While it’s hard to believe now, movies originally didn’t even have sound. The first films, in black and white and lasting only a few minutes, were either completely silent or came with sheet music to be played live in the theatre. Since those early days, music has become an instrumental part of a movie. Music helps to set a mood, define characters or their setting and entertain audiences, complementing film’s visual nature.
While musicals are the primary film genre to use songs, all genres have used songs in various ways. The Academy Awards first acknowledged their importance in 1934 by creating the Best Original Song award. Many movies have used previously existing songs for their soundtrack, but others have created songs specifically for their movies, and some of those songs went on to become huge hits outside of the context of their movie origins, the focus of this particular list.
This list was extremely difficult to narrow down, and the ones excluded from this list could make an excellent list of their own. The ones excluded from the list include everything from timeless classics like Something Over the Rainbow (The Wizard of Oz) and The Way You Look Tonight (Swing Town) to the theme songs from Live and Let Die, Shaft and Flashdance and A Hard Day’s Night. Other songs that didn’t quite make it include Don’t You (Forget About Me) (Breakfast Club), The Rainbow Connection (The Muppet Movie), White Christmas (Holiday Inn), current hits Happy (Despicable Me 2) and Let It Go (Frozen) and even Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door (Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid). So if not these iconic songs, what did make it? Read on and find out.
10. Lose Yourself by Eminem (8 Mile)
This song is not relegated to tenth because of its quality, but rather because of the nature of its film of origin. Eminem also stars in the movie, which, like Elvis and The Beatles’ various films, Prince’s Purple Rain and even Spice World, was intended as a vehicle to promote his music. Eminem’s semi-autographical portrayal of B-Rabbit is inseparable from the song, making it a different type of movie song than others on this list. Eminem won the Oscar for Best Original Song in 2002, the first rap song to have the honour, and was the highest-ranked 21st century rap song in Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time List, at 166, among its many other honors.
9. I Don’t Want To Miss a Thing by Aerosmith (Armageddon)
While neither the song nor the movie were particularly well received by critics, both were commercial successes. The song was the first song in Aerosmith’s career to debut at number one on the Billboard Hot 100, and it remained at number one for four consecutive weeks. The song was nominated for both the Best Original Song Oscar and the Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Original Song, demonstrating its ability to polarize opinions, though it won neither. The served as an introduction to the group for a younger generation, and Aerosmith lead singer Steven Tyler’s daughter Liv Tyler was also one of the main stars of the film, alongside Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck and Steve Buscemi.
8. Footloose by Kenny Loggins (Footloose)
Spending three weeks at number one, Footloose became one of Loggins’ most famous and popular singles. While the movie was remade in 2011 (and the song covered by popular country artist Blake Shelton), Loggins’ rendition of the song has remained a part of the cultural zeitgeist in ways that the original film, starring Kevin Bacon, and the remake failed to do, transcending its 1980s roots to become a catchy pop song for all eras. Footloose won Song of the Year at the Grammy Awards, demonstrating its appeal not only within the context of the film but as a song in its own right, and the American Film Institute selected it to their 100 Years…100 Songs list.
7. (I’ve Had) The Time of My Life – Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes (Dirty Dancing)
Playing during the climactic dance scene between Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Gray, the song is more closely linked to its particular context than most others on this list, but is no less iconic for it. The song also appeared in the pilot for the hit TV sitcom New Girl and was sampled by the Black Eyed Peas for their single The Time (Dirty Bit). The Time of My Life topped the Billboard Hot 100 for one week, and found great critical success, winning the Grammy and Golden Globe for Best Original Song, as well as the Grammy for Best Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals.
6. Eye of the Tiger by Survivor (Rocky III)
Most people would struggle to name another Survivor song, but even those who have never seen Rocky III are familiar with this hit. When Stallone was unable to get permission to use Queen’s song Another One Bites the Dust, he asked the band to write the song for the movie, with huge commercial success. Released less than a year after the premier of MTV, the song became one of the network’s hit music videos. It spent six weeks as number one in the US and four in the UK, and also hit number one in six other countries. It was also listed fourth overall on Billboard Hot 100’s 1980s End of Decade charts, and has sold over nine million copies after combining physical and digital sales.
5. (Everything I Do) I Do It For You by Bryan Adams (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves)
While Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves has not remained a popular iteration of the character, Bryan Adams’ song for the movie remains extremely popular. It spent seven weeks at number one on the Billboard Hot 100, nine weeks at number one in his native Canada and an astonishing sixteen weeks at number one on the UK Singles Chart, a British record. It sold over eight million physical copies, won the Grammy For Best Song Written Specifically For a Motion Picture or Television, and was nominated for the Best Original Song Oscar, only to lose to Beauty and the Beast.
4. I Will Always Love You by Whitney Houston (The Bodyguard)
Even though it was originally Dolly Parton‘s song, Houston’s performance of the song for the movie made it hers. In her acting debut, she played a music star in need of protection from a bodyguard (Kevin Costner) against a stalker. Her performance in the film is distinct from Eminem in 8 Mile because her character, while also a singer, is in no way based upon her life. The film was actually written in the 1970s, with the intention of starring Diana Ross in Houston’s role and Steve McQueen in Costner’s. The song set a new American record after remaining the number one hit on the Billboard US charts for 14 consecutive weeks, and a British record for a solo female artist after ten consecutive weeks at number one in the UK. The song furthermore spent thirteen weeks at number one on the Eurochart Hot 100 Singles chart, and between five to eleven weeks at number one in eleven other countries. It won Record of the Year and Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female at the Grammy Awards, topped the Billboard sales charts for the year, and rose back to number three on the charts after Houston’s death. It remains the second best-selling physical single in the US, behind only Elton John’s Candle in the Wind, and is estimated to have sold at least 20 million copies physically or digitally worldwide.
3. My Heart Will Go on by Celine Dion (Titanic)
After its release, My Heart Will Go On was so immensely popular and omnipresent that it broke the record for most radio listeners and became the first English language song to reach number one on the Hot Latin Charts. Riding the wave of Titanic’s success, the song spent two weeks at number one on the Billboard Hot 100, as well as ten weeks as number one on the Billboard Hot 100 Airplay. It also reached number one in sixteen other countries, in ten of those for ten weeks or more, led by seventeen weeks atop the Eurocharts Hot 100 Singles list. It won the Oscar and Golden Globe for Best Original Song, as well as Record of the Year, Song of the Year, Best Female Pop Performance and Best Song Originally Written for a Motion Picture or Television at the Grammys. The American Film Institute also named it number 14 on their 100 Years…100 Songs list.
2. Stayin’ Alive by the Bee Gees (Saturday Night Fever)
The signature song from the Bee Gees’ iconic soundtrack, the song came to represent not only the film but also the entire genre of disco for generations to come. The song remained at number one in the US for four consecutive weeks, hit number one in eight other countries, and sold millions of singles. Though it did not win an Oscar or Grammy, Rolling Stone named the song number 189 on their 500 Greatest Songs of All Time List and the AFI named it number nine on the 100 Years…100 Songs list. The full Saturday Night Fever soundtrack is also widely considered one of the greatest soundtracks of all time. Instantly recognizable, undeniably catchy and the first song many think of when the disco era comes to mind, Stayin’ Alive is more than just a song. It’s a cultural icon.
1. Mrs. Robinson by Simon and Garfunkel (The Graduate)
Mrs. Robinson was the first true pop hit originating from a soundtrack where its performers did not use the movie as a starring vehicle, and its success spawned the film industry’s desire to use pop hits to further market their films and increase ticket sales. Director Mike Nichols asked the duo to write three new songs for The Graduate, but Mrs. Robinson emerged as the movie’s signature hit. Topping the US charts for three weeks and winning a Grammy for Record of the Year demonstrated the song’s commercial and critical success, but the existence of the rest of the songs on this list are its most enduring legacy.
Mrs. Robinson is a wonderful hit in and of itself, but its place at number six on AFI’s 100 Films…100 Years song, and the highest ranked pop song on that list, is more indicative of why it must be number one on this list. Mrs. Robinson changed the way soundtracks were made, inviting subsequent generations of musicians to lend their talents to film and help to create memorable experiences for viewers and listeners alike for many decades to come.