For me it’s Simple Minds’ “Don’t You Forget About Me,” from The Breakfast Club. Every time I hear that song, these twenty-five or so years later, I slip longingly back to my preteen days, when Molly Ringwald represented the culmination of every impossible and glorious expectation for impending teenage-ness. But the question is, without the John Hughes brand of teen angst, would “Don’t You Forget About Me” resonate so consistently (to say nothing of “Pretty in Pink” by the Psychedelic Furs, or the Beatles’ “Twist and Shout” from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off)? Not that these various bands would have made nothing of themselves without the Brat Pack et al., but you’ve got to admit, cinema culture in the ’80s really helped put Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark on the map.
Sometimes it’s a love scene (Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away” in Top Gun—who hasn’t slow-danced to that song at some point?). Sometimes it’s a particularly memorable scene (Stealers Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle with You” in Reservoir Dogs. Remember that bit with the ear?). Sometimes it’s just the random song-and-dance number that pops up out of nowhere (Jamiroquai’s “Canned Heat” in Napoleon Dynamite). And sometimes it’s the dramatic montage that so tidily rolls up all the emotions that have been roiling in your chest since the movie started and packages it in three and a half minutes of cinematic splendor (Louis Armstrong’s “It’s a Wonderful World” in Good Morning, Vietnam).
What Makes a Song “The Song”?
If you look at the list of Academy Award winners for Best Original Song over the last ten years, you’ll notice a conspicuous absence of tunes that you actually know. Meanwhile, you hear Kenny Loggins’s “Footloose,” and suddenly you’re cranking your hips and snapping your fingers and remembering when you thought Kevin Bacon was hot.
The popular opinion of the “best” song and the Academy’s opinion thereof haven’t been aligned since 1985, when Berlin won the best-song Oscar for “Take My Breath Away.” Clearly, the experience of movies isn’t limited to “watching” or even “listening.” It’s a far more complex and complete experience. Regardless of what occasions the goose bump–giving, lump in throat–rousing, stomach-twisting song mark, the perfect combination of music and image at just the right time can undeniably make for unforgettable moments.
The Movie-Music Masters
Some filmmakers seem to have a particular knack for picking soundtracks. John Hughes is certainly one of them. Anyone who is familiar with the Hughes filmography will likely have an indelible memory or two associated with any one or two or more of those hits that keep on hitting. But others include Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson, and Jerry Bruckheimer. No one under the age of sixty ever would have heard of Dick Dale if it weren’t for Pulp Fiction. Nico and the Velvet Underground’s “These Days” in The Royal Tenenbaums rewedged itself in American music, thanks to one perfect scene. Bruckheimer single-handedly revived the popularity of the Pirates of the Caribbean theme song to cultish levels. Not to mention that Armageddon wouldn’t have been the cinematic powerhouse it was without Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing.”
The Best of the Best
Consulting a variety of “best movie songs” lists reveals several crossovers, though their presence on these lists is often arguable. The following list includes titles that seem somewhat less so:
Say Anything: “In Your Eyes,” by Peter Gabriel
Thanks, Jon Cusack and Peter Gabriel, for officially upping the romantic-angst ante. I’m still waiting for the earnest guy with the boom box and the great slow-dance pop tune to show up under my window.
Reservoir Dogs: “Stuck in the Middle with You,” by Stealers Wheel
It’s really worth reiterating how fabulously snappy this song is. The genius discord between such a danceable tune and watching Mr. White slice the guy’s ear off makes the whole package memorable.
Reality Bites: “My Sharona,” by the Knack
This movie is pretty dated these days, what with the fact that they talk on phones with those curly chords and everyone smokes indoors. But the Knack has always had a knack for pop, and Reality Bites used it to full effect.
Office Space: “Damn It Feels Good to Be a Gangsta,” by the Geto Boys
This excellent cinematic and musical combination helped bring gangsta rap to white-collar dweebs everywhere. One can never hear this song without remembering the demise of that ill-fated printer.
Fight Club: “Where Is My Mind?” by the Pixies
Perhaps no other movie-moment song is so appropriate for the film it’s paired with.
Rocky III: “Eye of the Tiger,” by Survivor
You can’t have a workout montage without this song. People have tried, and they fail. Every time I hear “Eye of the Tiger,” I don’t know whether to go for a run or punch something, but I’m definitely going to do one or the other.
O Brother, Where Art Thou?: “Man of Constant Sorrow,” performed by the Soggy Bottom Boys
Before seeing this Coen Brothers classic, you might have thought you didn’t care for Depression-era folk music. Boy, were you wrong.
Dazed and Confused: “Sweet Emotion,” by Aerosmith
Sure, it was Generation X’s vision of the ’70s, but there’s no denying the little chills you get down your back when you hear the opening strains of this slice of rock and roll heaven.
Titanic: “My Heart Will Go On,” by Céline Dion
Personally, I don’t get the appeal. However, popular opinion seems to heartily disagree with me; therefore this epic ballad is included on this list.
Risky Business: “Old Time Rock and Roll,” by Bob Seger
Many of us will associate this danceable ditty with Tom Cruise in his underwear. Not necessarily a bad thing.
And that is such a short list. You can probably think of at least a dozen movie songs that will always ring your bell—to say nothing of the classics like “Moon River” and “Somewhere over the Rainbow,” or “Summer Nights” from Grease, or “The Rainbow Connection” from The Muppet Movie. No matter how much movies change, music is still an integral part of the viewing experience. And as long as we keep going to see movies we love, there will still be songs that yank us back to the smell of popcorn, the feel of greasy fingers gripping a damp soda cup, and a lump rising in our throats or a laugh on our lips—no matter where we are when we hear them.