Nelson twinning for some reason, Demi Moore’s frosted lip, and the guy cucking Rob Lowe looking like the bully in a “slobs versus snobs” movie, how can one sax man compete?
16. Soul, Meeting Dorothea
Look how shiny that CGI sax is! Arguably, metal is one of the easiest surfaces for Pixar to make look realistic, but there’s something about the luster on that sax that is truly next level. Soul is the one Pixar movie that actually makes the distinction between a job and your soul’s true calling. It’s a good corrective after the studio’s Ratatouilles and Incredibles and whatnot, which make work-life balance out to be a sin. But it does mean Dorothea’s sax skills take a backseat to Joe’s personal growth.
15. Paris Blues, Call-and-Response with Wild Man
Paris Blues is a shockingly modern film, what with all the interracial lust and debates about what we owe to social justice. Jazz musicians Ram Bowen (Paul Newman) and Eddie Cook (Sidney Poitier) have fucked off to France to pursue music and escape racism. They meet two American gals on holiday (Joanne Woodward and Diahann Carroll) who challenge their identities as expats. In this scene, their club gets visited by Wild Man Moore (Louis Armstrong), who engages the boys in a three-way call-and-response game. It’s stunning musicianship on Armstrong’s part, and competent fake-instrument playing by Newman and Poitier.
14. La La Land, Jazzplaining
Why merely show the interplay between musicians when you can have Ryan Gosling tell Emma Stone about it? In one of La La Land’s more easily mocked scenes, Gosling’s character Sebastian debates Stone’s Mia about what jazz even is, man. In Sebastian’s estimation, jazz isn’t Kenny G, it’s a nerve-racking battle of wills between musicians, a connection to the working-class melting pot of New Orleans’ red-light district, and only truly understood when seen live. What Gosling’s character fails to understand is that jazz can be all of those things, and also …
13. Night Shift, Subway Busking
… A way to annoy uptight middle-class herbs. In Night Shift, we get a gorgeous piece of busking theatre from a sax performer who hassles the hapless Henry Winkler until he cuts the guy a check to go away. This is also the essence of jazz, a way to make people feel what you want them to feel — in this case, annoyance. But it elicited a feeling, and that’s the goal of art, is it not?
12. Popstar, “Incredible Thoughts/Donkey Roll”
The “Incredible Thoughts/Donkey Roll” mash-up is the emotional culmination of Popstar. Conner Friel has finally understood the error of his ways, realized that art is a collaborative process, and reunited with his old bandmates and manager. It’s a moment of creative catharsis not only for the childhood friends who make up the Style Boyz, but for their manager Harry, who rips a sweet sax solo. Harry was kicked out of Tony! Toni! Toné! And this is not just a sweet moment between him and his former charges, but a big fuck-you in Tony! Toni! Toné!’s Faces! Facis! Facés!
11. Muppet Treasure Island, Cruise Ship Nights
The Electric Mayhem have been in pretty much every Muppets movie, with sax player Zoot figuring at different levels of prominence. He’s drowned out in The Great Muppet Caper and serviceable in The Muppet Movie. But when I think of sax scenes in a Muppet film, I think of this tiny throwaway moment in Muppet Treasure Island. Rizzo has been treating Squire Trelawney’s ship as a cruise for rats, and the only full-size Muppets seemingly in on the con are the Mayhem. Watching the rats dance in perfect time to Zoot’s sax is what Muppetting is all about. Sure, there’s a real story going on somewhere, but right now we’re focused on that rat couple that’s about to get some. Good for them!
10. Better Off Dead, “Arrested by You”
Better Off Dead is, at its heart, a movie about a guy who is “too much.” Or, at least, too much for the girlfriend he starts the film with. His endgame partner, on the other hand, likes how thick he lays it on. Monique and Lane’s final date at Pig Burgers illustrates this perfectly, where a candlelit, Champagne-drenched TV-dinner date is accompanied by Lane’s sax solo. The synthetic fakeness of the sax only adds to the surreality. It’s so fucking extra, but that’s just how Monique likes it.
9. Mo’ Better Blues, Grandstanding Solo
This is one of two movies (Paris Blues being the other) in which the life of a jazzman is made so much harder by all the pussy they’re getting. Won’t someone think of how it will affect the music? But also, you can’t blame all these women throwing themselves at the Bleek Quintet. Have men looked cooler than Denzel Washington and Wesley Snipes in Mo’ Better Blues? It’s doubtful. One of the central conflicts in Mo’ Better Blues is saxophonist Shadow Henderson (Snipes) hogging stage time with solos. This scene needs to sell the main beef of the film, and it fucking delivers. When the bandleader can step out and have a quick kiki with his manager? That’s a long-ass solo.
8. The Talented Mr. Ripley, “Tu Vuo Fà L’Americano”
Look at Jude Law’s dumb little hat! That says everything, doesn’t it? As the sax-playing, tragically gullible fuckboy Dickie, Jude Law radiates privilege and a fundamental misunderstanding of his place in the world. He thinks he can cosplay as a starving artist in Italy and that his good bud Ripley will have his back. Big LOL on both fronts. The nightclub scene in The Talented Mr. Ripley does a great job of capturing that first generation of white cultural appropriators to get called “hipsters.” What a perfect population for an intrepid sociopath to hide among!
7. Trolls World Tour, Smooth Jazz Attack
Here’s some rare soprano-sax representation, as well as a good indication of why there’s so little of it. Trolls World Tour was completely screwed over by the pandemic. Who would want to watch a movie about traveling around the world at the exact moment nobody could leave their house? No one, that’s who. But it did happen, and it did have a soprano-sax solo in it. As Emma Stone said in La La Land, a lot of people completely conflate jazz with smooth jazz. Some jazz is rough, some jazz is cool, some jazz is hot. And, yes, some jazz is played by Kenny G. But the palliative properties of smooth jazz have their place in society. Life can be plenty rough, so what’s wrong with smoothing it out a little?
6. The Conversation, Ending
Just a guy blowin’ his horn in the shattered ruins of his life. The sax scene in The Conversation is really sold by how gross and sweaty Gene Hackman looks at the end of it. He has sweat clean through his nerdy button-down (who keeps their dress shirt on once they’re home? Get an oversize T-shirt, pal). The Conversation is about a guy whose self-isolating and paranoid tendencies eventually eat him alive, and his sax habit is a clear indicator of his eventual fate. All he does is play along with previously recorded jazz songs, never seeking the fellowship of other musicians. And once he’s completely wrecked his life, all that’s left is to play along with the background music. Which only he can hear.
5. The Little Mermaid, “Under the Sea”
Never forget: The fluke is thee Duke of Soul. This undersea, sax-playing fish is so iconic, he’s been represented as a pin, in a ride, and a ceramic figurine. But not in live-action — just one of the many sins committed by the 2023 remake. Unspeakably ugly Flounder, I could forgive. Rapping Scuttle, it’s whatever. But no fluke, who is the Duke of Soul? Perish the thought. Rumor has it this fish is modeled after the famously non-saxophone-playing Duke Ellington, which is why he’s only at No. 5 and not some position above No. 1. Just look at him; what a submarine dirtbag!
4. The Devil’s Honey, Opening Credits
The Devil’s Honey is a sexploitation movie by Lucio Fulci, who is better known for his disturbingly violent zombie movies. But he also made disturbingly violent sex movies. The rest of the movie is, frankly, kinda gross. But you cannot argue against the fact that the film’s opening credits — in which a sax-playing fella eye-fucks his girlfriend while laying down a juicy saxophone track — belongs on a list of hard-core sax scenes. This sax scene is rated NC-17, not comfortable to really consider for longer than 17 minutes.
3. The Rocky Horror Picture Show, “Hot Patootie”
The sax makes anyone look cooler. Case in point: Meat Loaf, sporting a massive head wound. With a sax jauntily hanging from his neck, it almost makes sense. Meat Loaf is a one-and-done presence in Rocky Horror Picture Show. He shows up, sings a song about how much he likes to fuck on the weekends, blows a mean sax, and gets chopped to bits. Eddie has to be the sexual rival to Dr. Frank-n-Furter, played by Tim Curry at his prime. The only way to fight Tim “The Confuser” Curry is with the power of the saxophone.
2. Lost Highway, “Red Bats With Teeth”
We have a lot of playful sax players on this list. A few mournful, a few whimsical. But Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) in Lost Highway is the scariest sax player on this list. He plays the sax the same way he enacts violence on those around him: quickly, and under a strobe light. The Luna Lounge crowd eats it up, implicating them (and us, the viewer) in Madison’s violence. Composer Angelo Badalamenti pops off with this composition, throwing sax in our face long after the rhythm section is done. Of any on this list, this sax scene is the most gratuitous.
1. The Lost Boys, “I Still Believe”
Was it ever in question that this would be No. 1? This is the most important cinematic sax performance ever recorded. And the most inexplicable. The one to birth “Sergio.” Did you know that Lost Boys director Joel Schumacher said he’s had 20,000 to 30,000 sexual partners in his lifetime? Only someone with that sexual résumé could come up with the “I Still Believe” scene. The film needs to sell the teenage allure and horny menace of (1) the boardwalk and (2) vampires. Something sensual, violent, and borderline incomprehensible. The solution? The biggest crowd you’ve ever seen watching a greased-up man rip fat riffs on his sax. Tim Cappello has been eating out on this scene since 1987, and well he should. He gave his all for this moment, and I still believe it’s the peak of cinema.