Following on from my recent article about the best use of songs in movies that aren’t musicals, I also started thinking about the best songs written specifically for film soundtracks or ones that have been used in iconic ways in films. I’m probably going to shy away from traditional musicals (think Sound of Music, Cats) as they deserve their own specific rundown and this list will focus more on songwriters who don’t usually work specifically on musicals. In no particular order, here’s 5 of my favourites:
- Phil Collins – You’ll Be In My Heart (Tarzan, 1999)
Phil Collins got a lot of derision in the 90s from prominent rock siblings Liam and Noel Gallagher, but for all his cheese, he produced some real diamonds when brought in to collaborate with Mark Mancina for the soundtrack to Disney’s Tarzan. It was really hard to pick from Collins’ compositions for the film, but the pure value of You’ll Be In My Heart as a standalone song is worth it topping the list. Strangers Like Me and Son of Man are also great and both helped give Collins’ career a bit of resurgence when they were released.
Whilst in the film the song is sung by a gorilla (portrayed by Glenn Close) who has adopted Tarzan as her child, and the composition was ostensibly for the film, Collins has admitted that the song was also meant as a love letter to his then-baby daughter, Lily (star of Netflix’s Emily In Paris.) It’s got wonderful lyrics and a soaring key change at the end that really elevates it and makes it enjoyable to listen to outside the context of the film.
It was also recorded in a number of different languages by Collins for different soundtrack albums – I recall having a German version for a while when my Spotify couldn’t determine my location. Plus, Collins won an Oscar for best original song for the track, so you aren’t just taking my word for its quality.
2. Sting – Shape Of My Heart (Leon: The Professional, 1994)
This song wasn’t written specifically for the film; in fact, it doesn’t appear until the ending credits of the 1994 flick starring Jean Reno and Natalie Portman. The ex-The Police musician released the song the preceding year to widespread acclaim and it remains one of his most popular song, telling the story (according to Sting) of a gambler who plays for the thrill of lining up the right cards by chance. Maybe the lyrics aren’t too inspiring, but the descending guitar riff and syncopated drums sound awesome and wouldn’t be out of place as the theme for a wild west pistol duel.
Leon (as it’s titled in the UK and Australia) tells the story of a professional hitman who agrees to adopt 12-year-old Portman when her family is murdered by corrupt government officials. I don’t want to spoil the plotline or ending but let’s just say high tensions ensue when Portman gets dangerously close, repeatedly, to Leon’s line of work.
Though Sting’s track is only used for the closing credits, it’s the perfect cap on a solemn ending. It really is a sombre tune with fantastic harmonies and one of those great tracks for taking a solo drive on a sunny day with your shades on. It’s also a flavour of the ‘lost’ soundtrack that Sting recorded for the canned Disney epic ‘Kingdom Of The Sun,’ about the Incan creation myth.
3. Lou Reed – Perfect Day (Trainspotting, 1996)
It wouldn’t be a rundown of great soundtracks without mentioning director Danny Boyle’s iconic 1996 film about a group of heroin addicts in Scotland. It is a devastatingly difficult film to watch, but that speaks volumes about the quality of its direction, acting and the literary works upon which it’s based. Maybe Noel Gallagher should have thought twice about his famous refusal to give an Oasis track to the film because he thought it was actually about train spotters.
The song is actually 24 years older than the film, with ex-Velvet Underground singer Lou Reed penning and releasing it in 1972 on a double A-side with ‘Walk On The Wild Side.’ Reed insists that the song should be taken at face value; that it genuinely is an ode to spending a perfect day with your lover in the city and going home happy. However, owing in no small part to its inclusion in Trainspotting, many take the song to refer to the temporary ecstasy of a heroin hit.
Whether it’s the love song the writer intended or a Comfortably Numb-esque drug jam, there’s no escaping the song’s brilliance and the power of its bittersweet use in the film. It later attracted covers from Duran Duran, Kirsty MacColl, a BBC all-star choir and even Susan Boyle, proving its genre transcending appeal.
4. Celine Dion – My Heart Will Go On (Titanic, 1997)
Let me guess, you think it’s a cheesy pick. Well, I’ve written extensively about how interesting I find the story of the RMS Titanic. Surely it can’t be that much of a surprise that I quite like the theme tune?
Initially, both Dion and Titanic director James Cameron were reluctant to touch a song like ‘My Heart Will Go On.’ The former had just recorded a theme for the Disney film Beauty and The Beast, and didn’t want to get pigeonholed into becoming a theme tune singer. James Cameron didn’t want it because he was worried it would devalue the important historical content of the film in the name of making money for the studio. Happily, they relented, and we got what is probably one of the most iconic film themes of all time.
What it lacks in undiscovered indie music credentials, it more than makes up for in its soaring chorus and iconic pipes at the opening.
5. Paul McCartney and Wings – Live and Let Die (Live and Let Die, 1973)
Whilst it’s a Bond theme and that’s admittedly a bit of a cliche choice, I can find solace in the fact that I was actually thinking of the frog funeral in Shrek (during which they sing Live and Let Die) when I wrote the song title in to round off the list. Ex-Beatle Paul McCartney and wife Linda (of vegetarian food fame) were a hit factory in the 70s, churning out iconic songs like Jet, Maybe I’m Amazed, Band On The Run and Mull of Kintyre week after week. So, it made perfect sense to bring them in for Roger Moore’s first Bond movie, Live and Let Die, in 1973.
I think it’s a great subversive kind of Bond theme, retaining the signature motif but adding a jaunty, almost ska-like section in the middle. That’s a trend that I think Billie Eilish was acutely aware of in recording her theme for the latest Bond film, No Time To Die. And, the other great thing about it is that it works brilliantly if you have no idea who James Bond is. It’s just a fantastic track.
The world was mourning the loss of The Beatles in 1973, and I think this track injected some of the signature McCartney whimsy (think When I’m Sixty Four, Ob-la-di Ob-la-da) into an industry that was missing him a little.