A category of note at the 2012 Academy Awards was Best Song for a Motion Picture; it only had two nominees–Man or Muppet from The Muppets and Real in Rio from Rio. What was interesting was that this very short list of nominees, while perhaps catchy in their own right, could hardly be considered to be stellar examples of the craft. Such is the nature of the motion picture pop theme song; for every tune on the level of The Way We Were, there are far too many songs that are merely passable.
I recently picked up a CD of early show tunes, Rudolph Valentino: He Sings and Others Sing About Him. The album, recorded in 2005 by Phil York, features all-new recordings of songs originally written as tie-ins to Rudolph Valentino’s movies between 1922 and 1927. The CD Also includes some new songs and the two songs Valentino recorded before he died, these being the only recordings of his voice. On the whole, the collection is something of a musical time machine into a simpler era. In both lyrics and composition, these songs are sentimental products of that time, with titles like I Have a Rendezvous With You,A Kingdom for Two, and If I Had a Man Like Valentino. While no one writes songs like this nowadays (at least not without their tongue firmly in cheek), it is clear how these older songs their own indefinable charm.
As evident from this album, music merchandising is not a new thing.
Then, as now, a pop-style song can be attached to any movie (regardless of whether it fits) with the end goal of finding a home as a radio hit. Some work quite well, such as Into the West from Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, and far more titles could be listed here than there is space for – but to name a few: I Will Always Love You (Whitney Houston, The Bodyguard), Circle of Life (Elton John, The Lion King), Up Where We Belong (Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes, An Officer and a Gentleman), Shaft (Isaac Hayes, Shaft), Don’t You (Forget About Me) (Simple Minds, The Breakfast Club, and pretty much every James Bond Film.
For all the great ones, there are also the stinkers, such as Ben by Michael Jackson (in itself not a bad song, but not when tied to a film about a killer rat), or the title song to Attack of the Killer Tomatoes (check it out if you don’t believe me). Even Celine Dion’s anthem, My Heart Will Go On, from Titanic, ends up on the most loved list as well as the most hated song of all time.
What is fascinating is how the inclination to attach a popular song to a movie has been a mainstay for the last hundred years. Whether the song was intended to be played alongside the movie during the early silent days, or just be sold off as sheet music to help market the film, the tie-in remains the same.
And a really good one will stick with you forever. Try singing a line from Ghostbusters.
See what I mean?