Cover Songs on Movie Soundtracks: A Brief History
I appreciate a good movie soundtrack when I hear one, and in between feeling guilty about failing to mention The Chemical Brothers’ propulsive soundtrack to Hanna in my review of the film, I’ve been listening to the Sucker Punch soundtrack, which seems to be encountering a level of success that the movie itself isn’t. I continue to think the film has gotten a bad rap, but I’m going to hold that thought until it comes out on DVD. I got to thinking about other movie soundtracks that utilize use mostly cover versions of songs, and I made up a list. Obviously, film versions of musical shows (Chicago, Hairspray, Mamma Mia!) aren’t included here. Can you think of any notable movie soundtracks that I’ve left out?
Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
Okay, I’m cheating a bit to start. While the idea of a “cover song” did exist in 1952, it was mostly a bit of insider jargon among musicians. The general public didn’t think of recordings of music as original versions and copies. Like quite a few other musical films of its day, this classic took a bunch of existing songs by one songwriter (in this case, the team of Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed) and fashioned a story around them. The title song had been previously recorded, but this is the version you think of when you think of “Singin’ in the Rain.” The orchestration is lush and typical of the 1950s. Check the subtle movement of the strings under the phrase “let the stormy clouds chase / everyone from the place.”
The Blues Brothers (1980)
Jake and Elwood Blues were John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd’s way of bringing the Chicago blues that they so loved to an audience that wouldn’t have heard it otherwise. Most of the music on this movie’s soundtrack was done by the artists who appeared on screen (Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, John Lee Hooker), but Belushi and Aykroyd did enough song covers to warrant an appearance on this list. Their versions of “Gimme Some Lovin’ ” and “Sweet Home Chicago” are respectable, but it’s their reworking of Solomon Burke’s “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” that’s the real winner.
The Commitments (1991)
Like the Roddy Doyle novel that it’s based on, Alan Parker’s film is specifically about a cover band’s musical adventures. Back in 1991, when pop music was far more segregated along racial lines than it is now, the idea of white Irish musicians covering Motown hits was a real novelty. They don’t shy away from the classics, either, and while their versions of “Chain of Fools” and “Midnight Hour” don’t come close to replacing the originals, if you were in a pub in Dublin and the band there suddenly busted out one of these, you’d sip on your Guinness and think, “These guys are pretty good.”
O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000)
This might be cheating, too, since the material here is traditional songs that don’t really have an accepted original version. Yet how do you ignore this splendid collection that fully deserved all its success? T-Bone Burnett put this together, and it is hard to single out one of the gems in this collection that includes Dan Tyminski’s justly famous take on “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow,” Ralph Stanley’s soul-chilling rendition of “O Death,” and The Whites’ “Keep on the Sunny Side.” However, I must confess a weakness for this majestic Alison Krauss-led version of “Down to the River to Pray.”
Moulin Rouge! (2001)
With this, the cover soundtrack moves into the contemporary era. Like Singin’ in the Rain, Baz Luhrmann’s musical takes existing songs and fits them into a story, but nobody in the 1950s would have chosen their songs so eclectically, nor would they have taken such outrageous liberties as turning “Like a Virgin” into a homoerotic comic duet and “The Show Must Go On” into an grand opera tragic lament. Jacek Koman’s growly tango version of “Roxanne” is oddly convincing, and Ewan McGregor’s take on “Your Song” is simply glorious, but I’m embedding Nicole Kidman and company’s brassy version of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” with an interpolated bit from “Material Girl” that’s just pure genius.
The soundtrack for Ben Stiller’s cult comedy misses the boat when it goes in for 1980s glam: Powerman 5000 are charmless on “Relax (Don’t Do It),” Nikka Costa is a pale shadow of Blondie on “Call Me,” and No Doubt is disappointing on a song that would seem to fit them, “Love to Love You Baby.” The soundtrack is a lot better when it turns its attention to 1960s folk rock. The Wallflowers are a surprisingly good fit with “I Started a Joke,” and Rufus Wainwright knocks it out of the park with his version of “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother.”
Freaky Friday (2003)
It seems entirely appropriate for a movie that is itself a remake should have a soundtrack composed mostly of covers. The movie is a Disney product, but Lindsay Lohan’s character plays guitar in a garage-punk band, so the soundtrack splits the difference between teen pop smoothness and punk energy and drive. (In other words, everything sounds like Avril Lavigne, who was emerging as a music star at this time.) Unfortunately, the results all sound pretty much the same, with Bowling for Soup’s “…Baby One More Time” nosing ahead of Simple Plan’s “Happy Together” and Lillix’s “What I Like About You.” Joey Ramone’s posthumously released version of “What a Wonderful World” was a posthumously released track that was not done for the film, but it fits in pretty well.
Walk the Line (2006)
Another T-Bone Burnett opus, this soundtrack is for a movie that’s a music bio, so the covers need to be historically faithful re-creations rather than re-imaginings. Still, like the movie that it’s a part of, the soundtrack helpfully places Johnny Cash in the context of early rock and roll, reminding us that while the Man in Black was country music through and through, he wasn’t just that. The supporting acts are better onscreen than they are on record, but Waylon Malloy Payne gets Jerry Lee Lewis’ energy on “Lewis Boogie.” As for the stars, Reese Witherspoon actually has a nicer voice than June Carter Cash on “Wildwood Flower” and “Juke Box Blues,” and Joaquin Phoenix does better than most anyone would fare on “Cry Cry Cry,” “Ring of Fire,” and the title song. I like his scuttling version of “Get Rhythm.”
Sucker Punch (2011)
Whereas Zack Snyder used mostly the original versions of songs for his soundtrack for Watchmen, he remade the ones here. It’s all very somber and Goth — lead actress Emily Browning’s rendition of “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” and Emiliana Torrini’s version of “White Rabbit” made me want to break out my nose ring and bottle of black nail polish. My favorite tracks, though, are the ones with a different feel, like Oscar Isaac and Carla Gugino’s outrageously crass lounge-lizard version of “Love Is the Drug,” accompanying a dance number over the end credits. I’m ending this list with Browning’s version of The Smiths’ “Asleep,” an already piercing song made even more so by the sparse arrangement and the young female voice singing it.