100 greatest movie songs from 100 years of film
While visuals are a huge part of what ultimately defines movies, it is the combination of imagery and sound that completes the full cinematic experience. Even before the advent of “talking pictures” in the late 1920s, musical scores accompanied films in one way or another, whether it was through live accompaniment from a performer or a synchronized gramophone record system.
As the film industry became more mainstream and commercialized, the use of popular songs and music generally increased. Now, soundtracks and scores are an integral part of the moviegoing experience. Sometimes, filmmakers and producers are hoping to capture a zeitgeist by tying a film’s release to a popular hit. Older songs might be chosen to invoke a certain period of time.
More often, blockbuster films will feature original songs. These songs may be inspired by the content and the tone of the film and occur in a non-diegetic way, such as during a montage sequence or in the credits. Other times, the song can be performed by the characters of the film diegetically. Regardless, a successful music scene has the potential to become iconic, and with it, the song itself.
Some filmmakers view the curated soundtrack just as important as the films itself; for example, writer-director Quentin Tarantino often incorporates favorite songs from his vast music collection into scenes in his movies. Other examples include James Gunn’s “Guardians of the Galaxy,” which had an “Awesome Mix Vol. 1” that carried important meaning for the main character in the plot of the film, while also hitting the top of the charts in real life.
With a long, grand history spanning more than a century, Stacker compiled the 100 greatest movie songs using data from the American Film Industry's 100 Years Project. The survey, which occurred in 2004 (hence no recent tunes like “Let It Go” from “Frozen”), asked a selection of jurors from across the movie industry to evaluate music and lyrics "featured in an American film that set a tone or mood, define character, advance plot and/or express the film’s themes in a manner that elevates the moving image art form." The cultural impact and legacy involving the song were also important criteria in the selection process.
Click on to see some of the most important songs that stuck with audiences long after the credits rolled.
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#100. Old Time Rock and Roll
- Film: Risky Business (1983)
- Performer(s): Bob Seger
- Music/Lyrics: George Jackson, Tom Jones III
In the most iconic scene of Tom Cruise’s coming-of-age film “Risky Business,” Cruise’s character Joel Goodson has a bit of fun after being left home alone by his parents. Sliding on the hardwood floor in just a buttondown and underwear, Joel lipsyncs and dances to the classic song “Old Time Rock and Roll” by Bob Seger. Since then, this scene has been parodied by sitcoms, commercials, and even other films.
#99. Hakuna Matata
- Film: The Lion King (1994)
- Performer(s): Nathan Lane, Ernie Sabella, Jason Weaver, Joseph Williams
- Music: Elton John
- Lyrics: Tim Rice
Disney’s animated film “The Lion King” contained a number of original songs that became instant classics, including “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” and “Circle of Life.” “Hakuna Matata,” however, carried thematic importance to the film; Timon (Nathan Lane) and Pumbaa (Ernie Sabella) teach young Simba the meaning of these words, which translate to “no worries,” in a catchy song that showcases Simba’s growth from cub to adult lion through montage. Not only is the Elton John/Tim Rice-written song still popular to this day, but so is the phrase itself.
#98. All That Jazz
- Film: Chicago (2002)
- Performer(s): Catherine Zeta-Jones, Renée Zellweger
- Music: John Kander
- Lyrics: Fred Ebb
Originally featured in the 1975 stage musical “Chicago,” the opening number “All That Jazz” stuck in the minds of viewers from the Oscar-sweeping 2002 film adaptation. In the film, the number is performed by Catherine Zeta-Jones as Velma Kelly in a Chicago club, with the performance intercut with scenes of protagonist Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger) initiating an affair. The song showcased the overall flashy vibe of the film, and Zeta-Jones, 10 years after winning an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for “Chicago,” would return to the awards ceremony to perform the song on the film’s 10th anniversary.
#97. 42nd Street
- Film: 42nd Street (1933)
- Performer(s): Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell, Ensemble
- Music: Harry Warren
- Lyrics: Al Dubin
One of the earliest musical films was “42nd Street,” a backstage musical that focuses on a Broadway director and the newcomer star of what is to be his final Broadway show. The song entitled “42nd Street” serves as the finale of the film, performed by actress Ruby Keeler. The film may not be as popular with modern audiences, but the song and the story from which it originated from had a renaissance through a popular 1980 Broadway musical adaptation of the original film.
- Film: Footloose (1984)
- Performer(s): Kenny Loggins
- Music/Lyrics: Kenny Loggins, Dean Pitchford
Probably as or even more popular than the film “Footloose” is the song of the same name, written and performed by musician Kenny Loggins and the film’s co-writer Dean Pitchford. The success of the song and the film surprised even Loggins himself. It went on to top the Billboard Hot 100 and became one of the biggest hits of 1984. The song plays in both the opening and the finale of the film. Blake Shelton even tried his hand at a cover for a 2011 remake of the original movie.
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#95. (We're Off on the) Road to Morocco
- Film: Road to Morocco (1942)
- Performer(s): Bing Crosby, Bob Hope
- Music: Jimmy Van Heusen
- Lyrics: Johnny Burke
Comedy legends Bing Crosby and Bob Hope teamed up for the film “Road to Morocco,” with the pair singing the fast and catchy song as their characters ride a camel to a nearby city. The cheeky fourth-wall breaking song (“We'd tell you more (uh-ah) but we would have the censor on our tails”), which admittedly has a number of stereotypes and jokes in its lyrics (“The men eat fire, sleep on nails and saw their wives in half”), isn’t well remembered by audiences today, but it was undoubtedly a hit in the 1940s, with separate versions of the song including a solo recording with Crosby and a duet reuniting Crosby with Hope.
#94. Ain't Too Proud to Beg
- Film: The Big Chill (1983)
- Performer(s): The Temptations
- Music/Lyrics: Eddie Holland, Norman Whitfield
“The Big Chill” centers around a group of friends reuniting in adulthood after a tragedy, but one musical moment offered a moment of respite. In one scene, Kevin Kline’s character puts on “Ain't Too Proud to Beg” by the Temptations as a little piece of nostalgia, and the characters proceed to dance to the song in the kitchen while clearing the table and washing dishes after dinner. While the song didn’t originate from the movie itself, it represented an important moment for this fictional group of friends from college.
#93. Lose Yourself
- Film: 8 Mile (2002)
- Performer(s): Eminem
- Music: Eminem, Jeff Bass, Luis Resto
- Lyrics: Eminem
The hard-hitting rap song “Lose Yourself” by Eminem sums up his character B-Rabbit in the film “8 Mile.” The lyrics describe the character’s struggles to gain respect from other hip-hop artists in the area. It is still one of Eminem’s most popular works, and it even won the Best Original Song category at the Academy Awards the year it was released—the first hip-hop song to ever do so. However, Eminem did not show up to the ceremony, believing he wouldn’t win. The rapper made up for this by performing “Lose Yourself” at the 2020 Oscars ceremony, nearly two decades later.
#92. Long Ago (and Far Away)
- Film: Cover Girl (1944)
- Performer(s): Gene Kelly, Martha Mears (dubbing Rita Hayworth)
- Music: Jerome Kern
- Lyrics: Ira Gershwin
The 1944 comedy musical “Cover Girl” had everything, including leading stars in Gene Kelly and Rita Hayworth. Hayworth portrayed a chorus girl who finds stardom and Kelly co-stars as her boyfriend. “Long Ago (and Far Away)” is the most popular number from the film, sung by Kelly and Hayworth’s characters, albeit with the latter dubbed by singer Martha Mears. The song hasn’t lasted through the decades, but it was heavily covered throughout the 1940s by artists like Bing Crosby and Jo Stafford.
#91. Let the River Run
- Film: Working Girl (1988)
- Performer(s): Carly Simon
- Music/Lyrics: Carly Simon
Inspired by the script for the romantic comedy-drama “Working Girl,” starring Melanie Griffith, Harrison Ford, and Sigourney Weaver, Carly Simon wrote and performed “Let the River Run” as a “hymn” to New York City. The song played over an opening sequence that followed the Staten Island Ferry, and it went on to win the Oscar, Golden Globe, and the Grammy for Best Original Song. “Let the River Run” still occasionally surfaces in modern-day popular culture. It was recently featured in episodes of “The Simpsons” and “Castle Rock.”
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