Dedicated movie theme songs and their accompanying music videos transformed themselves from a clever gimmick into a fun excuse for singers, actors, and filmmakers to join forces, let their hair down and occasionally attain more cultural relevancy than the films that they were representing back in the ’80s, ’90s and early aughts. Unfortunately, as time has marched on, this small sub-genre has seemingly been abandoned.
Music videos are no longer the force that they were back when “Papa Don’t Preach” accounted for all of MTV’s teenage pregnancy related programming. While movie soundtracks are still big business, no one wants to inextricably tie a single to a film that might flounder at the box office. On top of that, marketing campaigns just seem to be a little bit more grand, focused, and dull now. Whatever the reasons are for this change, though, thanks to YouTube, we will always have heirlooms like Bobby Brown’s Ghostbusters 2 ode “On Our Own” and El DeBarge’s Short Circuit jam, “Who’s Johnny?” to reflect on.
Remember that time Tom Hanks rapped about virgin sacrifice? Remember when Christina Ricci cut off MC Hammer’s head and Vanilla Ice taught us the “Ninja Rap?” If you do, then this list of 20 movie theme music videos will be a nice trip down memory lane, and if you don’t, then welcome to this collection of bizarre and magical things.
“On Our Own”
Bobby Brown – Ghostbusters 2
It’s sort of amazing to me how many random cameos dot the landscape of these videos. It almost makes you feel like the ’80s and ’90s were a more easygoing time and that people weren’t as concerned about their careers and their image. But while that might have something to do with all of the coke, I’d also like to assume that stars were just better then. Do you think that Jane Curtin was thinking about her “brand” when she agreed to walk out of a peep show in the “On Our Own” video? No, she was doing a solid for her pal Bobby Brown because that’s the kind of person she is.
Besides Curtin, we also have Donald Trump, Christopher Reeve on a bicycle, Rick Moranis, and Sally Kellerman haphazardly throwing down her mink shawl to the pavement like she don’t give a what; all of them either terrified or intrigued by Bobby Brown’s video billboard takeover of Manhattan, which was, according to no research whatsoever, instrumental in the video billboard boom of the late ’90s.
While the visuals in this video really do give you a sense of New York City in the late ’80s, though, the best part of “On Our Own” is the realization that – for much of the video – Bobby Brown is dressed in the same kind of cycling attire as Chris Reeve. This leads me to assume that Reeve and Brown were on a cycling team together in the late ’80s. I am okay with that assumption, aren’t you?
Run DMC – Ghostbusters 2
I kind of feel like I need to keep the Ghostbusters songs in a batch, so I’ll move on to a mostly underloved performance video from an in-their-prime Run DMC that is most notable for its cameos (of all the ’80s music video “babes,” Sigourney Weaver is the most badass) and Rev Run’s wordless tribute to Victor French.
I’m giving points for the inclusion of the Peter MacNicol joyspin from the movie and lyrics like, “I remember the time, I visited the grave. My life on the line, only my life to save” during DMC’s dope solo, but I’m deducting those same points for the utter lack of an actual MacNicol cameo and the use of the beige jumpsuits after we had been transitioned to the grey. Sloppy, Run DMC. Real sloppy.
Ray Parker Jr. – Ghostbusters
This isn’t a “save the best for last situation” in my opinion. I dig the neon Tron-decor and the Ray Parker Jr. ghost-effect, but Parker is a bit of an un-dead creeper at first and so I spend the first half of the video waiting for a poorly timed application of the line “Busting makes me feel good!” while trying to figure out why Melissa Gilbert and Jeffrey Tambor are in this video.
I spend the second half wondering if, at the time, Harold Ramis had ever been less pleased to do something than he was during the closing dance number. Also, why would Ray Parker Jr. be afraid of a ghost if he is one? These are the things that go through my mind, but since this is such an iconic song, I feel the urge to back off and not piss you off this early into the list.
El DeBarge – Short Circuit
As an olive branch to all the Ray Parker Jr. lovers out there, I shall list my favorite things about this courtroom set El DeBarge video/Short Circuit theme in descending order even though the two videos have nothing in comon:
– The Wikipedia page for the “Here’s Johnny” video closes wistfully, letting it be known that, “The video does not show the outcome of the trial.”
– The mystery behind why the cardboard cutout of Steve Guttenberg was used in the video instead of actual Steve Guttenberg.
– The fact that they could only get Johnny Five’s arm, but all of Ally Sheedy.
– The knowledge that Weird Al Yankovic parodied this song with “Here’s Johnny,” a loving tribute to Ed McMahon.
– El DeBarge’s slight resemblance to Eriq La Salle’s character in Coming to America.
– The fact that Billy Joel did it better with the “Keeping the Faith” video.
That pretty much sums this one up.
“Howard the Duck”
Cherry Bomb – Howard the Duck
Spoiler alert and a bit of a dirty look if you haven’t yet seen Guardians of the Galaxy, but one of my favorite things to come out of that movie has been the cultural re-emergence of Howard the Duck following his brief appearance in the after-credits scene.
Was it perfect? No, I would have preferred an appearance by the non-CG version of Howard from the 1986 cult favorite film and the absence of Chip Zien’s voice was a real disappointment, but for a character that has, at times, seemed like an afterthought in the comics and in our culture, I’ll take what I can get… even though a Lea Thompson cameo would have been tremendous. And maybe a little Tim Robbins for good measure. Maybe Cherry Bomb could have re-united in Knowhere to play a few songs and Kevin Feige could have come on-screen ala Bill Murray in Scrooged to let us know that Howard the Duck was actually the in-canon start of the Marvel Movie Universe and that Marvel was greenlighting a new standalone film. That would have been amazing, but whatever, a CGI duck drinking a cocktail and a quip was pretty cool, even though I’m the kind of person that ruins nice things on the internet.
By the way, the above video isn’t the official music video because I couldn’t find a crisp version, I’d rather pretend that the song is by Cherry Bomb and not Dolby’s Cube (even though Thomas Dolby co-wrote it) and I prefer Howard’s blazing guitar solo over a brief George Clinton cameo. Judge me.
[editor’s note: Cherry Bomb’s “Hunger City” is a much better song, but alas…no video.]
“Come with Me”
Puff Daddy (with Jimmy Page) – Godzilla (1998)
“Come with me”… where are we going Puff Daddy? To a day that’s never? Will Garcelle Beauvais be there too?
My most favorite thing about this utterly insane video from the Godzilla (1998) soundtrack is the Puff Daddy/dove metamorphosis that occurs after he bursts out of the elevator from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. The angelic whisper-sing/fall to earth and Puffy’s Pied Pipering of the Godzilla monster come in second and third respectively, but seeing Jimmy Page trapped in the “Bad Boy” branded video billboard Phantom Zone does not place.
“Men in Black”
Will Smith – Men in Black
The first single off of Will Smith’s Big Willie Style album and the key track on the Men in Black soundtrack (clap, clap); this song and video haven’t aged well, but I’m pretty sure that we all just went along with everything that Will Smith did from 1995 to Bagger Vance (clap, clap), so it’s possible that it was never good. Use of neuralizer technology may be a possibility, as well. That’s a reference to something from the film (clap, clap).
At first, the video seems pretty basic with a mix of well curated clips from the film, a rhyme-y recitation of the plot, and a mandatory futuristic hallway setting (I miss you, 1997). But soon we encounter a bit of hip hop line dancing with a crudely rendered alien and the last refuges of Rhythm Nation before gaining irrefutable proof that the Robert Palmer girls were actually from another planet, and that’s where the whole thing loses its mind and gains its only value (clap, clap).
“Black Suits Comin’ (Nod Ya Head)”
Will Smith – Men in Black 2
Most music videos don’t get a sequel, but in the heady early days of the Willenium, anything was possible. It’s just a shame that “Black Suits Comin’ (Nod Ya Head)” feels so cold and passionless, a far cry from Smith’s other movie theme music videos (including his goofy turn with Martin Lawrence in Diana King’s “Shy Guy” video for Bad Boys).
Directed by Francis Lawrence (who would later direct Smith in I Am Legend), the concept is painfully boring: Smith performs his lackluster rap on a CGI stage for the entire universe, demanding that listeners perform a specific dance move (this time, it’s head nodding… hence the title) before his sunglasses get knocked off and a hush falls over existence. Thankfully, a child saves the day and Smith gets back to rapping before a pug pulls the plug on the whole thing in a role that I wish had gone to Tommy Lee Jones.
“Wild Wild West”
Will Smith (and Dru Hill) – Wild Wild West
Hark, an epilogue to a movie that most people despise. This song gets smacked with the same glove as the movie does, but I actually quite like it and it’s heavily based on Stevie Wonder’s “I Wish,” so I am right and you are wrong. As for the video, I have to give credit to Paul Hunter for crafting an epic thing. Everything is on fire in the first act, there is a massive choreographed dance number in the second act, a huge action sequence in the third act and, oh yes, it’s a music video with acts.
But while the scope of the video is impressive on its face with Hunter and Smith seemingly approaching this as if they were being challenged to match the actual feature, in hindsight, it also seems a little indulgent and I wonder if it’s the product of hubris at a time when Will Smith was starring in a $170 million western and could do no wrong.
We all know how that turned out, but at least we’ll always have visions of a fancy vested Sisqo dancing in the heart of a giant robot spider to remind us of the good times.
Kenny Loggins – Caddyshack 2
No one from Caddyshack 2 appears in this video so I really shouldn’t have it on this list since I really wanted to only focus on videos that actually had people from the movies in them. Kenny Loggins is as much a part of the Caddyshack franchise as the stuffed gopher, though, so I’m letting “Nobody’s Fool” in on a technicality. Besides, I really like this song, there’s a killer “guitar spin” move by a guy in a leather duster jacket and the lyrics include the lines: “Back to the shack, nothing suits me better than that. If time has taught me anything, you’ve got to learn to be the ball”
“Goonies R’ Good Enough”
Cyndi Lauper – Goonies
Once upon a time, one of the world’s biggest pop stars (Cyndi Lauper) cavorted with some of the giants of pro wrestling like Captain Lou Albano, Rowdy Roddy Piper, and the Iron Sheik. Then they met up with the Goonies to sample hibachi, run around in a cavern, make flatulence puns, and save the day by finding hidden treasure and the splendor of Andre the Giant for a massive two-part music video in support of The Goonies soundtrack.
Your move, Iggy Azalea, Sheamus, and the cast of Girl Meets World.
Coolio (with L.V.) – Dangerous Minds
I get The Substitute 2 (not the first one, because Treat Williams > Tom Berenger), Jim Belushi’s The Principal, and Dangerous Minds confused all the time. Sometimes l wonder what a Treat Williams/Jim Belushi/Michelle Pfeiffer team-up movie would look like and if they could somehow get Morgan Freeman’s character from Stand By Me to join in. Everyone seems to be looking for the next Expendables, so there you go.
This soundtrack is one of the things that sets these movies apart and that’s mostly thanks to the popularity of Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise” and it’s accompanying video, which features a tense staring contest between Coolio and Pfeiffer before it turns into the grittiest parent/teacher meeting of all time at the end when they drop a modified “Cats in the Cradle” lesson on us all. What I’m saying is, we need to get Coolio for the Belushi/Pfeiffer/Treat team-up soundtrack.
“Keep Their Heads Ringin”
Dr. Dre – Friday
Ah, Pre-9/11 fictional airport hijinks. Nowadays, Smokey (aka Chris Tucker), Big Worm (with the rollers intact), and Dr. Dre would never be able to steal a plane for an impromptu dance party while the tower watched Friday on VHS. Besides, I’m pretty sure that Dre can afford to buy his own plane now, especially since the Beats deal, so maybe he just goes tooling around the globe rapping among the clouds while Chris Tucker makes as much as he got from the last two Rush Hour films working as Dr. Dre’s personal pilot. Maybe. I don’t know this for a fact, but I want it to be true.
Hey, why is there a curiously large collection of household product name drops in the lyrics of this song? Crest, Speed Stick, Mop-N-Glo, Clearasil — I know you’re thinking that this is some kind of well-hidden product placement deal, but they’re all made by separate companies, so keep guessing. Also, what is up with Smokey dancing all up on Nia Long (aka his friend Craig’s girl) like that in the video? I’m not saying that Smokey is a man of high moral character, but Craig and him have been through some stuff. So…
MC Hammer – The Addams Family
I briefly mentioned it in the introduction, but it is odd that we hardly ever see songs that are explicitly tied to films anymore. Maybe it has something to do with the demise of the “album” and the rise of individual song downloads. CD and cassette singles were around in the ’90s, but they weren’t super popular.
Is it conceivable that, if the internet was around back then, no one would buy a song about the Addams Family and their groove without the comfort of knowing that their purchase also included “Too Legit To Quit?” We’ll never know, but the power of 1991 MC Hammer is undeniable, so he probably would have persevered…at least until “Pumps and a Bump” came out.
In this video, we are spared the sight of hardcore banana hammock Hammer. This is a more innocent Hammer for a more innocent time. Here, he’s throwing out “Too Legit To Quit” hand dances while working as a posse necromancer/graveyard hoofer. There are no pantomime booty slaps or Matrix-style bullet-time pelvic thrusts. Just good old-fashioned family fun.
Yes, Wednesday and Pugsley chop Hammer’s head off at the start of the video and Hammer does try to steal Gomez Addams’ special lady before engaging him in sword-on-sword combat (I miss Raul Julia), but he’s classy about it, and in the end, it’s clear that they’ve all grown as friends and neighbors. MC Hammer even ends the video with a disclaimer, letting us all know that the Addams family doesn’t “hurt anyone” and that “they just like to have fun.” MC Hammer is a forgiving guy. We should follow his lead and forgive him for “Pumps and a Bump.”
“Queen of the Night”
Whitney Houston – The Bodyguard
If you hear this jam blasting out of the speakers of a Hyundai in an Applebees parking lot in New Jersey on a Friday night, know that I am about to hit the spot as soon as the clock strikes half price mozzarella stick time.
Born from The Bodyguard soundtrack, “Queen of the Night” has a very En Vogue-y vibe, but I am not complaining. Whitney Houston was at the height of her awesome powers at this time and she absolutely commands us all to throw roses at her feet in this fabulous Metropolis-aware video. Extra points for the dolly shots in the video and Whitney’s metallic costume, even if it would have been worthless in battle. The costume looks like a cross between something from the Heartbeeps branded lingerie collection that exists only in my mind and a steel dipped version of Cornelius Hawthorne’s ivory hair piece, but Whitney Houston made it work… because she was Queen of the Night.
Eminem – 8 Mile
Sometimes, I think that the next great unscripted show will pit children of the ’80s against each other in a caged battle dome while a voice from above reveals a factoid — Jurassic Park came out 21 years ago, Miley Cyrus was born in 1992, The Slim Shady LP is 15 years old — that will be used to determine which person can best withstand the barrage of feels about their elapsed youth and the mystery of where all the time went.
Back in 2002 (a mere 12 years ago), Eminem was one of the biggest stars in the world thanks to his thriving music career and his hugely successful big screen debut, 8 Mile. Now, he’s still a hip hop royal, but he seems to have walked away from acting while on top.
I don’t know why Eminem didn’t star in more movies. In him, we saw the next Barbra Streisand, and in 8 Mile we saw a hardscrabble Detroit tale about reaching for your dreams. Now, we have to look to Robin Thicke and Hardcore Pawn for these things. Also, this song is good, I like the part where he uses Mekhi Phifer’s name as a rap lyric.
Prince – Batman (1989)
If DC Comics and Warner Bros. ever go full Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark with Batman, it will be a sin against goodness if they don’t throw all the money at Prince and let the funky one adapt the “Batdance” music video into a “Batdance” Broadway spectacle.
Mixing in bits of dialogue from Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman film with a tribute to the theme song from the ’60s Batman TV show and a little funk, this song is…not great, but you can always skip to “Partyman” if you have a carnal need to have the groove overtake you. Prince’s “Batdance” isn’t a song or a mere music video, it is a musical experience that feeds the hungry soul with competing groups of Joker, Batman, and Vicki Vale look-alikes pitted in a dance-off amidst the purple fog as Prince embraces the duality of Batman and the Joker, as well as himself.
“Princes of the Universe”
Queen – Highlander
Here, we have Christopher Lambert making a brief appearance on the roof of Silvercup Studios in New York, briefly engaging a wailing Freddie Mercury in a sword/mic stand fight after, I assume, sensing his quickening. If Sam J. Jones would have walked through the “Flash’s Theme” music video, that would have been on this list too.
Why? To my mind, no band has been as important to the marriage between music and movies as Queen has, and while a great deal of this list has been silly, it has also been done with an admiration for that marriage. Think to those on-screen moments when you’ve heard a Queen song play. What those notes did to that scene and that film. Where they took you.
In Shaun of the Dead, Edgar Wright’s genius use of “Don’t Stop Me Now” and the rhythmic zombie body blows that were oddly tied to the beat of the song.
In Grosse Pointe Blank, that perfect application of “Under Pressure” while John Cusack’s hitman is at the apex of an existential crisis during his high school reunion.
I could go on and on, but while “Flash’s Theme” (and other bits from that soundtrack) triggers something in a lot of people (I half-jokingly tried to get my wife to use the “Wedding March” from Flash Gordon at our wedding) there really is no better example than the use of “Bohemian Rhapsody” in Wayne’s World. I love the reverence for the song that Mike Myers shows and the way that it elevates that scene and makes it feel incredibly relatable.
Myers was just on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast talking about this and how he fought hard to use the song over the Guns N’ Roses song that was being pushed on him. I can’t even imagine what that scene would have felt like with another song. I mentioned the marriage of music and movies before, this scene is a prime example. Queen was making this list, if not for “Princes of the Universe” than for all the videos that they sadly didn’t get a chance to make.
“City of Crime”
Tom Hanks and Dan Aykroyd – Dragnet
There was a time when Tom Hanks was one of our most reliable comedic actors, starring in Bachelor Party, The Burbs, Big, The Money Pit, and Joe Versus the Volcano (shut your stupid face, that movie is amazing). Dragnet isn’t on par with those films, but its accompanying music video, “City of Crime”, shows Hanks rapping and dancing at and with a collection of men wearing goat skin pants and pagan masks; completely letting go of all of his inhibitions.
It would be anarchy to say that, in this video, you can see the seeds of Hanks’ later, more award-worthy work, but his ability to fully give himself over to a role surely helped him commit to more serious performances in Philadelphia, Captain Phillips, and, of course, The Thompson Twins’ “Nothing in Common” music video. I went a long way for that joke, I hope you liked it.
Getting back to the “City of Crime” video: this isn’t, you know, a good rap song. This is the thing that you get when people see The Beastie Boys’ “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party)” and Run DMC’s “Walk this Way” videos in heavy rotation and want to join in on the fun without fully understanding the point. Rap was, at the time, still in a bit of a formative state as it pertained to the mainstream in the mid ’80s, and thus, it was an exotic new toy for Hollywood to play with and completely misunderstand. Like in the early aughts when every other sitcom character was a blogger with a fabulous Manhattan apartment.
I do not have a fabulous Manhattan apartment.
Vanilla Ice – Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze
Vanilla Ice’s “Ninja Rap” is the Ecto-Cooler of hip hop songs. You wacky kids still seem to have an eternal soft spot in your hearts for it, though, so it makes the list because I am a man of the people.
Personally, I prefer “Turtle Power” by Partners in Kryme for its commitment to exposition, lyrics like “Pizza’s the food that’s sure to please, these ninja’s are here for pepperoni and cheese” and life lessons like “Evil moves fast, but good moves faster”, but I think that I’m fighting a losing battle to knock “Ninja Rap” out of the top spot on your TMNT charts. I imagine that the same can be said of Wiz Khalifa, Juicy J, and Ty Dolla $ign with the latest Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle rap anthem, “Shellshocked”.
It’s not that “Shellshocked” is a bad song, it’s that, according to Vanilla Ice:
“It feels a little artificial—what I mean by that is that it sounds like a bunch of executives in the corporate world put it together. It really does not fit the theme of the Ninja Turtles legend. I think you have to understand, and be a true Ninja, to possess the Magic to really pull off the secret sound.”
Now, that may sound like sour grapes (I think we all expected Ice to drop “Ninja Rap 2.0” on us when the new film came out, and I don’t mean by way of a Macaroni and Cheese commercial), but I trust that Ice is coming from a place of care for turtle fans. I also know that his knowledge of what it takes to be a true ninja soundsmith was inborn and on full display at the end of the “Ninja Rap” video as Vanilla Ice breaks down the process of breathing ninja life into the “Ninja Rap”:
“They told me to write and make it Ice! So I did. I hyped it up, put the funky beats behind it and made it Ice!”
So, why does “Shellshocked” pale in comparison to “Ninja Rap?” In my opinion, it lacks the personnel to “make it Ice”, and that’s the real secret of the ooze, right there.
There are enough of these where we could do a list twice this size, but for now, these videos represent a nice assortment of the rare cultural jewels that were created in an era when, perhaps, people weren’t as cynical and self conscious and our pop culture didn’t take itself so seriously.
I hope we get back there and I think we might. Over these last few years, we’ve seen music and celebrity silliness permeate our culture. Every commercial has a jingle, musicals are back(ish), candy coated pop songs are at the top of the charts, late night hosts like Jimmy Fallon get actors to engage in Lip Sync Battles and Funny or Die has freed more dour actors to get a little weird.
Is this indicative of a societal shift toward more frothy and less thought provoking distractions due to the increasing severity of this world? I don’t know, I just hope it means that we get to see more movie theme music videos because I really think we all deserve the chance to see Bradley Cooper wearing a raccoon suit while lip-synching Blue Swede’s “Hooked on a Feeling” in a music video.
You can also kick back and watch ’em all right here!
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