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Music

5 films inspired by classic songs

@TomTaylorFO

The list of films that have inspired songs is endless. The scope of a two-hour film means that they form perfect fodder to be honed down messages and narratives primed for wordless melodies to pair with. However, given that the average song struggles to reach four minutes, the reversal is a rare affair as it proves a struggle to scale a few hundred words worth of lyrics into full features. 

There are some songs, however, that coax enough visceral imagery into existence that they seem cinematic in their own right. Whilst some have merely stirred a script into shape, others have been so faithfully transposed that the link is as direct as a bullet train. Thankfully, for prospective filmmakers, there is still a slew that spring to mind awaiting their day on the big screen. 

Below we have curated five epic songs that have spawned films. From Arctic Monkeys to The Doors, each of the songs share a unique ability to bring atmosphere and images racing forth and as such it seems hardly surprising that they have been whipped into movies. 

Five films inspired by classic songs:

The Indian Runner – Inspired by ‘Highway Patrolman’ by Bruce Springsteen

There has always been something very cinematic about Bruce Springsteen’s songwriting. His lyrics are eternally crammed with imagery and narrative. In fact, his album Nebraska, almost plays out like a dark movie itself, which is perhaps why Sean Penn opted to step behind the camera to transpose ‘Highway Patrolman’ into the morose epic The Indian Runner.

For the feature, Viggo Mortensen starred in the lead role of Frank Roberts, whilst Patricia Arquette, Dennis Hopper, Charles Bronson, Sandy Dennis and Benicio del Toro all join him in the cast. The film follows the tale of a troubled Vietnam vet returning to his small-town home where his brother (David Morse), the local sheriff, rules like a feudal lord. 

The Legend of Tom Dooley – Inspired by ‘Tom Dooley’ by Kingston Trio

Murder ballads are a musical force primed for cinematic adaptations. In fact, most of the stories have been carefully honed by audiences over the years in the first place. While the original author of ‘Tom Dooley’ is unknown, the Kingston Trio’s 1958 version surely brought the tale to the attention of producers who later turned it into The Legend of Tom Dooley.

With all the tropes and tragedies of a TV drama already in place, the Ted Post-directed movie plays out the classic tale with stirring fidelity. In the process, the career of Michael Landon was born, as he played a soldier on the run after accidentally killing an enemy without knowing the war had been called to an end.

The Hitcher – inspired by ‘Riders on the Storm’ by The Doors

Morrison’s final act with The Doors, before dying at the tragically young age of 27, was, at least chronologically, ‘Riders on the Storm’, and it epitomised both Morrison’s iconoclastic mantra and The Doors’ unique rock mysticism. With the evocative image of a road-weary traveller, the band crafted an atmospheric masterpiece that housed more imagery than the Museum of Modern Art.

Screenwriter Eric Red recognised the cinematic overture of the song and used it as the inspiration for his own project starring Rutger Hauer as a man you certainly don’t want to meet on the open roads. Red tells DVD Active that the song was the main influence on the 1986 film The Hitcher: “I thought the elements of the song – a killer on the road in a storm plus the cinematic feel of the music – would make a terrific opening for a film. I started with that scene and went from there.”

Scummy Man – inspired by ‘When the Sun Goes Down’ by Arctic Monkeys

Stephen Graham’s star has now rocketed to the heights of sharing major screen time with Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci in The Irishman, but for years he was already an acclaimed star in the British underground. In the short film Scummy Man, he plays a despicable gentle scratching fellow befitting of the film’s title. 

In their debut album, Arctic Monkeys captured the weekend life of working-class Britain with such fidelity that the visceral imagery in Turner’s early trademark tirades of snarling slack-jawed tongue-lashings was not just the sort that you could easily absorb and cast into a movie-of-the-mind, it was more so the prose material for an auteur director to tell the very tale of the life you were living. It certainly wasn’t dull realism either; it held all the power of a punch-up and all the drama that the fateful crossroads a coming-of-age proves to be.

Across the Universe – inspired by ‘Across the Universe’ by The Beatles

The Beatles music and the Vietnam War form the backdrop to this entirely original take on an upper-class girl / working-class boy love story, Across the Universe. The songs take a weird and surreal turn as actor Joe Anderson is cast into a bizarre Kafkaesque choreography. It’s the sort of weird and wonderful thing the ‘Fab Four’ might have imagined after a particularly colourful trip during their heyday and one that ensures a captive audience.

However, the centrepiece of the film is John Lennon at his introspective best with ‘Across the Universe’. While ostensibly not a Vietnam War protest anthem, the song, much like the film, tries to find a universality in suffering and how to overcome it. The message of the track that searches for answers in the cosmos is innovatively woven into the movie-making for a stirring affair.