Today’s blog post is just for fun. But the soundtrack can add a whole new dimension to the experience of watching movies. It’s not surprising that some of the best (and most successful) movies ever made all have cracking soundtracks. Sadly it’s something modern filmmakers tend to overlook, probably due to studios’ preoccupation with CGI money shots. But a strong score can elevate a movie, create iconic moments, and stir the emotions.
First off, however, I decided to introduce some parameters to make this task more manageable.
First rule: no classical music. That’s easy. So no “2001” then…
Second rule: Only incidental songs. No musicals. So no Disney films and no Judy Garland.
Other than that, anything goes. Obviously these are my choices, yours may differ. But here are my top 20 most iconic songs in films.
20. “Song for the Siren”, from Lost Highway, 1987.
The Cocteau Twins’ sublime, exotic lament comes at a pivotal moment in David Lynch’s surreal mystery. Don’t expect any plot logic in this story of a man in prison who wakes up one morning as a completely different person. The film unfolds like a dream or nightmare, and this song is the perfect soundtrack.
19. “Tequila”, from Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, 1985
Just when you thought it couldn’t get any stranger… who could forget this scene in which Pee Wee Herman (the guy in 1950s clothes who likes sticking Sellotape on his face) dances on a bar in enormous heels in front of an appreciative group of Hell’s Angels? Hollywood moments don’t come any finer than this…
18. “People Are Strange”, from The Lost Boys, 1987
The Twilight precursor that made vampires stylish. Here the opening titles roll over scenes of California life in the small town of Santa Cruz that also happens to be the murder capital of the USA, and The Doors song becomes the perfect introduction to a movie where things are about get very strange indeed…
Too cool for school. Modern vampires in “The Lost Boys”
17. “Hip to be Square”, from American Psycho, 2000
Huey Lewis’s iconic 80s pop masterpiece becomes the soundtrack to Christian Bayle’s gleeful stockbroker/serial killer, as Patrick Bateman explains what the song truly means while smashing someone’s head in with an axe.
16. “In Dreams”, from Blue Velvet 1986
More surrealist madness from David Lynch. This time, Dean Stockwell’s weird, face-painted nightclub owner croons his way through Roy Orbison’s haunting ballad. What does it mean, you ask? What indeed…
15. “Old Time Rock’n’Roll”, from Risky Business, 1983
Tom Cruise in underpants and socks miming to Bob Seger? Check. Transsexual prostitute? Check. Rebecca de Mornay? Check. This coming of age story has it all. Famously lampooned in “Alf” (Track it down if you don’t believe me).
14. “Bohemian Rhapsody”, from Wayne’s World, 1992
To this day, carloads of drunken students bob their heads to Queen’s seminal pop opera. Mike Myers entertains his friends with some 70’s glam rock.
When Karaoke goes bad – a human exorcism in “Beetlejuice”, 1989!
13. “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)”, from Beetlejuice, 1988
Tim Burton’s blockbuster supernatural comedy features this brilliantly daft scene. “Human exorcist” Beetlejuice (Michael Keaton at his most unpleasant) possesses some dinner guests with the spirit of Harry Belafonte. Cue marracas and conga-lines!
12. “Twist and Shout”, from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
The ultimate 80s feelgood comedy by John Hughes. Mr Bueller’s titular vacation comes to a resounding crescendo when he gatecrashes a parade and delivers this upbeat performance of the Beatles classic.
11. “The Times They Are a Changin'”, from Watchmen, 2009
Strangely underappreciated movie based on the graphic novel to end all graphic novels by Alan Moore. Another title sequence. This time a whole alternate history unfolds before our eyes from 1940 onwards in a world where superheroes are real folk. Mr. Dylan’s famous song takes on new meaning as lesbian superheroines clinch and an American superman wins the Vietnam war. Astonishing.
10. “Goonies R Good Enough”, from The Goonies, 1985
A whole generation of kids were raised on the post-punk howling of Cyndi Lauper. This song captures the zeitgeist of the mid-80s, before things got so serious, and is the perfect accompaniment to this fun family adventure.
9. “The End”, from Apocalypse Now, 1979
Another Doors song. This time used to unforgettable effect in Francis Ford Coppola’s mindbending and enigmatic portrayal of America’s involvement in Vietnam. Jim Morrison’s doomed, hypnotic vocals echo the madness of war.
“I never knew pot-throwing could be so much fun”. Clay-making in “Ghost”, 1990.
8. “Unchained Melody”, from Ghost 1990
Although some people prefer the Leslie Nielson version, this scene of pottery making between Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze set feminine hearts a-thumping back in the 90s. As iconic a moment as there ever was in romantic dramas…. with ghosts.
7. “Who Wants to Live Forever”, from Highlander, 1986
Queen’s blend of pop and opera compliments this daft but enjoyable tale of immortals in New York. Just don’t ask why. Christopher Lambert’s eponymous Scots warrior (no, seriously) watches his young bride age over the course of decades while he remains youthful. If you aren’t moved by this, well then you are truly dead inside my friend.
7. Nessun Dorma, The Killing Fields, 1984.
All right, so it’s not pop. But strictly speaking it’s still a song. Sam Waterston’s Western journalist sits in his apartment watching scenes of horrific violence in wartorn Cambodia while Puccini’s aria warbles over his speakers. It’s a devastating moment that delivers the theme of the movie in images and sound. A movie song used to its ultimate effect.
6. “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head”, from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, 1969.
Outlaws Pal Newman and Robert Redford lark about with Katharine Ross on one of them new-fangled bicycle contraptions. Burt Bacharach’s seminal easy listening ’60s tune conveys the carefree days of the eponymous Old West heroes. Days which are sadly numbered in this Oscar-winning revisionist Western.
Butch Cassidy’s replacement horse was not quite the same thing.
5. “Everybody’s Talkin'”, from Midnight Cowboy, 1969.
John Schlesinger’s sixties masterpiece about an innocent cowboy who goes to New York and gets well and truly chewed up and spat out was the first X-rated picture to win an Oscar. The movie opens with wide-eyed Jon Voight on a bus headed for his promised land to the strains of Harry Nilssen. Sublime, squalid, and thought-provoking all at the same time.
4. “Tubular Bells”, from The Exorcist 1973.
Not technically a “song”, I know. But it was a popular music release and it’s not part of the soundtrack. Apparently director William Friedkin wanted something that evoked ” a cold clammy hand on the back of the neck”. What he found was Mike Oldfield’s instrumental musical odyssey. Although it only appears very briefly, and only uses the first opening bars,”Tubular Bells” is indelibly linked to horror movies as a result.
3. “Born to Be Wild”, from Easy Rider 1969.
The ultimate counterculture anthem. Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, and Jack Nicholson go for a motorcycle ride across Sixties America and come into conflict with conservative values. Adopted by bikers and hippies in equal measure. But what song can possibly top its influence in movie culture, you ask?
2. “Ghostbusters”, from Ghostbusters 1984
The ultimate supernatural family comedy that was a real blockbuster of its day. How many times do you go to the cinema these days and have the whole audience sing along to the opening titles? The only thing keeping this tune from the number one spot on my list was that it is a little bit dated these days. Which leads us to number one…
Mrs. Robinson shakes a leg.
1. “The Sound of Silence”, from The Graduate, 1967.
This very funny and very dark tale of a young man adrift in a society made by the older generation is still a moving experience today. It made Dustin Hoffman a star, and the famous wedding scene has been lampooned in everything from The Naked Gun to the Simpsons. But it’s the opening scene of a young Hoffman retreating behind dark glasses in a swimming pool that leaves the most lingering impression. A reminder of when Hollywood made movies for grown-ups, this is my number one incidental movie song of all time.