This feature is double-posted over at the always excellent Scene Stealers where there is likely to be more conversation, so pop over there if you have a comment!
Welcome back to a look at the highs and lows of movie music. Three weeks ago we covered the Top 10 Movies that Stole the Song. Today we continue with Top 10 Songs that Own the Movie. We'll have the 10 Worst Movies Named After Songs, finally The Top 10 Movie Singalongs in this space soon. So let’s continue with the rock and/or roll!
Whether for cross-marketing purposes, artistic goals, or simply because they can, most big-budget films are released with a new radio-friendly single. This is often by a well-established artist who can simultaneously sell some records and put more fannies in movie theater seats. When this symbiosis works, the industry gets a blockbuster movie with a very popular music video to boot. How much additional success came Ghostbusters’ way thanks to Ray Parker Jr.’s catchy theme song? But sometimes the hit is so monumental (or the movie so flimsy) that it overshadows the film completely. These movies may now be forgotten or simply viewed as sidekicks to the massive hits they spawned. For every flick on this list, there’s a good chance anyone watching is just hanging in there to hear the tune. There were a lot of options that didn’t make the cut, so leave your favorite omissions in the comments.
Some quick notes on the rules: Existing songs picked up for the movie do not qualify, so, very sorry to you, Mrs. Robinson . The movie must truly be overshadowed by the song, therefore “Fight the Power” and “Don’t You Forget About Me” don’t make the cut as their movies have stood the test of time. Musicals belong in some other category and with some other writer.
10. “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees – Saturday Night Fever
Think about the word disco. What’s the first thing to pop into your head? The first image may or may not be a primped John Travolta heading out for a night of strutting on a glowing dancefloor. It’s certainly in the list, proving that the film does have some staying power and relevance even today. But with all due respect to Donna Summer, the first sound to bounce into your brain is likely the baseline to “Stayin’ Alive.” Just seeing it here in print may be enough to get your head moving. The movie soundtrack is the seventh-best selling record of all time. It has been referenced, sampled, and spoofed countless times, and will continue to be so as long as humans have ears. Almost all of the songs featured on the soundtrack have more staying power than the film itself, but “Stayin’ Alive” remains the king beat of disco. For a disco song, its influence beyond the genre is unmatched. Go ahead, have yourself a boogie before we get to #9.
9. “Flashdance...What a feeling” by Irene Cara – Flashdance
When I was living in Buenos Aires, it was always interesting to see which aspects of American culture were able to entrench themselves, particularly which 80s songs were still being played on the retro stations. Irene Cara’s theme song to Flashdance came up often. And it still does in many other places as well. The movie was a big hit at the time as it brought the “stripper with a heart of gold” story to the big screen. But now it’s permanently fallen into a nostalgic reference. Cara’s song (and Michael Sembello’s “Maniac”) persist today all over the world.
8. “I Just Called To Say I Love You” by Stevie Wonder – The Woman in Red
Stevie Wonder’s legacy was already firmly in place long before his tune for to Gene Wilder’s light comedy took the world by storm. The movie is largely forgotten, and although the song is hardly considered a timeless classic, in 1984 it was an enormous hit all over the planet. Obviously the song is far from Wonder’s greatest achievement artistically or lyrically. And many probably remember it as some overplayed 80s song. However, if you’ve had the pleasure of seeing him perform it live, it still feels relevant and worthwhile. But even if that were not the case, the global dominance of the tune completely overwhelmed any relevance the cute romantic comedy ever had.
7. “Que Sera Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)” by Doris Day– The Man Who Knew Too Much
The film was Hitchcock’s second attempt to tell the story of a man who is forcibly pulled into murderous espionage when his child is kidnapped. When compared with the original, Hitch commented, “Let's say the first version is the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional.” It is without question a good film made in the middle of Hitch’s peak years working with Hollywood studios. The song, written for the film and specifically for lead actress Doris Day, became a surprise hit. This may have been due to its use as a key plot device in the movie. Day originally didn’t want to record it as a single, claiming it was a “forgettable children’s song." Yet it quickly became her signature tune and a tremendous worldwide hit. It has since been covered by everyone from the likes of Alvin and the Chipmunks, The Shirelles, and Sly and the Family Stone and featured prominently in other movie soundtracks. It hasn’t rendered the movie irrelevant. But from that peak period, The Man Who Knew Too Much has certainly faded behind such artistic masterpieces as Vertigo, Rear Window, and North by Northwest. Yet the quaint children’s song continues to enjoy a lasting popularity.
6. “Against All Odds (Take a Look At Me Now)” by Phil Collins – Against All Odds
It may be kind to call Phil Collins’ solo career uneven, particularly when acknowledging such duds as “Sussudio” and “Another Day in Paradise.” But even though it was commissioned as part of the movie, the Genesis drummer turned frontman wrote this one from a personal perspective. It’s likely his biggest solo hit, and as his first real ballad represented a shift in style. The song was further immortalized in a This American Life episode where he spoke frankly about the heartache that inspired him to write it. Hardly anyone remembers that there is a movie called Against All Odds, let alone what it’s about despite being directed by Taylor Hackford and starring Jeff Bridges and James Woods. (Just so we’re all up to speed, it is a remake of the Robert Mitchum noir classic, Out of the Past.) Actually, that sounds pretty good. Perhaps we should take a look at it now? The song will always be with us regardless.
5. “Nobody Does It Better” by Carly Simon – The Spy Who Loved Me
With every new James Bond movie, it’s tradition that a major music talent unveils a fanfare to run over the opening credits. This can result in a bombastic success such as Shirley Bassey’s pipes introducing you to Goldfinger. Or it can be a sonic disaster such as Madonna’s “Die Another Day.” Carly Simon’s effort begins almost as a melancholic dirge, but quickly becomes an uplifting ode to “the best.” As far as Bond movies go, this is one of the better ones, reaching #7 on Will’s Top Ten list. It’s especially revered because it introduces Richard Kiel as Jaws, the gigantic henchman with shiny metal teeth. But perhaps because of its theme as universal song of adoration with a title different from the movie, the song became one of the two biggest successes of Simon’s career. Yes, it’s overtly sappy. But nobody’s done a Bond song better.
4. “Theme from Shaft” by Isaac Hayes – Shaft
Even if you haven’t seen the film you know this tune is one baaaad mutha. Wait a second. Have any of you even seen Shaft? No, I won’t shut my mouth. The movie is irrelevant when compared to the song. The first two and a half minutes are merely setup before Hayes tells us the legend of John Shaft. You can only imagine that any movie with this groove supporting the action is going to feel exhilarating. Hayes won the Academy Award for best song, making him the first African American to win an Oscar for something other than acting. More importantly, it was one of his greatest achievements and laid the foundation for Marvin Gaye’s “Trouble Man,” Curtis Mayfield’s “Super Fly,” and many other classics. So can we agree that this song totally owns the movie? You’re daaaamn right.
3. “Moon River” by Audrey Hepburn – Breakfast at Tiffany's
There are only so many perfect songs. Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer wrote “Moon River” specifically for Audrey Hepburn’s voice, probably with the goal of having everyone fall more deeply in love with her. Has anyone ever constructed a simpler, sweeter tune? I could listen to it fifty times in a row right now. The scene where Hepburn sings shows that after all the fancy parties, the vivacious young socialite has a delicate side. Her recording won Grammys for both Song and Record of the Year. Breakfast at Tiffany’s remains a worthwhile movie and influential in the romcom genre for years to come. (Not to mention its central role in one of the most Costanzafied episodes of Seinfeld). The song has been covered over 100 times by everyone from Aretha Franklin to The Killers. Even the film’s final confrontation from the back of a taxi couldn’t leave the indelible mark that “Moon River” did.
2. “Lose Yourself” by Eminem – 8 Mile
At the time, everyone commented that Marshal Mathers’ acting was surprisingly capable. Of course he was basically playing himself, but many before him have failed spectacularly in the same position. On the strength of the story and direction, the movie has enjoyed moderate staying power and is still aired often on cable. However, the song has turned out to be Eminem’s most durable hit, still played frequently at clubs, sporting events, and on the radio. It’s the catchiest track he’s ever made, and perhaps the most anthemic rap song of all time.
1. “I Will Always Love You” by Whitney Houston – The Bodyguard
This is Whitney Houston’s biggest hit, spending a record-breaking 14 weeks at the top of the Billboard charts. We can probably just stop there, right? Oh, and there’s also the fact that the movie soundtrack is the third-best selling album in history behind only Thriller and The Dark Side of the Moon. 44 million copies sold, and we can safely assume none of those people bought it for the Kenny G track. The movie proved to be one of Kevin Costner’s last opportunities to play a traditional leading man before Waterworld and various other failures permanently reduced him to supporting roles. All of the above makes Whitney’s version of “I Will Always Love You” the obvious #1 on our list. The only irony may be that Costner was the one who suggested she record it.