There are only so many movies that fall under the category of “musical,” but most movies do have a musical element to them that lends much to their timelessness. I am not specifically talking about film scores here, but of the catchy and powerful pop hits that have accompanied some of cinema’s iconic moments - most of which were written specifically for the movie and helped launch its popularity, and vice versa. The stories behind how these iconic movie songs came to be (and other intriguing relative facts) are almost as fascinating as the films they appear in.
"Writing's On The Wall" - Sam Smith (Spectre)
While co-writing "Writing's on the Wall" -- from 2015's Spectre -- brought him great success -- including the Best Original Song Oscar -- Sam Smith does not enjoy singing his James Bond theme. Before singing the song for an audience for the first time on The Graham Norton Show, the Grammy winner revealed that he was "dreading" that very performance because it requires him to hit such a painfully high note. He then joked he would have to "grab [his] balls" to achieve the right pitch.
“Danger Zone” - Kenny Loggins (Top Gun)
The secret as to why the opening scene of Top Gun - the highest grossing film of 1986 - is so unforgettable is the accompaniment of the infectious rock hit “Danger Zone,” which was composed and produced by Giogio Moroder with lyrics from Tom Whitlock. Vocalist Kenny Loggins recalled to MovieWeb that the film’s director, the late Tony Scott, also helmed the song’s music video, which was rare for a major Hollywood filmmaker to do at the time.
“Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head” - B.J. Thomas (Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid)
Of the four Academy Awards that the seminal western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid earned in 1970, one of them was for its equally seminal original song, “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head.” While the iconic track was memorably sung by B.J. Thomas, the late singer revealed in an interview for The Tennessean that co-writer Burt Bacharach approached folk legend Bob Dylan about singing the vocals.
“Moon River” - Audrey Hepburn (Breakfast At Tiffany’s)
Composed by Henry Mancini with lyrics from Johnny Mercer, “Moon River” became a unique standout after its appearance in the classic romantic-comedy Breakfast at Tiffany’s as sung by its star, Audrey Hepburn, who was not known as a singer at the time. According to The Telegraph (via Southern Living), that is why Paramount Pictures’ then-president, Barney Balaban, wanted to remove the song from the 1961 adaptation of Truman Capote’s novel, but Hepburn said that would only happen over her dead body.
“Lose Yourself” - Eminem (8 Mile)
Seventeen years after it won the Oscar for Best Original Song for its appearance in 8 Mile, Eminem took the stage at the 2020 Academy Awards for a surprise performance of his powerful track, “Lose Yourself.” Co-writer Jeff Bass told Billboard in 2017 that it took roughly a year to complete the song, partly because it was not until after receiving Scott Silver’s script that the rapper (born Marshall Mathers) began developing the autobiographical lyrics.
“Theme From Shaft” - Isaac Hayes (Shaft)
Isaac Hayes became the first Black man to ever win a music Oscar for the theme song of the 1971 Blaxploitation classic, Shaft. In 2000, the late musician-turned actor told NPR that, after he was hired to score the film, he requested to audition for the title role before it went to Richard Roundtree.
“Fight The Power” - Public Enemy (Do The Right Thing)
One of the most striking hits in the history of rap music is Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” which got a lot of exposure in writer, director, and star Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. According to an oral history by Rolling Stone, Lee wanted the “anthem” for his influential, and still socially relevant, 1989 classic to be a hip-hop rendition of the iconic hymn “Lift Every Voice and Sing” as performed by the rap group, until co-writer Hank Shocklee of the Bomb Squad suggested making something new that would “resonate on the street level.”
“Don’t You (Forget About Me)” - Simple Minds (The Breakfast Club)
According to a Guardian article written by lead singer Jim Kerr, Simple Minds initially turned down the offer to perform “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” for John Hughes’ influential teen dramedy, The Breakfast Club until the song’s writer, Keith Forsey, spent some time with the band and they hit it off. Kerr also improvised the “la, la-la-la-la” at the end and planned to incorporate real lyrics later, but Forsey insisted it should stay.
“Mrs. Robinson” - Simon & Garfunkel (The Graduate)
In an interview for The Game 365, Paul Simon recalled a time he happened to spot Joe DiMaggio - who is mentioned in the Grammy-winning song from The Graduate - at a restaurant, approached him, and was questioned why the song asks where the baseball legend has gone. The singer-songwriter explained that the namedrop in “Mrs. Robinson” was a nod to a seeming absence of great American heroes at the time, which DiMaggio was then flattered by.
“St. Elmo’s Fire (Man In Motion)” - John Parr (St. Elmo’s Fire)
The ultimate film from the “Brat Pack” era would have to be director Joel Schumacher’s star-studded 1985 drama, St. Elmo’s Fire, for which John Parr wrote and performed the theme song. When speaking to NPR, the British musician revealed the unlikely source for the lyrics to “St. Elmo’s Fire (Man In Motion),” which has little to do with the actual plot of the film, but with the inspirational story of a wheelchair-using Olympian from Canada named Rick Hansen.
“See You Again” - Wiz Khalifa Feat. Charlie Puth (Furious 7)
Charlie Puth told Entertainment Weekly that he wrote the chorus for the Oscar-nominated “See You Again” in 10 minutes while thinking of a friend of his who had passed in a similar way to Paul Walker. The actor’s untimely death in 2013, caused by a car crash, inspired Universal to approach Puth to pen a song for the end of Furious 7, which pays tribute to Walker.
“Shallow” - Lady Gaga And Bradley Cooper (A Star Is Born)
While having a more romantic meaning in the context of the story from 2018’s A Star is Born, Lady Gaga told Variety that she believes the popularity of “Shallow” stems from a more serious real-world topic. She said that, in the wake of the #MeToo movement, the content of the Oscar-winning hit’s lyrics being a conversation between a man and a woman who are connecting and openly listening to each other is “why people cry when they hear it.”
“(I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life” - Bill Medley, Jennifer Warnes (Dirty Dancing)
The Dirty Dancing cast played writer Franke Previte’s original demo of “(I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life” while filming the iconic ending performance, which was also the first scene they shot. Previte told American Songwriter that star Patrick Swayze later thanked him at the Oscars for the on-set camaraderie that the demo provided them.
“Eye Of The Tiger” - Survivor (Rocky III)
Survivor guitarist and “Eye of the Tiger” co-writer, Jim Peterik, revealed to Songfacts that Sylvester Stallone initially wanted to use “Another One Bites the Dust” in the montage where the song appears in Rocky III. When he could not get Queen’s permission, he hired the ‘80s rock outfit, who originally thought to call the Oscar-nominated power ballad “Survival,” which would have been the last word of the chorus to rhyme with the lyric “rising up to the challenge of our rival.”
“Ghostbusters” - Ray Parker Jr. (Ghostbusters)
With only a few days given to complete the Ghostbusters theme song (the film itself was conceived, shot, and released within a year), Ray Parker Jr. struggled with the lyrics, especially with figuring how to incorporate the title, as he recalled on an episode of Netflix’s The Movies That Made Us. His breakthrough came when the titular paranormal exterminators’ TV ad in the film reminded him of bug exterminator commercials and inspired him to lead into the famous “Ghostbusters!” shout with the equally iconic phrase “Who you gonna call?”
“Stayin’ Alive” - Bee Gees (Saturday Night Fever)
According to ProCPR.org, a study proved that CPR trainees can maintain the technique at the recommended momentum of 100-120 compressions per minute even more effectively while listening (or singing aloud) to the Bee Gees hit which opens the 1977 film Saturday Night Fever. How fitting that a song called “Stayin’ Alive” really can help save lives.
“Purple Rain” - Prince And The Revolution (Purple Rain)
The title song from the soundtrack for Purple Rain was originally recorded by Prince and The Revolution during their live performance of it in the movie’s final scene, which was also the first time the band ever played it on stage. Alan Light, who wrote a book about the making of the 1984 film called Let’s Go Crazy, assured NPR that only minimal editing was applied to the track as it appears on the album, such as the omission of a verse and few notes in Prince’s guitar solo.
“9 To 5” - Dolly Parton (9 To 5)
According to Biography, Dolly Parton agreed to star in the 1980 comedy 9 to 5 on the condition that she could also write the theme song. The country music legend came up with its baseline (which resembles the sound of a typewriter) on the set while strumming her acrylic fingernails in between takes, which is why “Nails by Dolly” can be found in the soundtrack credits.
“Kiss From A Rose” - Seal (Batman Forever)
While it is impossible to separate “Kiss From a Rose” from Batman Forever, the song was not originally written for the superhero film and, in fact, Seal wrote it in 1987 - years before he was even signed to a label, according to People. In response to Joel Schumacher’s passing in 2020, Seal posted an Instagram video recalling how the director’s inclusion of the song in the 1995 blockbuster turned the romantic ballad - previously a flop - into the defining hit of the artist’s career.
“Footloose” - Kenny Loggins (Footloose)
When speaking to Bart Herbison of Nashville Songwriters Association International for an interview published by The Tennessean, Kenny Loggins made a “confession” about the title song from the 1984 Kevin Bacon-led hit Footloose. The lines “Please, Louise, pull me off of my knees” and then “Jack, get back. Come on before we crack” were inspired by a similar lyrical device Paul Simon used for “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” specifically when Simon sings, “Slip out the back, Jack / Make a new plan, Stan,” etc.
“My Heart Will Go On” - Celine Dion (Titanic)
Penned by James Horner, the love theme from Titanic, “My Heart Will Go On,” won the hearts of many - including those at the Academy Awards - but, initially, not its vocalist, Celine Dion, who told Billboard, “When I recorded it, I didn’t think about a movie; I didn’t think about radio. I thought, Sing the song, then get the heck out of there.” Additionally, director James Cameron was, at first, against the idea of adding a pop song to the end of his historical tragedy, but after a push from the studio and some convincing from Horner, he conceded and came to really admire the ballad’s resonance to the film’s romantic plot.
“I Will Always Love You” - Whitney Houston (The Bodyguard)
Whitney Houston’s career-defining song, “I Will Always Love You,” was recorded specifically for her 1992 romantic thriller The Bodyguard, but it is actually a cover of a Dolly Parton classic. Curiously enough, according to an oral history by EW, producer David Foster actually based his arrangement of the song on a previous cover by Linda Ronstadt, which was the only version he could find at the time.
“Gangsta’s Paradise” - Coolio Feat. L.V. (Dangerous Minds)
As Coolio revealed to Rolling Stone, Stevie Wonder had a few conditions that had to be met before he and L.V.’s “Gangsta’s Paradise” - the de facto theme for 1995’s Michelle Pfeiffer-led drama Dangerous Minds - could be released, because it samples his 1976 song “Pastime Paradise.” Ironically, the rapper himself was not happy with “Weird Al” Yankovic’s parody, “Amish Paradise,” and would not make peace with it until years later.
“A Whole New World” - Alan Menken, Tim Rice (Aladdin)
Alan Menken has won several awards for iconic, sweeping songs from some of the best animated Disney movies, including “A Whole New World” from Aladdin. The composer revealed in an interview with Jake Hamilton (co-host of the ReelBlend podcast) that the original title he had in mind was “The World At My Feet” until lyricist, Tim Rice, suggested that “the word ‘feet’ would be better not in the title of a Disney love song.”
“Goldfinger” - Shirley Bassey (Goldfinger)
We all know that the title track from Goldfinger (one of the all-time greatest Bond movie theme songs) is sung brilliantly by Welsh songstress Shirley Bassey, but less people are aware that a young Jimmy Page played guitar in the orchestra. The future Led Zeppelin founder recalled to GQ how Bassey performed the session in one take and, after holding the huge final note, ran out of breath and collapsed on the floor.
“The Power Of Love” - Huey Lewis & The News (Back To The Future)
Huey Lewis & The News wrote and performed two songs for 1985’s masterful time travel adventure, Back to the Future - most famously the Oscar nominated hit, “The Power of Love.” As Lewis recalled in a video for Rolling Stone, the musician makes a funny, uncredited cameo as a Battle of Bands judge who believes the rendition of the song that Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) and his band perform for their audition is “too darn loud.”
“That Thing You Do!” - The Wonders (That Thing You Do!)
The titular, Oscar-nominated 1960s-style pop song from Tom Hanks’ 1996 directorial debut, That Thing You Do!, was actually written by Fountains of Wayne’s Adam Schlesinger, who went on to compose Howard Stern’s theme music, became the musical director for Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and other notable works. When he passed away from Covid-19 in 2020, the members of the fictional band from the film, The Wonders, reunited over Zoom for a livestream as a pandemic relief benefit.
“Rainbow Connection” - Jim Henson (The Muppet Movie)
One of the most celebrated achievements of prolific songwriter Paul Williams is “Rainbow Connection,” which Kermit the Frog (voiced by Jim Henson) performs in The Muppet Movie from 1979. In a video interview shot for The Tennessean in 2016, Williams told Bart Herbison that he and and co-writer Kenneth Asher wanted to give Kermit a song as heartwarming and “spiritual” as Jiminy Cricket’s “When You Wish Upon A Star” from 1940’s animated Disney classic Pinocchio, which served as a jumping-off point for the Oscar-nominated ballad.
There really is nothing like dropping the needle on your favorite movie soundtrack and reminiscing about the scenes in which each killer song appears. Now you have many more stories to associate them with.
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Jason has been writing since he was able to pick up a washable marker, with which he wrote his debut illustrated children's story, later transitioning to a short-lived comic book series and (very) amateur filmmaking before finally settling on pursuing a career in writing about movies in lieu of making them. Look for his name in almost any article about Batman.