Movie Songs

15 best movie songs ranked: our favourite film songs

March 19, 20249 Mins Read

What does it take to bottle the essence of a movie in a single song? Throughout the history of cinema, leading artists, song writers and producers have grappled with this unique creative dilemma. Every so often, it results in era-defining masterworks, yielding songs that elevate their respective movies to greater heights of critical and artistic acclaim. Here are the 15 best movie songs created specifically for film (as opposed to pre-existing, tracked-in records). Each of these songs helped enhance the magic of the big-screen experience.

The best movie song of all time

1. Ghostbusters (Ghostbusters, 1984)

Well (around here at least), the best movie song of all time is ‘Ghostbusters’. The quintessential 1980s banger is a perennial staple at Halloween. Indeed, it transcends the spooky season to invite funky listening all year round. Not many movie songs possess that kind of evergreen status.

Ray Parker Jr.’s chart-topping smash sums up both the tone of the blockbusting movie and the wider decade with its effortless rhythmic hook and synth pad arrangements. And the accompanying music video roping in a host of ‘80s celebs, including the Ghostbusters themselves, is still rousingly good fun.


Best movie songs: 2 to 5

2. Moon River (Breakfast at Tiffany’s, 1961)

Henry Mancini’s swoonsome theme for this classic Truman Capote adaptation, starring the iconic Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly, is irresistibly layered with pathos and romance. It laments the heartsick search for ‘the one’. It also acts as a pipe dream imagining of what will happen when love blossoms.

As performed by Hepburn in the movie, Moon River is surely one of the most gorgeous themes ever written for cinema. Amazingly, Mancini claimed to have composed it in half an hour.

3. We Have All the Time in the World (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, 1969)

John Barry collaborated with a frail Louis Armstrong for what would be the jazz legend’s final masterpiece. Barry’s capacity for tender, string-laden romance meshes beautifully with Hal David’s lyrics and Armstrong’s palpably quavering vocals to lend humanity to the relationship between James Bond (George Lazenby) and Tracy Draco (Diana Rigg).

In the process, they lift the movie into the upper echelons of the Bond canon. Such is the song’s enduring influence that Hans Zimmer quoted its melody wholesale in his score for 2021’s No Time To Die.

4. Over the Rainbow (The Wizard of Oz, 1939)

The beloved Judy Garland defined the Golden Age of Hollywood with her turn as the wide-eyed Dorothy in this masterful fantasy. Even before we even get to the land of Oz and the yellow brick road, Garland’s mellifluous performance of Over the Rainbow, written by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg, acutely informs us of Dorothy’s aspirations and ambitions, lifting us beyond sepia-toned Kansas and into a world beyond imagination. Ever since the movie’s release, the song has become the de facto anthem of dreamers and fantasy lovers the world over.

5. You’re the One That I Want (Grease, 1978)

It’s tricky to pick one definitive song from the definitive 1970s teen movie musical. That said, it’s hard to top the sheer cathartic thrill of watching star-crossed lovers Danny and Sandy, played in career-defining fashion by John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, come together to the sound of this uplifting pop hit. You’re the One That I Want was unique to the Grease movie adaptation, not having featured in the original stage production. It went on to smash the record books as one of the best-selling singles of all time.

Best movie songs: 6 to 10

6. My Heart Will Go On (Titanic, 1997)

Late composer James Horner won an Oscar for his lilting score to Titanic, and his main melody informed the backbone of the track My Heart Will Go On. However, he only managed to get singer Celine Dion on board to record the song after smuggling in a demo against writer-director James Cameron’s wishes. Horner’s dramatic instincts proved him right. Dion’s weepy ballad perfectly encapsulated the romantic tone of Cameron’s oceanic blockbuster. It won the Oscar and dominated the charts for months.

7. Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door (Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, 1973)

Hollywood soundtracks underwent a sea-change in the early-to-mid 1970s with many directors favouring original needle-drop pop records from existing artists. One of the most significant was the appointment of Bob Dylan to write and perform Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door for Sam Peckinpah’s typically nihilistic Western Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. The song effectively acts as a lament for passing of the old West, and following its huge success was later covered by the likes of Guns N’ Roses.

8. (Everything I Do) I Do It For You (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, 1991)

Several years before Titanic, Bryan Adams cornered the market on the 1990s cinematic power ballad. His characteristically gruff tones act as the love theme for the blockbusting Robin Hood adaptation, embellishing the late Michael Kamen’s gorgeous Maid Marian melody and sending the music charts into meltdown. In the UK, the song spent 16 weeks at the top of the singles chart.

9. The Power of Love (Back to the Future, 1985)

Alan Silvestri’s sublime orchestral score for this Robert Zemeckis classic was, shamefully, not even nominated for an Oscar. Compensation of sorts came with the nomination for Huey Lewis and the News’ exuberant rock anthem The Power of Love.

It was, in fact, Silvestri himself who recommended the group to the filmmakers. The band duly scored with one of the most infectiously entertaining movie songs of the decade. One cannot imagine Michael J. Fox’s guitar-shredding time-traveller Marty McFly without it.

10. Fight the Power (Do the Right Thing, 1989)

Public Enemy’s musical statement of defiance was commissioned specifically by writer-director Spike Lee. He sought a track that would perfectly encapsulate his morally thorny and riveting Brooklyn-set tale, in which racial tensions reach boiling point on a scorching hot summer’s day.

The movie’s hard-hitting impact owes a great deal to Public Enemy’s trend-setting title track. It’s variously heard over the opening credits, featuring Rosie Perez, and on the boom box carried by Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn).

Best movie songs: 11 to 15

11. Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, 1969)

Released during the 1960s counter-cultural revolution, Butch and Sundance retains its capacity to charm and delight. Paul Newman and Robert Redford’s peerless on-screen chemistry is further juiced by the intentionally anachronistic presence of Burt Bacharach and Hal David on the soundtrack, which helps graft a contemporary feel onto the period setting.

The Oscar-winning Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head, performed by B.J. Thomas and set to the film’s famous bicycle demonstration, sums up all that is quirky and memorable about this classic Western.

12. Stayin’ Alive (Saturday Night Fever, 1977)

In 1977, the trend of importing best-selling artists to promote and embolden the latest movie releases reached its crescendo. The falsetto tones of the Bee Gees catapulted John Travolta drama Saturday Night Fever above and beyond expectations, reflecting the hip-swinging excesses of the disco era even as the movie’s dramatic undertones delved headlong into the period’s moral ugliness.

Travolta’s opening New York strut to the sound of Stayin’ Alive remains one of the most famous and parodied of all movie sequences.

13. Lose Yourself (8 Mile, 2002)

Eminem found his ideal creative outlet in the form of this gritty and compelling Detroit-based drama about an aspiring rap artist. The movie, directed by Curtis Hanson, is shot through with an authentic feel for the genre.Eminem’s lived experience is evidently the secret ingredient. Both his musical skills and inherent presence lend a greater sense of realism.

8 Mile gave rise to one of Eminem’s most famous and enduring tracks. ‘Lose Yourself’ won an Oscar and adorned the eventual platinum-selling soundtrack release.

14. Mrs Robinson (The Graduate, 1967)

The Graduate changed the face of music in the movies. Director Mike Nichols sought to fashion a deeper connection with the lucrative youth market, as embodied by the movie’s anti-hero Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman).

To that end, he tracked in existing songs from era-defining duo Simon and Garfunkel. He also got them to write brand new compositions, including the upbeat Mrs. Robinson. Suddenly, the movie’s darkly ironic sense of ennui snapped into greater dramatic focus. Result: a landmark soundtrack that defined the use of cinematic pop music for much of the ensuing decade.

15. Theme from Shaft (Shaft, 1971)

If we’re talking movie songs that defined an entire genre (albeit one that was relatively short-lived), then they don’t come more famous than Shaft.

Isaac Hayes’ unmistakeable groovy music distils the essence of Richard Roundtree’s generation-defining Blaxploitation hero. It’s cool as a cucumber and sexy as all hell. Released via the legendary Stax Records, the chart-busting Shaft soundtrack laid down the gauntlet for all future Blaxploitation albums, which came to encompass celebrated artists including Marvin Gaye and James Brown.

Main image © Getty Images

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