AFI: 100 Movie Songs – Part 1
Words make you think a thought. Music makes you feel a feeling. A song makes you feel a thought. - E.Y. Harburg (Songwriter, 1898 - 1981)
We, and by ‘we’ I mean the human race, seem to have a special affinity for lists. Grocery lists, guest lists, black lists, exit control lists, – we love making them, we love putting them down on scraps of paper, we love re-writing them neatly on cream-coloured stationery, we love showing them off to our friends, we love reading lists made by other people that both celebrate and denigrate. That last one is a particular favourite, as evidenced by all those ‘Best of …’ and ‘Worst of …’ lists we so gleefully seek out at the end of each year – Blackwell’s Best and Worst Dressed list anyone? When it comes to film too, there is a plethora of ‘lists’ to be enjoyed. Besides the more obvious and plain n’ simple Best and Worst, there are also the likes of ‘Best High School Movies’, ‘Best Chick Flicks’, ’25 Films to Take to a Desert Island’, ‘Top 10 Films Featuring Cruel and Unusual Punishment Being Meted Out to Math/Science Teachers’. Ok, I made the last one up, but you get the idea. And there is no dearth of film publications and websites that pander to this almost unnatural and insatiable list need.
The American Film Institute (AFI), that venerable old organization that hands out mostly deserved and timely but some ‘Huh?!’ Lifetime Achievement Awards to film practitioners (Tom Hanks?? He’s barely fifty years old for crying out loud!), is also big on lists. Every couple of years they issue their own ‘Greatest/ Best’ lists. At first it was strictly ‘100 Greatest American Films’, but everyone soon got bored because Citizen Kane would be No.1 every time and who wants to read the same list over and over again? So they decided to ‘sex’ things up by introducing new categories that film geeks could waste their lunch hours poring over: Most Inspiring Films, Greatest Movie Villains and Heroes, Greatest Stars, Greatest Comedies, Greatest Musicals etc etc etc.
My point, and I do have one, is that the AFI has also issued a list of 100 Greatest Movie Songs, which certainly warrants a look (and debate). So in a three-parter, I’m going to hold forth (a little bit) on the contents of said list. The criteria for the selection as laid out for the jurors were as follows:
- The film must be in narrative format, typically more than 60 minutes in length.
- The film must be in the English language with significant creative and/or financial production elements from the United States.
- Music and lyrics featured in an American film that set a tone or mood, define character, advance plot and/or express the film’s themes in a manner that elevates the moving image art form. Songs may have been written and/or recorded specifically for the film or previously written and/or recorded and selected by the filmmaker to achieve the above goals.
- Songs that have captured the nation’s heart, echoed beyond the walls of a movie theater, and ultimately stand in our collective memory of the film itself.
- Songs that resonate across the century, enriching America‘s film heritage and captivating artists and audiences today.
The resulting list is certainly an interesting one, and gets a lot of it right, with some glaring omissions (What?? No ‘Uncle F*****’ from SouthPark: Bigger, Longer and Uncut??? Abomination!!). Here, before we get to the actual list, are some stats that I have compiled:
·With six songs cited each, Judy Garland ties with ubiquitous ‘playback’ singer Marni Nixon as the performers who appear the most number of times
·The male performer who has the most citations with four songs is, no not crooner Frank Sinatra or even Bing Crosby, but premier dancer and ‘non-singer’ Fred Astaire!
·With six songs, the most prolific composer is Richard Rodgers and his collaborator Oscar Hammerstein the most prolific lyricist
·Five songs are sung by animated characters
·One song is sung by a Muppet
·One song is sung by brooding Method-ist Marlon Brando
·And one by the Frankenstein Monster
Also interesting is the fact that out of a hundred, only twenty-nine songs are Oscar winners, eight are nominees only, and a whopping sixty-one were NOT EVEN NOMINATED (albeit, some on technicalities). (For those of you scoffing at my admittedly weak mathematical abilities, the two remaining songs are from the years before the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences that hands out the Oscars instituted the award for Best Song.) But that’s hardly surprising. After all, the Academy has a long history of making ass-first blunders of mythic proportions. As Jon Stewart pointed out at this year’s Oscar ceremony when Three 6 Mafia won Best Song (‘It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp’ from Hustle and Flow)) over the likes of Dolly Parton (‘Travelin’ Through’ from Transamerica), “For those of you keeping score, it’s Three 6 Mafia: one; Martin Scorsese: zero.” But then, such mind-numbing lack of vision is probably to be expected from figures entrenched in the entertainment world establishment; let’s not forget that prior to the Beatles’ non-hostile takeover of the Americas and the world, Decca Records USA had declined to sign them to their roster, making the classically stupid observation “We don’t like their sound and guitar music is on the way out.”
So here then, without further ado, is the lowdown on Nos. 100 to 76:
100 Old Time Rock and Roll RISKY BUSINESS 1983 PERFORMERS Bob Seger and The Silver Bullet Band MUSIC/LYRICS George Jackson, Tom Jones III – Seger’s street cred is somewhat dulled when you consider that this otherwise fine R n’ R anthem is now and forever associated with the sight of a young and cocky Tom Cruise sliding about in his tighty whiteys. Oscar Status (OS): not eligible (n/e)
99 Hakuna Matata THE LION KING 1994 PERFORMERS Nathan Lane, Ernie Sabella, Jason Weaver, Joseph Williams MUSIC/LYRICS Elton John/Tim Rice – Does it in actual fact mean ‘no worries’? I can’t say. But I can say that’s a darn sight better than that other ‘stirring’ number from the film – ‘Can You Feel the Love Tonight?’ No, but I can certainly feel the cheese. OS: nomination only (n/o)
98 All That Jazz CHICAGO 2002 PERFORMERS Catherine Zeta-Jones, Renée Zellweger MUSIC/LYRICS John Kander/Fred Ebb – Who knew that the delectable Scotswoman and the incredibly shrinking and ballooning Bridget Jones could belt it out like that? A standout from an all-round great jazz score. OS: n/e
97 42nd Street42ND STREET 1933 PERFORMERS Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell, Ensemble MUSIC/LYRICS Harry Warren/Al Dubin – ‘Little nifties/ from the fifties/ innocent and sweet/ sexy ladies/ from the eighties/ who are indiscreet/ side by side/ they’re glorified/ where the underworld can meet the elite/ forty-second street’. Utterly, utterly timeless! OS: Best Song Oscar not yet instituted.
96 Footloose FOOTLOOSE 1984 PERFORMER Kenny Loggins MUSIC/LYRICS Kenny Loggins, Dean Pitchford – Like Risky Business, this 80s staple is also probably best remembered for the montage of its male lead dancing his frustrated, teenaged heart out. But a good song to dance that heart out to. Kenny Loggins would overdo the cheese factor two years later with Top Gun’s ‘Danger Zone’. OS: n/o
95 (We’re Off on the) Road to Morocco ROAD TO MOROCCO 1942 <PERFORMERS Bing Crosby, Bob Hope MUSIC/LYRICS Jimmy Van Heusen/Johnny Burke – Together, Dër Bingle and ski-jump-nosed Hope made up one of the greatest comedic screen teams ever, and this is their greatest number, with spot-on ‘novelty’ lyrics set to an eminently hummable tune: ‘Off on the road to Morocco/ Hang on till the end of the line (I like your jockey. Quiet)/ I hear this country’s where they do the dance of the seven veils/ we’d tell you more (uh-ah) but we would have the censor on our tails (good boy).’ OS: not nominated (n/n)
94 Ain’t Too Proud to Beg THE BIG CHILL 1983 PERFORMER The Temptations MUSIC/LYRICS Eddie Holland, Norman Whitfield – A great compilation soundtrack, with the Temptations’ seminal R n’ B hit serving to remind us just what a tremendous pool of talent that outfit was. David Ruffin’s inimitable vocals still have the power to tempt, and how! OS: n/e
93 Lose Yourself 8 MILE 2002 PERFORMER Eminem (Marshall Mathers) MUSIC/LYRICS Eminem, Jeff Bass, Luis Resto/Eminem – The controversial rapper courted respect from the establishment, probably unintentionally, but they responded anyway, by giving Mr. Mathers an Oscar for Best Song. Good choice. It’s probably the serial offender’s most accessible work. OS: Winner
92 Long Ago and Far Away COVER GIRL 1944 PERFORMERS Gene Kelly, Rita Hayworth (voiced by Martha Mears) MUSIC/LYRICS Jerome Kern/Ira Gershwin – Unsung stand-in vocalist Mears and whiskey-voiced Kelly work wonders with this lovely and long-underrated Kern/Gershwin love song that finally gets its due. OS: n/n
91 Let the River Run WORKING GIRL 1988 PERFORMER Carly Simon MUSIC/LYRICS Carly Simon – One of the category of those ‘inspirational’ songs that tend to rouse you only to disappear from memory as soon as they’re over, Simon’s effort is slightly more memorable. Slightly. But hey, a certain Academy liked it fine, thank you very much. OS: w
90 Seems Like Old Times ANNIE HALL 1977 PERFORMER Diane Keaton MUSIC/LYRICS Carmen Lombardo/John Jacob Loeb – Diane Keaton is no singer. But isn’t it strange how sometimes it’s the non-singers who end up making a song unforgettable? Like many an untrained performer who appears on the list, Keaton brings a unique sweetness to a proudly old-fashioned song. OS: n/n
89 Puttin’ on the Ritz YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN 1974 PERFORMERS Gene Wilder, Peter Boyle MUSIC/LYRICS Irving Berlin – Only Mel Brooks could take a swing classic by Irving ‘He IS American Music’ Berlin and have it sung by professional kook Gene Wilder and Peter Boyle as the Frankenstein Monster. In top hat and tails. POOONANNAAAREEEEETZ! OS: n/e
88 Do Re Mi THE SOUND OF MUSIC 1965 PERFORMERS Julie Andrews, Ensemble MUSIC/LYRICS Richard Rodgers/Oscar Hammerstein II – The ‘English broad with the miraculous soprano’ teaches a bunch of motherless Austrian kids how to sing. It may not sound like much but it made for one of the best loved (and most profitable) movie musicals of all time. So who cares if in the real life story of the Von Trapp singers, it was the father who was fun-loving while ‘free spirited’ Maria was the strict disciplinarian, and not the other way around as depicted in the movie? In the desi version Parichay, this ditty became ‘Sa Re Ke Sa Re Ga Ma Ko Lekar Gaatay Chale’. OS: n/e
87 Buttons and Bows THE PALEFACE 1948 PERFORMER Bob Hope MUSIC/LYRICS Jay Livingston/Ray Evans – A catchier paean to the pleasures of urban living you will not find. Hope’s gauche cowboy laments “My bones denounce/ the buckboard bounce/ and the cactus hurts my toes”, and ends with the demand “Gimme eastern trimmin’ where women are women/ in high silk hose and peek-a-boo clothes/ And French perfume that rocks the room/ and I’m all yours in buttons and bows.” OS: w
86 (I’ve Had) The Time of My Life DIRTY DANCING 1987 PERFORMERS Bill Medley, Jennifer Warnes MUSIC/LYRICS Frank Previte, John DeNicola, Donald Markowitz/Frank Previte – “Nobody puts Baby in a corner” rasped Patrick Swayze and millions swooned as he swept Jennifer Grey into his arms (and over his head) to this eternal Top 40 favourite. Forget the fact that the film was set in the early 60s and the song is as 80s as they come. It’s a guilty pleasure certainly, but as guilty pleasures go, it’s one of the best. OS: w
85 Come What May MOULIN ROUGE! 2001 PERFORMERS Nicole Kidman, Ewan McGregor MUSIC/LYRICS David Baerwald – The heady kaleidoscope of sound and colour that director Baz Luhrmann unleashed back in 2001 boasted songs as vastly (and surreal-y) varied as ‘Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend’, ‘Roxanne’ and our very own ‘Chamma Chamma’. But it also had its quieter moments, like this sublime ballad, with Kidman and especially McGregor proving to be as deft at warbling as they are at histrionics. OS: n/n
84 Put the Blame on Mame GILDA 1948 PERFORMER Rita Hayworth (voiced by Anita Ellis) MUSIC/LYRICS Doris Fisher, Allan Roberts – A breathtakingly sexy Rita Hayworth. A clingy, black satin glove. Hayworth slowly and seductively peeling off said glove. If the image doesn’t make your brain implode then you obviously haven’t seen Gilda. And you’re all the poorer for it. Oh, and the song is pretty good too. OS: n/n
83 The Rose THE ROSE 1979 PERFORMER Bette Midler MUSIC/LYRICS Amanda McBroom – Very, very thinly veiled account of the meteoric rise and tragic drug-riddled fall of blues great Janis Joplin, The Rose showcased the hitherto untapped dramatic talents of its star Bette Midler. With a rock-solid roster of songs the divine Ms. M proved she was more than up to the task vocally as well, and this plaintive, melancholic melody tugged at many a heartstring. OS: n/n
82 Ding Dong the Witch is Dead THE WIZARD OF OZ 1939 PERFORMER Judy Garland, Ensemble MUSIC/LYRICS Harold Arlen/E. Y. Harburg – So clever and well woven into the narrative are the songs in The Wizard of Oz that people barely think of it as a musical. Take this charming ditty for instance, it’s deceptively sweet and simple but its gleeful joy in the news of the demise of the wicked witch has more than a whiff of black humour: ‘As Coroner/ I must aver/ I thoroughly examined her/ And she’s not only merely dead/ she’s really most sincerely dead.’ Let the joyous news be spread, the Wicked Old Witch at last is dead! OS: n/n
81 I’m Easy NASHVILLE 1975 PERFORMER Keith Carradine MUSIC/LYRICS Keith Carradine – Not to be confused with the Lionel Ritchie tune of the same name, this country classic tells the familiar tale of the put-upon country boy who is too in love to not play the game: ‘Take my hand and pull me down/ I won’t put up any fight/ Because I’m easy.’ OS: w
80 Springtime for Hitler THE PRODUCERS 1968 PERFORMER Ensemble MUSIC/LYRICS Mel Brooks – Brooks has made a number of stinkers lately but back in 1968 he was on the brink of being at the top of his game with this laugh riot. The film with something to offend just about everyone, The Producers is nevertheless a work of sheer genius, not least of which is this manic anthem that the Jewish Brooks obviously took great ironic glee in penning: ‘Look, it’s springtime for Hitler and Germany/ winter for Poland and France/ springtime for Hitler and Germany/ come on Germans, go into your dance/ I was born in Düsseldorf/ und that is why they call me Rolf/ don’t be stupid, be a smarty/ come and join the Nazi party!’ Black comedy rarely gets blacker (or funnier) than this. OS: n/n
79 Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do) ARTHUR 1981 PERFORMER Christopher Cross MUSIC/LYRICS Burt Bacharach, Carole Bayer Sager, Christopher Cross, Peter Allen – Time was when Bacharach was the king of the corny love song. So much so that one tends to forget how musically sound his output actually was (‘The Look of Love’, ‘Walk on By’, ‘I Say a Little Prayer’). This one is probably not his best though. OS: w
78 Working 9 To 5 9 TO 5 1980 PERFORMER Dolly Parton MUSIC/LYRICS Dolly Parton – There’s no middle ground when it comes to this self-effacing, larger-than-life busty Texan: you either love her or you love her! Again, someone whose effervescent popular image (when asked if she found ‘dumb blonde’ jokes offensive, she replied, “Well, I know I’m not dumb… and I know I’m not blonde!”) can easily make one underestimate her prodigious musical and songwriting talent, as evidenced by this infectious pop number about the travails of being a working gal in a ruthless big town. OS: n/o
77 The Shadow of Your Smile THE SANDPIPER 1965 PERFORMER Chorus MUSIC/LYRICS Johnny Mandel/Paul Francis Webster – The Sandpiper was a crappy Liz Taylor-Richard Burton film with the former playing a hippie. The song is nice enough but becomes almost unbearable when you consider that it won the Oscar for Best Song that year when NOTHING from the Beatles’ Help! was even nominated. Raspberries to that. OS: w
76 Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS 1944 PERFORMER Judy Garland MUSIC/LYRICS Hugh Martin, Ralph Blane – The carol immortalized by Judy Garland in what is probably her best film, ‘Have Yourself…’ also wins hands down as one of the saddest, though you might not know it if you just read the lyrics. It’s Garland’s soulful rendition, set against the context within which it appears in the film, that makes it a melancholic classic. OS: n/n
That’s it for now, but coming up in the next installment: the Muppets, Shirley Temple, Bruce Springsteen and more. So until next time, enough said!