This was written for the movie An Officer And A Gentleman, which won the Oscar for Best Original Song in 1983. The film is known for its closing scene, where Richard Gere, dressed in his Navy uniform, comes into the factory where Debra Winger is working, gets hot and heavy with her, then carries her out as her co-workers cheer. It's perhaps the most famous "sweeps her off her feet" archetype in film.
The movie ends with a still frame of Winger in Gere's arms as the credits roll and "Up Where We Belong" plays.
The entire process - from idea to inclusion in the movie and release - took only 30 days. Will Jennings wrote the lyrics. He's responsible for the words to many famous songs, including "My Heart Will Go On
," "Looks Like We Made It," and many of Steve Winwood's hits. Jennings told us:
"Joel Sill, who was head of the music department of Paramount, asked me to consider writing a song for this film. I watched a rough cut, loved the film and I heard enough parts to make up a song. I asked Joel to send me the work track and I stitched together the verse, chorus, and bridge of the song and wrote the lyrics... Joel sent it to Stewart Levine, a fine music producer, and Stewart and I talked the song over on the phone and he went in to the studio and cut the hit track with Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes."
Will Jennings told us about coming up with the words to this song: "I am a working class person and these people in the film trying to make it, they are my people. The mountain imagery is about striving for the top - people often don't hear the lyric right - it is 'Where eagles cry, on a mountain high' instead of 'Where eagles fly, on a mountain high' - if you have ever heard an eagle cry, the power and beauty of it and all the wild freedom of it, you will get the distinction. As far as "All I know is the way I feel...' well, if you have nothing else to tell you what to do in your life, you have to go with the way you feel... if you are lost, you have only your instinct and passion to guide you."
Jack Nitzsche and Buffy Sainte-Marie wrote the score for the movie and the music for this song; they got married the following year. Nitzsche scored many films, including The Exorcist, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, and The Indian Runner. He also played piano on several Rolling Stones songs and did arrangements for many songs Phil Spector produced. Before he died of a heart attack in 2000, he had some problems with the law - he appeared on the TV show Cops after waving a gun at another guy.
In the climactic closing scene of An Officer And A Gentleman, the instrumental "Love Theme From 'An Officer And A Gentleman,'" performed by Lee Ritenour, plays. This theme recalls "Up Where We Belong," but is less obtrusive.
The famous final scene has been spoofed many times in TV and movies, including on The Simpsons ("Life on the Fast Lane," 1990) when Homer carries Marge out of the nuclear power plant, and on Friends ("The One With the Chicken Pox," 1996) when Ross puts on a Navy uniform and tries to carry Rachel out of the coffee shop where she's working, only to have his plan foiled because she still needs to close up. In these spoofs, "Love Theme From 'An Officer And A Gentleman'" is typically used to evoke the film.
This won the Grammy for Best Pop Performance by Duo or Group With Vocal in 1983.
Joe Cocker toured England when this was climbing the charts there. He was born and grew up in England, but moved to the US in 1973.
Island Records boss Chris Blackwell liked to idea of Cocker recording the song with Warnes, but Cocker was on tour in the Pacific Northwest at the time. No problem: he simply flew to LA one afternoon, recorded the track with Warnes that evening, and flew back to resume the tour.
Jennifer Warnes, who hit US #6 in 1977 with "Right Time of the Night" and sang the Oscar-winning "It Goes Like It Goes" in the film Norma Rae
, was suggested by her manager - a friend of director Taylor Hackford's - to sing the song, but Hackford rejected the idea because he felt she sounded "Too sweet." When the manager suggested a duet with Joe Cocker, Hackford was intrigued with the possibility. Says Jennings, "Joe Sample and I wrote 'I'm So Glad I'm Standing Here Today.' It was for The Crusaders' Standing Tall
album, and Joe Cocker sang that. They were nominated for a Grammy, Best Inspirational Performance, and Joe sang it at the Grammys, just tore it up, and Taylor Hackford wanted to use him to sing the song from Officer And A Gentleman
, so that's how he came into it." (Check out our interview with Will Jennings
Taylor Hackford, who directed An Officer And A Gentleman
, had quite a run of #1 hits in his movies. His next film, Against All Odds
, scored with the Phil Collins title track. White Nights
followed, which gave us the chart-toppers "Say You Say Me" and "Separate Lives
." Then in 1987, Los Lobos hit #1 with their version of the theme song to Hackford's movie La Bamba
Warnes and Cocker stood next to each other when they recorded this in the studio, where they had a great chemistry that carried over to live performances. "Off stage, I never saw him," Warnes said in a 2018 Songfacts interview
. "But on stage he understood exactly what we were doing. Beautiful. I miss that very much. I felt very alive being on stage with him, because it was always live and it was always free and open and caring. He wasn't going to step on my note and I wasn't going to step on his. We felt free to take chances. It was like being in Cirque du Soleil or something - a partner hoping they'll catch you. He always did and I always caught him. That's fun. That's the beauty of singing."
Buffy Sainte-Marie recorded this for the first time on her 1996 album, Up Where We Belong. She calls her rendition, which features Patrick Cockett playing guitar in a Hawaiian-style slack-key tuning, a "simpler, songwriter's version."