There are many instances of music being used in movies to excellent effect. A cleverly chosen song can enhance a scene, add emotive depth, and create powerful associations between the audio and visual aspects of the film in question. Sometimes, this is done so well that the songs stand out and achieve recognition regardless of the relative success or failure of the movie.
The movie songs on this list are all by noted musicians, each of whom saw their stock rise considerably and gained a wider following through the cinematic associations of their work. The movies themselves stand out as a result. What follows is a list of not just excellent music, but some great examples of fine filmmaking as well, and a potent illustration of how one can drastically improve the other.
10 Danger Zone – Kenny Loggins (Top Gun, 1986)
After Top Gun’s release in the mid-eighties, the US Navy saw a sharp increase in applications for its flying program. And why not? Tom Cruise just made being a fighter pilot look so damn cool. And speaking of cool, the movie’s opening sequence, which sees a series of jet landings and takeoffs from an aircraft carrier to Kenny Loggins’ Danger Zone, is all that and more.
Something of a movie soundtrack specialist in his heyday, Loggins wrote the track, which sounds like the embodiment of cheesy 80s pop music now, specifically for the movie. The singer admits that it doesn’t hold up so well on its own, but it works incredibly well in the context and so takes its place among some of the greatest film songs of all time. The animated TV series, Archer, makes something of a running joke of continually referencing the tune, so the point where Kenny Loggins makes a guest appearance in a later season. That, and the upcoming Top Gun reboot which is set to feature the song once more, means Danger Zone is likely to inspire a whole new wave of aspiring aviation aces in the not-too-distant future.
9 Stayin’ Alive – The Bee Gees (Saturday Night Fever, 1977)
One of the most recognizable Bee Gees songs, Stayin’ Alive featured on the soundtrack of Saturday Night Fever and plays over the movie’s opening credits as a young, bell-bottom-bearing John Travolta struts down the street. Given the movie’s theme, the catchy song cemented the Bee Gees reputation as a disco group, much to the band’s consternation. They resented being pigeonholed to such an extent, but such was the popularity of Saturday Night Fever that the label stuck firmly and remains today.
The movie follows the story of a young man who lives a dreary existence Monday to Friday but comes alive on the weekend when he goes dancing at his favorite disco club. The lyrics of the song, therefore, make an excellent accompaniment as they refer to following one’s passions in life despite what others may think. The track not only breathed life into the Bee Gees career, but it has also been identified by the American Heart Association as the perfect song to perform CPR to given its 100 BPM tempo, providing the title with a new, literal meaning. Incidentally, Queen’s Another One Bites the Dust is of a similar tempo and works just as well, but the song’s name makes it a less appropriate suggestion when it comes to life-saving endeavors.
8 (Everything I Do) I Do It For You – Bryan Adams (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, 1991)
Sometimes a great movie can add depth and meaning to its soundtrack. Sometimes it’s the other way around. And sometimes, a song can rise to great heights even as the movie behind it falls flat. The 1991 retelling of the story of Robin Hood wasn’t terrible, but the poorly done, unnecessarily violent movie wasn’t anything special, either. The one redeeming feature, however, was the inclusion of (Everything I Do) I Do It For You on the soundtrack, and the song quickly became dissociated from the movie and proved the multi-faceted Bryan Adams’ skill at the love ballad.
Written in only an hour, Adams borrowed the line “I do it for you” from the movie in the emotionally stirring love song which didn’t meet with Hollywood approval initially and was buried midway through the credits. It went on to become one of Bryan Adams’ bestselling songs, proving just how clueless the filmmakers really were. Many of the singer’s fans were displeased with the departure from his usual, guitar-driven rock style, but with I Do It For You he gained a whole new following and proved his dynamism as a musician. He also proved it was no one-off when he did the same thing on the soundtracks of The 3 Muskateers and Don Juan DeMarco in the years that followed.
7 Where Is My Mind – The Pixies (Fight Club, 1999)
Where is My Mind was released in 1988, eleven long years before it would see The Pixies gain a new mass following when the song appeared on the movie Fight Club. If the lyrics have never quite made sense to you, that’s because they were inspired by lead singer Frank Black’s snorkeling exploits in the Caribbean, and have nothing to do with the movie itself. But the simple yet haunting guitar riff, Black’s unique singing voice, and, of course, the title all make it perfectly suited to Fight Club’s off-the-wall style and crazy theme.
Based on Chuck Palahniuk’s novel as it was, Fight Club’s strength lies in the storytelling style and the mind-bending twist at the end, and the movie upped things a level still with a stellar cast and some top-notch acting. It all comes together expertly in the final scene, where Edward Norton and Helena Bonham Carter stand hand in hand and witness the destructive climax of Project Mayhem. It’s at that exact moment that Where Is My Mind kicks in, providing another atmospheric layer of depth to a story packed full of deeper meaning, and offering the perfect accompaniment to one of the best movie endings in recent memory.
6 Circle of Life – Elton John (The Lion King, 1996)
We all know how successful Disney’s animated classic was, and there can be no denying that the excellent soundtrack, with Elton John as the chief contributor, played a big part in The Lion King’s popular reception. Written by Tim Rice, The Circle of Life plays during the epic opening scene, where the entire animal kingdom gathers en masse to witness the birth of their new sovereign. While the version that appears in the movie was sung by Carmen Twillie, the song is Elton John’s through and through, and it’s his version that appears on the official soundtrack.
The song was nominated for an Academy Award, but Sir Elton ultimately lost out to himself, with another of his efforts from the movie, Can You Feel The Love Tonight taking the honors. In the singer’s estimation, Circle of Life is the better of the two and remains the only of his Lion King contributions that he performs live regularly. The song had personal meaning for him as well, as his work on the movie soundtrack allowed him to break out of the recording-releasing-touring cycle and gave him fresh inspiration for creative exploits, as he proved with several more excellent movie score projects following The Lion King’s success.
5 I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing – Aerosmith (Armageddon, 1998)
Having seemingly reached their musical peak in the early-to-mid 90s, Aerosmith’s waning career was dramatically revived when their version of I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing appeared on the soundtrack of Armageddon, the most successful movie at the box office in 1998. The song was written for the film by the legendary Diane Warren and was originally meant to be performed by U2. Aerosmith only entered the conversation when lead singer Steven Tyler’s daughter, Liv, was cast in the principal female role and the rest, as they say, is history.
The emotive song captures the painful essence of missing a loved one dramatically, an impression enhanced by the employment of a full 52-piece orchestra in the recording. Much like the movie itself, the result is epic in scope and scale. Warren has said that looking back, the song is a bit ‘treacly’ in places, but that didn’t stop Aerosmith from winning over a whole new following. Such was its popularity that the band played a snippet of I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing during their 2001 Super Bowl halftime performance and when British heavyweight boxer Tyson Fury defeated Vladimir Klitschko in 2016, he famously launched into a lusty rendition of the song in the ring, dedicating it, naturally, to his beloved wife.
4 My Heart Will Go On – Celine Dion (Titanic, 1997)
There are many reasons why Titanic was a breakout success at the box office and remains so popular today, chief among which is the excellent storyline which focusses on the stirringly unlikely love affair between Rose and Jack as the vessel heads towards disaster. Knowing the ship’s inevitable fate adds a layer of dramatic irony to the story and enhances the overall effect, as does the inclusion of My Heart Will Go On, Celine Dion’s instantly recognizable love song, on the soundtrack.
The song has admittedly become something of a cliché and was so overplayed at the end of the 90s that anyone who hears it now is more likely to grimace than grin. But that’s only because of its phenomenal success and the seemingly endless airplay it received on radio and television. Film buffs will know that Titanic holds the tied record for most Oscars at 11, one of which went to My Heart Will Go On for Best Song, a fitting testament to Celine Dion’s musical talent.
3 You Never Can Tell – Chuck Berry (Pulp Fiction, 1994)
Pulp Fiction stands out as one of Tarantino’s finest movies which, given the excellent contents of his filmmaking catalog, is saying something. In a movie full of memorable moments, quotable quotes, and impressive cinematography, one of the standout scenes in Pulp Fiction features Uma Thurmann and John Travolta cutting loose on the dancefloor in the twist contest at Jack Rabbit Slims. And, of course, it all goes down to the classic rock ‘n roll sound of Chuck Berry’s You Never Can Tell.
Quinten Tarantino does nothing by chance, and it’s clear the tune was specifically chosen not just because it perfectly matches the period atmosphere he was going for in the scene, but also because of the lyric’s references to unexpected love. This proves an interesting counterpoint to the awkward interplay between hitman Vincent Vega and his boss’ wife, Mia Wallace, whom he is instructed to keep company for the evening and a strictly look-but-don’t-touch basis. Their victory in the twist contest proves a turning point for the pair but, unlike the couple in Berry’s song, theirs is not a happy ending. The whole thing makes for a truly iconic film moment but, given it’s Tarantino at the helm, we would expect nothing less.
2 Kiss From a Rose – Seal (Batman Forever, 1995)
Superhero movie fans have become spoiled for choice these days, but that wasn’t always the case, nor were those that did see release as impressive as what we find on the big screen today. Batman Forever is a case in point. With an established franchise, a great cast, and interesting characters, it could’ve been great, but the critical opinion at the time was that director Joel Schumacher, true to the film’s name, ruined Batman movies for eternity. The movie may have been a bit of a letdown, but it did introduce then-struggling singer-songwriter Seal to the world, and Kiss From a Rose remains one of the things Batman Forever is best remembered for.
Seal wrote the song in obscurity years before, but his lyrics are perfectly suited to the darker theme present in all Batman stories as the hero struggles with the internal conflict inherent in being a law-abiding billionaire by day and masked vigilante, often pursued by the police even as he does their work for them, by night. Bruce Wayne’s battle with his dual identities becomes most evident in a romantic context, and this is excellently illustrated in the light-dark, love-death contrast in Kiss From a Rose. The song’s mysterious interpretation, excellent vocals, and unique, waltz-like rhythm made it stand out on radio play, and it received wide attention following the film’s release. Seal went on to produce many more hits, and we’ve seen some excellent Batman movies since the flop of ‘Forever’ but Kiss From a Rose remains synonymous with the dark knight and stands out as the British singer’s career-defining track.
1 Eye Of The Tiger – Survivor (Rocky III, 1982)
Quite possibly the number one go-to inspirational song of all time, Eye of the Tiger has been getting gym-goers pumped up for their workouts ever since it first appeared on the soundtrack of Rocky III in 1982. The song has it all – a crashing, distinctive intro, a catchy beat, and lyrics that perfectly describe Rocky’s struggle to recapture his past glory in the ring as he rouses himself from lethargy and prepares to face the indomitable Mr. T.
The track was written for the movie at Sylvester Stallone’s request and, although all writing credit goes to Survivor, Sly himself made significant suggestions in the creation of the famous song we all know and love today. The title comes directly from a line in the movie, when the boxer’s former rival, Apollo Creed, urges him to regain the ‘eye of the tiger,’ his old drive and determination to succeed. We all know how it ends, of course, but it’s still so enjoyable because there’s nothing quite like a story of a triumphant underdog. That is the essence of many a great movie in general and Rocky III in particular, and it’s perfectly captured in Survivor’s timeless song.
About The Author: : I’m 32 years old and I live in South Africa. I work full time in logistics and I’m a freelance writer in my (limited) spare time. I have various projects in the works, including a potential novel, and I regularly participate in the Reedsy Prompts short story contest, where a growing collection of my work is available for reading. I have been a shortlisted finalist there twice so far.