Some songs will forever be tied to a singular movie moment -- think “The Sound of Silence” in The Graduate, or “Fight the Power” in Do the Right Thing. On the other hand, some songs are forever tied to the cinematic experience itself, thanks to multiple onscreen appearances that sometimes span several decades. From hits by Smash Mouth to Judy Garland to Jimi Hendrix, check out the most overplayed songs in movie history, and a brief rundown of the several films in which they pop up.
Jimi Hendrix, “All Along The Watchtower”
While Bob Dylan’s original recording of “All Along The Watchtower” was featured in best picture Oscar winner American Beauty, Hendrix’s searing version of the track has been used in dozens of film/TV projects, including Forrest Gump (pictured), Rush, Watchmen and A Bronx Tale.
Bee Gees, “Stayin’ Alive”
Disco smashes were prominently used by films in the late '70s, but the opening to Saturday Night Fever, featuring the disco strut of “Stayin’ Alive,” is easily the most memorable. The Bee Gees classic will always be tied to the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, but has since been used in dramas (Virtuosity), comedies (A Night at the Roxbury, Grumpier Old Men) and children’s movies (Madagascar).
Chariots of Fire Theme
Since being featured in the 1981 Olympics drama of the same name, the inspiring instrumental by Greek composer Vangelis has been used to parody slow-motion heroics in films like HappyGilmore, Old School and Madagascar.
The two-note theme of dread featured in Steven Spielberg’s landmark 1975 summer blockbuster was the iconic work of John Williams, and has been used in countless television and film projects to spoof the feeling of terror, from Caddyshack to Spaceballs.
Jefferson Airplane, “Somebody To Love”
The 1967 rock touchstone is often used to denote a psychedelic passage in a film, like in the LSD trip scene in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and when Jim Carrey busts out his otherworldly karaoke skills in The Cable Guy (pictured).
German composer Carl Orff’s interpretation of the centuries-old poem “O Fortuna” has become a dramatic staple since its original release in the mid-30’s, with 300 (pictured) and The Matrix Revolutions snagging the operatic composition for stirring scenes, and Jackass: The Movie and Cheaper By The Dozen playing it for laughs.
The Rolling Stones, “Gimme Shelter”
The violence of the Vietnam era was captured in the shouts and slicing guitars of the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” which is clearly one of Martin Scorsese’s favorite songs: he’s used the track in his films Goodfellas (pictured), Casino and The Departed. Scorsese aside, listen for “Gimme Shelter” in Flight, The Fan and Layer Cake as well.
Katrina and the Waves, “Walking on Sunshine”
An enduring pop-rock hit of the 1980s, Katrina and the Waves’ 1983 smash “Walking On Sunshine” has been used to bottle the decade in films released years later, most notably in High Fidelity and by the suavely insane serial killer Patrick Bateman in American Psycho (pictured).
George Thorogood & the Destroyers, “Bad to the Bone”
Although “Bad to the Bone” was not initially a smash upon its 1982 release, film and television projects (and more than a few commercials) have given the hard-nosed, bluesy George Thorogood & the Destroyers track new life. Along with The Parent Trap and Major Payne, “Bad to the Bone” appeared in the bar scene of the blockbuster Terminator 2: Judgment Day.
Lynyrd Skynyrd, “Sweet Home Alabama”
Need a song to represent the free-wheelin’ American South in a movie? Skynyrd’s best-known anthem is the obvious choice. From Joe Dirt to Con Air to the remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, “Sweet Home Alabama” is often associated with unruly hair and cans of beer -- and even inspired the name of the 2002 Reese Witherspoon romantic comedy, in which it appears.
Carl Douglas, “Kung Fu Fighting”
Carl Douglas’ 1974 disco track appropriated ancient Asian culture to monumental success: a smash hit upon its release, “King Fu Fighting” has been used to lovingly mock martial artistry in everything from Beverly Hills Ninja (pictured) to Bowfinger to Rush Hour 3, and still frequently pops up in modern films.
Judy Garland, “Over The Rainbow”
The Oscar-winning ballad will forever be tied to the opening of The Wizard Of Oz, although various versions of the song have appeared in popular culture, with covers in Sleepless in Seattle, Little Voice and You’ve Got Mail. Israel Kamakawiwo'ole’s 1993 ukulele-filled mashup of the song with Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World" has also been used in countless films, including 50 First Dates, Meet Joe Black and Finding Forrester.
Buffalo Springfield, “For What It’s Worth”
The protest song became an emblem of the late '60s and was tied to the Vietnam anti-war protestors; “For What It’s Worth” appeared decades later to herald those themes in Tropic Thunder (pictured), Forrest Gump, Coming Home and Born on the Fourth of July.
Louis Armstrong, “What A Wonderful World”
First recorded by Louis Armstrong in 1967, “What a Wonderful World” has been optioned to capture the feeling of euphoria (or faux euphoria) in several films, most memorably in the Robin Williams vehicle Good Morning, Vietnam (pictured). The song also pops up in Michael, What a Girl Wants and Freaky Friday, among many others.
Five Stairsteps, “O-o-h Child”
The soothing soul track, released by Chicago group the Five Stairsteps in 1970, has endured in popular culture thanks to appearances in Guardians of the Galaxy, Shark Tale, Bridge to Terabithia and, most notably, in a pivotal sequence in John Singleton’s instant classic Boyz n the Hood (pictured).
Spandau Ballet, “True”
A mix of soft rock, synth pop and new age music, Spandau Ballet’s “True” will forever be linked to the school dance scene in Sixteen Candles, although the song has since been featured in The Wedding Singer (and on many other occasions as the main sample in P.M. Dawn’s “Set Adrift on Memory Bliss”).
Steppenwolf, “Born to be Wild”
Can you imagine the men of Easy Rider cruising down the highway on their motorcycles to any other song besides “Born to Be Wild”? We certainly cannot. The Steppenwolf staple has become a touchstone of rebellion in film, popping up in Wild America, Nymphomaniac, Dr. Dolittle 2 and countless other projects.
Stevie Wonder, “My Cherie Amour”
Although Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amour” is a tingly love song with Wonder’s warm vocals at the center, the song has soundtracked two harrowing scenes in recent cinema: Bradley Cooper’s realization of his wife’s betrayal in Silver Linings Playbook, and the stomach pump scene in Almost Famous.
Marky Mark & Funky Bunch, “Good Vibrations”
Before Mark Wahlberg was starring in films, he was serving up pop anthems that would be used (and overused) in movies for decades: Marky Mark & The Funky Bunch’s buoyant 1991 hit “Good Vibrations” appears in Don Jon (pictured), The Mighty Ducks and in Rock Star, the latter which stars Wahlberg himself!
Smash Mouth, “All Star”
Prior to becoming the cheesy '90s pop smash we never knew how badly we needed, Smash Mouth’s “All Star” was included on the soundtrack of Mystery Men, with the superhero film’s characters appearing in the official music video. “All Star” later showed up in Shrek and in Rat Race, which included a Smash Mouth concert in one scene.
Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”
Along with the Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell version, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” was re-recorded by Diana Ross and once again became a smash ripe for film use. Stepmom (pictured),Sister Act 2 and Remember the Titans have all used “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” to evoke feelings of closeness and family.
War, “Low Rider”
The 1975 funk track has been sampled, covered and used in movies more times than anyone can count: on the latter point, watch Dazed and Confused (pictured), Cheech and Chong’s Up in Smoke, Gone in 60 Seconds or Friday to find the easygoing War anthem.