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.
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. Risky Business (1982), “Old Time Rock and Roll” by Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band
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. Almost Famous (2000), “Tiny Dancer” by Elton John
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.
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.
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. Magnolia (1999), “Wise Up” by Aimee Mann
“It’s not what you thought when you first began it,” begins Aimee 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. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), “Also sprach Zarathustra” composed by Richard Strauss
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. Say Anything… (1989), “In Your Eyes” by Peter Gabriel
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 Cusack 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 Cusack put a defiant face on the scene. In doing so they hit all the right notes to take Gabriel’s song away from him.
Quentin 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. Casablanca (1942), “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
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.”