From catchy modern greats like “Everything I Do (I Do It For You)” and “My Heart Will Go On” to songs from classic musicals such as “Somewhere Over The Rainbow”, and tracks that have become synonymous with iconic cinematic moments like “If You Leave” and “I’ve Had The Time Of My Life”, music not only plays a huge part in the way movies influence us but can be the reason why we remember them so fondly.
Since cinema’s earliest days, there have been some truly iconic and timeless movie songs. So narrowing it down to just ten is nearly impossible. There will be dozens of songs not mentioned here that probably should have or at least could have made the list. So what makes a movie song memorable? In my eyes, it’s a song that when you hear it, you instantly know what movie it’s from. Some of these are chart topping songs and others are songs that got nowhere near the billboard top 100 yet over the years have become synonymous with the films they are from.
10. Let It Go
Although this song only went as high as number 5 on the Billboard top 100, it’s a song that is instantly recognised as the song from Frozen. Frozen was the standout of 2013 as the film went on to become a worldwide smash hit. It made 1.2 billion dollars and it was a cultural phenomenon in many countries outside of the US, especially in Japan where it opened to 7 million and went on to gross 249 million. The song is incredibly catchy and as sung by Idina Menzel, it had people everywhere, especially young children, reciting it word for word. Some even said that it had a deeper meaning in that it was an anthem for the coming out for homosexuals and that Elsa was a positive role model for the LGBT community. Whatever the reason, Let it Go has become synonymous with the movie Frozen.
9. Cry Little Sister
The Lost Boys (1987)
Here’s a song that never made it to the Billboard hot 100, in fact, it didn’t make any charts until it was recorded by different artists ten years later. The song was written and recorded by Gerard McMahon, before he had seen any of the film. It doesn’t reference vampires at all and McMahon at first was upset at himself for not seeing the movie before recording it. However, upon hearing the song, director Joel Schumacher told him, “You nailed my theme song to The Lost Boys! I can’t believe you wrote this without seeing a frame of film!”. McMahon additionally explained: “I always say that if I’d have seen the film first, I would probably not have written ‘Cry Little Sister’. I didn’t want the song to be specific to the vampire. I wanted it to be about the longing for family from a rejected youth’s perspective, which I went through myself and that many of us have felt.” Cry Little Sister has an ominous and foreboding tone to it. It sounds like you are walking through someone’s nightmare, perhaps through a morgue or a forbidden place and perhaps that’s why it has remained the most recognisable song from The Lost Boys.
8. Everything I Do (I Do It For You)
Robin Hood Prince Of Thieves (1991)
This is Bryan Adams’ biggest success in terms of chart position. It became number one in sixteen countries including the UK, where it spent 16 consecutive weeks at number one on the singles chart (which is the longest run in UK chart history). It’s also one of the best selling singles in the history of rock and roll. The song was produced by “Mutt” Lange, who was responsible for the sound of groups like Def Leopard and Shania Twain. It’s a song that perfectly captured the romantic theme of the film and not only did it play over the credits, there were snippets of it in the film as well.
7. If You Leave
Pretty In Pink (1986)
My personal favourite movie song of all time. It perfectly encapsulates the tone and feeling of the John Hughes film. In it, Andi, played by Molly Ringwald, falls in love with Blaine, played by Andrew McCarthy. They come from different social and financial backgrounds but they fall in love. When they inevitably break-up and eventually get back together, If You Leave is the song that plays. It’s the song the kids dance to as the prom takes place. But more than that, it’s a song that fits the breakup motif. It’s a song about losing the one you love and the pain that goes with it. Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark recorded the song almost over night. The band wrote “If You Leave” after Hughes decided to change the ending to Pretty in Pink after poor test audience reactions. Hughes had asked the band for a song for the new ending two days before they were due to begin a tour, and “If You Leave” was written and recorded in under 24 hours as a result. It’s another song that didn’t reach number one but gained popularity over time.
Ghostbusters was written and performed by Ray Parker Jr. It hit number one on both the US and UK charts. It was nominated for best song but lost out to Stevie Wonder for I Just Called to Say I Love You. According to Parker Jr., he was approached by Ivan Reitman to compose and record the song only three days before it was needed for the soundtrack. Parker Jr. says he got his inspiration from a late night TV commercial. There is some controversy with the track as Huey Lewis sued the artist claiming the song sounded too much like I Want a New Drug. There was an out of court settlement. Regardless of this claim, Ghostbusters is one of the most instantly recognised film songs.
5. I’ve Had The Time Of My Life
Dirty Dancing (1987)
This is another song that has grown in popularity over the years. It did reach number one in the US but only number 6 in the UK. The soundtrack for Dirty Dancing, however, is one of the biggest selling albums of all time with more than 32 million sales worldwide. With songs like She’s Like the Wind and Hungry Eyes, in addition to Time of My Life, it’s no wonder it became a world wide phenomenon. Time of My Life is the song that plays in the final dance with Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey. It’s the part of the movie where everything comes together and the passion and love between the two of them is omnipotent. They nail every move, including the big finish where she jumps into his arms and he holds her over his head. Time of My Life has lived on and been mentioned in dozens of movies, including Crazy Stupid Love where Ryan Gosling tells Emma Stone he can do the Dirty Dancing move.
4. Mrs. Robinson
The Graduate (1967)
Reaching number one in the US and number 4 in the UK, Mrs. Robinson is a song written and performed by Simon and Garfunkel. So recognisable is this song that when I hear it I instantly know it’s from The Graduate. The Graduate is not one of my favourite films but this song is synonymous with it – so much so that when they used it as Stiffler’s Mum is seducing Finch in American Pie, I knew they were going to use the song even before it came over the soundtrack. When Simon and Garfunkel originally recorded the song, it was before director Mike Nichols asked them to do a track for the movie. They originally had the song title as Mrs. Roosevelt. When Nichols heard it he loved it and when he asked them to use it for the movie, they changed the name to Mrs. Robinson and added a few lyrics that would fit with the themes of the film.
3. Eye Of The Tiger
Rocky III (1982)
The Rocky films have had some instantly recognisable songs. Gonna Fly Now from the original and Burning Heart from Rocky IV are also songs most people know are from the Sylvester Stallone boxing films. But Eye of the Tiger is a cut above. It reached number one in both the UK and the US.
Stallone actually had a hand in this song. He originally wanted Another One Bites the Dust, by Queen, to be the theme of the movie. But Queen refused to give him the rights to the song. So Stallone asked Survivor to record a song for the movie, one that would capture the spirit of the Rocky franchise. In fact, many of the lyrics are written specifically for the film, including “rising up to the challenge of our rivals” and others.
In an interview years later, co-writer Jim Peterik said, “At first, we wondered if calling it “Eye of the Tiger” was too obvious. The initial draft of the song started with “It’s the eye of the tiger, it’s the thrill of the fight, rising up to the spirit of our rival, and the last known survivor stalks his prey in the night, and it all comes down to survival.” We were going to call the song “Survival”. In the rhyme scheme, you can tell we had set up “rival” to rhyme with “survival”. At the end of the day, we said, “Are we nuts?” That hook is so strong, and “rival” doesn’t have to be a perfect rhyme with the word “tiger”. We made the right choice and went with “Eye of the Tiger”.
2. Somewhere Over The Rainbow
The Wizard Of Oz (1939)
Judy Garland sang the song which would go on to win best original song at the 1940 Academy Awards. It also became Judy Garland’s signature song, one that she would perform for the rest of her life. The song almost didn’t make it into the film as the producers felt it slowed down the pace of the film, but after some persistence from Garland’s vocal coach, the song was reinstated into the film.
Somewhere Over The Rainbow has consistently reappeared on charts decades after its release. It reached number 29 on the UK singles chart in 2010 and number 12 in the US in 2004. There are many songs that have gained iconic status from the film but none more than this one. The AFI named it the best movie song of all time. Garland’s iconic and smooth sounding voice contributes to its legendary status. And perhaps no other song in film history, with the exception of my choice at number one, fits better into the theme of the film, than this one.
1. My Heart Will Go On
There’s no song that is more associated with the film it appears in than My Heart Will Go On. It reached number one in EVERY country it was released in and sold more than 20 million copies as a single. But it doesn’t end there. The original Titanic soundtrack sold 30 million copies and Celine Dion’s album Let’s Talk About Love also sold more than 30 million copies. Basically, everyone on the planet was in love with the song.
Director James Cameron originally didn’t want a song at the end of the film with lyrics. Composer James Horner waited until Cameron was in an appropriate mood before presenting him with the song. After playing it several times, Cameron declared his approval, even though he worried that he might be criticised for “going commercial at the end of the movie”.
Cameron also wanted to appease anxious studio executives and “saw that a hit song from his movie could only be a positive factor in guaranteeing its completion.” It’s the kind of song that brings a strong Pavlovian response to many people, including yours truly. It’s such a powerful song that it brings back the dire hopelessness of not only the fate of Jack and Rose but of all the passengers who lost their lives on the Titanic. In my opinion, it’s one of the most beautiful songs ever written and deserves its place at number one.
I realize there’s about 50 or more songs that could be on this list. I’d love to see what you think. Have I missed any that should replace any of the songs here?
Written by Dan Grant
Your turn: what are your fave movie songs of all time…