From Star Wars to ET, The Seventh Seal to Citizen Kane, there’s a quiet collection of songs ‘inspired’ by movies – here are 14 examples.
A spoiler for Fight Club lies ahead. Skip that entry if you’ve not seen the film!
For whatever reason, I’ve been hearing a new version of Neil Diamond’s ‘Heartlight’ on the radio a lot lately. It’s an odd song with lyrics based upon, of all things, the Spielberg classic ET The Extra Terrestrial. When the song first came along in the 80s, I assumed it was an official tie-in. The connections are not exactly subtle.
“Turn on your heartlight in the middle of a young boy’s dream,” sings Diamond. “Don’t wake me up too soon. Gonna take a ride across the moon, you and me.”
According to Dominic Serene’s book Bacharach Song By Song, ‘Heartlight’ was written by Diamond, Burt Bacharach and Carole Bayer Sager after they all saw ET together.
I’m finding it hard to quite grasp their thinking, but to give the writers the benefit of the doubt, maybe they were all so in instantly in love with the movie that paraphrasing its plot and key images as lyrics was meant as some kind of homage. Or it was all just a uncontrolled explosion of their adoration.
Of course, ET was a phenomenon and bootleg merchandise shot up everywhere. Universal Pictures was very protective of its rights and when the film was at its most popular, it brought and won numerous copyright lawsuits against people ‘borrowing’ its IP.
We’ll never know if Diamond and his co-writers would have lost too because they simply decided to settle out of court. They paid $25,000 which, in today’s money doesn’t even have the purchasing power of $70,000. Diamond got a bargain. Here’s the song…
During this recent revival of ‘Heartlight’, I was reminded of the handful of other songs which were, or at least seem to have been, based on movies.
Not the authorised tie-ins, the sort of thing where Beyonce Knowles and co awkwardly shoe-horn a reference to Charlie’s Angels into their lyrics, but the sort of tribute or riffing that Diamond pulled off.
Here’s a short list, including a few I never knew about until I started digging.
Nine Inch Nail’s Only – based on Fight Club
Not only is ‘Only’ full of references to David Fincher’s movie and/or the novel it was based upon, Fincher himself directed its video. The lyrics are technically spoilers for Fight Club, so be warned.
“Yes I am alone but, then again, I always was, as far back as I can tell. I think maybe it’s because, because you were never really real to begin with. I just made you up to hurt myself.”
Regina Spektor’s Fidelity – based on High Fidelity
Spektor has said that she was drawing on the film of High Fidelity and not the original book, or indeed the too-recent TV show for his song. It’s pretty obvious from the off, with lines like “I never loved nobody fully, always one foot on the ground, and by protecting my heart truly I got lost in the sounds.”
Nick Hornby’s novel and its adaptations are all about a passionate music lover with commitment issues, and Spektor has translated this rather directly.
Fools Gold by The Stone Roses – based on The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre
We have to take Ian Brown’s word for it (and that’s an increasingly difficult thing to do) but the verses of ‘Fools Gold’ were apparently inspired by John Huston’s peerless adventure movie, and the infighting between Humphrey Bogart, Walter Huston and Tim Holt’s characters.
R.E.M’s Imitation of Life – based on Imitation Of Life
Michael Stype’s allusive lyrics seem to have numerous, sometimes obscure reference points but the title is the smoking gun here. There’s a section that seems to refer directly to the plotline of Douglas Sirk’s movie (or maybe the earlier John M. Stahl movie, or original Fannie Hurst novel?) in which an actress goes from Broadway to Hollywood and then back to New York, facing melodramatic struggles at every turn.
“That’s sugarcane that tasted good, that’s cinnamon, that’s Hollywood. Come on, come on, no one can see you try.”
Or maybe the only evidence we really have beyond the title is the word ‘Hollywood’.
Thin stuff? Well, as long as I have an excuse to include the song’s superb video by Garth Jennings then I’m happy.
Scott Walker’s The Seventh Seal – based on The Seventh Seal
There’s no mystery here. Scott Walker took Ingmar Bergman’s movie – one of the true international smash hits of the 1960s – and turned it into a song. As different as The Seventh Seal is from ET, the process that gives us this song seems very similar to that behind ‘Heartlight’.
This fan-made video will demonstrate just how straight-up the adaptation is, even if you’ve never seen the film (top tips: see the film, listen to Scott Walker records.)
The Union Forever by The White Stripes – based on Citizen Kane
As if some kind of cut-up exercise, the lyrics in The Union Forever come from the script for Citizen Kane.
The opening lines “It can’t be love, for there is no true love” come from ‘‘In A Mizz‘, a song performed in the movie. Jack White patched the rest of the song’s lyrics together from bits and pieces he transcribed while watching the movie. I see no indication that White was ever sued, despite lots of press speculation when the song was released that such a thing was inevitable.
E=MC2 by Big Audio Dynamite – based on the films of Nic Roeg
There are samples from Performance in this song but the references to director Nicolas Roeg’s films run much deeper.
The title, which comes from Einstein’s theory of relativity, nods at Insignificance, as do the lyrics “Eats bubblegum, hall of fame baseball, senator’s a hoodlum” by counting off the film’s characters of Marilyn Monroe, Joe DiMaggio and Joseph McCarthy.
I particularly enjoy the references to The Man Who Fell To Earth and Don’t Look Now which are, respectively, “Space guy fell from the sky” and “Met a dwarf who was no good” but the whole song is basically a lucky dip of Roeg references.
A New Hope by Blink 182 – based on the Star Wars films
If a song based less on any movie and more on the entire body of work of a single director belongs on this list, then maybe something like Toto’s ‘Rosanna’, named for Rosanna Arquette, might make the grade? My list, my rules and I’m saying no – it’s not about her movies but Rosanna Arquette as a person. As far as I’ll go is Blink 182’s ‘A New Hope’, a daft little song that’s basically just lusting for Princess Leia and that’s all there is to it.
99 by Toto – based on THX-1138
And will you look at that: Toto has made the list after all, and it’s actually down to George Lucas.
Its song ’99’ was inspired by THX-1138, Lucas’ dystopian sci-fi debut. There’s nothing much in the lyrics to give the link away, despite a general “You are not a free man, you are a number” sentiment, but songwriter David Paich stated his influences outright and the video is definitely styled with some like the all-white rooms and jumpsuits of the movie.
If you told me they’d been inspired by A Clockwork Orange instead, however, I might very well have believed you…
Beauty and the Beast by Stevie Nicks – based on La Belle Et La Bête
We only know Stevie Nicks’ ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is based upon Jean Cocteau’s magnificent, oneiric film – and not the fairytale, or indeed the Edward L. Cahn movie, the Juraj Herz movie or the TV movie with (real life couple) George C. Scott and Trish Van Devere – because Nicks keeps telling us about it…
Gentle on My Mind by Glen Campbell – based on Doctor Zhivago
Songwriter John Hartford says that he wrote the lyrics for ‘Gentle on My Mind’ in a very short time after seeing David Lean’s movie of Doctor Zhivago. “I dip my cup of soup back from a gurglin’ crackling cauldron in some train yard. My beard a rustling, cold towel, and a dirty hat pulled low across my face.”
Several songs by Weird Al Yankovic
Weird Al has released songs based upon Jurassic Park, Forrest Gump, The Flintstones (arguably the TV show as much as the movies, but the song came out while the movie was receiving lots of pre-release hype), Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man and The Phantom Menace.
Here’s the Spider-Man song, which is also half-way a cover of Billy Joel’s ‘Piano Man’. Two New York flavours that go well together.
King Kong Song by Abba – based on King Kong
Finally, this one speaks for itself and there are some cracking lyrics from the very beginning. “Well, I was looking at a movie on the TV last night then I had a very funny notion, yeah. I really had to write a song about it and then I’m gonna sing it with my rock and roll band.”
Could it get any better than that? Well, the bit that goes “The song we’re gonna sing is kinda funky so let your arms hang down and waddle all around like a dreadful, mighty killer” says yes, much better.
I love Abba so much…
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