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My Ten Favourite Movie Songs

June 21, 2012

A while ago I blogged about “Moon River” from the film “Breakfast at Tiffanys” which won the 1961 Oscar for Best Original Song.  This got me thinking about other film songs that I love and I decided to compile a Top Ten Favourite Movie Songs.

My definition of a truly great movie song is one that is original and utterly integral to the film, part of its fabric rather than just aural set-dressing.  For me, it’s impossible to imagine the ten films these songs come from without those songs in them.

I’ve also tried to stick to the definition laid down by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) in their rules governing Oscar nominations – “An original song consists of words and music, both of which are original and written specifically for the motion picture” – but, as you’ll see, there was one song I just couldn’t leave out so I’ve made an honourable exception for Number 7.

 Anyway here, in reverse order, is my Top Ten…

10. “PURE IMAGINATION” (from “WILLY WONKA & THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY” 1971)

When I first saw “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” as a child it scared the lifes out of me and delighted me in equal measure.  It still has that effect now!  Gene Wilder is sensational as Willy Wonka, at once playful and slightly menacing.

Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka in the 1971 film "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory"

“Pure Imagination” is our introduction to Wonka’s world and it sets the tone perfectly.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory 1971 with Gene Wilder

The atmosphere of wonder and unease that permeates the 1971 film is in no small part due to the score composed by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley and the duo won Best Original Score at the following year’s Oscar ceremony.

9. “MOON RIVER” (from “BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S” 1961)

I’ve already devoted a whole post to this enchanting song from “Breakfast at Tiffanys”, but I had to include it in my Top Ten.

Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffanys

It seems inconceivable now, but like the similarly iconic “Over the Rainbow” “Moon River” was nearly cut from the film by Martin Rackin, an executive at Paramount Pictures.  Fortunately good sense prevailed (apparently aided by some colourful language from Ms Hepburn when the cut was suggested) and Henry Mancini’s wonderful melody and Johnny Mercer’s sweetly melancholic lyrics provide the emotional heart of the film.

8. “THE WAY YOU LOOK TONIGHT” (from “SWING TIME” 1936)

I trust that nobody will get too upset if I suggest that the plots of most of Fred Astaire’s films were somewhat slight, but of course that was never the point.  The films were vehicles for Astaire’s incredible vituosity as a dancer and 1936’s “Swing Time” is no exception.  Partnered with Ginger Rogers, Astaire thrills with his exceptional grace, style and sheer athleticism.

"Swing Time" 1936 movie poster

The films also feature some of the most wonderful songs ever written and “Swing Time” contains three Jerome Kern(music) and Dorothy Fields (lyrics) compositions that have gone on to become standards – “Pick Yourself Up”, “A Fine Romance” and “The Way You Look Tonight”.

The song won the Oscar for Best Original Song at the 9th Academy Awards beating stiff competition including Cole Porter’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” and “Pennies From Heaven”.

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in "Swing Time" from 1936

As well as being one of my favourite movie songs “The Way You Look Tonight” is one of my favourite songs full stop which is why I included it on my debut album (you can hear a clip on my website).  It’s a wonderful song to perform with its beautiful rise-and-fall melody and wistful lyrics.  I think I must have included it in every live set I’ve ever done and it’s always well received.  Why do I love it so much?  Well, to quote the lyrics it “touches my foolish heart” I suppose!

7. “AS TIME GOES BY” (from “CASABLANCA” 1942)

Okay, this one breaks the AMPAS definition since it was not specifically written for the film “Casablanca”.  But who knew that “As Time Goes By” was composed eleven years before the film was made?  Anyone?  Honestly?

"Casablanca" theatrical movie poster for the 1942 film

The song was written in 1931 by  Herman Hupfield for the Broadway musical “Everybody’s Welcome”, but is now so inextricably linked to “Casablanca” that I’m bending the rules to include it in my list.

The song was performed in the film by Dooley Wilson, who played Sam, the singer at Rick’s Café Américain.  Although Wilson was a singer and drummer he couldn’t play the piano so mimed to the playing of  Warners’ studio musician Elliott Carpenter.

Dooley Wilson as Sam and Humphrey Bogart as Rick in "Casablanca"

There’s something in the lyric’s romantic yearning that appeals to even the hardest heart.  “The world will always welcome lovers/As time goes by” it says and who among us doesn’t hope that it’s true?  The unabashed sentimentality of the song contrasts poignantly with Rick and Ilsa’s doomed romance making “As Time Goes By” a true cinema classic.

6. “TOGETHER IN ELECTRIC DREAMS” (from “ELECTRIC DREAMS” 1984)

Something from leftfield nowt.  Featured in the 1984 film, “Electric Dreams”, you’d be forgiven for not knowing this song was from a film at all.  “Electric Dreams” is something of a cult movie ie. nobody has seen it (when I saw it in 1984 with my brother there were only six of us in the cinema).

"Together in Electric Dreams" - Giorgio Moroder and Phil Oakey seven inch single cover

The film is a romantic comedy based round the classic love triangle of a girl, a boy and a computer.

Madeline, Miles and Edgar the computer from the 1984 movie "Electric Dreams"

The song itself was written by Human League vocalist Phil Oakey and legendary Italian record producer Giorgio Moroder, the man behind Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love”.

Record producer Giorgio Moroder who produced Donna Summer's "I Feel Love"

The film itself was a flop, but the song reached number 3 in the UK singles charts and its popularity continues to this day most recently surfacing in EDF Energy’s latest TV advert).

It’s in my Top 10 partly for sentimental reasons, but also because it’s a quintissential movie song.  It plays at the end of the film, tying up its themes and providing a wonderfully uplifting, upbeat finale.  The plot of “Electric Dreams” sounds completely ludicrous on paper, but trust me, it’s well worth awatch if you get the chance.

5. “TOMORROW” (from “BUGSY MALONE” 1976)

So far all of the songs I’ve chosen have been from films that I absolutely adore; films that I could (and have) watched time and again, but this next choice is slightly different.  I know I’m going to upset quite a few people when I say this, but I’m not completely wild about Alan Parker’s 1976 debut feature “Bugsy Malone”.

Fizzy from Alan Parker's 1976 movie Bugsy Malone

It’s a lot of fun, but I’m not terribly keen on child actors at the best of times and children playing adults just doesn’t quite work for me.  The songs on the other hand are a different matter entirely.  They’re the work of Paul Williams and the soundtrack is a veritable feast for the ears.

Songwriter Paul Williams

You’d be forgiven for not knowing Williams’ name, but you’ll certainly be familiar with his work.  He wrote the lyrics for two of The Carpenters’ biggest hits, “We’ve Only Just Begun” and “Rainy Days and Mondays” as well as “Evergreen” from “A Star is Born” which won the Academy Award for Best Song in the same year that “Bugsy Malone” was released.  He also co-wrote my Number One song, but more of that later.

“Tomorrow” is my favourite song from “Bugsy Malone”.  It’s sung by Fizzy (with vocals by Williams himself), the janitor at Fat Sam’s Grand Slam, who dreams of a better life and dances when he thinks nobody is watching.  The number is a kind of musical soliloquy and what I really love about it is the contrast between the slow, mournful tune and the positive, aspirational lyric – “I won’t take no for an answer/I was born to be a dancer”.  Terrific stuff.

4. “BORN FREE” (from “BORN FREE” 1966)

And speaking of aspirational lyrics, this might just be the daddy of them all!

The poster for the 1966 film "Born Free"

Written by John Barry (music) and Don Black (lyrics) the song won the 1966 Oscar for Best Song.  The tune is pure Barry with its fanfare-like opening and that beautiful uplifting-melancholy that is present in so much of his music.

Virginia McKenna in "Born Free"

For me it’s the perfect meeting of subject, lyric and melody and provides an extra emotional weight to the film’s message.  Matt Monro’s performance of it moves me every time I hear it, but I would also highly recommend the arrangement Barry wrote specially for his 1993 album “Moviola”.

3. “WHEN SHE LOVED ME” (from “TOY STORY 2” 1999)

I’m sure I wasn’t the only person who thought that the original “Toy Story” couldn’t be bettered and approached “Toy Story 2” with some trepidation when it was released in 1999.  The first film was clever, funny, touching and looked absolutely stunning.  If you’ve seen it though you’ll know that the sequel WAS even better and one of the best parts, in my opinion, is the flashback sequence that accompanies the song “When She Loved Me”.

Jessie the cowgirl in Pixar's "Toy Story 2" voiced by Joan Cusack

Jessie the cowgirl toy was once owned and loved by Emily, but in a beautifully realised montage we see Emily get older and cast Jessie aside in favour of more grown-up pursuits.  The song, written by Randy Newman and sung by Sarah McLachlan, is a deliciously bittersweet description of lost love and innocence and gives the second film even greater poignancy than the first.

Jessie and Woody in Pixar animation studios 1999 feature "Toy Story 2"

When I first watched it I couldn’t believe that a cartoon could be so moving, but the combination of images and music brought tears to my eyes and I still well up every time I see it.

2. “FEED THE BIRDS” (“MARY POPPINS” 1964)

“Mary Poppins” is one of those films that people are so familiar with that it’s often overlooked as mere Bank Holiday telly-fodder, but to my mind it’s a masterpiece.  Its blend of live-action and animation coupled with vivd, engaging characters and terrific humour (often verging on the surreal) put it in a genre of one.

Julie Andrews as Mary Poppins in the 1964 Disney movie

The Disney film’s soundtrack is truly first class.  It’s absolutely  packed with songs written by the Sherman brothers Richard and Robert that have become classics since the film’s 1964 release – “A Spoonful of Sugar”, “Jolly Holiday”, “”Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”, “Chim Chim Cher-ee” and “Let’s Go Fly a Kite”.

The image of the poor, lonely bird feed seller on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral is a counterbalance to Mr Banks’ ruthlessly capitalist view of the world and the song provides and emotional (one might even say moral) element which is in stark contrast to the fun and frippery of many of the film’s other numbers.

Dick Van Dyke and Julie Andrews in "Mary Poppins" 1964 Disney

It was “Chim Chim Cher-ee” that received an Oscar nomination and won the Academy Award for Best Original Song, but for my money “Feed the Birds” is the film’s real winner.

1. “RAINBOW CONNECTION” (“THE MUPPET MOVIE” 1979)

My Number One movie song is another that should have won an Oscar, but didn’t, although it was at least nominated.  “Rainbow Connection” is another song from the pen of Paul Williams who co-wrote it with Kenneth Ascher for the first full-length movie to feature Jim Henson’s anarchic Muppets which came out in 1979.

Jim Henson with Kermit the Frog on the set of "The Muppet Movie" 1979

Jim Henson was a genius and has been a hero of my since I first saw “The Muppet Show” as a child.  His blend of sincerity, whimsy and sheer silliness produced some of my favourite TV and film moments and “Rainbow Connection” encapsulates the hope and humanity that his best work expresses.  In the film it sets the scene perfectly for the characters’ search for something better in life.

“Rainbow Connection” is not only my favourite movie song it’s also probably my favourite song full-stop.  Why?  It sounds silly saying it out loud, but I think it’s because it makes me believe that I can be a better person in a better world.  It reassures and offeres hope.  And you can’t really ask for more than that from any piece of art, can you?

So there you have my Top Ten.  What about you?  What songs would be in YOUR Top Ten?  Leave a comment below – I’d love to hear what you think!

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