5 of the Most Memorable Movie Soundtrack Songs

Movies boost a song in a way traditional music media just can’t replicate. Sure there are music videos, but they can’t match having a song key the emotional climax of a movie, like Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” in the loosely autobiographical 8 Mile, or as a repeated thematic element, like “Shallow” in A Star is Born. 

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Even artists on the margins between cult act and commercial artist, such as Elliott Smith (“Miss Misery” from Good Will Hunting), Aimee Mann (“Save Me” from Magnolia) or Glen Hansard (“Falling Slowly” from Once) see a huge boost upon receiving a Best Original Song nomination from the Academy Awards. The massive marketing money invested in movies spills over and amplifies radio play. As a result there are a great many memorable movie soundtrack songs, and a few make a huge cultural imprint.

5. “Mrs. Robinson” (from The Graduate, 1967)

This song helped to make two careers. Mike Nichols was a stage director who’s first movie was an adaptation of Edward Albee’s play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  Nichols had grown so fond of Simon & Garfunkel’s music that he asked their label boss Clive Davis if he could use them in his new film, The Graduate. They offered Nichols use of “Scarborough Fair/Canticle,” which he did, but Nichols wanted a new song, one specific to the movie. 

When their first two song ideas fell flat, Garfunkel suggested a new song, “Mrs. Roosevelt,” noting any three syllable name would work, such as that of the story’s main character. They performed what they had and Nichols made them promise to change the name to Robinson. 

The movie only had two snippets of the song, since they hadn’t completed it yet. When the movie proved a hit, it gave a huge boost to their subsequent album Bookends, propelling them to wider stardom while Nichols won an Academy Award for Best Director.

4. “You’re the One That I Want” (from Grease, 1978)

It’s not uncommon for movie musicals to add songs that weren’t in the stage version. But Grease already had a new track in the title song. “You’re the One That I Want” was a last-minute addition by Olivia Newton-John’s long-time songwriter John Farrar. He worked on the music as a favor to Newton-John, who was ambivalent about appearing in the movie.

The night before they were to shoot the climactic “Greaser Queen” scene, they realized they needed a song and turned to Farrar, who wrote “You’re the One that I Want” overnight. The director Randal Kleiser hated it, but he was making his feature film debut and was out of options. The choreography happened on the spot and shooting finished in seven hours, which was relief to Newton-John, who was sewed into her outfit and not allowed any beverages because it would be too difficult to remove the costume.

3. “Lose Yourself” (from 8 Mile, 2002)

Much like “You’re the One That I Want,” the hit track from 8 Mile accompanied the movie’s big closing showdown. Director Curtis Hanson and executive producer Carol Fenelon had worked on Wonder Boys together, which while a cinematic bomb that lost $20 million, the song “Things Have Changed” by Bob Dylan won the Oscar for Best Original Song. They believed it was in large part because it worked on its own while still incorporating movie-specific plot points. They aimed for the same with Eminem.

The challenge for Eminem was to write lyrics reflective of both his and the character’s intersecting realities, notably their hardscrabble beginnings. “I gotta figure out how to reach a medium. It would sound so corny if I was just rapping as Jimmy Smith Jr. How is that going to come from a real place?” Eminem writes in annotations on lyrical site Genius. “I had to figure out how to make the rhyme sound like him, and then morph into me somehow, so you see the parallels between his struggles and mine.” 

Not only did the song go to No. 1, but so did the movie, marking the first movie/album No. 1 pairing since Prince’s Purple Rain in 1984.

2. “Let It Go” (from Frozen, 2013)

Every villain in a Disney movie gets their own song, and Elsa from Frozen was no exception. Married composing team Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez outlined a score that built to the big moment where Elsa’s secret identity as the Snow Queen is revealed and she’s exiled from the kingdom. “We all agreed the hook ‘Let it go’ seemed right for a song about leaving it all behind, while also letting your secret powers out,” Anderson-Lopez told Billboard.

But as they wrote the song, it felt more like an exultant discarding of burdens than the evolution of a villain. “The minute we heard the song the first time, I knew that I had to rewrite the whole movie,” said Frozen co-writer Jennifer Lee. The story went from one of good versus evil to one centered on acceptance over fear, a much more 21st-century narrative. It went to No. 1 and became an international hit.

1. Shallow (from A Star is Born, 2018)

Like most of the aforementioned songs, “Shallow” plays a central role in the remake of A Star is Born with Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga. It recurs three times in the movie, tracking the characters’ diverging trajectories. Like “Let It Go,” the song helped to shape the narrative, driving the scene where they confess their need to go fast, and dive in deep.

“You really get that first part of falling in love or having a crazy crush on someone in the moment,” co-writer Mark Ronson told Billboard. “It does it really well without being cheesy.” 

Like Eminem, Gaga reported it was a major challenge to approach the art like the character she was playing. “When I was writing music for the film I had to think about Ally as if she wasn’t me,” Gaga said on Zane Lowe’s podcast. “I went with a sound for her, even in the pop realm, that’s unlike anything I’ve ever put out before.” It went to No. 1 and remained in Billboard’s Hot 100 for 45 weeks, breaking the record of 33 weeks set by “Let It Go.”

Photo by Paramount/Getty Images

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