The 10 Most Overused Songs in Movie History

 
 
Scores and musical tracks are a big part of the movie going experience. Quite often much bigger than the typical audience members really perceives consciously upon first watch. Other times, particularly with selected pop tracks, the movie instantly becomes easily accessible for many with the inclusion of highly popular and very specific emotion laden tracks. Since these very iconic tracks can be used effectively, many times a track will get so over used that we start eye rolling the second the first three notes have been emitted from the speakers. Heck, RowThree’s own Kurt Halfyard has refused to see Kung Fu Panda based solely on the fact that they use one of the tracks from this very list in their marketing campaign.

At any rate, thanks to Jena for letting us repost this list of the most overused songs in movie history. Personally, I’d have to add James Brown’s “I FEEL GOOD” to the mix as well, but otherwise this is a pretty good list. What other can you think of that should maybe be included here?

*UPDATE* – I’ve added Spotify links to the individual track for each song. If you don’t have Spotify, you don’t poperly appreciate music or you’re in Canada.

 
 

“London Calling,” The Clash
The Clash were a fantastic punk band that formed at a pivotal time for rock music and shaped what was to come. They started blowing up in the U.K. in 1977, but it was 1979’s London Calling, their third album, that took them to a new level of fame at home and abroad. Make no mistake, “London Calling” is a great song, a soaring, minor-key, doomsday tune that summed up fears about the future in a new way for young listeners. But it’s since become a cheap go-to for movies looking to score a montage set in London. It’s as if there’s a California law requiring the song to be used every time a movie character heads to England. Do yourself a favor: skip those movies and stick with the record.
Spotify

 


“At Last,” Etta James
Etta James has a set of pipes like no other, and in her heyday she produced some of the best R&B/blues singles of the century. That’s a fact. But listening to movies, you’d never know she’s had a career spanning 60 years. You’d only know her for one song: “At Last,” a 1960 recording of a song penned in 1941. Granted, James’ powerhouse vocals make the song her own, and after hearing her sing it, it’s impossible to imagine anyone else bringing the same mix of joy and yearning to the tune. But it’s been used so often as a default romantic song that the novelty’s worn off. Instead of being a real expression of story or character, it’s a way for a filmmaker to telegraph that all is well and that you should applaud.
Spotify
 


“O Fortuna,” Carl Orff
It’s in everything. Everything. You’re humming it right now without knowing it. You know the song without remembering you know it. It’s that popular. A medieval poem set to music by Carl Orff when he turned the Carmina Burana into a cantata in the 1930s, the song is a blasting mix of high drama, eerie choruses, and pulsing strings that seem destined to be set against visuals of football players, aliens, and everything in between. No one uses this song un-ironically anymore, either. It’s always set against bad comedic montages or cheesy sports clips.
Spotify
 
 
 


“Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World (medley),” Israel Kamakawiwo’ole
Hawaiian singer Israel Kamakawiwo’ole was a hit on the islands and not much more, but then his 1993 album Facing Future hit shelves. The record featured a medley of “Over the Rainbow” and “What a Wonderful World,” with “Iz” crooning in a gentle tenor while Hawaiian strings bobbed along. It was, essentially, the best made-for-ads song recorded to date, and it began to appear almost immediately in movies and TV series. It hit the saturation point when it was used in Adam Sandler’s 50 First Dates, and it hasn’t recovered since.
Spotify
 
 


“Low Rider,” War
Are you making a movie set in the 1970s and/or about marijuana consumption? Guess what, you’re gonna put War’s “Low Rider” on the soundtrack. The familiar horn blasts and guttural growl are instantly recognizable thanks to the song’s use in dozens of film projects, from the period coming-of-age flick Dazed and Confused to the decidedly less emotionally resonant Baseketball and The Final Destination. It’s one of the worst offenders in the category because no filmmaker ever really cares about the song, nor is any viewer ever excited to hear it. It’s just a lazy way to telegraph era or attitude, without doing of the work of actually writing a movie.
Spotify
 
 


“Bad to the Bone,” George Thorogood and the Destroyers
When a filmmaker wants to communicate that his character is edgy — not actually dangerous or anything, just rough in a PG kind of way — this song gets fired up. Without fail. It’s become a goofy joke to use George Thorogood’s 1982 song in cornball comedies, largely because the song was never that tough to begin with. One of the most well-known uses: Terminator 2: Judgment Day, when Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-800 steals clothes and a motorcycle from some bikers and gets crazy.
Spotify
 
 
 
 


“Sweet Home Alabama,” Lynyrd Skynyrd
So iconic, but so tired. Lynyrd Skynyrd’s musical beef with Neil Young might be lyrically petty (and also weirdly supportive of, or at least ambiguous about, Gov. George Wallace), but it’s a Southern rock classic thanks to its swampy sound and easy guitar groove. The problem is that the song’s so popular it’s usually the first one people think of when considering Southern rock, so it gets used in tons of movies to set a tone that’s not wholly earned. It’s used a lot in comedies and in brassy action movies like Con Air and Crimson Tide. Also, KFC ads. So there’s that.
Spotify
 
 
 


“Let’s Get it On,” Marvin Gaye
Such a fantastic soul classic that’s been absolutely ruined by overuse in movies. Marvin Gaye was one smooth operator, and this 1973 track became a landmark song for couples looking to, let’s say, spend some time together. But now it’s in just about everything that comes out of Hollywood. If there’s a slightly comedic love scene, rest assured this song will be played. The titles are too numerous to begin listing here; check out IMDb for a full rundown. Best use? High Fidelity.
Spotify
 
 
 
 


“Kung Fu Fighting,” Carl Douglas
“Kung Fu Fighting” was popular because, well, Americans like weird stuff and one-hit wonders. Martial arts movies and imports were taking off in the early 1970s, so Carl Douglas rode the zeitgeist to infamy. The downside is that one-hit wonders do not age well at all, and any future placement of the song in film skipped past comedic and went to ironic and sad. Like, everyone can sing the chorus to “Kung Fu Fighting,” but no one actually thinks it’s a good song. It’s just a kind of groaner. The only acceptable use so far was in Bowfinger, an absurd Steve Martin comedy from 1999 that no one takes seriously anyway.
Spotify
 
 


“In the Hall of the Mountain King,” Edvard Grieg
Dating to 1873, the actual words that accompany the music are about gnomes, trolls, and mythical old kings, but that’s not important. It’s a bold, mostly minor-key piece that builds to speedy blasts of strings and winds, making it ideal for anything frenetic or scary. It’s played a huge role in movie history, too, with its first film use in D.W. Griffith’s 1915 epic Birth of a Nation and appearances in many works since. Peter Lorre’s character whistled it in M; the Winklevi raced to a remix in The Social Network. It’s a well-known and well-regarded piece, and that’s why it’s time to put it in the vault, or at least severely restrict its use. It’s decent enough but just plain overplayed. Music in movies should create a new experience, not try to remind you of old ones. All apologies to Grieg’s descendants, but this one has to go.
Spotify
 
 

Andrew James
Podcaster. Tech junkie. Movie lover. Student. Also, beer.

32 Comments

  1. Ha! Great post. You’ve picked out most of the ones I’d go for. Annoyingly I love some of those songs – At Last, London’s Calling, Sweet Home Alabama and Let’s Get It On are some of my favourite songs, but you’re right – the movies have totally abused them over the years.

    Reply
  2. @ Gord… “Hallelujah” needs to be put into a drawer for a while. Between movies and Idol-esque TV shows, you’re right on: It’s overexposed.

    For my money the other tune that comes up too often is Jimi’s cover of “All Along the Watchtower”, especially when the scene needs to evoke a ’60’s Feel’. I always wanted to get a job as a film’s musical director…if only to avoid repetition like what you’ve mentioned in this post.

    Reply
  3. My perception (I’ve not checked on this) is that DreamworksAnimation is guilty of using almost each and everyone one at one point or another in their films.

    Another overused one is AxelF (Used recently in both Monsters&Aliens and Space Chimps)

    In terms of Reusing of SCORE – Clint Mansell’s score from Requiem for a Dream and Also Sprach Zarathustra are wildly overused, admittedly the latter is used in sci-fi comedy to poke at 2001: A Space Odyssey unflinching majesty, but still..

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  4. Indeed, ‘London’s Calling’! Great choice. Wish I was there, in London that is.

    Gord notes ‘Hallelujah’ by Cohen….yep that’s another favourite, but I much prefer the version by K. D. Lang! Either way, I agree the song itself should definately be on the list.

    Reply
  5. Good picks, Andrew!

    I think I would add Steppenwolf’s “Born to be Wild.” When I finally saw Dennis Hooper’s “Easy Rider,” a movie famous for its 60’s counterculture sensibilities, I remember being taken out of the movie completely when that song showed up. Funny thing is, I don’t think it was even Hopper’s fault; it’s just that after hearing that song being used ad nauseum in countless lesser films (and a million automobile commercials), the song just sounded way too perfectly on-the-nose.

    So I guess that’s a hidden disadvantage of music selection overkill. The ones that got it right in the beginning risk suffering as a result too!

    Reply
  6. @ Swarez… You’re being ironical calling it “Teenage Wasteland”, right?

    Ooh, I actually amend my earlier point about ‘Watchtower’ – all Jimi Hendrix needs to be out of bounds for any future soundtrack.

    And just to be different, I prefer Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah”.

    Reply
  7. Nice to hear some Apocalyptica love. My wife and I have been to see them live (she watches pretty much any Finnish band that comes to the UK) and I enjoyed it a lot more than I expected. The sounds they get from those cellos is something else.

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  8. Just as I read this the Troll Hunter credits were playing and suddenly In the Hall of the Mountain King starts playing. At least theres a joke to its inclusion here.

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  9. In the Hall of the Mountain King is in Hanna, too, but I think it’s a deliberate reference to M, which fits with Hanna’s overall genre pastiche style.

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  10. Niiiiice.
    Is it cliche to mention Carl Orff’s “O Fortuna” from Carmina Burana? Or any rendition of “Total Eclipse of the Heart”? Or “Don’t Stop Believing” — maybe Journey’s entire catalogue should be up there. (Though the “Burns, Baby Burns” episode makes the best use of “Anyway You Want It.”)

    Reply
  11. This just popped into my head as a song brilliantly re-used over and over by the same director: Gimme Shelter by the Rolling Stones, which Scorsese uses in a lot of his films.

    Agree with most of this list, particularly Kung Fu Fighting (although, Kurt, ignore that and watch Kung Fu Panda – it’s delightful) and At Last.

    Reply
  12. I was just rewatching The Losers there (which is a load of fun, and better than I remember it being in cinemas) and there’s a song which should be on the most overused list – Black Betty.

    Reply
  13. Black Betty is used better than I’ve every heard it used, in Ted Demme’s BLOW, with Depp strutting through thru the airport towards US customs with two huge suitcases of Coke. So Magnificent, that yea, the song has to be retired after that.

    Reply
  14. I’d totally forgotten it was used in Blow, haven’t seen that movie for years. I have a soft spot for how it’s used in Kung Pow: Enter the Fist. Since the character comically starts to refer to himself as Betty. “But… isn’t Betty a WOMAN’S name?” I don’t care, I love that movie! ;)

    If we’re talking songs in trailers how about “Kings and Queens” by 30 Seconds To Mars? I love that band and that song but it’s so overused now (I blame Zack Snyder and his owl movie).

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  15. I’m sure Betty is used in that song as ‘slang’ not a particular womans name.

    Coming from iconic pin-up Betty Paige, as in:
    The term Betty refers to a hot chick. One that is attractive, stylish and self confident. A Betty is typically a looker.

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  16. When the underdog finally overcome all obstacles an wins the race/girl/fight/spelling contest/whatever, there’s a 50/50 chance the score is “Chariots of fire” by Vangelis.

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  17. Not so much a song but a piece of music. Somebody only has to start running and the music from charriots of fire starts up.

    Reply

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