SoundTreks | The Best Movie Theme Songs
The release of the new Ghostbusters film has the entire nation going a little Ghostbusters nutty. Here in the journalism trade, there have been innumerable retrospectives, reviews of the new films are now plentiful (including my own), and we at SoundTreks even recently wrote about the original film’s schizophrenic soundtrack record. In brief, when one takes a look at the ultra-catchy original song by Ray Parker, Jr., one finds that it’s actually not a great song. Oh sure, it’s a great party anthem. But it’s not exactly complex, creative, or textured. It’s well-known, but it’s hardly one of the best of all movie theme songs.
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Which logically leads us to query: What are the best ones? This is when the unending selection process begins, and the discussion opens. Our ground rules are simple: 1. The song must have been written explicitly for the film in question, 2. The song must be about the events or characters in the film, at least tangentially or metaphorically, and 3. The song must have made its debut in the film. No songs previously heard in stage musicals. Indeed, let’s add a 4. No songs from musicals. Only pop songs that serve as a movie’s official theme music.
SoundTreks has selected the following 11 songs as the best that have ever been put to film. Yes, there are many missing. By all means, let us know your favorites as well. As for us, let’s get started.
Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers had one of the best soundtrack records of the 1990s, which also means it had one of the best soundtrack records of all time. It was an very, very intense collection of hard-edged industrial music punctuated by dialogue from the film. Through the music alone, you can practically see the film’s extreme violence. This is no more true than in Nine Inch Nails’ theme song, “Burn,” which is about wanting to watch the world die off in a fiery ball of death. To this day, “Burn” has the power to scorch the soul.
10. “The Wrestler”
Confession: Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler makes this reviewer bawl like a little girl. Pro wrestlers were icons of masculinity to young boys growing up in the 1980s, and Aronofsky seemed to know how to sensitively reach into that myth and extract the sad, vulnerable, withering human soul living within. Bruce Springsteen’s theme for The Wrestler – all about a sad one-trick pony – is a quiet sensitive tearjerker of the highest order. It’s a song sung by the weathered, leathery man who has lived too hard and not learned enough.
9. “Footloose,” “I’m Alright,” and “Danger Zone” (Tie)
There were a lot of really fantastic movie theme songs in the 1980s, and we have Kenny Loggins to thanks for three of the most memorable. Loggins, that master of bold, ballsy, bluesy hard rock hit a pleasure-inducing sweet spot throughout the pop consciousness, and his songs have come to define not only the movies they come from, but the entire decade. His three most notable come from Footloose, Caddyshack, and Top Gun. All classics, none cinematic greats, all fun to watch and to listen to.
8. “Weird Science”
I would be remiss as a Los Angelino if I failed to mention local boys Oingo Boingo, the bizarro New Wave band behind the theme song to John Hughes’ Weird Science. Oingo Boingo were, as I have come to understand from speaking to non-natives, not very popular elsewhere in the U.S., but I can assure you they were pretty enormous here with hits like “Only a Lad,” “Just Another Day,” “Private Life,” and others. They also did the music for the excellent cult musical Forbidden Zone, directed by Richard Elfman. “Weird Science” is catchy, wicked fun, and has awesome lyrics. It’s not deep, but it’s excellent.
7. “Lose Yourself”
The first rap song to ever win an Academy Award was Eminem’s theme song to Curtis Hanson’s 8 Mile. The song tells the story of 8 Mile‘s protagonist, Rabbit, who is a thinly-veiled analogue for Eminem himself. The song itself is soulful, cries out for escape, and eventually becomes so earnest, it loses sight of which reality its supposed to be describing: Rabbit’s or Eminem’s. One of the lyrics in the song mentions that there’s no Mekhi Phifer. There is, of course. But is there?
We can discuss all day long which James Bond song is the best one. For many years, conventional wisdom dictated that the theme to Goldfinger was the best, and that nothing could beat Shirley Bassey’s awesome – and GIGANTIC – vocals. More recently, “Nobody Does it Better” and “Live and Let Die” have pulled ahead in the public consciousness, and we cannot argue against either of those. But for an ur-example of everything James Bond songs are to be, Goldfinger pulls ahead.
5. “Mrs. Robinson”
The story goes that this song was originally an unpublished Simon and Garfunkel song called “Mrs. Roosevelt” until Mike Nichols, director of The Graduate, renamed it for his film. The song may not be a direct allusion to the character from The Graduate played by Anne Bancroft – a sultry older woman who seduces the film’s younger protagonist – but it’s so inextricably linked to the character, it certainly counts as her theme song.
4. “Repo Man”
When trying to find a definitive punk rock song written expressly for a movie, one finds themselves a little lost. Until, of course, one remembers that Alex Cox, in 1984, made one of the best punk rock movies of all time, which came handily equipped with an extended Iggy Pop song right at the head. The song is awesome, of course, and SoundTreks has written about it before. We once called this song a fist with a boner. ‘Nuff said.
3. “Theme from Shaft”
Isaac Hayes’ theme song for Shaft, would work as an awesome funk ballad – and may have even lingered in pop music history – even if there were no movie. The character described in the lyrics of the song is so amazing, he approaches the arena of myth. Hayes has essentially written a funk panegyric to the ideal black man. For many years, I recall this theme being used as a joke. Sure, it may seem silly at first glance. But listen again. It’s actually perfectly earnest.
2. “Fight the Power”
Spike Lee wanted his 1989 feature film Do the Right Thing to come on strong. There was no reason, in his mind, to sugar-coat or hold back in his damning and amazing moral exploration of modern race relations in New York. He found one of the angriest rap groups he could to write the theme song to his movie, and Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” encapsulates the mood and the themes of the film perfectly. This song is confrontational, and will not hide behind metaphor. It’s going to ask you the hard questions, and it’s going to be brusque about it. It’s intense and amazing.
1. “Purple Rain”
This is likely at the top of the list because we’re all, as of this writing, still stinging from Prince’s recent death. But even if Prince were alive and well, we’d still love this song. Listen to it without weeping. I defy you.
Top Image: Paramount
Witney Seibold is a contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and the co-host of The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon. He also contributes to Legion of Leia and to Blumhouse. You can follow him on “The Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.