It’s called an “earworm.” You know when you get a song stuck in your head and keep humming it to yourself all day.
The oddest example I can think of happened to my older son, Cristian. He is a nurse at a small hospital on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation in Eagle Butte, South Dakota. One morning, while getting ready for work, he heard the dopey Katy Perry song “Legendary Lovers.” Voila, his earworm for the day.
One of his patients that day was what they call an “end of life” situation. An elderly Lakota man was dying, and Cristian was his nurse. As Cristian was attending to him, the old man looked at my son and whispered, “Sing me a song.” Well, the only song that Cristian could think of at that moment was “Legendary Lovers.” So he started singing it. The old man smiled. “Keep singing.”
He did. And eventually, the old man slipped into unconsciousness and later died.
So let that be a lesson to you: next time you’re in this situation, try “Old Man River” as your ear worm.
Most movies have a theme song or at least theme music. Very few of them, however, are earworm material. Here are my picks for the most unforgettable theme songs and the memorable movies that go with them.
If you’ve seen this movie, you’re probably whistling the theme song in your head as you read this. That song is called “Colonel Bogey March,” and was composed in 1914 by F. J. Ricketts, a lieutenant in the British Army. The story goes that the film’s director, David Lean, was having difficulty getting the extras playing the prisoners to march in time. It was suggested to him that the men whistle a tune to keep them in step. He hired a whistling expert (because that’s the kind of thing they do in the movies—they hire whistling experts). Composer Malcolm Arnold’s Academy Award-winning score for the film used themes from this whistling expert’s behind-the-scenes moment. By the way, here is one of my favorite pieces of movie trivia: the film is based on a book by the French novelist Pierre Boulle, who also wrote the novel Planet of the Apes. Hah!
Lily Tomlin once joked, “I worry that the person who thought up Muzak may be thinking up something else.” The piece of music that most likely comes to mind with Muzak is the theme to this steamy melodrama from the late 1950s. There’s forbidden love and lots of it in A Summer Place! Max Steiner wrote the score, and Percy Faith arranged and recorded it with his orchestra (how many people do you know who have their own orchestra?). One of the biggest hits of all time. And it certainly evokes a time and place. Unfortunately, for many people, that time and place is the dentist’s office. It’s unfair. This is a marvelous piece of music, actually. And the movie—definitely worth watching.
You know what? I think Burt Bacharach is just great. I love Burt Bacharach songs. Unreservedly and uncritically. Does this feel-good ‘60s hippie song really fit in this cynical Western? No. Do I care? No. Why? Because it’s a song by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. So there.
I saw this on a first date with my high school girlfriend. As we were walking out of the theater, I went on and on about what a stupid movie that was. And on and on some more. You can all guess how long she remained my girlfriend after that date. It was an important life lesson: do not point out problems with romantic movies to your girlfriend. I am currently involved with a woman who has watched Pretty Woman more than 50 times. I just sit quietly and think about fishing expeditions I would like to take while we watch it together. The haunting theme song here was written by Alan Bergman, Marilyn Bergman, and Marvin Hamlisch. It’s a good one. Maybe way, way, way better than the movie it was in. But you won’t hear me say that ever again on a first date.
This is one of my favorite movie theme songs of all time, as sung by the fabulous Scottish singer Lulu. What a great, brassy voice she has. (Check out her version of the R & B classic “Shout” sometime.) Written by Don Black, Mark London, and arranged by Mike Leander, this is ‘60s power pop at its finest. And it’s a wonderfully sharp movie as well.
A 19-year-old hardware store clerk carries a bucket of paint through the streets of Brooklyn. That hardly seems like a great premise for an opening sequence to a movie. And yet… The Gibb boys outdid themselves with this soundtrack. The film is one of the darkest portrayals of working class life you’ll ever see. And features, gulp, an amazing performance by John Travolta.
A sweeping vista of the Swiss Alps, a plucky young nun, and a helicopter. That’s all they needed to make one of most memorable openings to a movie ever. “The hills are alive/with the sound of music,” Julie Andrews sings, as a helicopter buzzes past her. It took nine takes and nearly a week to get this one, but it was worth every bit of time and effort that went into it. Glorious.
Careful readers—even casual ones—will notice I neglected to include a few other obvious theme songs. For instance “My Heart Will Go On” from Titanic (1997). You know, here’s the thing. If you are ever blessed to have an 11-year-old son who decides that this song is the greatest song ever written, and then sings it over and over and over. And over. And enters singing contests and sings it. And then sings it as his big sister’s wedding twenty years later, then maybe you, too, will never want to mention or even think about that song ever again.
In a future blog post, we’ll discuss the larger topic of great film scores.
David Raether is a veteran TV writer and essayist. He worked for 12 years as a television sitcom writer/producer, including a 111-episode run on the ground-breaking ABC comedy “Roseanne.” His essays have been published by Salon.com, The Times of London, and Longforms.org, and have been lauded by The Atlantic Magazine and the BBC World Service. His memoir, Homeless: A Picaresque Memoir from Our Times, is awaiting publication.