It is said that ‘listicles’ – opinionated top 10 lists based on some arbitrary topic – are among the laziest and least inspired articles on the Internet. They’re easy for a writer to throw together, are easily shareable on social media, and guaranteed to create debate and audience engagement over what has been put in and let out of said list. Here at FictionMachine we have no problem with being perceived as both lazy and uninspired, hence this countdown of the best popular songs that were written for movies.
While songs written for film have become independently successful hits for pretty much as long as films have had synchronised sound, it was really Flashdance in 1983 that popularised the idea of pop stars and rock bands of the time contributing songs to the movie. Not only did it give a vibrant musical backing to the film itself, it also enabled the selling of tie-in soundtrack albums to teenagers. We have been rolling in film-based pop and rock songs ever since. It’s no coincide that the majority of songs on this list were released after 1983. Apologies to Irene Cara’s “Flashdance… What a Feeling” and Michael Sembello’s “Maniac”, both recorded for Flashdance; neither makes the list.
10. “You Could Be Mine”, Guns’n’Roses.
From Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991, USA, d. James Cameron.)
This 1991 sequel sees young John Connor (Edward Furlong) targeted by a killer robot from the future, with only a reprogrammed second robot to keep him safe. Bouncing from one foster home to another, and with his mother locked inside a mental hospital, John rides off on the back of his friend’s motorcycle playing loud rock music on a boombox as he goes. Californian rock band Guns’n’Roses was a perfect choice to be John’s band of choice: in mid-1991 they were on the eve of releasing their double albums Use Your Illusion I and II, and were one of the most popular musical acts in the world. Their song “You Could Be Mine”, written specifically for the film, was so good they added it to Use Your Illusion II. It’s tie-in music video was directed by effects designer Stan Winston, Jeffrey Abelson, and Andy Morahan (who would later direct Highlander III.)
9. “Play Dead”, Bjork.
From The Young Americans (1993, UK, d. Danny Cannon.)
An American DEA agent (Harvey Keitel) travels to London in search of a gangster (Viggo Mortensen) who is raising a new generation of criminals. This 1993 thriller marked the debut of both director Danny Cannon and composer David Arnold. Cannon floundered with his second film – 1995’s Judge Dredd – although Arnold went from strength to strength, composing scores for Stargate, Independence Day, and five James Bond films. For the closing titles of this film, Arnold collaborated with singer Bjork – then about to drop her groundbreaking solo album Debut – and songwriter Jah Wobble. Their resulting song, “Play Dead”, is without rival the most outstanding Bond theme ever recorded that was not for a Bond film. No wonder Arnold was hired for Tomorrow Never Dies four years later.
8. “Dead Souls”, Nine Inch Nails.
From The Crow (1994, USA, d. Alex Proyas.)
When The Crow was adapted to cinema from James O’Barr’s comic book, it brought along Barr’s heavy focus on alternative music. In particular, both the comic and Alex Proyas’ film featured the Cure and Joy Division. In the case of The Cure it meant an original song, “Burn”, on the soundtrack. When it came to Joy Division, the band was already long gone: lead singer Ian Curtis died and the band broke up in 1980, reassembled as the far poppier New Order. Instead Trent Reznor’s industrial rock outfit Nine Inch Nails stepped in with a cover of Joy Division’s 1979 song “Dead Souls”. It is the perfect fit for the film’s bleak, gothic setting, and the best song on an absolutely jaw-dropping soundtrack album.
7. “You Made Me the Thief of Your Heart”, Sinead O’Connor.
From In the Name of the Father (1993, UK/Ireland, d. Jim Sheridan.)
From beginning to end, In the Name of the Father is a rage-inducing tragedy. It is based on a true story, and sees innocent people falsely prosecuted as being IRA terrorists by a corrupt London police. The emotional core of this film is the relationship between father and son Guiseppe (Peter Postlethwaite) and Gerry Conlan (Daniel Day Lewis). Gerry survives the years in prison, Guiseppe does not. It is hard to imagine any music that could possibly respect the film’s heartbreak. “You Made Me the Thief of Your Heart” was the work of an all-Irish team: written by U2’s Bono and the Edge, along with Gavin Friday, and performed by Sinead O’Connor. It is a long, immensely powerful song that builds on levels of love, regret, guilt, and rage. It is O’Connor’s greatest recorded performance. It is the perfect capstone to a profoundly effective, must-see film.
6. “Eye of the Tiger”, Survivor.
From Rocky III (1982, USA, d. Sylvester Stallone.)
From the sublime to the ridiculous. For his third Rocky feature, Sylvester Stallone was keen use Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust” but was denied permission by the band. As a replacement he directly contacted the band Survivor and requested they record him something with a similar energy and tone. “Eye of the Tiger” did not simply come to represent Rocky III, it now stands up and one the most iconic film themes of the 1980s and is as closely identified with Rocky Balboa as Bill Conti’s “Gonna Fly Now” (which could easily have made this list itself). “Eye of the Tiger” is garishly of its time, easy to mock, but emotionally it drives Rocky III from the very beginning.
5. “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”, Bob Dylan.
From Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973, USA, d. Sam Peckinpah.)
Sometimes a song has such a long half-life beyond the film for which it was written, that it effectively separates completely. Today “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” is one of Bob Dylan’s most famous and popular songs, and has been successfully covered by the likes of Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Guns’n’Roses, and – no exaggeration – about 150 other bands, singers, and recording artists. It was originally written and performed for Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, a revisionist western directed by the great Sam Peckinpah, and starring James Coburn, Kris Kristofferson, and Dylan himself (who also composed the musical score).
4. “Lose Yourself”, Eminem.
From 8 Mile (2002, USA, d. Curtis Hanson.)
From the outset it seemed such a cynical, opportunistic idea: record-breaking rap star Eminem was cast in a feature film loosely inspired by his own life living in Detroit, playing and up-and-coming white rapper in a predominantly black neighbourhood. Then the film actually came out, and thanks to Curtis Hanson’s superb direction and a genuinely surprising performance by Eminem it turned out to be one of the best film of its year. The film ends on an emotional crescendo: pointing to the future of protagonist Rabbit, but trusting its audience enough to let them work out what will happen for themselves. “Lose Yourself”, honestly one of the best songs ever by a master songwriter, helps point the way. Snippets and bass lines of the song are layered into the film from the start, so when the song properly kicks in it is hugely cathartic.
3. “Don’t You (Forget About Me)”, Simple Minds.
From The Breakfast Club (1985, USA, d. John Hughes.)
While scoring the John Hughes teen drama The Breakfast Club, composer Keith Forsey collaborated with guitarist Steve Schiff on a central theme for the movie. Their original demo of the song was used during the film’s opening, but Forsey knew a fully-developed version of the song would need to be recorded for the closing titles. “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” was written with Scottish rock band Simple Minds in, well, mind, but the band rejected it spontaneously, having never recorded a song before that they hadn’t written themselves. By the time Bryan Ferry and Billy Idol had both rejected the opportunity, Simple Minds singer Jim Kerr had been persuaded by his then-wife Chrissie Hynde. The band saw it as a cheap throwaway song, to be included in a forgettable teen movie for a modest fee and some royalties. So dismissive of the opportunity were they that they spent just three hours recording it. The now-famous ‘lalalala’ outro by Kerr was recorded as a fill-in for what would be a proper ending worked out the next day. Instead the band decided to keep it. Of course the song was a runaway success, was instrumental in making The Breakfast Club a perennial favourite with audiences, and was Simple Minds’ most successful song ever.
2. “Call Me”, Blondie.
From American Gigolo (1980, USA, d. Paul Schrader.)
Paul Schrader’s neo-noir thriller made a star out of Richard Gere, but it also utilised Italian electronic musician Giorgio Moroder for its musical score. Moroder, an experienced music producer who had worked with Donna Summer, composed a fast-paced, energetic pop song for American Gigolo‘s main theme, and canvassed multiple artists and bands to perform it. He ultimately selected New York new wave band Blondie – already popular thanks to hits like “Hanging on the Telephone”, “Heart of Glass”, and “One Way or Another” – and added another commercial success to their repertoire.
1. “Fight the Power”, Public Enemy.
From Do the Right Thing (1989, USA, d. Spike Lee.)
When director Spike Lee wanted a specific song composed for his third feature, he directly approached hip-hop outfit Public Enemy to develop one from scratch. ‘”I wanted it to be defiant,’ Lee later told Time, ‘I wanted it to be angry, I wanted it to be very rhythmic. I thought right away of Public Enemy.’ The end result was “Fight the Power”, a song that not only encapsulated Lee’s film perfectly – a fight against white supremacy – but which became Public Enemy’s most widely-known and popular song. Musically it consists solely of guest saxophonist Branford Marsalis and records scratches by Public Enemy’s DJ Terminator X, and yet it is so effectively and forcefully composed and performed that it is genuinely a masterpiece. In 1990 the band re-recorded it for their studio album Fear of a Black Planet. Early this year Rolling Stone polled 250 musical artists and published a list of the 500 ‘greatest songs of all time’. “Fight the Power” came second.