Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Top Ten Songs that Own the Movie

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.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Top Ten Movies that Stole the Song

 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!

Hi there! Aside from my day job, I haven’t written anything of substance in several years. But the idea for this series has been stumbling around in my head for far too long to keep it caged up there any longer. This is actually a multi-part Top 40, embracing the highs (and lows) of music in movies. First up is today’s Top 10 Movies that Stole the Song. In the coming weeks, we’ll follow with The Top 10 Songs that Own the Movie, The 10 Worst Movies Named After Songs, and finally The Top 10 Movie Singalongs. And then I probably won’t write anything again for another half decade. But hey, enough of my yakkin’. Whaddya say? Let’s boogie!

Being a music supervisor for a movie soundtrack has to be one superb gig. Sure you have to answer to the director, but you spend your time poring over your vast music collection to find that one right song to fit each moment of the film. And sometimes if you nail it perfectly, the song you chose will never be able to live on its own again. The movie has taken complete ownership of the track, lock, stock, and barrel for all eternity. The moment someone hears one of these songs, they can’t help but be transported right back to the scene where it appears, even if they haven’t seen the film in years. You get the concept. In honor of the music supervisors and directors who made the most compelling pairings, these are the Top 10 Movies that Stole the Song.

Some quick notes on the rules: Songs written specifically for the movie don’t qualify because obviously ownership was established at the outset. Existing songs repositioned as onscreen sing-alongs will show up in our last installment. Musicals belong in some other category and with some other writer.

10. “Everybody's Talkin'” by Harry Nilsson – Midnight Cowboy
For years, Harry Nilsson toiled away as a relatively unknown singer/songwriter trying to find a way to break into the music business. After The Beatles publicly named him their “favorite American singer,” he suddenly became famous. His first album after receiving this attention, Ariel Ballet, featured the Grammy-winning cover of Fred Neil’s “Everbody’s Talkin’.” Nilsson was approached to provide a song for Midnight Cowboy, but the one he offered did not interest director John Schlesinger. He instead chose “Talkin’” to be the featured piece of music in the film’s first act. It’s hard to imagine any soundtrack better suiting the visuals of Jon Voigt’s Joe Buck as a fish out of water struggling to make heads or tails of life in New York City. Nilsson’s near yodel can’t help but transport you back to that time and place and wonder once again if Buck shouldn’t have just stayed at home.

9. “Old Time Rock and Roll” by Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band – Risky Business
Let’s be honest. This is an awful song by any measure. It’s forced nostalgia of the worst kind. But the most famous scene in the film that made Tom Cruise a star serves as the setup for every vacationing parent’s worst nightmare. Dancing around in his underwear! What if the neighbors can see? And he messed up the levels on the hi-fi! But this moment’s small acts of rebellion are just the first innocent cracks in the veneer. Before long, a male hooker in a dress is going to ring the doorbell. In that sense, it may be the perfect song for this moment. Joel Goodson could have been listening to KISS or the Sex Pistols like most naïve well-off suburban “rebels.” But at this point, he’s only saying “What the heck?” It won’t take long for that last word to change into something more serious. The same goes for Joel’s backing music. Whenever you hear that opening piano riff, you expect someone to come sliding in on their tube socks. What comes later is anyone’s guess.

8. “Tiny Dancer” by Elton John – Almost Famous
How does a movie about rock bands take a gentle Elton John ballad and make it the centerpiece of the entire film? Before I had even seen the movie, I ran into a friend who listened to nothing but hardcore post-punk yet found herself walking around singing it. I had to ask, “Are you singing Elton John? Are you OK?” She said, “Go see Almost Famous.” After taking her suggestion, it all made sense. For a band with too many ups and downs to keep count, the lowest point for Stillwater isn’t when they’re about to die in a plane crash. It’s the moment right before they listen to “Tiny Dancer.” Perhaps all on its own, the song is powerful enough to bring them from the verge of a hateful breakup to the cover of Rolling Stone. And every time I hear it, I just want to watch the whole movie again.

7. “Mad World” by Gary Jules and Michael Anderson – Donnie Darko
I am kinda sorta breaking the rules a bit here, but permit me some artistic license and you will see that this is the a worthy choice anyway. Donnie Darko is a movie based wholly on mood. It tries to play up the time period as being important but in reality it is a mystery wrapped in brooding atmosphere. Dig deeper and you tend to find that things aren’t as interesting as they felt that first time through. Originally a minor hit by Tears for Fears, the song was redone by Gary Jules specifically for the soundtrack to Donnie Darko. While technically that should disqualify it from this list, I’m going to take things a step further and say that the movie has also laid claim to the original Tears for Fears version. Judge for yourself. Can you hear this track without Frank’s fearsome bunny getup and crossing your mind? I didn’t think so.

6. “Where is my Mind?” by Pixies – Fight Club
UNAVOIDABLE SPOILERS: Sometimes a choice is just so darn obvious it seems very easy in retrospect. While Fight Club features a handful of known songs, the vast majority of its soundtrack consists of block-rockin’ beats by the Dust Brothers which escalate thee nervy confusion in each and every scene. After the big plot twist has been revealed and the last phase of Project Mayhem is unavoidably put into action, more high-energy techno would have left a missed opportunity on the table. Instead, Director David Fincher used Pixies’ classic as if to say to everyone “Hey, please don’t take this movie too seriously, OK?” While the lyrics overlap with the plot perhaps a little too on the nose, the upbeat riffing coupled with the mass destruction on screen give a wild movie the sendoff it deserves. You’ve surely never heard the song in the same way since.

5. “Wise Up” by Aimee Mann – Magnolia
“It’s not what you thought when you first began it,” begins Amy Mann’s “Wise Up.” As mentioned, one requirement to make it into this list is that a song was not written directly for the movie. (In an odd coincidence, this one was actually written for Jerry Maguire, but good luck finding anyone who can remember that.) Magnolia is a divisive picture to say the least. Many people went in expecting a “Short Cuts”-esqe project where random, entertaining stories are loosely tied together. But what shows up on the screen is something far more bizarre and complex. As the story reaches its bleakest for nearly all the characters, Paul Thomas Anderson decides to let Mann play interloper and completely take over the movie. In a sudden “strange thing that happens,” the characters are shown one after the other gently singing along with the soundtrack, even Jason Robards who hardly has any remaining breath. At this point, verisimilitude has been tossed out the window and everything has tilted off-kilter. We soon find out that Anderson is merely warming us up for a far bigger surprise. The sudden left turn takes a movie with interesting characters to push through to a more challenging level. One could argue that it is hardly grand larceny to lift a song buried on some other soundtrack, but the combination shows in another way that “what you thought when you first began it” doesn’t always hold true for good.

4. “Also sprach Zarathustra” composed by Richard Strauss - 2001: A Space Odyssey
Stanley Kubrick had planned for his epic science fiction endeavor to have a newly written score like most studio movies. During the filming process he played classical music to “set the mood.” He liked the way it fit so well, he decided to keep it in the final product. The “Blue Danube Waltz” was also in contention, but Strauss’ intense, triumphant theme not only provides the sonic ballast to a challenging piece of art, it has been forever associated with the film. Even people who have never seen the film know that this is “the 2001 theme,” via cultural references in everything from Spaceballs to the Simpsons. For one of the most ambitious undertakings ever put to celluloid, Kubrick had found the perfect accompaniment.

3. “In Your Eyes” by Peter Gabriel – Say Anything…
Roger Ebert published a blog posting titled “The Films of Our Lives” where he reminisced about how his view of La Dolce Vita changed as he continued through adulthood. For me, the film that best meets his criteria is Say Anything… I was only 14 when it came out, and was fascinated by Lloyd Dobler, his life, his friends, and his love for Diane Court. Every time I returned to it over the last 25 years has brought new reflections and perspective. Of course it was not the movie that had changed, but me. However, there was always one constant that held firm throughout, frozen in time. Peter Gabriel’s song, so pivotal to the two main characters, remains the ballast for the iconic image of not just this movie, but of romance in the 1980s. When it came time to film, John Cusak argued with director Cameron Crowe that Lloyd would never hold his boombox aloft as it was tantamount to begging. In the end they split the difference and let Cusak put a defiant face on the scene. In doing so they hit all the right notes to take Gabriel’s song away from him.

2. “Stuck in the Middle with You” by Stealer’s Wheel – Reservoir Dogs
Quinten Tarantino took plenty of bold risks in his first feature film, playing with the perspective, the time frame, and pushing the limits with bawdy dialogue. Throwing all of these aspects together was groundbreaking, but the most indelible scene is Michael Madsen’s brutal torture of a plainclothes police officer. Mr. Black flips on the only radio station in the Reservoir Dogs’ universe, playing exclusively the “Sounds of the 70s,” so he can have some groove music while he has his fun. It’s only pure luck that “Stuck in the Middle with You” came on at that moment. If not, we could be talking about Andy Kim or Shaun Cassidy right now. An otherwise benign song about record industry dealings immediately became something sinister and unforgettable. To this day I won’t trust anyone around me with a razor when this track is playing.

1. “As Time Goes By” by Rudy Vallée, Binnie Hale, Dooley Wilson, Billie Holiday, Johnnie Ray, Engelbert Humperdinck, Bing Crosby, Perry Como, Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, Tony Bennett, Julie London, Jimmy Durante, Chet Baker, Sammy Davis, Jr., Willie Nelson, Vera Lynn, Andy Williams, Ibrahim Ferrer, Rod Stewart, or The Flamingos – Casablanca
Believe it or not, the original intention of “As Time Goes By” was to in reference to Albert Einstein’s premise that time is a fourth dimension. That may be completely irrelevant, especially as the Einstein-focused first verse was omitted from the version used in Casablanca and nearly all that followed. No song on our list carries more weight for the characters who want (or don’t want) to hear it. The debate over whether it should be played at all tells us how intense the feelings between Ilsa and Jack were and likely still are. By asking Sam to play it, does it indicate that she’s moved on? When Rick says “You played it for her, you can play it for me!” is he trying to prove the same thing to himself? It becomes the ongoing musical theme of the movie in subsequent scenes. Despite the loooong list of singers who have tried to put their personal stamp on the tune, Jack and Ilsa will always have more than Paris. They’ll always have ownership of “As Time Goes By.”

This guy tried to steal songs, but didn't make our list