Singin’ in the Dark: songs that originated in the moviesSeptember 8th, 2011 | Posted by in Uncategorized
In the absence of Paleolithic tape recordings, the origins of music and storytelling remain in our imagination. But surely they began at about the same time, twin impulses to the universal human desire for self-expression. Though the oldest known musical instrument predates the earliest discovered cave paintings by some eighty centuries, the human voice is older still. Perhaps music even began as embellishments and modulations in storytelling itself—maybe the “musical” is an older art form than we give it credit for!
In any case, music has always been an extremely important part of cinematic storytelling. Before dialog was synchronized to film with 1929’s The Jazz Singer (a musical), the great “silent” masterpiece Sunrise was exhibited in 1927 with a synchronized recording of music and sound effects. And of course earlier silent films were very rarely shown without music of some kind: many silent movies were distributed along with music scores composed and arranged for specific films.
As synchronized sound became an integral part of filmmaking, it was inevitable that the movies would prove fertile ground not only for composers of instrumental film scores, but for popular songwriters as well. Just as inevitably, many of the last century’s most beloved popular songs have had their origins in movies. Here’s a chronological list of some of the most significant such songs, as chosen by me. (Click on the song title for a youtube video of each song.)
Over the Rainbow | The Wizard of Oz | 1939
One of the great standards of the American songbook. Written by Harold Arlen and E.Y “Yip” Harburg for the fourth or fifth film version of L.Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Meddling studio suits tried to cut the song from the film because they thought it too slow, and too old for Judy Garland, who was 17 when she sang it for the movie. The song became her signature song—heck, it’s pretty much become the signature song of 20th Century American Culture.
White Christmas | Holiday Inn | 1942
Guinness calls “White Christmas” the best selling single of all time, with an estimated 50 million copies in existence. Bing Crosby introduced it to movie audiences (he’d already sung it on the radio) in the 1942 film Holiday Inn (a movie in which Fred Astaire performs a jaw-dropping blackface tribute to Abraham Lincoln), and he reprised it in 1954’s White Christmas.
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas | Meet Me in St. Louis | 1944
The centerpiece of The Great American Musical, Meet Me in St. Louis. The song was initially meant to be a much sadder song than the version we’ve become familiar with. In the scene that introduced it, Judy Garland is consoling her little sister, Margaret O’Brien, who’s devastated because their father plans to uproot the family and move them to New York. The original first verse, which certainly wouldn’t console me, went like this:
Have yourself a merry little Christmas, it may be your last,
Next year we may all be living in the past
Have yourself a merry little Christmas, pop that champagne cork,
Next year we will all be living in New York.
No good times like the olden days, happy golden days of yore,
Faithful friends who were dear to us, will be near to us no more.
One of the things that sets Meet Me in St. Louis, one of my favorite films, apart from other big musicals of that era is an undercurrent of darkness—death is a motif—that serves to deepen and enrich the film. But even in that context, the song as originally written was a downer. I’m glad they changed it.
Baby, It’s Cold Outside | Neptune’s Daughter | 1949
The Christmas standard that never mentions anything about Christmas at all was actually written for a movie—songwriter Frank Loesser performed it himself but had never recorded it—and it was introduced to the world by none other than Ricardo Montalban in the Esther Williams vehicle Neptune’s Daughter.
Whatever Will Be, Will Be (Que Sera, Sera) | The Man Who Knew Too Much | 1956
Another iconic page in the 20th Century Songbook.
Mrs. Robinson | The Graduate | 1967
In another role originally intended for Doris Day, Anne Bancroft seduces the 12-year-old Dustin Hoffman (in the Jesse Eisenberg role) as “Mrs. Robinson.”
Theme from Valley of the Dolls | Valley of the Dolls | 1968
A really great song from a truly terrible movie.
Everybody’s Talkin’ | Midnight Cowboy | 1969
From the first (only?) X-rated movie ever to win Best Picture.
Theme From Shaft | Shaft | 1971
No such list would be complete (shutcho mouth!).
Across 110th Street | Across 110th Street | 1972
The song Tarantino used as the theme song for Jackie Brown, “Across 110th Street,” was originally the theme song of another movie called, surprisingly, Across 110th Street. One of the best of the gritty 70s urban cop movies.
Ben | Ben | 1972
Recorded by Michael Jackson when he was 14, it was his first solo #1, and is easily the most beautiful song ever written for a rat.
I’m Easy | Nashville | 1975
Keith Carradine, just one member of the vast Carradine acting dynasty—the Baldwin Brothers of the 70s—won his only Oscar not for an acting performance, but for a song he wrote for Robert Altman’s masterpiece, 1975’s Nashville. It’s also the only Oscar won by the film, or by any other member of the Carradine family.
Stayin’ Alive | Saturday Night Fever | 1977
As iconic a song as any on this list; probably the signature song of the 70s.
Theme from New York, New York | New York, New York | 1977
A song that sounds like a standard from the Great American Songbook. It became something of a signature song for late-career Sinatra, but there’s something about the near-sobbing quality of Liza Minnelli’s voice when she first introduced the song in Martin Scorsese’s 1977 movie of the same title that makes it, really, her song.
Fight the Power | Do the Right Thing | 1989
Played over the opening credits of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, while Rosie Perez danced furiously on a stylized soundstage version of the movie’s actual location, “Fight the Power” set the tone for an incredibly powerful film; a film (and a song) that still resonate in today’s are-we-there-yet? America.
It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp | Hustle & Flow | 2005
This song, and the movie that introduced it, pumped a blast of fresh air into the stodgy complacency of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, winning an Oscar in 2005 and reminding Academy voters to keep up or get left behind.
The more I ruminated on movie songs, and tried to narrow down what I would mention in this post, the more songs I realized I wanted to take the time and space to include. But instead I’ll quit here, WAAAY over my length limit, and turn it over to you. What are some of your favorite songs that had their origins in a movie?