There are some songs that will forever be associated with the movie they were written for. (A certain monster ballad from a certain aquatic-themed disaster film springs to mind.) Then there are songs that have a healthy life independent of the movies that spawned them. For instance, the Goo Goo Dolls wrote “Iris” for City Of Angels, but you don’t think of Nicolas Cage every time you hear that, right?
What fascinates me is a third category: well-known hit songs, created for movies I’ve never ever heard of. And my friends, I have heard of many, many movies. I tackled this subject once before, and it was a lot of fun to write. Did you know “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” was written for a Western, and sung from the perspective of Slim Pickens? Or that “New York, New York” was the theme song for a Robert DeNiro flick? But as usual with this site, the commenters thought of a few things I’d overlooked. It’s been about three years, but I’ve finally taken their suggestions and added a few discoveries of my own.
But I warn you before we begin: you will never hear these songs the same way again. One of them involves giant rats.
“Unchained Melody” by Alex North and Hy Zaret, from Unchained (1955)
Ever wonder why this song is called “Unchained Melody?” As OTI commenter Binx pointed out, the single most recorded song of the 20th century was actually written for a prison film… called Unchained. Therefore, “Unchained Melody.” The song and the movie came out in 1955, a full ten years before the Righteous Brothers version that karaoke singers worldwide know and love. Here’s the original recording, sung by a guy named Todd Duncan:
Duncan’s singing seems kind of hokey to modern ears, but the guy was one of the great classically trained African American singers of his day. According to Wikipedia, George Gershwin handpicked him as the original Porgy in Porgy and Bess.
Unchained is about an inmate who is torn between escaping to live as a free man (presumably on the beach from the end of The Shawshank Redemption) or serving his time and returning to his family, years in the future. And you’ve got to admit, that information radically changes the meaning of the lyrics:
Oh, my love, my darling
I’ve hungered for your touch
A long lonely time
And time goes by so slowly
And time can do so much
Are you still mine?
Sadly, Unchained doesn’t seem to have ever been released on DVD, but I did find a chunk on YouTube:
Todd Duncan is credited as an actor in the film, so I’m guessing he sings the song in the rec room while the other prisoners stare into the distance wistfully. I’ve got to say, all this would make a lame episode of Oz. Schillinger would eat all these guys for breakfast.
So are you ready for your daily dose of irony? The megahit version of “Unchained Melody” was produced by Phil Spector in 1965. He probably deserves most of the credit for taking a tender little ballad and applying his “wall of sound” technique, layering on the strings until the thing soared to the heavens.
Anyway, guess where Phil Spector is today?
POINTLESS TRIVIA: The main character was played by Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch, who is known less for his acting skills than for his football career (three Pro Bowl appearances). He only appeared in three movies: Unchained, Crazylegs (a movie about his own life), and Zero Hour!, which was the airplane disaster movie that Airplane! mercilessly mocked. It’s kind of a weird coincidence that two of his three movies were pretty much forgotten, but inspired timeless classics.
“The Greatest Love of All” by Michael Masser and Linda Creed, from The Greatest (1977)
I ain’t too proud to admit it: I love obscure pop culture trivia. The day I found out that the actor who played Michael Myers in the original Halloween was the same person who directed The Last Starfighter, I told everybody. I walked up to random strangers on the street to make sure they knew. Anyway, I feel the same irrational giddiness about the odd pedigree of “The Greatest Love of All.” This was mentioned by OTI commenter “Slokes,” who is probably just Stokes with a typo.
What if I told you that Ali was not the first movie to dramatize Muhammad Ali’s life? In fact, there was a 1977 film called The Greatest, co-written by Academy Award winning screenwriter Ring Lardner. Ali’s trainer is played by Academy Award winner Ernest Borgnine. It also starred Academy Award winner Robert Duvall, and Sith of the Year winner James Earl Jones. But when the filmmakers went to cast their lead, they knew there was only one man alive who had the necessary charisma to play Muhammad Ali: Muhammad Ali. He played himself, otherwise known as “pulling a Crazylegs.”
Okay, so how does the Whitney Houston song factor into this? Well, it was originally a George Benson song written for the movie. The lyricist, Linda Creed, wrote it about her own struggle with breast cancer, which doesn’t have a ton to do with Muhammad Ali. That didn’t stop them from using it over the opening credits:
I suppose the lyrics kind of apply to Ali too. He does really like children, as anyone who has listened to Ali and His Gang vs. Mr. Tooth Decay knows well. He did not walk in anyone’s shadow, he lived as he believed, and they did not take away his dignity. And you’ve got to admit, he certainly knew how to love himself.
Benson’s original recording had some decent chart performance, but when Houston covered it nine years later, it was a smash hit. It reached #1 on the Billboard charts in May of 1986. Sadly, only weeks before, lyricist Linda Creed finally succumbed to the very cancer that the song was written about in the first place. So I guess you now have double your daily dose of irony. It’s like hail on your wedding day.
By the way, as strange as it seems to have the greatest sports star of his day act in a biopic of himself, in about 20 years somebody will be writing about Space Jam and “I Believe I Can Fly” for a future edition of “Hit Songs From Obscure Movies.” Of course, that movie wasn’t based on Michael Jordan’s actual life… so far as I’m aware.
I remember a car trip I once took with Shechner, during which we realized that “I try to say goodbye and I choke/I try to walk away and I stumble” could be describing early onset Parkinson’s Disease. Have that checked out, Macy!
It was OTI commenter “clickliter33” who noted the odd history behind this song. It was officially released on January 25, 2000, as part of Macy’s debut album. But it actually popped up during the romantic comedy Love Jones, in March of 1997. That’s nearly three years earlier. Confusingly, it was not part of the Love Jones soundtrack album.
The best I can figure out, Macy was originally signed to Atlantic Records, but that relationship went sour before she could record much. She regrouped with Epic Records a couple years later. While her career was in limbo, her not-officially-released single turned up not only in Love Jones, but also in a Jennifer Aniston romantic comedy, Picture Perfect. Good God, Jennifer Aniston has been making romantic comedies forever. In this one, Jennifer is pretending to be engaged to Jay Mohr to advance her career, but then they actually fall for each other. Meh.
Anyway, I hope Macy got some royalty checks to tide her over, but there’s a happy ending. On February 21, 2001, she took home the Grammy for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance for “I Try.” For those of you keeping score, that’s nearly four years after Love Jones.
Those three songs were recommended by OTI commenters. Here’s some that I came up with myself (with a little help from Mr. Google).
“Ben” by Don Black and Walter Scharf, from Ben (1972)
You all know this song: it’s the Michael Jackson ballad that goes:
Ben, the two of us need look no more
We both found what we were looking for
With a friend to call my own
I’ll never be alone
And you, my friend, will see
You’ve got a friend in me
What you might not have known, however, is that Ben is a giant, killer rat.
That explains the second verse, which begins:
Ben, you’re always running here and there
You feel you’re not wanted anywhere
The movie Ben is a sequel to the movie Willard (you might remember the 2003 remake starring Crispin Glover). Willard was about a socially awkward young man who trains an army of rats to kill for him. But when he decides to destroy his minions, they turn on him and gnaw him to death. Roll credits. This seems like unlikely material for a sequel, but that’s what they said about Weekend At Bernie’s.
Ben focuses on a bullied child who is befriended by the rats from the original. At the end of the film, Ben (the head rat) leads his colony on another murderous rampage. But despite everything, the boy still loves his pet, and he saves him from the police. So it’s… sweet, I guess? Certainly, I can’t think of another horror film with a chart-topping ballad.
The song was originally written for 15-year-old Donny Osmond. But when Donny proved unavailable, they gave it to 14-year-old Michael Jackson. To me, those are very different singers, but if you needed a young boy to perform something in the early 1970s, they were your best bets. Jackson got to sing the song at the Oscars, but it lost to an even worse piece of schlock from The Poseidon Adventure.
Incidentally, I really love the 2003 remake of Willard, which makes me wish Crispin Glover got more work. The filmmakers found a tremendous way to work “Ben” into the film. Apologies to the cat-lovers out there:
And that YouTube ad that just popped up makes it TRIPLE your daily dose of irony. Call your doctor.
“On the Road Again” by Willie Nelson, from Honeysuckle Rose (1980)
I was surprised to hear this one was written for a movie, because it’s very explicitly about being a musician on tour:
On the road again
Just can’t wait to get on the road again
The life I love is making music with my friends
And I can’t wait to get on the road again
So what kind of movie, I wondered, could this song have been written for? Wikipedia provides the obvious answer:
Buck Bonham (Willie Nelson) is a country singer, with a good family, struggling to find national fame. He juggles his music career with his responsibilities to his wife and son.
Keep in mind, this does NOT count as “pulling a Crazylegs,” since Willie Nelson is technically not playing Willie Nelson. Surprisingly, the New York Times film critic Janet Maslin has some praise for Mr. Nelson’s performance:
He seems too odd, too solitary, for all the intimacy forced upon him by the story line. But he brings tremendous authority to every gesture, and his character is the only thing in the movie about which the audience is bound to want to know more. Mr. Nelson accomplishes all this in a role with very little dialogue, which makes his sheer force of personality seem all the more impressive.
I would not have expected this from his work in The Dukes of Hazzard. But nevermind that. You ever wonder who would win a fight between Willie Nelson and Slim Pickens?
Correct answer: EVERYONE.
“Endless Love” by Lionel Richie, from Endless Love (1981)
This Diana Ross/Lionel Richie duet is one of the all-time classic love songs. And it turns out it’s about a 15-year-old girl, played by Brooke Shields.
Completely unrelated note for those who just watched the video above: I MUST WATCH TILT AS SOON AS POSSIBLE. HOW DO I NOT OWN THIS MOVIE?
Italian director Franco Zeffirelli made Romeo and Juliet in 1968. Thirteen years later, he figured it was worth trying the “teenagers hooking up over their parents’ objections” thing again. In Endless Love, the parents of the girl are weird hippie bohemians, because the book it’s based on was written in the 1960s. They are the kind of hippies who have rock parties in their living rooms, during which “Endless Love” is first performed diagetically.
But soon, Jade is so busy having sex that her grades begin to slip. I swear this is a real plot point. David is banned from the house, and responds by lighting the porch on fire, with the idea that he can warn the family and be welcomed back as a hero. Instead, the place burns to the ground, and David is convicted of arson. After two years in an insane asylum, David gets out and goes to find Jade. He finds her dad first, who chases him through the streets before getting fatally hit by a car. Later, Jade and David are on the verge of renewing their endless love, when her older brother (James Spader!) fingers him for their dad’s death. Somehow (Wikipedia is vague on this) David goes to prison forever, although I’m not exactly sure why. In the movie’s closing moments, Jade walks to the prison to visit him, and the Diana Ross/Lionel Richie song swells on the soundtrack as the end credits roll, and WHOA is that Tom Cruise listed in a minor role at 1:00?
And DOUBLE WHOA, note the credit for Robert Altman. Yes, it’s that Robert Altman, in one of the three acting roles he ever took on. I have no idea how this happened, but I’d love to find out. Maybe he just wanted to meet Brooke Shields, and can you blame him?
A couple interesting things here. I don’t know if there’s a black person in this entire film, but the theme song is sung by two huge African-American stars… and performed by a white girl in the film. Kids, there’s an easy college paper to be written about that.
Also, this song was used on Glee, during the episode where Rachel crushes on Mr. Schuester. I don’t think Ryan Murphy knew that Endless Love was about an underaged girl, but it’s a cute coincidence.
“It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday” by Freddie Perren and Christine Yarian, from Cooley High (1975)
Let there be no doubt about it: Boyz II Men really loves this movie. Not only did they name their first album Cooleyhighharmony, the second single was an a capella cover of the movie’s one original song. Cooley High was a coming of age story about a group of African American teens at Chicago’s inner city Cooley High School. The two main characters are “Preach,” the slacker who dreams of being a Hollywood writer, and “Cochise,” the basketball phenom. One of these characters may not make it to graduation day, and it ain’t the one who’s a stand-in for the screenwriter.
I always figured this song was a breakup song, but it turns out to be a little darker than that.
I don’t think I’ve ever heard this song with, you know, instruments. It’s kind of nice. The singer is G. C. Cameron, who was the main guy for The Spinners.
“Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now)” by Phil Collins, from Against All Odds (1984)
First off, if I go to see a movie called Against All Odds, I want it to be about something really goddamned amazing. I want to see somebody build a spaceship in his backyard, or climb Mt. Everest despite being a double amputee, or cut down a bit of her belly every day by using this one weird old tip. Something really amazing. But this movie is just about the Dude trying to bring James Woods’ girlfriend back from Mexico, but falling in love with her in the process. That’s hardly against all odds. But I suppose Mildly Unlikely isn’t a very punchy title.
This is actually a loose remake of Out of the Past, one of the all-time classic noirs. Terry and Jessie just want to be together and have their little From Here to Eternity makeout scene reenactment, but they both have dark secrets that they can’t escape. At the end of the film, they have to go off to live separate lives, with the vague hope that there still might be a chance for them. Cue the lingering glance and the Phil Collins:
It’s kind of an amazing final shot, actually. About a minute of her just looking into the distance, smiling coyly at the camera, wiping away a tear in perfect time with “even shared the tears” (at 1:10), and generally being cryptic. This was directed by Taylor Hackford, who was nominated for an Oscar for directing Ray. He should have been nominated for The Devil’s Advocate, but the world ain’t fair.
Okay guys, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going on E-Bay to buy Tilt. But commenters, what did I overlook this time?