It’s not only political campaigns that inspire musical artists to exercise the power of veto on the use of their songs. For reasons of finance, reputation, ego, taste, and more, the following TV shows and films weren’t able to secure the use of the recordings they originally sought…
Frank Sinatra – Goodfellas
This Express piece quotes an Empire Magazine interview with Martin Scorsese’s long-time editor Thelma Schoonmaker in which she relates how the original plan was to have Frank Sinatra’s original recording of “My Way” play over the end credits of modern gangster classic Goodfellas instead of the Sid Vicious cover that was eventually used.
“Sinatra would never let Marty use his music,” explains Schoonmaker, “which is too bad because Marty may do the ultimate biopic of him. Why didn’t he let us? Because he didn’t want to be associated with the Mafia. Which, of course, he was!”
Johnny Mathis – The X-Files
Singer-songwriter Johnny Mathis refused to let The X-Files use his original recording of the song “Wonderful Wonderful” in the season four story “Home,” necessitating a Mathis-alike cover version to be recorded for the episode.
The X-Files writer Darin Morgan told The New York Times he sought out the song because he’d always found the tone “creepy and unsettling and had been looking for a situation to use it in a show. It has nothing to do with the words. It is the orchestration and that odd lonely whistle that disturbs me.”
Those who’ve seen “Home,” regularly cited as The X-Files’ most disturbing (spoiler: it’s the story of an unsettling, inbred family of brothers who breed with their quadruple amputee mother who is kept under a bed) might not blame Mathis for reading the script and refusing to have anything to do with it.
Prince – Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back
If you’ve a spare half hour, you can watch Kevin Smith very entertainingly tell the story of how he came to film a never-released Prince documentary here.
It all started when Smith approached Prince about using “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” for the scene of Shannon Elizabeth walking into Mooby’s in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. He didn’t hear back for a long while, then received a phone call from Prince who expressed his admiration for Dogma and engaged Smith in spiritual discussion. Prince then asked the director to come to his Minnesota recording studio home Paisley Park to film the week-long “Celebration” album launch for a documentary he planned to take to the Cannes Film Festival.
Great, thought Smith. Now that they’re working together on a future movie, does that mean he could use “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” for his current one?
No, said Prince. Not a chance. Which is how “Bad Medicine” came to be used in that scene.
Kings of Leon, Slash – Glee
“It’s every band’s right, you shouldn’t have to do f***ing Glee” was how Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl put it in support of Guns and Roses’ Slash and Kings of Leon’s refusal to allow their songs to appear in Fox’s high school musical show.
Glee creator Ryan Murphy reportedly took umbrage at the bands refusing use of their work in his show, and made his feelings known publicly on the matter, leading to a number of bands speaking out in support of the Glee embargo. In addition to Grohl’s role in the argument, Damon Albarn took Gorillaz off the table before Glee had a chance to ask.
Queen – Rocky III
This one’s less about the failure for a movie to get the rights to a song and more about what happened next. In this 2012 interview with Guitar World Magazine, Survivor’s Jim Peterik revisits the origins of the movie’s song “Eye of the Tiger.”
Sylvester Stallone got in touch with the band asking them to write a song for Rocky III. When they received a montage of scenes from the film as inspiration, the temporary music used was “Another One Bites the Dust” by Queen. Peterik explains, “I remember asking Stallone why he just didn’t use that song for the movie and he said it was because they couldn’t get the publishing rights for it. At that point I just said, ‘Thank you, Queen!’”
Scoring the song’s chords in time with the montage punches and inspired by a line in the picture when Rocky Balboa is told he’s losing “the eye of the tiger,” the hit song was written and recorded four days later.
Olivia Newton-John – The L Word
According to The L Word director Rose Troche, Ilene Chaikin’s lesbian drama came up against resistance when it requested use of Olivia Newton-John’s song “Physical.” In a 2004 interview with Dallas Voice (archived here), Troche recalled the refusal to grant the use of the song as, in her opinion, the sole instance of anyone refusing involvement with the show because of its lesbian content.
“The only person who said no [to involvement in any regard] that I know of based on the fact it was a gay show was Olivia Newton-John. She wouldn’t let us use the song ‘Physical.’”
Jimi Hendrix – Saving Grace
A wry anecdote here from UK film director Nigel Cole, who remembered being refused the rights to use a particular track on his 2000 film, Saving Grace, which starred Brenda Blethyn as a widow who turns her horticultural skills to growing marijuana plants in order to pay off her debts.
“I’ll never forget on my very first film, Saving Grace, I fell in love with a Jimi Hendrix track. It was in all the way through to the finishing process. Finally, the Hendrix estate said that they wouldn’t let us use the song because they didn’t want Jimi Hendrix’s music associated with drugs!”
Gordon Lightfoot – Trigger Happy TV
Despite being used several times in the TV broadcast, Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind” was not included in the Trigger Happy TV home release soundtrack. Dom Joly explains here that the track, which accompanied Joly’s street artist pranks, was the most popular to appear in the show but the record company that owned it refused for it to be featured on the home release.
“So we decided to send a tape of Trigger Happy direct to [singer-songwriter] Gordon in Canada to get him on our side. Unfortunately, he wouldn’t let us use the song either – because he thought our show was shit!”
Pete Townsend – That 70s Show
In the late nineties, when Bonnie and Terry Turner were seeking a name for the new 1970s-set comedy they were developing for Fox, one suggestion was “Teenage Wasteland,” inspired by the lyrics to The Who song, “Baba O’Riley.”
The Turners here describe being rebuffed by songwriter Pete Townshend when they approached him about using the song and title on the show. “Pete Townshend said, ‘That’s the one song I’m fastened to. Anything else I have, you can use it.’ So we said, ‘Can we use ‘The Kids are All Right?’ And he said, ‘Oooh. I can’t let you use that one either.'”
Eventually, the Turners settled on That ‘70s Show as the title, with Big Star’s “In the Street” as the theme.
Billy Idol – Gremlins II
When Gizmo dances for Christopher Lee at the research facility in Gremlins II, it wasn’t always a Fats Domino song that provoked Lee’s character to ask incredulously, “He likes this music?”
Speaking to Entertainment Weekly, director Joe Dante recalled, “The most difficult stunt of all was getting Gizmo to dance. And then we couldn’t get the rights to the song he was dancing to, Billy Idol’s “Dancing with Myself,” so we ended up finding this Fats Domino song (“I’m Ready”) at the last minute that happened to have exactly the same beat.”
Lifehouse – Six Feet Under
If you watched the series finale to Six Feet Under live, you’ll have heard “Empty Space” by U.S. rock act Lifehouse playing in the background of the scene between Claire (Lauren Ambrose) and Republican boyfriend Ted (Chris Messina). The song is of particular relevance as Claire identifies it as sounding like “Christian music” and uses it as evidence that Ted is “the most deeply unhip person” she’s ever met.
Thanks to that unflattering description, when it came to the Six Feet Under home release, Lifehouse refused permission for the song to be used in perpetuity necessitating its replacement by some actual Christian rock, remembered creator Alan Ball at the 2016 Six Feet Under Tribeca panel.
Britney Spears – Seed of Chucky
If you’ve seen Seed of Chucky, you’ll understand why Britney Spears’ people didn’t feel like granting the picture the right to use one of her songs. The horror comedy features a scene in which a Britney-alike with a personalized number-plate overtakes Chucky on a mountain road and flips him the bird. His reaction? To run her car off the road, killing her in a blaze of fire.
In this interview, director Don Mancini explained, “The fact that they balked at it and wouldn’t let us use the song…well, it benefited the film and created a lot of good publicity. I don’t personally have anything against Britney Spears, though I’d have to say Chucky would.”
Rihanna – Girls
We couldn’t tell you her reason, but popstar Rihanna refused permission for a song featuring Jay Z to be used in a season two episode of Girls.
The scene involved Lena Dunham’s Hannah and Andrew Rannell’s Elijah dancing in a club on cocaine she’d scored in order to write a gonzo journalism piece. The Girls team requested use of Rihanna’s “Talk That Talk, but instead wound up using Icona Pop’s “I Love It” for the moment instead.
Led Zeppelin – Almost Famous
Cameron Crowe related here the reason that there’s a deleted scene among the DVD extras to the Almost Famous home release which asks viewers to play Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” while watching it.
“I wasn’t too upset, because Led Zeppelin had already given us four songs at a nice price but they said, “Stairway to Heaven” we’re not going to give to anybody, and we had already shot a scene that was to “Stairway to Heaven” so what was great was we ended up putting the scene on the DVD and saying “Put your record on NOW and score it yourself.”
Carol Burnett – Family Guy
Almost a decade ago now, a failed lawsuit seemed to be the result of one artist refusing a television show use of their song.
After Carol Burnett declined to grant Seth Macfarlane’s Family Guy use of “The Carol Burnett Show Theme,” a character based on her famous US TV persona appeared in the adult animated comedy. Unhappy with the segment depicting her “Charwoman” character, which included bad taste jokes and a sex shop setting, Burnett attempted to sue Family Guy. Though described as unquestionably distasteful and offensive to Burnett, the scene in question was protected by First Amendment Freedom of Speech and the multi-million dollar case was thrown out of court.
Disney – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Edward Albee’s dark 1962 play on the lies and resentment of a marriage breakdown was adapted into a 1966 feature film starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, directed by Mike Nichols.
The bleak climax of the play features a character singing its title to the tune of the Disney Three Little Pigs song “Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad Wolf?” However, in the film version, Elizabeth Taylor sings the title to the tune of “Here We Go ‘Round The Mulberry Bush” instead. Whether Disney really refused the rights to their tune because of the film’s dark content, or whether the royalties were too high to pay is not confirmed.
Rodgers & Hammerstein – American Graffiti
At its fortieth anniversary celebration, actress Cindy Williams remembered a suggestion from Harrison Ford while filming American Graffiti that his character “wanted to burst into song, crooning ‘Some Enchanted Evening’ in an exaggerated, Enzio Pinza style, from South Pacific.”
“Lucas was an easy-going director,” she continued, “and very open to suggestions. Lucas let him and it was shot, but they couldn’t get the rights to the song, so it was cut.” At least that’s what Ford was told…