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Following a Different Hollywood Beat: 12 of the Most Memorable and Unexpected Movie Songs From the 1980s

Updated on March 28, 2020
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Heather has a Bachelor's Degree in English from Moravian College and has been freelance writing for more than 12 years.

Risky Business Poster
Risky Business Poster
American Gigolo Poster
American Gigolo Poster
Beetlejuice Poster
Beetlejuice Poster
Absolute Beginners Poster
Absolute Beginners Poster
Beverly Hills Cop Poster
Beverly Hills Cop Poster
The Color of Money Poster
The Color of Money Poster
Cocktail Poster
Cocktail Poster
Less Than Zero Poster
Less Than Zero Poster
To Live and Die in L.A. Poster
To Live and Die in L.A. Poster
Vision Quest Poster
Vision Quest Poster
The Big Chill Poster
The Big Chill Poster
Fast Times at Ridgemont High Poster
Fast Times at Ridgemont High Poster
The Outsiders Poster
The Outsiders Poster
The Outsiders Poster #2
The Outsiders Poster #2
Say Anything Poster
Say Anything Poster
Top Gun Poster
Top Gun Poster

What does the word song truly mean? According to the dictionary, it can be boiled down to simply a piece of music where an artist expressed themselves and what they're feeling in a matter of minutes. When a song is done right, an artist can expect a major hit on their hands that they'll have perform countless times in various forms of media. If something goes wrong, they would love to forget that they ever sang it in the first place. Like any performer, musicians love to focus on the positive and stick to creating memorable music that will be listened to for decades to come.

When it comes to Hollywood, good music seemed to go hand-in-hand with getting a movie ready for the viewing public. The story may be top notch and the acting could awards caliber, but those positive qualities might be overlooked if the music doesn't match up with everything else. Could a bombastic song make a viewer want to mentally check out of a key scene? Maybe. What if the song tied into a particular element of a movie, such as Stevie Wonder's "Stay Gold" did for The Outsiders, that pulled viewers into the story further? It's possible. It also helped if the song was catchy enough to get inside someone's head and stay in there long after the movie ended, such as Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes," which was featured in 1989's Say Anything. Many will have to gladly admit that has happened on more than one occasion since the movie's release. People who grew up in the 80s had plenty of other songs to listen, but Hollywood helped them to remember them even further with the release of their films' soundtracks. Look at Top Gun's soundtrack, which featured a lot of great songs to listen to make you feel the need for speed.

Of course, there are plenty of movie songs that have been used to perfection, but it was best to boil it down to one decade where Hollywood seemed to get it right when it came to choosing excellent soundtrack music. Here are 12 songs from 1980s movie soundtracks that helped to cement these movies as unforgettable. Some of the songs might be expected, but some were chosen based on the fact that they were different from the norm for various reasons. Read on to see if you agree or disagree with the list. The answers might surprise you.

Memorable Introductions

Blondie "Call Me" in American Gigolo (1980)- When viewers were first introduced to Richard Gere's Julian, he was the picture of elegant swagger. He was dressed to the nines and literally looked the part of a gigolo. This Blondie song helped introduced moviegoers to a world of sex and privilege while driving along the California coast. A vision that was set along to the right 80s new wave track. The perfect beginning to a film without having an actor to say a word. The song and setting said everything for Gere.

Marvin Gaye "I Heard it Through the Grapevine" in The Big Chill (1983)- Marvin Gaye made this song famous in the late 1960s, but it got a second life with the release of early 80s classic film. The introduction introduced a group of longtime friends who came together for another friend's funeral. It showed each cast member getting ready to come to the funeral and had the song playing in the background to keep moviegoers glued to their seats and viewers from changing the channel. Mission accomplished.

Wang Chung "To Live and Die in L.A." in To Live and Die in L.A. (1985)- In the 1980s, director William Friedkin chose controversial subject matters for his films. With this thriller, Friedkin went to Wang Chung to help bring the film's soundtrack to life. The director's biggest request was that he was against the idea of the movie having a theme song. Thankfully, the band decided not to honor Friedkin's request and recorded a copy of the song anyway. He decided to use it in the opening credits of the movie and on the soundtrack as well. Friedkin is even featured in the music video which mixed elements of a recording session with clips from the film to showcase how the main character lived a very dangerous life that would end badly. Memorable indeed.

The Bangles "A Hazy Shade of Winter" in Less Than Zero (1987)- Simon & Garfunkel may have released the song first, but The Bangles gave it a stronger impression with the release of Less Than Zero. This remake was used to show how Andrew McCarthy's Clay had changed since he left for school and his dread of returning to a past that he would love to forget. Sure, most song remakes usually missed the mark, but The Bangles used their version in the right context to make it unforgettable. Shame, that can't be said for the movie itself, which had its own set of complications to deal with as well. At least, the song was a resounding success.

Less Familiar Hits/Career Reviving

Madonna "Gambler" in Vision Quest (1985)- Sadly, this Madonna song was often overlooked for "Crazy for You," which also featured on the Vision Quest soundtrack. Both songs were completely different. "Crazy for You" focused on the blossoming romance between the two main characters, while "Gambler" focused on a character who was looking to overcome the odds any way they could. "Gambler" was full of the right amount of upbeat optimism and Madonna's youthful spunk that the song should've gotten its due as well, but it never will. It's a shame because the song was classic 1980s Madonna: full of hope and attitude all the way.

David Bowie in "Absolute Beginners" in Absolute Beginners (1986)- Bowie recorded many iconic songs of his own and some for various film soundtracks. For Absolute Beginners, he had a supporting role as Vendice Partners and the opportunity to sing the film's theme song. The song managed to mix the sounds of the 1950s with Bowie's own signature style, but it was the only memorable thing that was taken from an otherwise forgettable film. The movie itself suffered production problems that delayed the title song's release, because both of them were tied together. The music video itself was mostly in black and white with some added splash of color to showcase the film clips. Viewers got to see Bowie exuding his usual amount of performance cool and had an extra bit of storyline where his character seemed to have a brief romance with a mysterious woman. The song might be one of Bowie's lesser hits, but it was still absolutely pure Bowie from beginning to end.

Don Henley "Who Owns This Place?" in The Color of Money (1986)- This Don Henley song was featured early on The Color of Money soundtrack, but it was usually overlooked for Warren Zevon's "Werewolves of London" or Eric Clapton's "It's in the Way that You Use It." This song had a lot going for it as well, because it seemed to describe a man full of swagger and has been burned on than one occasion. That could have easily described Paul Newman's Fast Eddie Felson perfectly. The song also had a killer beat that was full of familiar 1980s instruments, but it was still easy to dance to. Listen to the soundtrack to see or watch the movie again.

The Beach Boys "Kokomo" in Cocktail (1988)- This Beach Boys' hit described a tale of a couple relaxing on a mysterious island that was meant for pure romantics. The song helped to describe a setting of relaxation and happiness, which the band usually did with most of their songs. The music video also featured a cool cameo from John Stamos as he played with them. "Kokomo" allowed The Beach Boys to gain some popularity that they may have lost before that and it helped to get people in the mood to go on a tropical vacation. What more could you ask for in a song?

Dancing To a Different Beat

Jackson Browne "Somebody's Baby" in Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)- This Jackson Browne hit was written specifically for the film's 1982 soundtrack and it ended up being his last major top ten hit hit and his highest charting song in his career. The song itself described an early scene where Jennifer Jason Leigh's virginal character decided to break all the rules and discovered what it meant to have sex for the first time. The setting might not have been ideal, but it put the movie's plot in a different direction. Overall, Browne captured the character's innocence and how she was eager to be somebody's baby more than focusing on her own identity. An unforgettable song that forced moviegoers to hum along and remember their own youth as well.

Bob Seger "Old Time Rock and Roll" in Risky Business (1983)- This classic Bob Seger song was originally released in 1978 on his album Stranger in Town, but the song gained new life when it was featured in this Tom Cruise movie where it gained a new life. Moviegoers will remember how a young Cruise made his grand entrance into his family's living in nothing but a shirt, underwear, socks and a pair of sunglasses. Cruise's Joel Goodson danced around with wild abandon and made moviegoers want to dance along with him. The musical number may have been brief, but it hasn't been forgotten since then. The scene has been imitated repeatedly numerous times on television shows whenever a character was depicted as having free reign of his house. A prime example would be on an episode of The Nanny when Niles (Daniel Davis) had the mansion to himself, but the comic twist was that he was caught in the act by someone else. The only disappointment was that "Old Time Rock and Rock Roll" was covered by an artist other than Seger for reasons unknown. Watch this scene in Risky Business to see why the original version will always be the best.

Glenn Frey "The Heat Is On" in Beverly Hills Cop (1984)- Many would wonder why Harold Faltermeyer's "Axel F" wasn't chosen instead because the song was a big hit after the film's release, even though no one sings on the song. Faltermeyer's electronic instrumental hit has been remixed multiple times and is one of the more recognizable songs from the film. Frey's song was also written for the film's soundtrack as well and was a hit in its own right. The song was meant to depict the level of danger that Eddie Murphy's Axel was in and how he seemed to defy the odds to come out on top, even if he did get into a lot of trouble. The music video captured the right amount of 1980s synthesizers, instruments, performance and plentyful movie clips to intrigue potential moviegoers. It succeeded on all fronts.

Harry Belafonte "Day-O" and "Jump in the Line (Shake Señora)" in Beetlejuice (1988)- In this 1988 classic film, the movie managed to use two of Belafonte's songs perfectly in key plot elements to describe things perfectly. It was hard to choose between the two, because they both helped to make the movie unforgettable in their own way. "Day-O" was used as a way for Beetlejuice to torment a family and make them move out of their newly purchased home. It was hysterical to watch Catherine O'Hara's usually buttoned up character be forced to do things that she wouldn't ordinarily do. "Jump in the Line (Shake Señora)" was used towards the end of the movie when Lydia (Winona Ryder) was allowed to embrace her quirky new environment and allowed herself to have some fun. The scene may have involved some dancing ghosts, but it was all in good fun. Both Belafonte songs allowed viewers to sing along privately and ended getting stuck in your head a lot longer than you intended.

In the end, a good soundtrack has more than one song for listeners to enjoy. What would be the point of buying it if only one or two of them were memorable? Since the 1980s, the quality of film soundtrack has changed drastically. It remains to be seen if it's for better or worse, but the 80s had it right. That's why many of today's movies try to capitalize on that with song remakes or choosing the right song for a particular scene. Overall, the best film soundtrack idea would be to stick with creating new ideas and still paying respect to classic songs as well. It's a challenging task, but it has been done before. Only time will tell if that continued to be the case.


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    • btrbell profile image

      Randi Benlulu 

      8 years ago from Mesa, AZ

      Great hub! Well written! I loved all the memories# up++


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