Songs Made by the Movies

Songs that got a second (or first!) life thanks to the big screen.

The BeeGees at the 1997 American Music Awards
Featureflash Photo Agency / Shutterstock

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Ever since sound joined the movies, music has been an integral part of the medium of film. Hollywood has continued to have a symbiotic relationship with song, from adapting musicals from the stage, creating musicals for animation and live-action, popularizing new genres with performance scenes, and just plain commissioning songs to pair thematically with the movie. Tucked among all of the ways that music is used on-screen is a recurring phenomenon of a film taking a pre-existing song and making it explode with newfound popularity. Here are six songs (and a couple of soundtracks) that were made by the movies, as well as a couple of soundtrack albums that became huge under unusual circumstances.

1955: “Rock Around the Clock” in Blackboard Jungle

Blackboard Jungle trailer. (Uploaded to YouTube by Warner Bros.)

A few myths surround “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley & His Comets. It’s not, as some claim, the first rock and roll song (that’s likely “Rocket 88” from 1951), but it’s generally agreed that it’s the first song of the genre to be #1 on the pop charts. It’s also not Haley’s first single; it wasn’t even recorded by Haley first. What is true is that the song was selected to appear in The Blackboard Jungle after the movie’s star, Glenn Ford, submitted it along with other 45s belonging to his son to the producers of the film; they were looking into what kids were listening to so that their school-set drama could have a contemporary sound. Though the song had been released the year before, it didn’t take off until it was played over the opening credits of the movie. The film also gave a big boost to the career of one of its young stars, Sydney Pointier.

1977: The Saturday Night Fever Soundtrack

“Night Fever” (Uploaded to YouTube by beegees)

Although you might automatically associate the music of The Bee Gees with the film, they didn’t get in on the action until the movie was basically completed. Some scenes had been shot with other songs (notably the dance rehearsal scene with John Travolta and Karen Lynn Gorney was scored with music by Boz Scaggs). When securing some of the music rights became an issue, producer Robert Stigwood, who also happened to manage The Bee Gees, went to the band to get them to create music for the film. The group had already done “Jive Talkin’” in disco style, and taken it to #1 in 1975. “Talkin’” was added to the soundtrack, as was their 1976 tune “You Should Be Dancing,” and the Brothers Gibb created five more new songs. “If I Can’t Have You” was performed by Yvonne Elliman, while the band did “Stayin’ Alive,” “Night Fever,” “More Than a Woman,” and “How Deep is Your Love.” The result? One of the best-selling albums in history, with 40 million copies sold.

1983: “Old Time Rock and Roll” in Risky Business

“Old Time Rock and Roll” (Uploaded to YouTube by Bob Seger)

“Old Time Rock and Roll” made the Top 40 in 1978 as a single off of the album Stranger in Town by Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band. However, it might have settled back down to a lower firmament of rock if not for its inclusion in an iconic scene in Risky Business. In the Tom Cruise-led comedy, Cruise famously dances in his underwear to the song. That scene drove a re-release of the single, which landed in the Hot 100 and almost made the Top 40 a second time. While the 1978 chart position was higher, the association of the song with the Cruise scene conferred upon it a kind of pop culture immortality. The scene itself has been parodied in other films and TV shows, always with the song, and the tune has remained in steady rotation on classic rock radio ever since.

1986/1990: BONUS: The Righteous Brothers Special Achievement Award

The Righteous Brothers performing “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” at their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction. (Uploaded to YouTube by Rock & Roll Hall of Fame)

Blue-eyed soul duo The Righteous Brothers had two of their songs make movie-related comebacks in a relatively brief amount of time. The first was their 1965 hit, “You’ve Last That Loving Feeling,” which made a return to popular consciousness on the back of Top Gun. Like Risky Business, the song is prominently featured in a scene with Tom Cruise, as he uses the tune to serenade Kelly McGillis in a bar. The duo’s 1965 cover of the 1955 Oscar-nominee “Unchained Melody” resulted in an unusual situation after a resurgence in popularity from it use in the smash hit film Ghost. Both the original version and an updated version of the song were released; incredibly, both versions went to the Top 20, making The Righteous Brothers the first group to have the same song occupy two spots in the Top 20 at the same time.

1990: “Wicked Game” in Wild at Heart

“Wicked Game” (Uploaded to YouTube by Chris Isaak)

“Wicked Game” by Chris Isaak saw a single release from the singer’s 1989 album, Heart-Shaped World. It didn’t go anywhere until director David Lynch included it in his 1990 Palme d’Or-winning film Wild at Heart. DJs began to play the song on the radio, driving it to wider awareness. A new video was commissioned that was directed by Herb Ritts; the legendarily sexy clip featured Isaak and supermodel Helena Christensen on a Hawaiian beach and won three MTV Music Video Awards. The song peaked at #6 in the States in January of 1991 and is considered by many critics and sources to be one of the finest modern love songs.

1993: “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” in Benny & Joon

“I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” (Uploaded to YouTube by Dig!)

Scottish twin-brother duo The Proclaimers had a major hit in the UK and several other countries in 1988 with their single, “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles).” When the song was included in the Johnny Deep-Mary Stuart Masterson romantic comedy Benny & Joon in 1993, the movie’s prominent use of the song and a recut video featuring scenes from the film drastically boosted its popularity. Before the summer of 1993 was out, the song had hit #3 in the United States.

2001: “Mad World” in Donnie Darko

Donnie Darko trailer (Uploaded to YouTube by Madman Films)

Tears for Fears recorded the original version of “Mad World” in 1982. It became their first charting song in Europe, though American success would wait a few years until their release of “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” Michael Andrews (piano) and Gary Jules (vocals) recorded a cover for use in the film Donnie Darko in 2001. Though the song wasn’t initially released as a single, fans of the cult-classic film in the making drove demand for it. Andrews released the song as being performed by him “and featuring Gary Jules.” The song charted around the world and hit #1 on the Adult Alternative Chart in the U.S. The Andrews/Jules version still recurs frequently in other films and TV programs.

2014/2017: The Meredith Quill Memorial Awesome Mix Award

Guardians of the Galaxy trailer #2 (Uploaded to YouTube by Marvel Entertainment)

Writer-director James Gunn took an unusual approach when he was putting together Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy in 2014. He made a significant plot point that Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) always carried a Sony Walkman with a mixtape made by his late mother, Meredith. Dubbed Awesome Mix Vol. 1, the tape included iconic 1970s songs like “I Want You Back,” “Fooled Around and Fell in Love,” “Hooked on a Feeling,” “Spirit in the Sky,” and more. The film was a major hit, and a shocking number of the original recordings re-entered the charts, particularly on digital.  The album went #1 for 16 weeks. Perhaps even more remarkably, the soundtrack was also released on the seemingly dead cassette format to mimic its appearances in the film. Gunn followed the same path with the sequel, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 in 2017; the album, which featured “Fox on the Run,” “Brandy,” and “Mr. Blue Sky,” among others, peaked at #4.

Featured image: Featureflash Photo Agency / Shutterstock

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  1. Mr. Brownfield Bob said in his first comments here that he’s a fan of Animotion and Falco. He has mentioned Falco before in connection with Halloween. That man makes me very uncomfortable. None of his songs are in English and I can tell he’s full of himself in the videos I’ve seen years ago. Animotion is indecent. Tell Bob this so he doesn’t mention them again. How could he be a fan of either? It doesn’t make any sense. I wish he would just forget them.

  2. Thank you Nick, for your response to my question. I agree with everything you stated in your first paragraph. The bottom fell out of the music business well before 2000, and there isn’t the shared commonality of long ago. “Risk” is something rarely done which is why everything looks and sounds the same year after year with the only visible changes coming from the current pandemic! The film industry needs to become a shadow of its former self shaken to the core, as does Washington, D.C. Big middle finger to both!

    The 3 areas where this is most prevalent is in music, film and auto design. Really, everything that could have been done WAS done in the 20th, leaving only an occasional surprise “fluke” once in a great while in these areas. I don’t care for the looks of the ’21 Mustang Mach-E SUV, but admire Ford’s taking the risk. It’s an additional model, not a replacement for the regular ones. All WAY too expensive. Last remnants of the nearly completely dead American coupe market. Challenger’s the strongest and may last several more years. Camaro’s going away in 2 years due to poor sales. If they revive it again, it’ll depend on the sales of the Mach-E and how well it sells. Otherwise I doubt it.

    Nick, you made excellent comments on Buster Keaton. I love his work too, and really appreciate the amazing work Johnny Depp did in ‘Benny & Joon’. He obviously studied Keaton a lot to do the remarkable work he did in the film. It IS perhaps the pinnacle of his career. I forgot the grilled cheese sandwiches made on the ironing board with the iron was borrowed from ‘The Apartment’ with Jack Lemmon; always a favorite actor.

    Mike, you bring up an excellent example with ‘2001: a Space Odyssey’. It did become popular after the ’68 film came out. In early ’73 it was again a hit as ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’ re-imagined by Eumir Deodato with an updated sound that foreshadowed disco, still a ways off then. Of course the biggest thanks HAS to go to Richard Strauss that composed it in the mid-1890’s!

  3. I think that “Thus Spake Tharathustra” from the movie 2001 would fit the description also. It became iconic after the film’s release.

  4. I think songs pre-2000 are used because there was something like a common culture in the country that everyone was familiar with/ had heard. After the proliferation and sophistication of electronic media, not to mention the bottom falling out of the music industry that produced all those songs and tracks mentioned here, that no longer was so. Presumably films don’t take other paths suggested because up until now the producers haven’t tackled that risk: their medium is film. Perhaps, in a new normal, post-Covid world, the film industry of pre-2020 will also had its bottom fall out, and will be forced to reinvent itself, changing the soundtracks we hear.

    Put another way, it’s been pop in the sense of “popularly known” music; who among filmmakers today wants to risk alienating ticket buyers by failing to identify what that means since today’s music apps and you-tube took over.

    Personally I date from the generation of that movie and soundtrack great “The Big Chill,” in which a character declares that no music since Motown and Rock is worth listening to. Early 80’s, when it was made, was excluded, definitely. Not entirely true, of course, but just sayin’…

    On a different note, I agree with the comments on “Benny and Joon” (I think that’s how it was spelled). All of ‘Benny’s’ tricks, gags, routines, whatever, can be found in different Buster Keaton films, who dates from the silent film era. The Charlie Chaplin “little Tramp” years, not that they made any together as far as I know. His most famous was probably “The General,” but I don’t remember any of the sight-gags from that being done by Depp, as the General was a train famously hijacked in the South during the Civil War by Union men. If you look carefully at Benny in the opening shots, when he is traveling in a train out to his new home where our story is about to take place, looking out the window at scenery and perusing a book (can his character even read?), that book is on the films of Buster Keaton. The double irony is that Keaton’s last film, made when he was very old, for the CNN -Canadian National Railway-features a lot of shots of his large, famous dead-pan face looking out a train window rolling through the vast Canadian landscape. Once you’ve seen Buster Keaton’s dead-pan (he never smiles), it’s so obvious that’s what Depp is doing, and quite well. The physical gags as well, except for the grilled cheese made on the ironing board with an iron. That’s Jack Lemon in “The Apartment.”

  5. Jonah and Donavon, those were both good comments on 3 great ’60s songs. Speaking of 1967, I just thought of ‘The Happening’ by the Supremes from early that year at the same time as a terrible film of the same name. Then there was ‘The Morning After’ by Maureen McGovern that came out 4-5 months after the very poor version was sung in ‘The Poseidon Adventure’ from December ’72.

    Of course back then there was a lot of great music from films released as hit songs. Unbelievable now, but there were actually expanded versions of TV theme songs that became hit singles during the Bicentennial year.

    Ramon, thanks for bringing up my observation of films today being SO exclusively reliant on music from several decades back. In addition you mentioned the TV commercial reliance. I mean seriously, how many commercials have used the (’75) ‘Magic’ by Pilot to cite one example? I’ve lost count. I’d LOVE a reply too on why hit songs from 2000-2020 aren’t being used in films too, and the commercials.

    I think you actually answered both Ramon, but I’m curious to read Troy’s reply since he IS the writer. Maybe we’re missing something. Thanks in advance.

  6. Georgy Girl was written expressly for the film; it was nominated for the Best Original Song Oscar.

  7. Mr. Brownfield, I’d like to know why there’s such a time gap in the age of songs used in films today. Bob brought up a lot of good observations, but one of the most glaring is film’s reliance on songs from 4-5 decades ago, instead only 5 years. He seemed to point out a big elephant in the living room. Also reliance on music that old in TV commercials. Rarely is there ever something new and original there either. It’s pretty embarrassing and says a lot about the time of nothing we live in now.

  8. Jonah,

    Paul Simon pitched the song to director Mike Nichols, so it wasn’t quite the same thing. As for The Sound of Silence, if you’re curious, it hit #1 in 1966, and later included in the 1967 film.

    Thanks for reading!

  9. What a musical potpourri we have here! I knew about ‘ The Asphalt Jungle’ but not ‘Blackboard Jungle’. I watched the video for ‘Rocket 88’. With the name, the first thing I thought of was Oldsmobile and sure enough, featured heavily in it. It was forerunner of the muscle car era (’64 GTO) of putting a big engine in the smaller car. The 98 was the bigger one. Jackie Breston & His Delta Cats. Years later ‘Delta’ would be part of the 88’s name.

    The film undoubtedly helped the B-movie trend of juvenile delinquent films of the 50’s. The ‘Saturday Night Fever’ soundtrack totally dominated the airwaves for the first half of 1978. I liked most of the songs, but tired quickly of “Stayin’ Alive”. A major Bob Seger fan, I was pretty happy when his ‘Stranger In Town’ album came out in ’78. I much preferred ‘Hollywood Nights’ and many others on that album over ‘Old Time Rock ‘n Roll’ at the time. Then 5 years later it was cemented permanently per the above. Oh well.

    Seger was great in concert in 1980. ‘Stranger In Town’ was just a warm up for ‘Against The Wind’. Such a masterpiece. ‘Her Strut’ (to me) remains his crowning achievement. Sorry the haters have a problem with the Jane Fonda video of it. It’s a masterpiece of sexy Jane at her finest. I love Sheena Easton’s ‘Strut’ 4 years later. Great song and video of her in the futuristic 80’s. Those geometric earrings and Jetsons-feel mini skirt. An era gone forever just like the rest of the 20th.

    ‘Wicked Game’ is a great song too. Isaak had it on the big screen background when I saw him in the 90’s. Definitely too risque for the kiddies then. Nowadays too much for many “offended at EVERYTHING” adults! “I’m Gonna Be 500 miles” was a quirky offbeat song that was perfect for ‘Benny & Joon’ I feel is a masterpiece. It could be Johnny Depp’s finest film before he went commercial with Tim Burton and Disney. It’s only fitting that “Dark Shadows” got its revenge by closing the coffin lid on both their careers.

    Tears for Fears or not, “Donnie Darko” had too many elements of “I’ve seen this before…” to want to see it. So in the cases of the 1955, ’83 and ’93 films we have songs that were only 4 or 5 years old when used in the soundtrack. With the 2014/2017 ‘Guardians’ thing we have songs from over 4 DECADES earlier! Why isn’t music from 2000-present represented? Why would the chasing dragons with plastic swords crowd want to listen to such ancient music?! I love them all except ‘Fooled Around & Fell In Love’ by horrid Elvin Bishop.

    If you’re going to be a one hit wonder, make it something good. Sooo overplayed in the summer of ’76. Even good-great music years have their share of clunkers. Overall most music was great through 1985 into ’86 with New Wave groups like Blondie, The Cars, Human League, Animotion plus the brilliant Falco, Peter Gabriel, & too many more to mention in my final Post comments of this sci-fi nightmare of a year. I’d say Happy New Year, but that might need to wait quite awhile.


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