Musical Choices: The Top 10

November 6, 2007 § 1 Comment

By Lars Trodson

It’s no secret that movie theme songs have degraded into a kind of chase for a chance to put another pop tune on the soundtrackT compilation. These songs seem to rarely connect to the movie itself, although younger directors, such as Noah Baumbach and Paul Thomas Anderson, certainly seem to be trying to bring back some magic to the art form. It’s nice to see them try. I thought the music to “The Squid and the Whale”, by Britta Phillips and Dean Wareham, was gorgeous.

I was thinking of how perfectly some songs seem to fit into their movies when I was listening to Curtis Mayfield’s “Freddie’s Dead” the other day, which is on the “Superfly” soundtrack – out of which came one of the great movie theme songs of all time. It also came to mind when I watched the “American Masters” edition about Charles Schulz and heard once again Vince Guaraldi’s music from the Peanuts’ Christmas special. It seems to me that rarely has the artistic sensibilities of two people, Schulz and Guaraldi, been so beautifully matched.

I think the first time I became aware of music in a movie was when I was watching the Marlon Brando version of “Mutiny On the Bounty” on TV when I was a kid. The Bounty was slashing through the water, and I heard the big, swelling soundtrack, and I thought: Do they always put music in movies like that? I hadn’t paid attention to it – outside of the more obvious songs they sang in “Mary Poppins” or a movie like that. And then later on, in 1968, I saw “2001: A Space Odyssey” in the theater and you couldn’t escape the perfection of the music in that, even as a kid.

So I started to think about this list. It is purely my own, and I even left a few out because they are so odd: who would put in their top 10 the theme music to “Soldier In the Rain”? That 1963 film, starring Jackie Gleason and Steve McQueen, captivated me as a child – Gleason or McQueen could do no wrong, in my book – and I’ve never forgotten Henry Mancini’s music. But who else would remember it? That moviegoing experience is so purely my own, so I left it off. I was going to include Aimee Mann’s music for “Magnolia”, but the movie is such an odd mixture of failure and success that I couldn’t put it on. I’m sure she’ll be crushed.

I also didn’t include such songs as “White Christmas” or “Moon River” because, you know, we’ve had it up to here with that, despite the fact that they’re beautiful songs. Some others, as you’ll see, you just can’t ignore. The others are the ones that have simply stayed with me since I first saw the movies to which they are attached and the music seemed to perfectly, utterly capture the feelings inside the films they were written for.

Here then, is my list of the top 10 greatest movie theme songs, soundtracks – or tunes – of all time. It’s idiosyncratic, for sure, but what movie list isn’t?

1. Shaft, 1970, Isaac Hayes. Propulsive, exciting, sensual – tied right into the themes of the movie. Exactly right in every way.

2. Fight the Power, 1989, Public Enemy (used in Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing”). Innovative, powerful and provocative. Three words also to describe the movie. Classic in every way.

3. Help!, 1965, John Lennon. Never has there been a sadder, more desperate song written for a frivolous comedy, masked by a memorable, upbeat tune.

4. “The Odd Couple Theme”, 1968, Neal Hefti. There is whimsy to this, but you can also hear the loneliness people can feel in a place like New York.

5. Soundtrack to “Popeye”, 1980, by Harry Nillson. Absolute loveliness; rhymeless songs, capturing the sweet and endearing heart of this fractured universe.

6. Opening theme to “Southern Comfort”, 1981, Ry Cooder. Haunting and spooky and exotic, just like the movie.

7. “Superfly“, 1972, Curtis Mayfield. Here you have the dead-end life of the title character captured in the lyric, weaved together by a delicate tune.

8. Soundtrack to “Bang the Drum Slowly”, 1974, Stephen Lawrence. This is a sad story, of course, made all the more humane by this empathetic music.

9. Everybody’s Talkin’, 1969, Fred Neil (and performed by Harry Nillson in “Midnight Cowboy”). The cacophony and dislocation of New York, writ small in a tune not written for the film, but used perfectly in it.

10. Theme to the Pink Panther movies, various years, Henry Mancini. You have to include this. You just have to. Don’t you? The song stayed as joyous even all through the truly dismal incarnations of the series that Blake Edwards put out, even after Peter Sellers was dead.

11. Marvin Hamlisch’s arrangement of Scott Joplin’s rags, 1973, “The Sting.” Never has a movie used the sounds of one era – the early 1900s – to illustrate the rambunctious attitude of another – the 1930s. This choice was truly inspired.


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