“To me, movies and music go hand in hand. When I’m writing a script, one of the first things I do is find the music I’m going to play for the opening sequence.”– Quentin Tarantino
A couple of months ago, I wrote about my affinity for original music scores. How the music shapes and molds the images you see is unbelievable. Still, the film score is solely one component of what makes up my favorite parts of the cinematic experience. Therefore, I thought why not venture back to the world of movie music, but this time focus on my most nostalgic movie songs. Many of my posts play around in the sandbox of nostalgia. I am a historian; after all, it’s where I feel most comfortable. But, what do I mean by movie music? Well, I am referring to those songs that immediately produce an incredible nostalgic feeling when I hear them on the radio, television, or film. When I hear the song, I grow still, the world around me becomes silent, and all I picture is where I remember it.
As a professor, one of my favorite traditions is to play “Back to School” at the start of the semester. Like those athletes you see getting off the team bus, headphones on, and walking into the stadium, I play this as I drive to class on day one. It’s smooth vocals and slow beat, quickly picking up tempo and ferocity in a fabulous 80s fashion. The song always has the power to pump me up, like a wrestler making their way to the ring with entrance music playing. Written by Richard Wolf and Mark Leonard and Jude Cole’s vocals, this anthem of the 1986 comedy film Back to School is heart-pumping fantastic. Sure, the movie, starring Rodney Dangerfield, is over the top, aged poorly at multiple points, but is in line with other 80s era films. The song always makes me laugh as I think back to watching it with my brother Jeff. I reflect on the film’s fun absurdity, and all the times I reenacted Sam Kinison’s cinematic moment when he yells “say it” and goes ballistic in the classroom. That is the power of a nostalgic film song.
As you can imagine the task of selecting nostalgic movie songs may sound like an impossible task. I have watched thousands of films, and most movies have several connected songs. No matter, it seemed a fun, worthwhile, and musically inclined venture. To find my most nostalgic songs, I focused on my most nostalgic movies, which I discussed in an earlier blog post, Cinematic Nostalgia: Traveling 88 mph to the 1980s. By focusing on those movies first, I could find those songs that inherently illustrate my love of cinema on a cellular level. But starting with those films does not mean it is where I will remain as I discover songs that strike the most nostalgic key. With that said, let’s dive back into cinematic music, but rather than listening to the original score, let’s put the cassette in the stereo, press play, skip over the instrumental and find the melody that brings all the memories flooding back.
Music on My Mind
“It’s a cruel, cruel summer– “Cruel Summer” – Music & Lyrics by Steve Jolly & Tony Swain of Bananarama for The Karate Kid (1984)
Leaving me here on my own
It’s a cruel, cruel summer
Now you’re gone”
Several Sundays ago, I was driving in the car and was listening to Acoustic Sunrise on the radio, 104.1 here in Massachusetts. As I was driving, “Cruel Summer” came on. It was a cover by Amy Lee from the band Evanescence of the 1983 song by the English girl group Bananarama. The song was written and produced by Steve Jolly and Tony Swain. It shot to number nine on the US Billboard Hot 100 after its appearance in the 1984 film The Karate Kid. Lee’s cover of the song was hauntingly beautiful. Vocals, piano, and smooth strumming guitar, Lee’s ballad hit me in my soul. When I heard it, it was as if my mind went blank, the air around me paused, and emotionally, a calm overtook me. Even thinking about it now… Lee’s voice is majestic.
Lee is not the creator of the song, nor is she the first to cover it. Recently, for the release of the second season of Cobra Kai, which is in its third season on Netflix, Kari Kimmel covered it on the soundtrack. Kimmel’s version was different from Lee’s but just as slow, slightly haunting, just as incredible. While both covers are unique, and the Bananarama version is a classic, the movie where the song originated will always be on my mind when I hear it. It does not matter who sang it, who was better when I listen to it; I am a kid again watching The Karate Kid. The scene starts with Daniel LaRusso, played by Ralph Macchio, riding his bike to school. The song’s melody begins, and then the vocals start as he walks into school, seeing his arch-nemesis Johnny Lawrence, played by William Zabka. The scene cuts to the soccer field, with the vocals getting softer as LaRusso sees his love interest Ali Mils, played by Elisabeth Shue. While Amy Lee’s cover was beautiful, and I argue it’s the best of the three, the song quickly made me nostalgic. Even with Cobra Kai, being as impressive as it is, this song will always connect me to the mid-1980s and one of the most profound movies of my childhood.
I love movie soundtracks. I have often imagined what the soundtrack of my life would be, and to be honest, I would need Quentin Tarantino to help construct it. The musical tracks from films like Jackie Brown, Reservoir Dogs, and Pulp Fiction might be, in the end, some of the most complete and brilliantly constructed soundtracks for a movie. I blame my brother Jeff for this admiration of Tarantino and movie soundtracks, in general. You see, when we were growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, we shared a bedroom with awesome bunk beds, like the kind in the film Step Brothers, with Will Farrell and John C. Reilly. Jeff has always been a fan of cinema, and I think it was his fascination with film, music, and soundtracks that inevitably rubbed off on me. How could I avoid it? He was continually watching movies, and I followed along. Even when he moved into his bedroom, in the basement, I often found myself gravitating there to see what new film he was watching, the new movie poster Jeff had purchased, and which soundtrack he was blasting out of his stereo. I was the younger brother, so instinctively, I wanted to be exactly like him.
Slowly, I, too, carved out my cinematic niche, but Jeff always had me listening to soundtracks, especially those from Tarantino films. Hey, I like how he designs a scene, writes dialogue, paints a movie, and of course, builds a soundtrack. While not all soundtracks are created equal, and Tarantino films include tracks that are in a world of their own, today, I want to remain in a world of nostalgia. I want to explore those movies, specifically where the music transcended the film and became legendary. Like “Back to School” and “Cruel Summer,” these are songs that mean something to me and illustrate a specific time in my life or emotional connection to the past in a powerful way. In the end, my brother Jeff is the architect for this fascination with cinema and those songs that help craft a powerful and entertaining narrative.
“I Still Believe”
“But I still believe– “I Still Believe” – Music & Lyrics by Michael Been & James Paul Goodwin and Vocals by Timmy Cappello
I still believe
Through the pain
And through the grief”
In several of my movie-oriented posts, I wrote that my brother and I began our movie chats when the pandemic forced a lockdown in May of 2020. Once that happened, we needed something to keep us busy, active, and engaged. Each Sunday, we would ZOOM, drink a couple of beers, and chat about a particular film we rewatched that week. You can read more about this in POP! Culture on Repeat. We watched the 1987 Joel Schumacher film The Lost Boys for our movie rewind discussion one of these weeks. We formed a valuable memory during this chat that has helped get us through some of the pandemic’s darker days.
At the beginning of the film, Michael, played by Jason Patric, and Sam, played by Corey Haim, go to a beach concert in Santa Clara, CA. There they observed a perfect 1980s rock style concert with one man, shirtless and greased up, wearing a vast neck chain and long hair in a ponytail, playing the saxophone with incredible power. This scene was fantastic. We laughed, and we rocked out! We both had forgotten this scene so many years after our initial viewing, but we would never forget this scene now. During this cinematic moment, the song playing is “I Still Believe,” written by Micheal Bean and Jim Goodwin but performed by Timmy Cappello. He was in the film as the shirtless saxophone player. When thinking of the music from The Lost Boys, I remembered the central theme, “Cry Little Sister,” by Gerard Mcmann. That song has a fantastic and sound and is hauntingly perfect for this film. I had never considered Cappello’s music in my nostalgic reflections on this film.
We have not enjoyed a scene more in all the months we have been chatting about movies on ZOOM or social distanced in our backyards. I enjoyed it so much that when my brother’s birthday came around, I sent him a link to a video I had purchased for him. No, it wasn’t a clip from a movie or even someone talking about this scene. Instead, it was a CAMEO, from Timmy Cappello, with a personal message I had requested he deliver to my brother as a thank you for helping me get through some of the more challenging months of the pandemic. I had found Cappello on CAMEO, and he was awesome. He added so much to the message and even busted out his saxophone and played “I Still Believe” at the end. My brother couldn’t believe it.
After months of discussing movies, as the pandemic raged, and two brothers doing their part by staying in, social distancing, wearing a mask, this song has taken on an essential meaning to us both. It helped us weather the early storm, form a new memory in this cloudy time, and maintain our love of movies and the songs that define cinema. “I Still Believe” may not be a “nostalgic” song, in the same way, some of the others in the post are, but in the end, it does what most of them do, provides comfort. This song, and the two minutes of cinematic musical gold, helped us forget these film conversations’ upside-down nature, if even for a second. It made us laugh, and when I opened a present from my brother this Christmas, you better believe there was a red t-shirt with The Lost Boys 1987 image of Timmy Cappello, with saxophone in hand, rocking out. Thanks, Timmy Cappello, and of course, my brother Jeff, you are both the best, and hopefully, we continue to “still believe.”
“You’re the Best”
“You’re the best!– “You’re the Best” – Music & Lyrics by Allee Willis & Bill Conti and Vocals by Joe Esposito
Nothing’s gonna ever keep you down
You’re the Best!
Speaking of the “best,” it is imperative that I venture back to The Karate Kid, circa 1984. But rather than focus on “Cruel Summer,” it’s essential to pay attention to probably the most identifiable song of the film franchise, “You’re the Best.” Music by Bill Conti and lyrics by Allee Willis, “You’re the Best” is performed by Joe Esposito and is terrific. This song and the cinematic moment is so iconic and emotionally influential. Every time I hear it, I think of The Karate Kid, the karate match, and my brother, but that’s a secondary part of the story. But the song is so great that when my brother and I started our movie chats back in May 2020, The Karate Kid was the first film we chose to discuss. When we awarded a winner to “Who Won the Movie?” and “What Aged the Best?” it was clear that this song won both.
The song begins in the movie at a critical moment for Daniel LaRusso, played by Ralph Macchio. He is having significant self-doubt about whether he can participate in the All Valley Under 18 Karate Championship. After a pep talk by his mentor/sensei, Mr. Miyagi, played by Pat Morita, scores a winning blow against an opponent. At that moment, his girlfriend, Ali, played by Elisabeth Shue, runs over and says, “you’re the best,” and the music, on cue, begins. The song then continued as you are privy to a wonderful 1980s montage. I love a good montage, my brother does as well, and The Karate Kid did it correctly. I know it’s no Rocky franchise montage, but the song is fantastic as LaRusso, and members of Cobra Kai, kick, punch, and knockdown competitors and move from round to round, as the main villain, Kreese, played by Martin Kove, watches. Great stuff!
It is a nostalgic movie, an utterly emotional song, and I always think of this scene, the 80s montage, and marvel at how music can so easily define a cinematic moment. I remember it had to be around 2009-ish, and my wife and I were in Florida to visit my dad, and my brother was also in the state for a conference near Walt Disney World. Before heading home to Massachusetts, we decided to meet up with my brother at Epcot for a night of dinner and drinks. When we arrived, I called my brother and told him to meet us near the Germany pavilion. As my wife and I approached, we could hear a song playing, but it wasn’t Disney music, and it got louder. There, in front of us was my brother, Jeff, holding up his phone like John Cusack in Say Anything, with Joe Esposito’s “You’re the Best” playing and him dancing like a wild man. He had already had a couple of beers, but Jeff loves to dance. I always say he is the perfect wedding guest. He knows how to pump up the energy of a room. We had a great night, but still to this day, when I think of The Karate Kid, ever hear someone say “you’re the best,” or even reflect on that trip to Florida, I immediately think of this fantastic song and vice versa.
“Then He Kissed Me”
“Well, he walked up to me and he asked me if I wanted to dance– “Then He Kissed Me” – Music & Lyrics by Ellie Greenwich & Jeff Barry and Vocals by The Crystals
He looked kinda nice and so I said I might take a chance
When he danced he held me tight
And when he walked me home that night
All the stars were shining bright
And then he kissed me”
Performed by The Crystals in 1963, but written by Ellie Greenwich & Jeff Barry, “Then He Kissed Me” has a classic 1960s sound. It might be strange that a kid that grew up in the 80s and came of age in the 90s would be so connected to a song sung by one of the most “defining acts of the girl group era.” This link is because of it’s inclusion in the 1987 film, Adventures in Babysitting. I argued this film was one of the most nostalgic films in my Cinematic Nostalgia blog post, and it was written by David Simkins and directed by Chris Columbus. It stars one of my favorite actors, Elisabeth Shue, who I am mentioning for the third time in this post. I heard this song the other day, and it immediately brought me back to the film. It reignited an emotional reaction I had the first, second, and third time I watched the movie, probably with my little sister Becky. In the end, the music brought me back to the opening scene with Shue, as Chris.
The film opened with the Touchstone Pictures logo appearing on the screen, and then the beat of the music begins to play. It cuts to the bedroom of the main character Chris, who, as the song’s vocals start, and we hear The Crystals, jumps out in front of the mirror and sings and dances in unison with the music. For a full two minutes, as the opening credits roll, Shue, as Chris, dances in pure bliss. The song, scene, and moment established a perfect tone for the entire film. The moment introduced me to the fantastic Shue, whose career I have followed since, and designed an astounding tempo for the film and our connection to the main character. While the song producer, Phil Spector, is someone, we as a society deserve to forget, the song, made famous by The Crystals, always bring me back to that opening moment from Adventures in Babysitting. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now”
“And we can build this dream together– “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” – Music & Lyrics by Diane Warren & Albert Hammond and Vocals by Starship
Standing strong forever
Nothing’s gonna stop us now
And if this world runs out of lovers
We’ll still have each other
Nothing’s gonna stop us
Nothing’s gonna stop us now”
If you want the perfect 1980s song that can always make you think of one of the most random, if not lovable, movies from the 1980s, look no further. It seems like 1987 might be my favorite year of film since this movie was released that year and has been a classic in my mind ever since. Mannequin, directed by Michael Gottlieb and written by Edward Rugoff, tells the story of a young artist named Jonathan Switcher, played by Andrew McCarthy. He falls in love with a cursed mannequin Emmy, played by Kim Cattrall, who only comes to life when he is around. It’s a ridiculous concept, but it makes for some exciting comedy, some aspects that aged well, and others not so much, but a final scene that introduced this fantastic song.
It’s funny. I always remember this song somewhere in the middle of the film, but it is not. It’s at the end of the film, as the credits roll, even as essential scenes continue to appear. The song is not one I often here, without seeking it out, so it is purely nostalgic in its connection to the film, and I guess, my love of the past. It reminds me of those years when these types of films were brand new to me. “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” is written by Albert Hammond and Diane Warren and performed by Jefferson Starship. It’s 2021, and I don’t know why, but this song still makes my heart beat faster. There is also something about Kim Cattrall, circa 1987, who was amazing and made this song so cute, romantic, and made the viewer believe that anything was possible.
Is this song/movie ridiculous? Sure. Is it stupid? No. Is it bad? Oh, hell no! I still love this song, and if for some reason it was on, and I heard it, you better believe I am thinking of Mannequin, Kim Cattrall, and watching this film for the first time in my childhood home’s living room, probably when I was way too young to watch such films, and feeling I watched the best movie ever. I had forgotten about the song and its power within the film until my sister Becky reminded me of it. I was telling her about this post, and she was like, “what about Mannequin?” I was like, “you are right!” My sister loves this movie just as much as I, and I remember watching it together, again probably way too early in our growing years. As I said in my Cinematic Nostalgia movie post, my siblings and I got away with watching many movies that were probably inappropriate for our ages. Even so, together, my sister and I loved this song. Its overall power to connect to the film and, today, our childhood amazes me. While compiling this list of nostalgic movie songs, there is no way that this song or movie could be discounted or left out.
“The Power of Love” & “Johnny B. Goode”
“Deep down in Louisiana close to New Orleans– “Johnny B. Goode” – Music, Lyrics & Vocals by Chuck Berry
Way back up in the woods among the evergreens
There stood a log cabin made of earth and wood
Where lived a country boy named Johnny B. Goode
Who never ever learned to read or write so well
But he could play a guitar just like a-ringin’ a bell”
Back to the Future is, by far, one of my most nostalgic and favorite films. There are not many films that I think of or rewatched as often as this time-traveling epic. Written and directed by Robert Zemeckis, this classic adventure made DeLorean’s, puffy vests, and the name Marty incredibly cool. Starring Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thomason, Crispin Glover, and Thomas F. Wilson, there are many moments in this film that are unforgettable. While any scene with Fox, as Marty, and Lloyd, as Doc Brown, is cinematic gold and nostalgic magic, but when considering music, the classic film moments with “Power of Love” and “Johnny B. Goode” are what I always think of when I hear those songs.
Now, don’t worry, I will not go on about Back to the Future, although I should since I believe it’s one of the best movies ever made. Try to disagree with me! But seriously, when Marty is holding onto the Jeep’s bumper and is on his way to school, albeit late, and “The Power of Love” by Huey Lewis & The News begins to play, there is not much better. The song is perfect, the opening of the film, after Marty’s fiasco with the giant speaker, is impressive, and the music and scene prepare the viewer for what is a stellar cinematic ride. While the Huey Lewis song and its inclusion in the movie’s central opening moments are well constructed, scripted, and filmed, the best musical moment is when Marty is at the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance and sings Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode.”
A teenager from 1985, Marty McFly loves Rock n’ Roll music. So, it makes sense that when transported to 1955 by way of a badass DeLorean and allowed to perform at a high school dance where his parents shared their first kiss, he played a song written by one of the best Rock n’ Roll artists of the 1950s, or ever. While the vocals in the scene are not Michael J. Fox or Chuck Berry, the performance of “Johnny B. Goode” is off the charts outstanding. One, Fox owns the moment, and two, you really can’t mess up one of Berry’s best songs. Sure, “Maybellene,” written in 1955, and “Roll Over Beethoven,” written in 1956, could easily be the top choice. I am and will always be a “Johnny B. Goode” guy. I know he didn’t sing the Back to the Future scene, but it’s still his song, and it’s his song I continuously play on my streaming music service. Hearing Berry’s version always makes me nostalgic for the film, Fox, and well, being a kid watching this film. It makes me nostalgic for all those long drives to New Hampshire as a kid and listening to my dad’s cassette tape of 50s music. You better believe I listened to all Chuck Berry’s songs. The bonus, listening to Berry today means reliving family time and that fantastic Back to the Future moment. That, everyone, is the power of lo… nostalgia.
Turning off the Stereo
“Ooh, baby, do you know what that’s worth?– “Heaven is a Place on Earth” – Music & Lyrics by Nowels Richard W & Shipley Ellen and Vocals by Belinda Carlisle
Ooh, Heaven is a place on Earth
They say in Heaven, love comes first
We’ll make Heaven a place on Earth
Ooh, Heaven is a place on Earth”
To be clear, in no way do I feel that these songs are the best movie songs of all time. They are not, well, maybe “You’re the Best,” but seriously, these are the movie songs that are nostalgic to me. I didn’t want to consider pieces from musical films, since I posted about this in What a Difference a Year Makes, or movie scores since I covered that ground in “Nobody Does It All Alone”. Still, there are many songs to choose from if compiling a list of “best” songs from films. As I said in the beginning, if I was gathering that particular list, and maybe in a future post, I will, songs from Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction would take up a lot of room. But so would “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” from The Breakfast Club, “Eye of the Tiger” from Rocky, (I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” from Dirty Dancing, “In Your Eyes” from Say Anything, “Kiss Me” from She’s All That, “Footloose” from Footloose, “Tiny Dancer” from Almost Famous, “Shallow” from A Star is Born, “Glory” from Selma, “Lose Yourself” from 8 Mile and more.
More recently, another song that makes me think back to the visual medium, but unexpectedly, was not a movie, but rather a television series on Netflix. This show uses music with absolute perfection. Charlie Booker’s Black Mirror is a show that I like to admit I watched before most people. I do enjoy saying that. As I sometimes feel, I can be a “hater.” Meaning, when a ton of people like a show, a band, a movie, I will inherently back away. I did that with Dave Mathews Band, and I did it with Breaking Bad and The Wire. So, when I watched Black Mirror many years ago and loved it, then it got trendy, I felt a weird sense of vindication. When new episodes aired, I felt justified in my excitement. But when I watched the episode, “San Junipero,” I was amazed. When I heard the song “Heaven is a Place on Earth,” I was impressed.
Whenever I hear that song, I think of that episode, the episode’s brilliant construction, and how its concept and overall message downright floored me. It also, nostalgically, makes me think of my initial viewing of Black Mirror, well before anyone else. It is, after all, a show you can only watch first once. As an anthology, Black Mirror’s writing is beautiful. With incredible detail in each episode that can be brazenly mind-boggling, each episode plays like a minute version of Christopher Nolan’s Inception, Memento, or Tenet. Still, while the cinematic approach to stunning visuals is apparent, the show’s episodic nature pays appropriate homage to the Twilight Zone, with its clear final message, but using technology as its evil apparatus. In “San Junipero,” this is done well, and the selection of music is correct when mistakingly selecting a different sound could have hurt the episode’s overall point. The same with using “Gotta Get Up” in the show Russian Doll, which I found compelling and entertaining. The other day, I heard the song on another show, and was immediately drawn back to its use on Russian Doll with the main character, Nadia, played brilliantly by Natasha Lyonne, who is in a “Groundhog Day” predicament.
Whether television or film, songs can change the tempo and power of a scene or entire episode, they can even come to illustrate a whole feature-length film. Those films I find to be nostalgic do have songs, that when I hear them bring me back to those cinematic viewings. I could have included Stand by Me, The Goonies, The NeverEnding Story, Ghostbusters, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Still, I felt those I included have songs that offer the most potent connection to a specific cinematic moment for me. I am sure that many of you reading might have a different movie, another song, various overall nostalgic associations. That’s the best part of this. Your movie songs are yours and only yours, as mine is for me. Just another opportunity to take a trip down memory lane, but instead of it being purely cinematic, this time we pumped up the volume, but now it’s time to turn it down, at least until next time!
Cover Image by Markus Spiske on Unsplash