Even before The Jazz Singer brought us audible dialogue, film and music have enjoyed a wonderful working relationship. Most of the time it’s still up to the movie to do the heavy lifting — the drama, the progression, the themes — but there are always exceptions. Once in a rare while, there will be a specific song that so wholly encompasses a film’s attributes, or comes to define a pivotal scene, that it becomes iconically linked. It’s not so easy as pairing a hit song with a hit movie, although that frequently works. We’re talking about iconic pairings here; a song has to embody an important theme or legacy of a film while not eclipsing it.
For reasons I can’t explain, Joe “Bean” Esposito’s “You’re The Best” is the first thing that comes to mind when I think of integral soundtrack pieces. It’s an iconic song perfect for The Karate Kid’s training montage, or any montage, really. It’s one of those songs that, over time, has been warped into a humorous novelty full of lyrical lumps of coal like, “A little bit of all you got can never bring you down!” which doesn’t even mean anything. Still, it is a song and film indicative of that whimsical decade, the 1980’s.
In the next decade, there was a period of time when a particular brand of sweeping R&B was all the rage and film studios seized the moment. Chief among these tie-ins was Seal’s “Kiss From a Rose” on Batman Forever and R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly” from Space Jam. It’s hard to call the former song iconic. It’s a hit that is faintly remembered today, sure, but the relationship it had with the film is flimsy. It doesn’t encompass anything about the film, not its ridiculous camp or its cinematic failure.
“I Believe I Can Fly,” though, is all you could want from a movie/song partnership. The mega-hit stood on its own, and it’s hard not to tie it to that climactic scene where Michael Jordan embraces the power of cartoons by dunking from half court in 5 seconds, even though it never actually scored that part of the film. But it sure does fit. (Additionally, isn’t there something amusing today about the single’s cover which features a very serious shot of R. Kelly, Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny?)
These kinds of partnerships are rarer to find today as this type of symbiosis seems to have gone out of fashion. Kimya Dawson’s work on Juno was important to the film and influenced many soundtracks thereafter, but it still feels like a phase and less like an icon. The Shins blew up with Garden State, but I have a feeling the band will far outlast the film. Today, it’s more likely to just see a movie use a song well. Whatever your feelings on the Twilight films, the choice to bookend the films with two versions of Iron & Wine’s “Flightless Bird, American Mouth” is pretty inspired. It’s more of a case where a song seamlessly melds into a film, rather than being an equal partner in crime.