The Greatest Movie Theme Songs

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From now through July 9, New York City’s Film Forum is screening the first major restoration of Carol Reed’s The Third Man, starring Orson Welles. The movie house will play a 4K version, from a fine grain master positive, struck from the original negative. “Of all the movies I have seen, this one most completely embodies the romance of going to the movies,” Roger Ebert wrote in 1996.

“I saw it first on a rainy day in a tiny, smoke-filled cinema on the Left Bank in Paris. It told a story of existential loss and betrayal. It was weary and knowing, and its glorious style was an act of defiance against the corrupt world it pictured.” But the film’s theme song is also a stand-out, as Ebert expressed: “Has there ever been a film where the music more perfectly suited the action than in Carol Reed’s “The Third Man”? The score was performed on a zither by Anton Karas, who was playing in a Vienna beerhouse one night when Reed heard him. The sound is jaunty but without joy, like whistling in the dark. It sets the tone; the action begins like an undergraduate lark and then reveals vicious undertones.” Karas’ unforgettable tune got us thinking about other great movie theme songs, several of which we’ve highlighted below. Keep the conversation going and share your favorites.

Do the Right Thing

Spike Lee’s opening song, complete with dance sequence featuring star Rosie Perez, was inspired by the opening credits to Bye Bye Birdie, featuring actress Ann-Margret singing the title song.

Saturday Night Fever

The Bee Gee’s hit song inspired the final title of John Badham’s 1977 film. Based on a 1976 New York Magazine article, “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night,” the movie’s title was shortened to Saturday Night, referencing Tony Manero’s status as god of the Saturday night disco where he hung out to forget his cruddy life. But the Bee Gees submitted a song for the soundtrack called “Night Fever,” which Badham felt fit the spirit of his film better. The rest is movie history.

Rocky

Hummed by tourists everywhere as they recreate the run up the Philadelphia Museum of Art steps, and played during the city’s biggest sports events, “Gonna Fly Now” has become the ultimate anthem for the underdog.

James Bond

John Barry’s James Bond theme features the composer’s catchy jazz arrangements and ’60s guitar riffs. Most famously heard during the movie’s gun barrel sequence, the theme has been altered slightly over the years to reflect the changing times, but nothing can beat Barry’s brassy original. “I didn’t sit down and intellectualize about it, and I’ve never read a James Bond book,” Barry told NPR. “I’d only seen like a cartoon strip that they used to have in the Daily Mail in England. So I knew it was about a spy. I knew roughly what the essence was, but I never saw the movie. I just wrote the damn thing, you know.”

The Muppet Movie

Grab your Kleenex, because Paul Williams and Kenneth Ascher’s Muppet Movie theme is as wistful as it gets. A dreamy Kermie shares his hopes for the world in song, mirroring the spirit and character of his creator, Jim Henson.

Shaft

Isaac Hayes composed and recorded the theme to Gordon Parks’ funky blaxploitation epic — but only because he was promised a part in the film — the lead role of private detective and total badass, John Shaft (Richard Roundtree). From NPR:

“Well, I wanted to do the acting, so I asked him, ‘What about trying out for the leading role?’” Hayes says. “He said, ‘OK. But, remember, you’ve got to do the music.’ So, anyway, I came back home. I didn’t tell my friends about the movie score. I was telling them about the leading part: ‘I’m going to have a shot at the leading part,’ you know. And about two weeks had passed, he said, ‘Ike, have you gotten a call yet?’ I said, ‘No, they didn’t call me yet.’ So I started calling. I asked, ‘Whoa, what happened to the leading role?’ They said, ‘Oh, didn’t you know, Mr. Hayes? They just casted a guy by the name of Richard Roundtree for the lead role.’ ‘What?’ ‘Oh, but, Mr. Hayes, you promised to do the music.’ ‘OK, all right.’ Well, anyway, I went on and did the music, and, of course, you know how it turned out. It turned out, hey, a big, big plus, big win for me.”

The Wizard of Oz

Perhaps the oddest story about “Over the Rainbow” is the one about Wizard of Oz songbird Judy Garland putting JFK to bed at night by singing the theme song. The Daily Beast shares:

At the time there was only one authorized biography of Garland: Judy, by Gerald Frank; and for it he interviewed every member of her family. Garland’s eldest daughter, Liza Minnelli, tells a story about her mother at the time she was making her television series in 1963 and ’64. As Liza explained, it was a grueling schedule and the production team was constantly changing. Judy would come to the studio to find new faces, different people to work with, and that, added to the stress of taping her shows before a live audience, left her exhausted and frustrated. At the end of the week, she would often come home and say to Liza, “What a week. I think I’ll call Jack”—referring to John F. Kennedy, then the president of the United States—and she’d pick up the phone and place a call to the White House. Each conversation ended the same way: Liza would hear her mother say, “Oh, no, again? Do you really want me to do that again? All right…” And then Judy would sing the last eight bars of “Over the Rainbow” into the phone.

Toy Story

Your mileage may vary when it comes to Randy Newman, but few can argue how his “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” makes them feel when they watch Toy Story — and all its sequels.

The Breakfast Club

John Hughes made Scottish band Simple Minds a one-hit wonder on American radios when he featured “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” in his coming-of-age classic The Breakfast Club. Fun fact: Keith Forsey and Steve Schiff wrote the song and offered it to Billy Idol and Bryan Ferry first.

Lolita

Although Lolita’s main theme song was composed by Bob Harris, the film is a good example of how another tune can catch on with the public and become a hit — as in the case of “Lolita Ya Ya,” the recurring pop song that is the best kind of ear worm.