As I will tell anyone who sits still long enough, I’m an unabashed fan of Huey Lewis & The News and have been since 1984. 30 years later and it still doesn’t get a whole lot better for me than “Power of Love,” “Some of My Lies Are True,” “Small World” and the rest of their catalog, which I binge-listen to roughly once a month.
When I do so I tend to stick to my iTunes playlist and not Spotify, largely because the streaming service is missing a good chunk of the band’s work. Notably absent are the 1994 album of blues and soul covers Four Score…and Several Years Ago, a 1997 best of collection with four original songs on it and 2001’s Plan B.
Also missing is the band’s contribution to the Pineapple Express soundtrack. When the filmmakers behind the 2008 comedy were promoting the movie they talked on at least a few occasions about one decision they had made regarding the film’s soundtrack: They wanted a song that would include the title, with lyrics that loosely spoke to the movie’s story. And they got the perfect band to do just that because they were one of the biggest bands to do just that on a couple occasions in the 1980s.
That got me thinking about these kinds of songs and I decided to dig into some research and put together what I felt was a definitive list of songs that either A) Are actually named after the movie they appear within or B) At least name-drop the movie they’re featured in. Note that I’m focusing on more current (if you expand that definition to stretch back to the early 1980s) pop and rock music and so am not including all the James Bond theme songs or those by artists like Frank Sinatra or Barbara Streisand for movies they starred in. Those are huge caveats, but without them the list would have been unwieldy.
Things came further into focus when, last week, Eminem dropped a surprise new album that contained “Venom,” a song for the upcoming Sony movie of the same name. It’s…certainly a thing. But it’s the latest example of a song that shares a title with the movie it’s featured in.
Let’s dig in. You can listen to all these songs, with a couple exceptions, in this Spotify playlist.
“Back In Time” / Back to the Future / Huey Lewis & The News
“Power of Love” was the bigger hit, I know. It appears no fewer than three times in the movie and is one of my favorite HLN songs. Bill Gibson’s hi-hat work during the guitar solo is the kind of thing doctoral theses should be written about. But “Back In Time” is no less catchy and, it could be argued, should have been the lead song the movie is known by. The lyrics are much more tied to the movie’s story with references to how lightning never strikes twice, just wanting to play guitar and sing, not being late again and more. *This* is the song that’s actually about the movie and deserves a lot of recognition.
“St. Elmo’s Fire (Man in Motion)” / St. Elmo’s Fire / John Parr
If you, regardless of age, haven’t at least once in your life heard this song come on the radio and turned up the volume while rolling down the window I’m not sure we can be friends. It’s corny, but damn if it’s not inspirational. The lyrics about seizing your moment and coming into your own are perfect for the movie’s story about figuring out that it’s finally time to be a grownup and make something of yourself, even if the title is shoehorned in somewhat awkwardly at times, like there was a quota to fill.
Men in Black – “Men in Black” (Will Smith)
This may as well be positioned as coming from Smith’s Agent J in the movie for the perspective it takes on telling the story of humanity’s first and last line of defense against aliens. Bonus points for dropping in a reference to the “noisy cricket.”
“Footloose” / Footloose / Kenny Loggins
When you think about 1980s soundtrack songs, this is the one that probably comes to mind most easily. The lyrics of the song have almost nothing to do with the story of the movie but do sort of capture the general spirit of rebellion. “You gotta cut loose,” after all. It’s got one of the catchier hooks of the songs listed here, even if it also has the kind of weird tonal and rhythmic transitions that are in a number of Loggins’ songs.
Ghostbusters – “Ghostbusters” (Ray Parker Jr.)
Talk about catchy hooks. The story of how this song came about is told by Parker Jr. in the documentary Hired Guns (streaming on Netflix and well worth your time), including how he wrote it without having anything but the barest of plot points to base the lyrics off of. Untold in that recounting is the lawsuit he faced from Huey Lewis because of its similarities to “I Want a New Drug,” which Lewis is apparently ordered to never mention himself. Still, this is such a good song that not even the criminally bad covers featured on the soundtrack for 2016’s Ghostbusters can tarnish its legacy.
Oliver & Company – “Once Upon a Time in New York City” (Huey Lewis)
When the chorus kicks in the connection to the Disney movie this song is featured in becomes clear. All the advice and guidance is directed at Oliver, who’s encouraged to go for it and begin writing his remarkable story, something that’s only possible in a city like New York. Lewis is about as New York in attitude as a surfboard, but he captures the theatrical tone of the story, which helps sell it.
The Wrestler – “The Wrestler” (Bruce Springsteen)
There are no overt references to the character played by Mickey Rourke in the movie of the same name but the whole song is about him and people like him. It’s about the kind of athlete or performer who sacrifices everything they have to entertain the crowd. Springsteen has paid homage to Woody Guthrie, John Steinbeck and others many times in his career, but this is his own version of Tom Joad “…I’ll be there” speech, capturing a universal archetype that can be found everywhere.
Young Guns II – “Blaze of Glory” (Jon Bon Jovi)
I’m just saying that if we’re in a car and you don’t scream “I’m a young gun!” at the top of your lungs with me, there’s a good chance it will be the last time I offer a ride to you or accept a ride from you because we all have to have standards, Carl. Bon Jovi has always had a fascination with cowboys and Westerns so he was a natural for the soundtrack to this sequel, and the presence of some great session musicians helps set it apart from the rest of his work with his core band.
Caddyshack II – “Nobody’s Fool” (Kenny Loggins)
You may be wondering why this song makes the list and “I’m Alright” from the first – and vastly superior in every way – Caddyshack doesn’t. The answer is simply that this one (which ironically is better than the first tune) actually references the story. Loggins manages to work in lines like “back to the shack” and you have have to “learn to be the ball,” nods that are missing from the earlier song. Don’t watch the movie, but let’s appreciate the power of late-80s pop rock.
Cat People – “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)” (David Bowie)
I don’t think there’s a ton of connective material between the song and the movie it’s featured in, but it still qualifies and is a great Bowie tune, so it needed to be included here.
Purple Rain – “Purple Rain” (Prince)
The song plays a pivotal role in the arc of the story in the movie and hang on the guitar solo just kicked in so please move on with the rest of the list.
The Graduate – “Mrs. Robinson” (Simon & Garfunkel)
There’s no explanation necessary here, right? The whole song is about appreciating and celebrating Mrs. Robinson for all she is and all she does, something I’m sure Ben Braddock would echo all these sentiments.
Ghostbusters II – “On Our Own” (Bobby Brown)
“We call the Ghostbusters and we’re in control.” Bobby Brown’s legacy has been tarnished in recent years due to personal issues, but he will forever be the artist with the second-greatest song on a Ghostbusters soundtrack. His tune here serves the same purpose within the movie as “Cleaning Up the Town” does in the first, but it includes mentions of Vigo and other plot elements as well, making it a shoe-in for this list.
Weird Science – “Weird Science” (Oingo Boingo)
The whole song, created by one of the most off-kilter New Wave bands of the 80s, is filled with lyrics about building something out of “magic and technology” and other odds and ends. A few lines specifically mention creating a beauty from a magazine and such but in general it’s more about capturing the spirit of the story about experimenting and pushing the edges of what’s possible.
Nine to Five – “Nine to Five” (Dolly Parton)
Dolly Parton has told a lot of great stories in her musical career but here she offered one of her finest, singing an anthem for all those members of the secretarial pool – at the time still a place of blatant, unrepented sexism and sexual harassment – and taking back some of the power while doing so. It’s a crossover success for her that still carries a lot of weight. With a planned remake/sequel in the works, here’s hoping Dolly comes back to update this classic and that the studio doesn’t try to farm a cover version out to someone more “current.”
Who’s That Girl – “Who’s That Girl” (Madonna)
Madonna created a lot of songs for the movies she starred in, but none hit the nail quite as cleanly on the head as this one. It’s not exactly about the characters or story from the movie but the fact that it shares its title made it an easy tie-in.
Batman – “Batdance” (Prince)
The whole soundtrack created by Prince for 1989’s Batman is filled with songs that not only reference specific plot points from the movie but often include snippets of dialogue as well. They all come crashing together here, in the song that closes the album and acts as a mashup of everything that’s come before. It’s perfect.
The Crying Game – “The Crying Game” (Boy George)
Unless I’m mistaken this is the only cover song on the list, so it’s not one written specifically for the movie, meaning it doesn’t include clear references to the story. However, Boy George’s gender-fluid persona brought out the mysterious elements of the lyrics that wound up being appropriate regardless.
Wild Wild West – “Wild Wild West” (Will Smith)
It’s objectively the inferior of the two Smith songs on this list, but it’s so full of references to Jim West, six-shooters and everything else about the movie and the setting it takes place in that it’s still fun and catchy in its own right.
The Woman in Red – “The Woman in Red” (Stevie Wonder)
You have to kind of squint if you want to make this one tie cleanly into the movie. The lyrics about a beautiful woman kind of fit, but they’re also so generic they could go with most movies about someone’s longing for a woman from afar. You can’t go wrong with most Stevie Wonder, but this one comes off as kind of generic.
Against All Odds – “Against All Odds (Phil Collins)
No, there’s no actual reference to the movie or its story or character in the song, but you have to admire Collins for just going for it and blatantly crafting a song featuring the movie’s title to get on the soundtrack.
To Live and Die in L.A. – “To Live and Die in L.A.” (Wang Chung)
Yes, Wang Chung has more than just that one song. This offering to the soundtrack of the movie of the same name has lots of lines about how steamy LA is and more, but doesn’t seem to actually reference much of the story explicitly. It’s also not particularly catchy, but what are you going to do?
What did I miss? Which ones are your favorites?