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From Bob Dylan to The Clash: The 10 best songs based on films

Since the inception of the silver-screen movies and music have formed an inseparable marriage. Without a soundtrack, a movie might be left feeling disparate and lifeless, but this relationship does not just flow one way and by that, I don’t just mean Bowie starring in Labyrinth or Tom Waits cropping up in his latest curmudgeonly guise.

Below, we’ve gathered up ten of our favourite songs that use movies as their primary source of inspiration. While it may seem a bit trivial for one to inform the other, overlooking the huge cultural impact both pop music and cinema have had on wider society and, therefore, the ability each one has to inspire the artists of the other is a serious mistake. Expect to see Bob Dylan, Pixies, The Clash and more.

For all intents and purposes, the desired outcome of movies and music is very much the same. They either transport us from reality in one way or another or else make a cloudy reality all the more clear to see. This crossover has never been lost on songwriters, many of which seek refuge from the insular world of the studio in darkened big screen escapism, but clearly the fevered imagine doesn’t just switch off when the curtain parts.

The impact of movies has long been felt on the song-sheet and sometimes in a very direct way. A slew of songsmiths have transposed film into song to varying degrees of success. Below are ten Oscar-worthy examples of where cinema became sound in the most joyous of ways.

The 10 best songs based on films:

10. ‘Motorpsycho Nightmare’ by Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan is a man of style and taste, that much was patently obviously even from his self-titled debut in 1962 and whilst his stature in this regard may have been on the rocks a bit come the mid-80s, in the ‘60s he was near-enough reinventing the world cool. ‘Motorpsycho Nightmare’ on Another Side of Bob Dylan in ‘64 solidified his status as a classy customer as he took on Alfred Hitchcock’s classic thriller Psycho and even threw in a reference to Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita too. 

Over the top of his classic early folk stylings, he transposes the plot of Psycho, lending a comic twist to the murderous screenplay by combining it with the classic joke of a travelling salesman taking up lodgings in a farmhouse only to be lured by the farmer’s daughter. Ultimately it wouldn’t be a song from the ‘spokesman of a generation’ if it didn’t work in some sort of political statement as Dylan, unlike Marion in Psycho, is saved by the freedom of speech act and its necessary power to antagonise.

It showed once again Dylan’s strength as a narrative songwriter, but as the record’s title suggests, it also showed a more humorous side to him too.

9. ‘Bad Moon Rising’ by Creedence Clearwater Revival

The irony is that ‘Bad Moon Rising’ is probably best known for being used in films rather than being about one, but the truth is that the song was spawned after frontman John Fogerty watched The Devil and Daniel Webster, a little-known fantasy flick from 1941. 

The movie is pretty much a classic rehashing of Faust and the devil. There is a dark and stormy ending and that is very much the mood that Creedence capture in the composition. As Fogerty told Rolling Stone regarding the link between the film and the song, “[it’s about] the apocalypse that was going to be visited upon us.”

The song triumphs not only in enlisting the stormy atmosphere but also crafting a foot-stomping good time of it. 

8. ‘Matilda’ by Alt-J 

Léon: The Professional is no doubt one of the greatest action-thrillers ever made, so much so that it seems an insult jut to box it in as an action-thriller when it seemingly defies genre, but in its own uniquely nettlesome way it would seem a pretty difficult film to eulogise in song. 

Matilda is cinema-obsessive groups ode to Natalie Portman’s protagonist, the virile 12-year-old orphan turned hitman’s assistant, Mathilda. “I wanted to write all my songs about the film and have that novelty,” Alt-J’s frontman Joe Newman told Loud and Quiet Magazine. It is this strong connection to the film that makes the resultant song anything but novelty and lends a much more spiritual tone so that it actually functions as a sincere ode.

The band seem just the right fit for the film as the song almost mirrors the brooding and swelling pacing, with just enough jarring particulars to single it out as truly original. 

7. ‘2HB’ by Roxy Music 

Considering the song features the line “Here’s looking at you, kid,” there are no prizes for guessing that the ‘HB’ in question is not a pencil but Casablanca star Humphrey Bogart.

More than just an ode from Bryan Ferry dedicated to the late actor and his work on the iconic Casablanca, the musicology is equally influenced by the film. The song features an Andy Mackay sax solo—based on the melody of ‘As Time Goes By’ a tune performed by Dooley ‘play it again Sam’ Wilson on that old piano in the corner. 

The track has all the glitz, glam and shrewd intent of Roxy Music’s best with Brian Eno providing tape echo treatment to transform the song into something that still sounds fresh and new. What set Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music aside from other slinky art-rock imitators is that he had not only the musical chops to stack against the stylings but a diverse creative impulse behind all the showbiz and the Bogart-like sincerity to pull it all off. 

6. ‘The Seventh Seal’ by Scott Walker

With ‘The Seventh Seal’ Scott Walker pretty much recaptures the entire plot of Ingmar Bergman iconic 1957 film of the same name, so much so that if you haven’t seen the Swedish masterpiece then the song might be one big spoiler.

Walker’s work can pretty much always be described as cinematic owing to its billowing scope and on this occasion, he chooses to reimagine the Bergman soundtrack into some almost Morricone-Esque minor key orchestral pop.

Like all of Scott Walker’s best outings the track lingers in the perfect rarefied air just before bravura becomes over-the-top. Much like the film, it is dark, mysterious and blistering with searing artistic intent. 

5. ‘Debaser’ by Pixies

If you thought that Debaser was a strange and aggressive song then wait till you get a load of the source material, Un Chien Andalou, a 1929 Franco-Spanish surrealist film that saw director Luis Buñuel team up with frankly mad artist Salvador Dalí. It wouldn’t be quite right to say that the film was ahead of its time because that would imply that its time has since come. 

In this case, a peculiar movie spawned a peculiar song and perhaps all you need to know about the biding ties between the two is in the lyric “slicing up eyeballs.” The track documents the movies intent to ‘debase’ the morality of the art world and perhaps the most peculiar thing is that the resultant Pixies smash hit is so damn listenable.

It is a track to be pelted out on Friday drive home to purge the working week and set up a debasing weekend. The film, by contrast, should be nowhere near any sort of driving or operating of machinery. 

4. ‘Red Angel Dragnet’ by The Clash

Although the song to a large degree is about the real world murder of Frank ‘Guardian Angel’ Melvin in Newark, New Jersey, 1981, the lyrics are very much penned in the lexical field of Scorsese’s classic Taxi Driver

Over a disparate backing track the words are spat out in an affected drawl: “Tonight it’s raining on the city / Who could have prophesised these people / Only Travis.” Clash associate Kosmo Vinyl also reads passages of Travis Bickle’s classic monologue from the film.

A strange song that seems more like some art film that has no visuals; deeply atmospheric and almost troubling, it’s the switchblade knife in a back alley equivalent of a song. 

3. ‘Imitation of Life’ by R.E.M

This song is unique on the list owing to the fact that it was inspired by the title and a vague notion of the plot alone. ‘Imitation of Life’ is a reference to the 1959 movie of the same name, but as Peter Buck explains in the liner notes for the In Time LP, none of the band had actually seen the film, adding, “I thought at the time that the title was a perfect metaphor for adolescence. Unfortunately, I have come to believe that it is a perfect metaphor for adulthood, too. But that’s another story.”

The film chronicles the journey of a young mixed-race girl’s struggle as she abandons her family to try and pass as caucasian in the ‘50s American South so that she can succeed as an aspiring film star. The film points a finger at abhorrent race-relations at the time and the song likewise takes a modernised wider scope and looks at the skin-deep facetiousness of many circles of life. The glowing pop arrangement makes this sombre soliloquy soar like all of R.E.M’s best with sing-along chorus mastery.

It is an earworm of the most pleasant order and it imparts a pretty serious message as it makes acquaintances with your auditory canal for the umpteenth time that day. 

2. ‘Fool’s Gold’ by The Stone Roses

Never has a song sounded less like the movie that inspired it, but then who knows what goes on in the mind of Ian Brown. In 2009 the singer told Q magazine that the origins of this Manchester swagger anthem are deeply rooted in the 1948 Humphrey Bogart film The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre. He explained: “In the film, the friends go up a mountain looking for gold. But as they go on, they start turning on one another. That’s how it felt once the Roses started getting successful. Suddenly everyone was after their piece of gold.”

It might have come from a moment when the band weren’t having such a good time, but that didn’t stop fans from having such a good time listening to it. The track is a near-ten-minute epic as at home in a nightclub as it is in the kitchen whilst you toe-tap your way around burning various food-stuffs.

It is a song that quite frankly you couldn’t imagine music being the same without.

1. ‘Space Oddity’ by David Bowie 

‘Space Oddity’ is one of the greatest songs of all time, and not just ‘one the greatest’ in terms of one of the better songs that might pop up on shuffle, but it exists in the rarefied realm whereby it could place in just about any top 10 list, of any description, and justify its lodgings.  Although Bowie often downplays the magnitude of the scope of the song, they’re few tracks ever written that have ever incorporated so many elements. And moreover, produced such a concise and gleaming result. 

In 2003 Bowie explained the origin of the song to Bill DeMain, stating: “In England, it was always presumed that it was written about the (sic) space landing because it kind of came to prominence around the same time. […] It was written because of going to see the film 2001, which I found amazing. I was out of my gourd anyway, I was very stoned when I went to see it, several times, and it was really a revelation to me. It got the song flowing.”

Bowie goes on to explain how the song became a very ill-advised choice by the BBC to score the moon landing footage. “It wasn’t a pleasant thing to juxtapose against a moon landing. Of course, I was overjoyed that they did. Obviously, some BBC official said, ‘Oh, right then, that space song, Major Tom, blah blah blah, that’ll be great.’ ‘Um, but he gets stranded in space, sir.’ Nobody had the heart to tell the producer that.”

‘Space Oddity’ and Space Odyssey are era defining masterpieces on both counts.

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