A Score of Scores: 20 Pivotal Songs from Film
Music has always been an integral part of the movies. Even before talkies and sound, there was music – pianists who sat in halls and plunked along to the rolling scenes on the screen. Whether an integrated and acknowledged part of the story or operating as an “unheard” aural supplement, a backdrop, music is there, moving us in movies.
So here are a score of scores, 20 songs from 20 films, all of which are pivotal in some way to the movie as a whole. They are refrains popping up throughout the film and songs erupting at intense moments. Sometimes the actors sing them, sometimes they’re just there in the aural background. They all underscore pivotal moments, where the aural and the ocular meld memorably.
I have opted not to include any consciously constructed musicals, where we expect to see actors knowingly bursting into song all the time. So no Grease or West Side Story or Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, although I was sorely tempted.
Watch, enjoy and hum along to a score of scores, most of them underscoring romance, naturally.
A Score of Scores: 20 Pivotal Songs from Film
(In No Particular Order)
1. The Film: Gnomeo and Juliet (2011)
The Song: Hello, Hello
– Performed by Elton John feat. Lady Gaga, music and lyrics by Elton John
The film’s meet cute – this upbeat ballad with vocals by Sir Elton and Lady Gaga provides the musical backdrop to the first meeting of our titular star-crossed lovers in this animated adaptation of Shakespeare’s classic Romeo and Juliet. Although garden gnomes made of pottery, it’s still love at first sight — “Hello, hello.”
Elton John provides all the songs for the soundtrack, so Gnomeo and Juliet is a melodic pleasure for any Sir Elton fan.
2. The Film: Once (2007)
The Song: Falling Slowly
– Performed and composed by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová
The writing and composing and recording of this song, “Falling Slowly,” is the whole heart of this wonderful Irish film, Once, by director John Carney. Two struggling musicians meet on the streets of Dublin and a beautiful collaboration – both musical and personal – emerges, and we, as viewers, are witness to the birth of the song “Falling Slowly” on the very screen.
Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, who are musicians in real life and played the leads in the movie, won an Academy Award for Best Original Song for this lovely number.
3. The Film: Harold and Maude (1971)
The Song: If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out
– Performed by Ruth Gordon, music and lyrics by Cat Stevens
The emotional essence of this cult classic, dark rom-com is this joyous melody by Cat Stevens. Maude (Ruth Gordon) sings it wonderfully out of tune at one point. Cat Stevens’ smooth tones then take over at other points in the movie, as our titular characters, Harold (Bud Cort) and Maude, explore the world and find each other and wonder at life and laugh and cry and eventually say goodbye.
“If you want to sing out, sing out. And if you want to be free, be free. ‘Cause there’s a million things to be, you know that there are…” Makes me smile every time.
4. The Film: Casablanca (1942)
The Song: La Marseillaise
– Performed by the cast of Casablanca, music and lyrics by Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle
“Play it again, Sam.” I could have chosen the iconic theme music to Casablanca, “As Time Goes By,” but for me, one of the most stirring moments in the film occurs when a song battle erupts in Rick’s Café Américain.
There’s an uneasy peace between French and German forces in Morocco. The whole film follows Rick’s (Humphrey Bogart) negotiating and muddling through a time of war, with its many, many sides. He tries to maintain a cynical capitalist impartiality, but with the reappearance of his great love Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) and her plea for help, Rick’s cynicism begins to crack.
In this scene, German soldiers visiting Rick’s Café begin rousingly singing – in German. The tension is palpable in the café. Victor Lazlo (Paul Henreid), Ilsa’s husband, steps forward to lead the band into playing the French national anthem, “La Marseillaise.” Rick subtly nods his okay to the band, who then strike up a powerful rendition. The café erupts in patriotic song. The Germans and their song are drowned out. Ilsa looks at her husband, this great leader among men, with admiration. And Rick, Rick is there in the background, having allowed this blatant show of patriotism to occur in the first place and revealing, ever so slightly, his own idealism.
Casablanca won three Academy Awards and is generally considered one the best films ever made. It is an icon of the big screen, and this is one of its iconic scenes.
5. The Film: Strictly Ballroom (1992)
The Song: Time After Time
– Performed by Mark Williams and Tara Morice, music and lyrics by Cyndi Lauper and Rob Hyman
For me, this is about as good as it gets. As a fan of Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” since its debut on her She’s So Unusual album back in 1983 (seriously, it was probably one of the first records I ever bought, and I loved and continue to love that song) and as a total fangirl freak about Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom (don’t ask me how many times I’ve rewound that scene where Scott (Paul Mercurio) does those shuffling hip moves in the mirror there…), the fact that these two of my favorite things should meld together is pretty much the pinnacle of wonderfulness.
Tara Morice, the actress playing Fran, the lead, is singing in this version of “Time After Time” along with the New Zealand singer Mark Williams. The song is used in the film during the Luhrmann-esque montage that is Fran’s transformation from ugly duckling to ballroom beauty, as we witness the hard and steady teamwork that is laying the groundwork for Fran and Scott’s relationship, both professionally and personally. It’s a perfect fit.
The soundtrack to Strictly Ballroom won a BAFTA Award for Best Original Film Score, and yes, I was a proud owner of that CD back in the day.
6. The Film: Chariots of Fire (1981)
The Song: Chariots of Fire
– Performed and composed by Vangelis
An electronica, movie theme song – no words, just synthesizers and piano – that topped the Billboard charts? I know, it sounds rather improbable, but that’s exactly what happened with the Academy Award-winning score to Chariots of Fire. My family owned the cassette tape.
It’s a soaring score to a soaring story. Chariots of Fire is a historic period piece, a biopic, following the story of two British track athletes preparing for the 1924 Olympics. Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson) and Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross) are two gifted sprinters, each seeking to prove themselves. Harold is fighting to overcome anti-Semitism sentiments, and Eric is a devout Christian, who refuses to race on the Sabbath. Eric ends up refusing to race in the 100 m at the Olympics, where he is a clear favorite because the qualifying heats are being run on Sunday. The film is a thoughtful and stirring look at faith and convictions and divinely given talents, and its score fits it so well – light, airy, majestic.
Chariots of Fire won four Academy Awards, including Best Film, Best Writing, Best Costume Design, and Best Original Score.
7. The Film: Dirty Dancing (1987)
The Song: (I’ve Had) The Time of My Life
– Performed by Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes, lyrics by Franke Previte, music by John DeNicola and Donald Markowitz
“Nobody puts Baby in a corner…” They don’t get much bigger than the iconic, final scene of Dirty Dancing, where Baby (Jennifer Grey) and Johnny (Patrick Swayze) declare their devotion to one another through dancing, and she confidently nails that lift like nobody’s business, and the whole room erupts into a joyous celebration. All of it done to the sounds of “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life,” which went on to its own stardom.
The song won an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for Best Original Song. It picked up a Grammy for Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals and is now a verifiable classic, an international hit and radio standard.
8. The Film: My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997)
The Song: I Say a Little Prayer (For You)
– Performed by Rupert Everett and cast, music and lyrics by Burt Bacharach and Hal David
It comes out of nowhere, it does. A surprise musical number in a film that is shaping up to be a standard rom-com. I saw this in the theaters when it first came out and I just remember laughing and smiling and loving so much this spontaneous burst of song. It is just so fun.
George (Rupert Everett) is pulled into this messy rom-com fray to pretend to be Julianne’s (Julia Roberts) fiancé, so as to make Julianne’s best friend (Dermot Mulroney) jealous and make him realize that he really loves Julianne and not his young, soon-to-be wife (Cameron Diaz). So George, playing – over the top – his loving fiancé part, starts singing “I Say a Little Prayer (For You)” during a pre-wedding dinner. The song pops up throughout the film. George and Julianne share a dance to it at the end.
9. The Film: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)
The Song: Oh Yeah
– Performed by Yello, music and lyrics by Boris Blank and Dieter Meier
“Oh Yeah,” for many, is simply known as “The Ferris Bueller Song.” After its usage in the blockbuster, John Hughes-classic, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, it was picked up by many in Hollywood for films and advertising, ultimately becoming something of a cliché. However cliché, its iconic status remains, a status encapsulating that 80s yuppie lust.
And it all started with a high school senior, Ferris Bueller (Matthew Broderick), wanting to play hooky one last time before graduation and wanting to do so in style. That means borrowing the car of his best friend Cameron’s (Alan Ruck) father – a 1961 Ferrari 250 GT California Spyder in red – and letting the adventures begin. That car and the lustful “Oh yeah” it inspires is essential to the film. Who can forget the powerful “argument” Cameron ends up having with that car, the most prized possession and greatest love of his distant father.
“Oh Yeah” shows up again in the film at the end, with a disheveled and defeated Mr. Rooney (Jeffrey Jones), who’s been denied his greatest desire – catching Ferris – being picked up by a passing school bus. Bomp, bomp, chick, chick, chick-a-chick-a…
10. The Film: The Way We Were (1973)
The Song: The Way We Were
– Performed by Barbra Streisand, music and lyrics by Alan Bergman, Marilyn Bergman and Marvin Hamlisch
It doesn’t get much more hard-hitting than this bittersweet ballad to this bittersweet love story. You’ll be sniffling through the trailer, crying during the opening credits and reaching for yet another already wet tissue at the end, when our two star-crossed lovers (Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford) bump into each other on the street, and there’s so much longing there, and the notes of “The Way We Were” begin to tink in the background. Ugh.
“The Way We Were,” with Barbra Streisand’s exquisite soprano vocals leading the way, racked up an impressive array of awards. It won an Academy Award and Golden Globe for Best Original Song, a Grammy Award for Song of the Year, as well as an Academy Award for Best Original Score.