–By Sam Hendrian–
From Mary Poppins Returns to A Star is Born and Bohemian Rhapsody, 2018 proved that using songs to advance and/or enhance a movie’s plot is once again a relevant cinematic technique after years of declining in usage. What is it about lyrical music that makes onscreen images extra resonant? In order to answer this question, let us take a look at fifteen different songs both beloved and underrated that have graced the silver screen over the years.
1. “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” – The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Frequently covered and revered as one of the most moving songs in movie history, Judy Garland’s simple, earnest musical expression of her heart’s longings is truly lovely, luminescent, and legendary. A sort of precursor to Disney’s “When You Wish Upon a Star” from the 1940 animated masterpiece Pinocchio, it speaks to the universal human dream of finding a place where wishes come true and all is right with the world. Few movie songs can top it for sheer cultural significance.
2. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” – Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
Another piece of Judy Garland vocal magic, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” has been covered again and again on Christmas albums throughout the years, but its emotional core is perhaps strongest in the movie for which it was written, Meet Me in St. Louis. Sung by a young lady trying to explain to her sister that the only thing constant in life is change, it is both pleasantly sentimental and painfully bittersweet.
3. “That’s Entertainment” – The Band Wagon (1953)
Though The Band Wagon hides in the shadow of the legendary movie musical that came out a year before it—Singin’ in the Rain—it is just as entertaining and features one of the greatest anthems about show business, “That’s Entertainment.” Sung a quarter into the film by the delightful Fred Astaire, Oscar Levant, Jack Buchanan, and Nanette Fabray (who passed away at the beginning of last year), it cleverly satirizes and salutes the wild wonderment of the theatre business. “The world is a stage/The stage is a world of entertainment!”
4. “The Sound of Silence” – The Graduate (1967)
While written independently from the production of The Graduate, Simon & Garfunkel’s haunting masterpiece ended up being used as a sort of theme song for Dustin Hoffman’s character, Benjamin Braddock. Poetically addressing the spiritual confusion of youth and how difficult it is to sincerely communicate with each other, this song has transcended the compelling characters of The Graduate to become a universal plea for empathy.
5. “Gonna Fly Now” – Rocky (1976)
Even if you hate exercising, this rousing earworm might motivate you to go out and start running down the street. Written for the Best Picture-winning sports drama Rocky, it is the training montage song to end all training montage songs. It helps the audience root even more passionately for the lovable boxer Rocky Balboa, and it just makes you feel good.
6. “The Power of Love” – Back to the Future (1985)
While it does not necessarily move the plot along, Huey Lewis and the News’ Oscar-nominated song “The Power of Love” quickly establishes the upbeat tone of Robert Zemeckis’s classic sci-fi comedy Back to the Future. Bearing a positive message and a fantastically catchy refrain, it is truly a rock-and-roll treasure from the 1980s. “Don’t need money/Don’t need fame/Don’t need no credit card to ride this train…”
7. “Circle of Life” – The Lion King (1994)
Hauntingly beautiful and thought-provoking even out of context, this Elton John/Tim Rice song provides a perfect backdrop for the opening images of Disney’s The Lion King. It masterfully contemplates both the unity of all living creatures and the inevitability of death, yet it does not come across as too heavy or intellectual, and it ranks among the best of the Disney motion picture songbook.
8. “Your Heart Will Lead You Home” – The Tigger Movie (2000)
Written by rock star Kenny Loggins in collaboration with legendary Disney composers Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman, this heart-warming composition from The Tigger Movie is one of my favorite songs to listen to on a rough day. It strives to give consolation to anyone who has ever felt deeply lonely/isolated, and it is infused with an optimistic earnestness. The lyric, “No one is an island/When all is said and done” is particularly inspiring.
9. “The Star-Spangled Man” – Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
With music by Alan Menken (Beauty and the Beast) and lyrics by David Zippel (Mulan), this wonderfully witty and catchy patriotic tune is used during the montage midway through Marvel’s Captain America: The First Avenger when Steve Rogers is being used as a publicity stunt. It was meant to be an homage to the 1940s tunes of Irving Berlin, and I do not know how it did not score an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song. “Who’ll hang a noose on the goose-steppin’ goons from Berlin?” Brilliant stuff!
10. “That’s How You Know” – Enchanted (2007)
A truly delightful song in an endlessly delightful movie, this cheery ode to romantic “love-in-action” is made golden by Amy Adams’s perfectly sincere delivery. Its use in the movie brilliantly satirizes the implausibility of people randomly bursting into the same song, but it also admirably inspires couples everywhere to never take each other for granted.
11. “Maybe It’s Time” – A Star is Born (2018)
While the song “Shallow” has received the most popularity and awards attention, the subtly melancholic “Maybe It’s Time” from the beginning of A Star is Born arguably bears an even deeper emotional/thematic core, as it foreshadows the tragic trajectory of Bradley Cooper’s character. “It takes a lot to change a man/Hell, it takes a lot to try/Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die.” These contemplative lyrics are extra powerful when one considers that they are being uttered by a good-hearted alcoholic who feels helpless about changing his ways.
12. “Nowhere to Go But Up” – Mary Poppins Returns (2018)
Many critics have decried the songs of Mary Poppins Returns as “forgettable,” and while I do not think the movie is a masterpiece story-wise, I heartily disagree with this harsh musical assessment. “Nowhere to Go But Up” is particularly brimming with catchiness and a contagious optimism that is much needed in this often cynical world. “Let the past take a bow/The forever is now/And there’s nowhere to go but up!” This is certainly an encouraging reminder for days when we feel weighed down by mistakes of the past and oppressed by worries about the future.
13. “You Know My Name” – Casino Royale (2006)
With the exception of Dr. No, every James Bond movie has had a specially-themed song play over the opening and/or end credits, and while this heavy rock piece from the opening credits of Casino Royale may not be as famous as “Goldfinger” or “Live and Let Die,” it has a surprising amount of depth that skillfully sets the tone for the movie to follow. “If you take a life, do you know what you’ll give?/Odds are you won’t like what it is.” These thoughtful lyrics foreshadow a memorable conversation that James and Vesper have later in the film. VESPER: “Does it bother you, killing all those people?” JAMES (in an enigmatic tone): “Well, I wouldn’t be very good at my job if it did.”
14. “City of Stars” – La La Land (2016)
Winner of the Academy Award for Best Original Song, some might argue that this is not actually the most memorable or catchy song from La La Land, but its quiet, unassuming style is what makes it so lovely. “City of Stars/Just one thing everybody wants/There in the bars/And through the smokescreen of the crowded restaurants/It’s love/Yes, all we’re looking for is love from someone else.” I often have these poignant lyrics in mind whenever I am walking through crowded streets and observing my fellow human beings.
15. “Feed the Birds” – Mary Poppins (1964)
Touching in its simplicity, this crucial component of the Sherman Brothers’ Oscar-winning score for Mary Poppins was Walt Disney’s personal favorite song. Bursting with thematic richness, it reminds us of the immeasurable power that simple acts of kindness can have. As Mother Teresa once said, “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.”
Well, as Tigger would say, ta ta for now! As you have seen, lyrical music can add greater depth to the characters/plot of a movie and strengthen the thematic statement being made by the filmmakers, for it speaks to the human heart in mysterious ways that nothing else can. What are some of your favorite movie songs?
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