AFI: 100 Movie Songs – Part 4

And so here it is ladies and germs, the long-awaited conclusion to the run-down of the American Film Institute (AFI)’s list of the 100 Greatest Film Songs. We’ve been through the first 75, and here, finally, are the Top 25. Enjoy!

[Abbreviation guide : OS – Oscar status; w – won; n/n – not nominated; n/o – nomination only; n/e – not eligible]

25. High Noon (Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin’) HIGH NOON 1952 PERFORMER Tex Ritter MUSIC/LYRICS Dimitri Tiomkin/Ned Washington – At the time that the film came out, dramatic films rarely featured songs, and especially not Westerns. High Noon not only opened the film with this song, but employed it in a revolutionary, subtly cunning way, for the song was a narrational device, basically summarizing in its lyrics, the plot of the film and the conflict contained therein, even suggesting the way the story might end. It was also a sly and clever look at the issues central to the Western genre. “The noonday train will bring Frank Miller/ if I’m a man I must be brave/ and I must face that deadly killer/ or lie a coward/ a craven coward/ or lie a coward in my grave/ o to be torn ‘twixt love and duty/ s’posin’ I lose my fair-haired beauty/ look at that big hand move along/ nearin’ high noon.” OS: w

24. Ol’ Man River SHOW BOAT 1936 PERFORMER Paul Robeson MUSIC/LYRICS Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein II – Probably one of most towering African-American figures in history, Robeson was an actor, singer, athlete, writer, civil rights activist and Lenin Peace Prize recipient. Conversant in almost two dozen languages, he was an avowed Communist and was therefore, for a time, blacklisted by his own country. He was also one of the few true basses in American music, his beautiful and powerful voice descending as low as a C below the bass clef. And it was his rendition in that haunting voice of his, of this classic Kern-Hammerstein number that is the one considered the quintessential one today and for always, overshadowing even Sinatra’s version. The song was a potent and unflinching lament sung by a downtrodden and resigned black slave, but in Robeson’s hands, so to speak, it became a song of empowerment and perseverance: “But I keeps laffin’/ instead of cryin’/ I must keep fightin’/ until I’m dyin’/ and Ol’ Man River/ he’ll just keep rollin’ along!” OS: n/e

23. Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID 1969 PERFORMER B. J. Thomas MUSIC/LYRICS Burt Bacharach/Hal David – Much in the same way that the film plays with the conventions of the Western genre, Butch Cassidy’s soundtrack knowingly echoes the musical tracks of the great Westerns of the 40s and 50s. This infectious, instant standard in particular has that elegiac feel that is so integral to Westerns, or indeed any genre that celebrates the past. In the film, the song famously accompanies the sequence of Paul Newman, as bank robber Butch, entertaining (and mildly flirting with) his partner’s girl by doing bicycle stunts. Of course any standard can expect to be covered any number of times, as has this ode to optimism, most notably by the all-girl Japanese alterna-rock band Shonen Knife. OS: w

22. Everybody’s Talkin’ MIDNIGHT COWBOY 1969 PERFORMER Harry Nilsson MUSIC/LYRICS Fred Neil – “Everybody’s talking at me/ I don’t hear a word they’re saying/ only the echoes of my mind.” Joe Buck (Jon Voight) is an innocent in the big, bad world of New York City and this song is his yearning for escape into a world that can only be one of imagination. Fittingly, as a piece that is essentially about being and feeling sorely out of place, it was a country song in a very, very urban film. Incidentally, Midnight Cowboy was the first (and only) x-rated film to win the Best Film Oscar, in the days before the ‘x’ rating became associated exclusively with pornographic films. And to give you an idea of the song’s exalted status in American pop culture, in last year’s Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, the sequence of Borat’s arrival in New York City (closely resembling shots of Joe’s arrival) is accompanied on the soundtrack by ‘Everybody’s Talkin’. OS: n/n

21. Jailhouse Rock JAILHOUSE ROCK 1957 PERFORMER Elvis Presley MUSIC/LYRICS Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller – Elvis may have had bigger hits than this, other songs of his may be more popular, but no other track by the King is so completely identified with him, so utterly his, as this sexy, hard-rocking number from what is undoubtedly his best cinematic outing. Written by the legendary team of Leiber and Stoller, it references a number of real life personalities for the inhabitants of the song’s prison: Shifty Henry was a Los Angeles musician (and not a convict), the Purple Gang was a real mob, and Bugsy almost certainly referred to infamous mob boss Bugsy Siegel. Elvis himself choreographed the number for the screen and is an electrifying presence – young, lithe, dripping with sensuality. No wonder all the parents hated him. OS: n/n

20. Somewhere WEST SIDE STORY 1961 PERFORMERS Natalie Wood (voiced by Marni Nixon), Richard Beymer (voiced by Jimmy Bryant) MUSIC/LYRICS Leonard Bernstein/Stephen Sondheim – Tony (Richard Beymer) and Maria (Natalie Wood), star-crossed lovers in the tradition of Romeo and Juliet, feel the world closing in on them, threatening to tear them apart with its violent ways. There seems to be no escape but they comfort each other with the unwavering belief that “There’s a place for us/ somewhere a place for us/ peace and quiet and open air/ wait for us/ somewhere.” A song of such plaintive, aching beauty, it’s almost criminal that it isn’t higher up on the list. In place of no. 14 for instance. OS: n/e

19. Some Day My Prince Will Come SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS 1937 PERFORMER Adriana Caselotti MUSIC/LYRICS Frank Churchill/Larry Morey – Disney’s first big-budget full-length animated feature was mockingly referred to as ‘Disney’s Folly’ while in production, deemed by many to be a surefire box-office dud. But Uncle Walt was a wise man, and his company’s charming retelling of the fairy tale, in glorious technicolour no less, became a smash, also garnering a special Oscar in the bargain. This song, sung by the exiled princess to the seven dwarves as they prepare to go to bed after a little party, is a particularly sweet melody that gives voice to girlish dreams of princes charming sweeping young maidens off their feet. That might have been that, but in the 50s the song was picked up and re-recorded by jazz pianist Dave Brubeck, igniting a new interest in it that resulted in ‘Some Day…’ being covered by the likes of Oscar Peterson, Herbie Hancock, and Miles Davis. OS: n/n

18. Cabaret CABARET 1972 PERFORMER Liza Minnelli MUSIC/LYRICS John Kander/Fred Ebb – It is fitting that the film version of Cabaret would end up being directed by Bob Fosse after being passed up by Gene Kelly and Billy Wilder, among others. The non-conformist enfant terrible of Broadway and Hollywood was indeed the perfect choice to helm what is essentially a non-conformist musical. After all, if musicals are all about escapism and roses and sunshine, you can’t get further from that than Cabaret. Firstly, the setting is Berlin at the dawn of the Third Reich. Secondly, every character in the film is damaged goods, with most of them finding refuge at the highly stylized and grotesque Kit Kat Club. Thirdly, the requisite happy ending is glaringly absent. Bottom-line? Not exactly the cheeriest of musicals, but certainly one of the most haunting. And the splendidly ironic title song, belted out by Ms. Minnelli like there’s no tomorrow, says it all: “No use permitting/ some prophet of doom/ to wipe every smile away/ come hear the music play/ life is a Cabaret, old chum/ come to the Cabaret!” OS: n/e

17. I Could Have Danced All Night MY FAIR LADY 1964 PERFORMER Audrey Hepburn (voiced by Marni Nixon) MUSIC/LYRICS Frederick Loewe/Alan Jay Lerner – The stink surrounding the stage-to-screen adaptation of My Fair Lady is legendary; Julie Andrews, the star of the Broadway original, was not considered a big enough star by Warner Bros. and so was replaced by Audrey Hepburn, resulting in a lot of negative publicity around the latter. To make matters worse, Hepburn’s singing voice was deemed too weak and her songs were dubbed by Marni Nixon. When Andrews won the year’s Oscar for Mary Poppins while Hepburn was not even nominated for Lady in what was generally seen as a snub, knowing nudges and winks abounded. But seeing the film today, it is hard to argue against the studio’s decision. Hepburn may sport the least convincing of cockney accents, but she is still utterly charming in the role. And her performance of this number, expressing Eliza Doolittle’s elation at finally winning her gruff tutor Henry Higgins’ (as well as her own) approval, makes you forget that it’s someone else’s voice we’re hearing on the soundtrack. The faintest hint in the lyrics of the possibility of romance only adds to the exhilaration: “I’ll never know what made it so exciting/ why all at once my heart took flight/ I only know when he began to dance with me/ I could have danced, danced, danced, all night!” OS: n/e

16. Evergreen (Love Theme from A Star is Born) A STAR IS BORN 1976 PERFORMER Barbra Streisand MUSIC/LYRICS Barbra Streisand/Paul Williams – Like Judy Garland before her, Streisand starred in yet another remake of A Star is Born, and also like her predecessor, got a signature song out of it. ‘Evergreen’ is a typical 70s love song, with lush, warm notes that go perfectly with Paul Williams’ decidedly modern lyrics, carried to dizzying heights by Ms. Streisand’s vocals: “Love soft as an easy chair/ love fresh as the morning air/ one love that is shared by two/ I have found with you.” OS: w

15. Cheek to Cheek TOP HAT 1935 PERFORMERS Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers MUSIC/LYRICS Irving Berlin – “Heaven, I’m in heaven…” Covered by a myriad artsists, from Crosby to Sinatra, this is surely one of the greatest of the American standards, and yet another solid example of Fred Astaire’s canny mastery over the art of song performance, even though, by his own admission, he wasn’t the greatest vocalist. But boy did he know how to tell a song! A phenomenal natural talent as a dancer, he was also preternaturally gifted with the ability to find within his margins strengths that obviated his weaknesses, to use rhythms and accents as much as melody and tone to create a style of jazz singing all his own. But let’s not forget or underestimate the contribution of his partner-in-crime, Ginger Rogers who matches him note for note. As someone once pointed out, Ginger did everything Astaire did – backwards, and in heels. OS: n/o

14. My Heart Will Go On TITANIC 1997 PERFORMER Céline Dion MUSIC/LYRICS James Horner/Will Jennings – With due apologies to people who like the song – no comment! OS: w

13. People FUNNY GIRL 1968 PERFORMER Barbra Streisand MUSIC/LYRICS Jule Styne/Bob Merrill – Streisand is that rarest of rare talents in that, in her voice, she has a miraculous instrument, and her enviable natural instincts as a performer give her an uncanny knack for song interpretation. While others with pretty voices have little clue as to the lyrics, Babs was never content to merely sing the notes and instead created a remarkable array of personae to put across the incredibly varied lyrical content of her repertoire. And her rendition of this classic song of introspection from her debut film is a glorious example of her incredible gift. Streisand doesn’t just belt out the song, she ingests it and emits it like so many rays of light, each line, every emotion raw, intense and searing. OS: n/e

12. Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES 1953 PERFORMER Marilyn Monroe MUSIC/LYRICS Jule Styne/Leo Robin – A blonde bombshell in a tight pink silk dress with sleek elbow-length gloves to match, surrounded by a chorus of tailcoat-clad hunks, extolling the virtues of sparkly rocks and baubles. You can be forgiven for thinking ‘Madonna’ and ‘Material Girl’, but no, the original is and always will be La Monroe, whose at-once sexy, sweet and funny performance of the classic Styne-Robin number was the inspiration for the aforementioned 80s music video. In fact, the number’s well-deserved iconic status has over the years resulted in it being copied and parodied many times over, even by, not surprisingly, the late Anna Nicole Smith. OS: n/e

11. The Man That Got Away A STAR IS BORN 1954 PERFORMER Judy Garland MUSIC/LYRICS Harold Arlen/Ira Gershwin – For a modern audience, this is perhaps the least familiar of Garland’s legendary signature tunes, and we are the poorer for it. Recorded for her comeback remake of A Star is Born, the actress sings her pained heart out on this one, overshadowing just about every other number in the film. Studio bosses seemed unsure of what to do with it filmically, and spent weeks filming and re-filming the song in different avatars. Finally, it was decided to let the power of the song be its own selling point and it was shot in a simple but extraordinarily affecting single continuous shot. Playing painfully shy but hugely talented rising musical actress Esther Blodgett, Garland sings the song after hours at a smoky nightclub, fatefully catching the attention of one Norman Maine (James Mason), and a historic musical moment is born. OS: n/o

10. The Sound of Music THE SOUND OF MUSIC 1965 PERFORMER Julie Andrews MUSIC/LYRICS Richard Rodgers/Oscar Hammerstein II – Among the many memorable images from American movies – Marilyn Monroe in the floaty white dress in The Seven Year Itch, Charlie Chaplin at the end of City Lights, Marlon Brando as Don Vito Corleone in The Godfather, John Travolta and Uma Thurman doing the twist in Pulp Fiction – few can match the sheer exuberance that exudes from the opening song sequence of what is one of the biggest box-office hits in history. Julie Andrews, as nun-in-waiting Maria, breezes along the Austrian mountainscape, arms spread wide, expressing the joy she takes in life as well brings to the lives of others. There are surely catchier songs in this superb Rodgers-Hammerstein musical, a number of which are further down on the list, but for pure iconic status, the title song can’t be beat. And what song better embodies the universal love for music? “The hills are alive with the sound of music/ with songs they have sung for a thousand years/ the hills fill my heart with the sound of music/ my heart wants to sing every song it hears.” OS: n/e

9. Stayin’ Alive SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER 1977 PERFORMER The Bee Gees MUSIC/LYRICS Barry, Robin and Maurice Gibb – Is there anyone on the planet (ok, over the age of twenty-five) who doesn’t get the urge to get down upon hearing those instantly recognisable first chocolaty bass notes of ‘Stayin’ Alive’? It’s like a brash but irresistible seductress; you’re not sure of her antecedents but man, you can’t help but go along for the ride! And then there is of course the Gibb Bros.’ marvel of a falsetto belting out that incredible vocal melody. The kind of high-pitched keening that would get lesser singers laughed off the job, is not only audaciously sustained throughout the song but, even more impressive, actually complements perfectly the macho posturing of the lyrics. Go figure. OS: n/e

8. The Way We Were THE WAY WE WERE 1973 PERFORMER Barbra Streisand MUSIC/LYRICS Marvin Hamlisch/Alan and Marilyn Bergman – In the age of Aguileras and Timberlakes, it is easy to forget that the Billboard chart wasn’t always dominated by the likes of ‘Dirrty’ and ‘Sexyback’, but was not so long ago the domain of Sinatra and Streisand. In 1973, the latter not only got to star with dreamy Robert Redford at his peak in Sydney Pollack’s The Way We Were, but also landed her first No.1 American single with the film’s title track. It charted for almost six months, selling over a million copies and peaking at the top spot in early 1974. In a bit of history making, the song was bumped from No.1 by Love Unlimited Orchestra’s ‘Love Theme’, only to return to the top a week later. And like many of the AFI’s chosen songs, ‘The Way We Were’ is a song of longing, of remembrance, and of barely-masked regret: “Memories, may be beautiful and yet/ what’s too painful to remember/ we simply choose to forget/ so it’s the laughter/ we will remember/ whenever we remember/ the way we were…” OS: w

7. When You Wish Upon A Star PINOCCHIO 1940 PERFORMER Cliff Edwards MUSIC/LYRICS Leigh Harline/Ned Washington – Seems like even the hardiest rocker is really just an old baby at heart, considering how some childhood staples seem to reduce a lot of them to puddles of mush. Take for instance one Gene Simmons, bassist and frontman for the band Kiss – he of the monochromatic full-face makeup with the tongue hanging out. When he released his debut solo album in 1978, lo and behold, it included a completely straight, non-ironic, and frankly quite loving cover of this Disney classic. Perhaps it is the magical simplicity of the lyrics, delivered in the film by Pinnochio’s friend, little Jiminy Cricket, that speaks to the child in all of us, even acid-tongued demon-rockers: “if your heart is in your dream/ no request is too extreme/ when you wish upon a star/ as dreamers do.” OS: w

6. Mrs. Robinson THE GRADUATE 1967 PERFORMERS Paul Simon, Art Garfunkel MUSIC/LYRICS Paul Simon – The iconic koo-koo-ka-choo strums of ‘Mrs, Robinson’, a tongue-in-cheek ode to a woman who sweeps you off your feet, lands you on your ass, and adds you to her collection of skeletons in the closet, have been written about at length in these pages before. Suffice to say that though irrevocably associated with the magnificent Anne Bancroft and the film, the song is a gem on its own too, what with its rhythm-heavy melody and Simon’s irreverent lyrics. OS: n/n

5. White Christmas HOLIDAY INN 1942 PERFORMER Bing Crosby MUSIC/LYRICS Irving Berlin – The song that writer Berlin called his best ever, sold over fifty million copies for Crosby, and has been covered by innumerable artists, from Elvis to Leann Rimes to Twisted Sister. It is currently listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as a 100 million plus seller. Originally written by Berlin in 1940, it was actually filmed as a duet between Dër Bingle and Marjorie Reynolds (dubbed by Martha Mears). But it was as a re-recorded solo by the former, backed by the famous John Trotter orchestra and the Ken Darby Singers, that it became the mammoth hit that its author had predicted it would be. Crosby himself, in his typically modest fashion, refused to take credit for its success, attributing it solely to Berlin’s genius: “A jackdaw with a cleft palate could have sung it successfully.” In fact, so popular was the tune that MGM decided to name a 1954 Bing Crosby-Danny Kaye musical after it. The ploy worked; White Christmas turned out to be the studio’s biggest hit that year. So just what was it about the song that resonated so with audiences back in the day? Well one can certainly conjecture that for listeners during World War II, the song’s mixture of melancholia, hope, and longing for the comforts of hearth and home, struck a very deep chord: “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas/ just like the ones I used to know/ where the treetops glisten/ and children listen/ to hear sleigh bells in the snow”. OS: w

4. Moon River BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S 1961 PERFORMER Audrey Hepburn MUSIC/LYRICS Henry Mancini/Johnny Mercer – What is it about great actors that even with barely passable singing abilities, they can bring to a song such passion and grace that many a professional songster is unable to muster? Such is the case of Audrey Hepburn, who was famously not allowed to sing her songs when she starred in My Fair Lady, even though her heartbreaking rendition of ‘Moon River’ three years earlier resulted in an Oscar-winning smash hit that has proved to be an immortal classic. Mancini and Mercer, both indispensable contributors to the American songbook, wrote a melody and lyric of great beauty and yearning, that the performer in Hepburn recognized as a captivating way to tell a story. In the film, the actress as Truman Capote’s troubled party-girl Holly Golightly, sits on her fire-escape with a faraway look in her eye, wistfully strumming a guitar and singing the song in that inimitable girlish cadence. It is an indelible image, and an unforgettable rendition of an unforgettable song. Upon Hepburn’s death from cancer in 1993, Tiffany’s of New York brought out a full-page tribute in the New York Times that said simply: “To Audrey – Our Huckleberry Friend.” OS: w

3. Singin’ in the Rain SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN 1952 PERFORMER Gene Kelly MUSIC/LYRICS Nacio Herb Brown/Arthur Freed – The legendary centerpiece of the film voted No.1 American Film Musical of all time, not only is Kelly’s version of the hitherto little-known Brown-Freed ditty the best loved, it is also the most stylized and unique performance of the song. Like Astaire, Kelly was not a great singer, but rather a great interpreter of song, his flawless sense of rhythm as a dancer helping him to give his renditions catchy nuances and an unmistakable individuality. It was his idea not only to start the song with the infectious ‘do de do do’ but also to give a nod to his roots by adlibbing the line “I’m dancin’ and singin’ in the rain.” It became Kelly’s signature tune and the picturisation, with Kelly celebrating his newfound love for life by dancing his heart out in a California downpour, has been called the single greatest dance sequence ever put on film. OS: n/e

2. As Time Goes By CASABLANCA 1942 PERFORMER Dooley Wilson MUSIC/LYRICS Herman Hupfeld – “You must remember this/ a kiss is just a kiss/ a sigh is just a sigh/ the fundamental things apply/ as time goes by.” Inarguably one of the most famous song choruses of all time, the chords are currently used over the Warner Bros. opening logo sequence since Casablanca is probably the studio’s most famous, most revered, and most loved film. The song was originally written for a 30s Broadway show, and later recorded by a number of artists, including crooner Rudy Vallee. But it is Dooley Wilson’s simple, piano-accompanied version (often wrongly attributed to Louis Armstrong) from the film that is the definitive one. It is the very byword for a classical romance, bringing forth the image of Humphrey Bogart in a white tuxedo jacket, coming upon lost love Ingrid Bergman in a smoke-filled corner of Rick’s Café Americain. A look of disbelief crosses his face, followed by a wry smile. Here’s looking at you kid… OS: n/e

1. Over the Rainbow THE WIZARD OF OZ 1939 PERFORMER Judy Garland MUSIC/LYRICS Harold Arlen/E. Y. Harburg – “Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore…” Really, could it have been anything else? Is there any other song that so exquisitely captures the sheer wonder of childhood, and the magic of childish dreams? Especially, as it turns out, that dreams are never really childish after all? And who but Garland could have given voice to a young girl’s longing for a place where ‘troubles melt like lemon-drops’ quite so poignantly? Almost impossible to imagine, then, that she was not the first choice to play the coveted part of Frank Baum’s spirited farm girl Dorothy Gale (Shirley Temple was). She was not considered a big enough star and, at 17, she would have to have her burgeoning figure painfully bound in bandages to make her look like a 9-year-old. Even more astonishingly, studio bosses were adamant that ‘Over the Rainbow’ be cut from the film because it slowed down the action! Wiser heads prevailed, the song was restored, and the rest, as they say, is cinema history. “If happy little bluebirds fly/ beyond the rainbow/ why then, oh why can’t I?” OS: w

Enough said!

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