Some of the greatest movies started off as song titles, in some cases translating lyric to plot, and in others providing a general inspiration. The greatest song/movie combination is surely Stand By Me, with the work of two Kings (Stephen and Ben E.) coming together perfectly. Here are some other movies that appropriated songs and their titles with varying degrees of success. This doesn't include songs written specifically for movies (sorry, Kenny Loggins).
Blue Velvet (1986)
"Frank loved blue. Blue velvet. He had to have Dorothy 'cause her whole life was blue."
She wore blue velvet
Bluer than velvet was the night
Like Rob Reiner, director David Lynch was relying on the pre-existing connotations of a song to inform an audience about his movie. Bobby Vinton's dreamy 1963 cover of Tony Bennett's 1951 "Blue Velvet" is a nostalgia trip for simpler times, where all that mattered was a lover on a warm summer's night. But Lynch wanted to turn those ideas on their heads to shock his viewers by showing that nothing in the idyllic town in Blue Velvet is as it seems.
Vinton's version of the song plays over a picture-perfect introduction to suburbia under bright blue skies, with blooming flowers, smiling neighbors... and a surprise buried in the lush green grass. "What came from the song at first was red lips at night in a car and green lawns with some dew in night," Lynch explained. "And the next thing that came was a severed ear in the grass."
When Jeff (Kyle MacLachlan) finds that severed ear, he stumbles onto a mystery that includes gas-huffing sadomasochistic kidnapper Frank (Dennis Hopper) and troubled nightclub crooner Dorothy (Isabella Rossellini), who sings "Blue Velvet" every night.
The movie would become a cult classic, but Bobby Vinton's diehard fans weren't impressed.
Vinton told the Daytona Beach News-Journal: "When they see 'Blue Velvet,' they all figure it's a Bobby Vinton movie with love songs and all that. And they all get mad at me! I started getting nasty letters: 'Why did you be a part of that awful movie for? What is this?' But that's what David Lynch wanted. He wanted to shock people. He was something."
The movie did less for Vinton's career than it did for Roy Orbison's, whose 1963 ballad "In Dreams" was used on the soundtrack and sparked a career revival for the rock-and-roller.
Pretty in Pink (1986)
"I just want them to know that they didn't break me."
Caroline laughs and it's raining all day
She loves to be one of the girls
She lives in the place in the side of our lives
Where nothing is ever put straight
The 1986 John Hughes classic plucked its title from a track on the Psychedelic Furs 1981 album, Talk Talk Talk. In fact, Hughes wrote much of the film's plot, which follows a girl from the wrong side of the tracks (Molly Ringwald) who falls in love with a rich boy (Andrew McCarthy), around the lyrics. And he got it totally wrong. The Furs' Richard Butler told Mojo: "It was nothing like the spirit of the song at all. It's really hard to say whether it was damaging for us. I suppose we got tied in with the story of the film, and if that's what people thought the story was about, and didn't look much further than that, they were getting a very false impression."
Had McCarthy turned out to be as sleazy as his friends and used and abused Ringwald in her homemade pink prom dress, the story would have hewn closer to the band's intent. The girl of the song has delusions of popularity when in reality she's a toy passed around for pleasure. Maybe the Furs would have been happier had Hughes stuck with the original ending that paired Ringwald with her geek best friend (Jon Cryer) while McCarthy retreated back into the upper class (they can blame the test audiences for that one).
The film's director, Howard Deutsche, didn't even want to use the song in the opening, calling it "too raw and annoying," so it was reworked with a poppier sound.
The movie did help the new version of the song land on the US charts, though, which it failed to do the first time around in its edgier format. It also charted much higher in the UK at #18 compared to its original #43.
Other John Hughes movies named for pre-existing songs: Sixteen Candles and Some Kind of Wonderful.
Soul Man (1986)
"Mom! Dad! There's something I have to tell you... I'm black."
Got what I got the hard way
And I make it better, each and every day
So honey, said don't you fret
'Cause you ain't seen nothing yet
I'm a soul man
Were there any movies not named after a song in 1986? You might remember Sam & Dave's 1967 hit "Soul Man" from another '80s movie, The Blues Brothers, but it got top billing in the comedy Soul Man. In director Steve Miner's controversial film, white teenager Mark (C. Thomas Howell) disguises himself as a black student to win a minority scholarship to Harvard.
The song, written by Isaac Hayes, was rooted in African American experience, particularly the 1967 Detroit Riot. Hayes told NPR: "It was said that if you put 'Soul' on the door of your business establishment, they wouldn't burn it. Then the word 'Soul,' it was a galvanizing kind of thing for African Americans, and it had an effect of unity, it was said with a lot of pride." Hayes added that it was also a human experience, allowing the song to cross the color barrier and become a hit. In the Soul Man movie, however, Mark was unable to truly comprehend the black experience because "If I didn't like it, I could always get out. It's not the same."
Sam Moore, who re-recorded the song with Lou Reed for the movie, was glad to have a chance to take the song back from the Blues Brothers, but it was far from the Ben E. King/Stand By Me effect. It was barely a footnote on heated reviews, as most critics were busy arguing the movie's pitfalls, i.e. showcasing a white actor in blackface or using a crucial issue as fodder for a lightweight comedy.
Jumpin' Jack Flash (1986)
"Mick, Mick, Mick, speak English!"
But it's all right.
I'm Jumpin Jack Flash,
It's a gas! gas! gas!
The Rolling Stones song plays a crucial role in this spy comedy from Penny Marshall. Whoopi Goldberg stars as a bank teller who's thrown into the world of international espionage when she's contacted by a desperate British spy who will only identify himself as Jumpin' Jack Flash. However, Jack won't talk to her until she can figure out his password. The only clue she's given is that it has something to do with the song, so she stays up all night trying to wade through its impenetrable lyrics to solve the puzzle.
With the song playing such an integral role in the movie, it seems an obvious choice for the title, but it almost wasn't. Originally it was called "Knock Knock," a phrase Jack would use to greet Goldberg. None of this, however, was enough to save the movie from itself. It's not exactly regarded as a classic (though it has its fans, ahem) and, of course, the Stones didn't really need Whoopi Goldberg's help to make "Jumpin' Jack Flash" a fixture on classic rock stations for eternity. But the movie was responsible for Aretha Franklin's cover of the song, which charted at #21.
Peggy Sue Got Married (1986)
"Peggy Sue got married. Case closed."
She's the one
I've been told
Though she's wearing a band of gold
Peggy Sue got married not long ago
Buddy Holly wrote the 1957 single "Peggy Sue" with his Crickets drummer Jerry Allison, who was depressed over his recent breakup from the title girl. Allison would go on to marry Peggy Sue the following year and – after Holly's death – the song "Peggy Sue Got Married" was discovered.
There couldn't have been a better song choice for Francis Ford Coppola's fantasy-dramedy about a 42-year-old woman (Kathleen Turner) who faints at her high school reunion and wakes up in the past, given the chance to relive part of her teenage years with all the wisdom of an adult. Being that the year is 1960, we feel like we really are glimpsing the life of Holly's Peggy Sue.
One of the core issues of the film is Peggy Sue's marriage to her high school sweetheart (Nicolas Cage), a marriage that's on the brink of divorce in present day and full of the intensity of young love in the past. She gets to relive how the relationship started and decide if she would do things any differently to change the future.
Holly's original, undubbed version of the song plays over the opening credits of the movie, and Michigan musician Marshall Crenshaw also performs it at the reunion (Crenshaw would portray Buddy Holly in the Ritchie Valens biopic La Bamba the following year). The movie was well-received, but was overshadowed by another time-travel adventure released just months before: Back to the Future.
Lean on Me (1989)
"We sink, we swim, we rise, we fall - We meet our fate together."
Lean on me, when you're not strong
And I'll be your friend
I'll help you carry on
"Who could argue with the fact that it would be nice to have somebody who really was that way? My experience was, there were people who were that way," Withers told us of his famous song, a #1 hit in 1972.
The timeless tune is about being a loyal friend for someone to lean on in times of trouble with the hope that they would do the same for you. It doesn't exactly conjure the image of an enraged Morgan Freeman, but few songs do.
Inspired by a true story, John G. Avildsen's Lean on Me is about Joe Clark (Freeman), a no-nonsense teacher who transforms an inner-city school with his unorthodox methods. Clark's tough-love approach, involving lots of screaming and the occasional baseball bat, is less "lean on me" and more "do what I say for your own good." The song lets us know that even if we're uncomfortable with Clark's volatile attitude, we're supposed to see him as the good guy.
The movie used a version by Thelma Houston and the Winans, one of many covers that continued the song's legacy into the '80s. Two years before the film's release, Withers won a Grammy Award as songwriter after the R&B group Club Nouveau brought it back to the top of the charts with a dance version in 1987.
Pretty Woman (1990)
"I appreciate this whole seduction thing you've got going on here, but let me give you a tip: I'm a sure thing."
Pretty woman, walkin' down the street
Pretty woman the kind I like to meet
What started out as a serious study of the dangers of prostitution and drug abuse in Los Angeles turned into a romantic comedy with the tagline "who knew it was so much fun to be a hooker?" It wasn't until director Garry Marshall came on board that the title changed from $3,000 to Pretty Woman, borrowed from Roy Orbison's 1964 hit "(Oh) Pretty Woman." The song was inspired by Orbison's wife, who incidentally, was not a prostitute.
Orbison died two years before the movie hit theaters, but co-writer Bill Dees told Record Collector magazine his opinion of the movie's use of the song, a backdrop to Julia Roberts' shopping spree on Rodeo Drive: "I loved it. I held my breath at first 'cause I knew it was about prostitutes and the lyric is 'Pretty Woman, walking down the street.' I could see that they could glorify prostitution with the song, but it's used great in the film. It's also great to hear my voice with Roy's up on the screen."
The movie became a monster hit and thrust the little-known Roberts into the adoring spotlight, but it's hard to say if the song had anything to do with it. The question is: Do more people think Julia Roberts or Roy Orbison when they hear the title "Pretty Woman"?
Five years later, Roberts starred in another film with a title pulled from the charts: Something to Talk About.
Frankie and Johnny (1991)
"We were a couple before we met."
He was her man
But he done her wrong
"Frankie and Johnny" follows the story of a woman who takes revenge on her cheating boyfriend. Since its debut in the early-20th century, it's seen covers from Louis Armstrong, Johnny Cash, Sam Cooke, Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan.
In Garry Marshall's 1991 romantic drama, Al Pacino stars as ex-con Johnny who falls for jaded waitress Frankie, played by Michelle Pfeiffer. Although the movie doesn't follow the song's plot, Johnny uses the song as proof that he and Frankie belong together.
"Frankie and Johnny."
"I've heard the song."
"We were a couple before we met."
"Didn't they kill each other?"
"No. She killed him. You got the edge there."
The Pacino/Pfeiffer vehicle didn't do much to bring the song back into the public consciousness. Elvis Presley was the last performer to chart with it (#26) in 1966, which coincided with his own Frankie and Johnny movie musical. Elvis played a riverboat gambler named Johnny who finds a red-headed lady luck, much to the dismay of his girlfriend, Frankie. It's hard to stay mad at Elvis, so after some lively shenanigans and gunfire, all is forgiven.
Jeepers Creepers (2001)
"When you hear that song you run, and I mean run!"
Jeepers creepers, where'd you get them peepers?
Jeepers creepers, where'd you get those eyes?
Louis Armstrong introduced this jazz standard, written by Johnny Mercer, in the 1938 film Going Places. In the movie, Jeepers Creepers is actually a wild horse who can only be tamed when he hears Armstrong sing or play the tune. The song continued to have a light-hearted connotation for decades in cartoons and films until director Victor Salva appropriated it for cannibalistic purposes in 2001.
In Jeepers Creepers, two siblings (Justin Long and Gina Philips) driving home from college for spring break are hunted by The Creeper, an ancient creature that survives on the body parts and organs of his victims. The song could be their only hope of escape. A psychic warns:
"When you hear that song you run, and I mean run! 'Cause that song means something terrible for you, something so terrible you couldn't dream of it... not in your worst most terrible nightmare!"
Maybe Armstrong's signature warble was too recognizable or too good-natured to be the siren song of the Creeper, so Paul Whiteman and His Swing Wing's version was used instead. So basically the same guy who helped introduce Bing Crosby to the world is also responsible for the monster that will eat your brain.
Needless to say, when you train an audience to run from a song, it probably doesn't have a chance on the charts.
May 21, 2015
More Song Writing