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My Top Ten Favorite Songs About Movies

Updated on August 29, 2016
Universal-International | Source

"Touch of Evil" by Tom Russell

This is the prime example of this category of song as Tom Russell weaves the narrative of a classic cult film through a personal story being told by the singer which shares the tone if not the exact intent of the movie.

In the opening stanza, Russell sets the stage:

The night my baby left me I crossed the bridge to Juarez avenue
Like that movie "Touch of evil" I got the Orson Wells, Marlene Dietrich blues

Then to set the hopeless tone, he paraphrases some dialogue from the film:

"Read my future" says old Orson, "down inside the tea leaves of your cup"
And she says "You aint got no future, Hank, I believe your future's all used up"

Then the chorus echoes the estrangement in both stories:

Why don't you touch me anymore? Why don't you touch me anymore?
Why do you run away and hide? You know it hurts me deep inside
Why do you close the bedroom door? This is a brutal little war
What good is all this fightin' for if you don't touch me anymore?

Russell's character goes on to tell of growing up near those dead canals where they filmed the longest pan shot ever made and thinking about the borderline that's always there between a woman and a man.

The final stanza sums up the plaintive reality inherent both situations:

Oh, it's love and love alone I cry to the barmen in this Juarez waterhole
As we raise a glass to Orson and "A touch of evil" livin' in our souls

"Touch of Evil" by Tom Russell

Jean Arthur

Jean Arthur
Jean Arthur | Source

"Jean Arthur" by Robbie Fulks

One of my favorite songs by one of my favorite songwriters about one of my favorite movie stars. It's a prime example of a song more about the impact of a star's persona and career rather than a specific movie. (Ms. Arthur is perhaps best known as the squeaky voiced co-star of Gary Cooper in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and of Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Her final film appearance as Brandon de Wilde's mother in the classic western, Shane.)

The opening provides an introduction of the actress as the writer (accurately in my view) idolizes her: (It takes a lyricist of Robbie's talent to rhyme by her with fire.)

Any woman God's made yet
Stands like a rough draft by her
She could light one cigarette
And smile while the world caught fire

She was famous for her straightforward delivery, lack of obvious acting, and natural good looks.

Her talent was not the kind
Learned at some school for actors
Her beauty might stump the minds
Of all the experts at Max Factor

The chorus elaborates on several of her personality traits which made her both a great foil as well as a great ally.

A kid's temper and a queen's will
Wrapped pretty and made to kill
Whoever'd outsmart her
Didn't know Jean Arthur.

The songwriter's admiration often refers to God creating such a combination of spirit and beauty that even He may not have been aware of our special she was.

Only one, and now she's gone
And that's God's Jean Arthur.

"Jean Arthur" by Robbie Fulks (live)

"If You Could Read My Mind" by Gordon Lightfoot

Along with being one of the most amazing breakup songs of all time, this is also an example of a songwriter using cryptic references to old movies and paperback books to describe archetypes which fit the story in the song.

No specific movie or novel are ever mentioned, but enough clues are given for speculation (The ghost in the wishing well is from a quasi-serious Abbott and Costello film, The Time of Their Lives. ), and more importantly to call to mind common scenes so we can visualize how the songwriter wants us to see him and his actions.

If you could read my mind, love
What a tale my thoughts could tell
Just like an old-time movie
'Bout a ghost from a wishin' well
In a castle dark or a fortress strong
With chains upon my feet
You know that ghost is me
And I will never be set free
As long as I'm a ghost that you can't see

The love triangle in a later stanza is generic enough to be from many films, but Casablanca would the most famous and would seem to fit the action and the sentiment.

I'd walk away like a movie star
Who gets burned in a three-way script
Enter number two
A movie queen to play the scene
Of bringing all the good things out in me

Lightfoot struck Gord's Gold with this one when he brings the melancholy back home by insisting on a return to reality in the last two stanzas:

But for now love, let's be real and But stories always end...

and the telling refrain on both:

I never thought I could feel this way
And I've got to say that I just don't get it
I don't know where we went wrong
But the feeling's gone and I just can't get it back

"If You Could Read My Mind" -- Gordon Lightfoot

"Key Largo" by Bertie Higgins

The opening introduces the couple in the song:

Wrapped around each other
Trying so hard to stay warm
That first cold winter together
Lying in each others' arms
Watching those old movies
Falling in love so desperately
Honey, I was your hero
And you were my leading lady

Then the songwriter states right off that the couple in the song are just like the characters in the movie, Key Largo.

We had it all
Just like Bogie and Bacall
Starring in our own late, late show
Sailing away to Key Largo

There are also tips of the hat to Bogart in Casablanca. (Higgins had a monster international hit with a song entitled, "Casablanca" which continued the movie connection theme.)

Here's lookin' at you kid
Missing all the things we did
We can find it once again, I know
Just like they did in Key Largo


Please say you will
Play it again
'Cause I love you still

The song is pessimistic but hopeful with a slim chance the lovers may re-unite if they can just get back to Key Largo much like Bogart's Frank McCloud in the movie.

"Key Largo" -- Bertie Higgins


Godzilla in 1954
Godzilla in 1954 | Source

"Godzilla" by Blue Oyster Cult

This is a song, pure and simple, about a film character, from start to finish:

With a purposeful grimace and a terrible sound
He pulls the spitting high tension wires down

He picks up a bus and he throws it back down
As he wades through the buildings toward the center of town

It is a goofy celebration of an international phenomenon which turned into a 60 year franchise. It's chorus seems to go from a jeering section to a cheering section:

Oh no, they say he's got to go

go go Godzilla
Oh no, there goes Tokyo

go go Godzilla

Along with being just a fun song about a movie creature who is obviously just a man in monster suit, it is a perfect excuse for Buck Dharma's monster guitar licks.

In the end:

History shows again and again
How nature points up the folly of men

Oh, he'll be back. And the movie won't be any better.

"Godzilla" by Blue Oyster Cult

"Picture Show" by John Prine

Prine's songs are rarely single-layered, one subject affairs. Most often, there are several A and B stories connected throughout or joining up in the end.

It's never quite certain if this essentially about James Dean or a young John Prine identifying with the iconic actor. It would seen the opening can be interpreted both ways or either way:

A young man from a small town
With a very large imagination
Lay alone in his room with his radio on
Looking for another station
When the static from the mouthpiece
Gave way to the sound below
James Dean went out to Hollywood
And put his picture in a Picture Show.

The chorus switches to first person as if Dean were calling back home or bemoaning his plight:

And It's Oh Daddy get off of your knees
Mamma why'd you have to go
Your darling Jim is out a limb
I put my picture in a Picture Show
Whoa Ho! Put my picture in a Picture Show

The following stanza references John Garfield and Montgomery Clift two other troubled actors who played similar roles to Dean and whose lives were similarly regrettably short.

The final stanza seems to veer off topic, but it strongly suggests the toll taken by pictures and picture shows made to satisfy the callous, unthinking audience sitting on their fat cans.

A Mocca man in a wigwam sitting on a Reservation.
With a big black hole in the belly of his soul
Waiting on an explanation
While the white man sits on his fat can
And takes pictures of the Navajo
Every time he clicks his Kodak pics
He steals a little bit of soul.

Coming full circle around, Prine leaves us with a nearly a capella trailing off:

A young man from a small town
With a very large imagination...

"Picture Show" by John Prine

Yul Brynner

Yul Brynner
Yul Brynner | Source

"Jo Jo’s Jacket" (about Yul Brynner) by Stephen Malkmus

Malkmus opens the song playing piano behind an actual quote of Brynner's spoken by the actor himself:

"And in a funny way, the shaving of my, uh, head has been a liberation from, uh, a lot of, uh, stupid vanities really. Uh, it has simplified everything for me, it has opened a lot of doors maybe."

From there, like in Prine's Picture Show, the singer sounds as if he is Yul Brynner, but there's a strong sense that it is meant as a similarity to the actor's contention.

I'm not what you think I am
I'm the king of Siam
I've got a bald head
My name is Yul Brynner
And I am a famous movie star
Perhaps you saw me in Westworld
I acted like a robotic cowboy
It was my best role
I cannot deny I
Felt right home deep inside
That electronic carcass

The song diverges to a contentious interaction between friends or lovers:

Stay inside on Christmas Day
And make believe that you are my candy cane
You said, "I'm not that type,
No I'm not sweet, and I'm not overripe

Ending with a comment on the lack of the sacred within the commercialization of the holiday and, perhaps, the stupid vanities from Brynner's original quote.

Everything from toy guns that spark to flesh colored Christs that glow in the dark
Its easy to see we got in too far and not much is really sacred.

"Jo Jo's Jacket" by Stephen Malkmus

Ingrid Bergman

Original studio publicity photo of Ingrid Bergman
Original studio publicity photo of Ingrid Bergman | Source

Ingrid Bergman by Billy Bragg and Wilco (words by Woody Guthrie)

The words for this song were found in the Guthrie archives. Woody's daughter, Nora Guthrie contacted Billy Bragg about setting the song to music.

In this one, the singer puts himself in place of Roberto Rossellini who fell madly in love with the enchanting Ingrid Bergman while making the 1950 movie, Stromboli.

Ingrid Bergman, Ingrid Bergman
Let's go make a picture
On the island of Stromboli
Ingrid Bergman

It includes several incidents which occurred within the film and while the film was being made:

Ingrid Bergman, you're so perty
You'd make any mountain quiver
You'd make firefly from the crater
Ingrid Bergman

The actual eruption of the volcano on the island played into Guthrie's imagery and metaphoric word play:

This old mountain it's been waiting
All its life for you to work it
For your hand to touch its hard rock
Ingrid Bergman
Ingrid Bergman

Their love affair was a worldwide scandal as both were still married to other people. Bergman gave birth to Rossellini's son before securing a divorce and marrying him. The actress Isabella Rossellini was born along with her twin Isotta a little more than a year later.

I will pay you more than money
Ingrid Bergman

Not by pennies dimes nor quarters
But with happy sons and daughters

They were divorced in 1957.

"Ingrid Bergman" by Billy Bragg and Wilco (words by Woody Guthrie)

"Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" by Elton John

Bernie Taupin equates a different sort of Oz connecting it with the Yellow Brick Road so the listeners will make the emotional connection to the classic film which was itself possibly only a nightmare Dorothy had. Plenty of us who remember the film from seeing it annually on TV in our youth have relived portions of it in our own similar nightmares.

Taupin begins with a possible reference to Dorothy airborne in the house caught in the twister or perhaps the wizard in his balloon.

When are you gonna come down
When are you going to land
I should have stayed on the farm
I should have listened to my old man

The last line calls to mind Dorothy's farm life, but has to be the writer's own longing for a return to the rural existence. This boy who is too young to be singing the blues gives us a glimpse of his version of Oz:

So goodbye yellow brick road
Where the dogs of society howl
You can't plant me in your penthouse
I'm going back to my plough

Back to the howling old owl (in the woods)
Hunting the horny back toad
Oh I've finally decided my future lies
Beyond the yellow brick road

The boy's decision made, he speculates on what those left (or perhaps a specific person) in Oz might do without him:

Maybe you'll get a replacement
There's plenty like me to be found
Mongrels who aint got a penny
Sniffing for tidbits like you on the ground

"Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" by Elton John

"Robert Mitchum" by Julian Cope

Cope's silly sounding ditty about loving a tough, hard-living guy like Mitchum is actually just what it appears to be.

Robert Mitchum,
I wrote a song for you

It would too hard to believe it was meant as ridicule with lyrics like:

The part in Ryan's Daughter when you lose your wife
I've never seen a more dignified man in my life

But then again, I could be wrong:

You and Carole Lombard and the Hollywood Vice
If I was in the same position, no, I wouldn't think twice

This couplet makes little sense. He and Lombard never appeared together
in a movie.  In fact, she had died before his first picture came out. 
Although Mitchum was notorious for his few arrests, they did involve 
possession of marijuana, vagrancy, and the occasional disorderly 
conduct type stuff.  Lombard played a prostitute who was arrested
in the movie, Virtue.

So cancel your objections to this song, don't you weep
You're such a dude, you're such a guy, you know you're so half-asleep

So, maybe Cope and co-writer Ian McCulloch of the Bunnymen were 
mocking the big guy's tough, but sleepy-eyed exterior, or it might be that
Mitchum was such a cool dude, a much bigger star in Europe later in his
career during the 1970s and 80s, that this song was meant to convey just 
what it says:

Robert Mitchum,
I love you, yes I love you
yes, I really do

"Robert Mitchum" by Julian Cope

Eaglesmith CD "Drive-In Movie"


Honorable Mention:

"Drive-In Movie" by Fred Eaglesmith

I wanted to include a song about drive-in movies in this list, but the songs were supposed to be about movies not going to movies. Fred Eaglesmith's Drive-In Movie came the closest. Even though the song itself is an absolute knockout of an unrequited love song, it never references a single specific movie or star. Instead, it uses the image of the drive-in and the feeling of having to re-watch a movie you didn't like the first time.

I just stare through the door screen
Watch the cars come down the pike
Their lights against the sky
Like a Drive-In movie
On a country road
That I seen before
Never liked the first time

It's that feeling which returns again and again throughout the song like a litany played on a raw nerve.

I considered other songs. I could have wedged Simon and Garfunkel's "Mrs. Robinson" in here because the radio hit is expanded from the version which was used in the movie. In the end, I think it is clearly a movie song from the movie.

"Western Movies" by the Olympics, but that's really about TV western series.

I wanted to include either "Cable Hogue" by John Cale or "The Ballad of Cable Hogue" by Calexico but beyond the titles, neither song seems to have anything to do with the Jason Robards' movie.

A lot of songs talk about "movies" as a totally inclusive or generic term but never reference a film or a star or even a specific story. "Groovy Movies" by the Kinks; "Movies is Magic" by Van Dyke Parks and Brian Wilson; and Merle Haggard's "It's All in the Movies" are good examples.

Finally, "Candle in the Wind" should be at the top of this list (or right behind "Touch of Evil"), but it is so well-known and also now so identified with Princess Diana that I will simply say, add it to list if you want or put it above the list. I didn't see much need to comment on it.


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