It is Valentine's Day, which gives everybody license to be sappy. Sure, Saint Valentine may have been a priest beheaded for performing weddings forbidden by Roman authorities in the Third Century, but do not let that throw a pall over the celebration. This February 14th, we bring you the gift of our totally subjective, non-scientific, and capricious list of romantic songs that made headways into the soundtrack of our lives. Befitting a cadre of Gen-Xers, it is full of hits from the 80 and 90s.
SAY YOU, SAY ME
Sit around me, kids, let me tell you about the olden times, when Lionel Ritchie was a major recording star, and you could make a movie about male ballet dancers. I did go to the theater to see White Nights (Taylor Hackford, 1985), enticed by the powerful ballad Say You, Say Me. Much to my surprise, it did not come up until the final credits reeled in, once Mikhail Baryshnikov made the trek from communist Soviet Union to America in the waning years of the Cold War. Say you, Say me made it to the top of the Billboard Hot 100, won the Oscar and the Golden Globe for Best Original Song in 1985. It is not included in the movie soundtrack, but came up a year later in Ritchie’s album Dancing on The Ceiling.
SOMEWHERE OUT THERE
Before Disney Animation Studios came back from the dead with The Little Mermaid (Ron Clemmens, John Musker, 1989) and cornering the market of cartoons cavorting to show tunes, Universal made the charts and the box office with Somewhere Out There, theme of the movie An American Tail (Don Bluth, 1986). A heart-rending story of a little immigrant mouse making his way in America, it featured a theme song performed by Linda Ronstadt and James Ingram. It won two Grammys, Song of the Year and Best Song Written Specifically for a film. It was a resurrection of sorts for 70s icon Ronstadt, now experiencing another surge of recognition thanks to HBOMax series The Last of Us featuring Long Long Time, one of her classic songs, in a must-see episode.
LIVE TO TELL
The cross-promotion scheme of releasing a song connected to a movie was not a sure thing. It was not uncommon that a hit song would overshadow the film that worked as its vehicle. People would know a film existed because snippets of scenes appeared on a video clip. That was the case of Live to Tell. Madonna’s elliptical ballad about resilience. The song was the theme of At Close Range (James Foley, 1986), a contemporary neo-noir with Christopher Walken and Sean Penn playing a father-and-son criminal team. It might have been a favor to her then husband, Penn. The song was the first single off True Blue (1986), her third album.
(I’VE HAD) THE TIME OF MY LIFE
You could fill this list with the soundtrack of Dirty Dancing (Emile Ardolino, 1987). A sixties-set impossible romance of a good jewish girl and a gentile proletarian dancer , with an odd combination of vintage pop hits and anachronistic 80s confections. I’ve Had the Time Of My Life, a duet by Bill Medley and Jennifer Warner, was the biggest hit out of it. That is the one that got the Oscar and the Grammy, but Eric Carmen also made the charts with Hungry Eyes. Even Swayze got in on the action, singing She’s Like the Wind.
IT MUST HAVE BEEN LOVE
Even back in the Eighties, nobody could buy that a sex worker with a heart of gold could melt the heart of a Wall Street shark, but having Julia Roberts and Richard Gere playing the parts in Pretty Woman (Garry Marshall, 1990) helped a lot when it came to selling the dream. Also, a crackerjack soundtrack. The movie takes the title from Roy Orbison’s classic song, but its biggest original hit was It Must Have Been Love, by Swedish band Roxette.
A killer scene can give the most played-out oldie a new life. That is the case of the heart-stopping, blood-pressure rising pottery lesson with Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze in Ghost (Jerry Zucker, 1990). In the immortal words of Stefon, the movie’s got everything: romance, mystery, super-natural high-jinks and an Oscar worthy comic relief supporting role by Whoopi Goldberg - “Molly, you are in danger, girl!” -. It also brought Unchained Melody back to the charts. It was composed by Alex North and Hy Zaret as the theme song for a movie called Unchained (Hall Bartlett, 1955). Nobody remembers it now, but the tune registered over 1,500 versions by 670 artists, including one by Elves Presley - featured in Bad Lurham’s kaleidoscopic biopic -. Alas, the producers of Ghost went for the version recorded by The Righteous Brothers.
I WILL ALWAYS LOVE YOU
And now, we arrive at the biggest, baddest power ballad of them all. Sorry, Diane Warren, but nothing holds a candle to I Will Always Love You, sung by Whitney Houston in her film debut, The Bodyguard (Mick Jackson, 1992). Singer-songwriter Dolly Parton first recorded it in 1974 as an intimate country ballad that served as a gentle kiss-off to creative partner Porter Wagoner. She sang it again in the movie musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (Colin Higgins, 1982). Ten years later, Whitney made the lyrics her own, giving them the force of a hurricane. It held on at the top of the Billboard charts for an unprecedented 14 weeks, and it remains the top female-led single record in history. No wonder the song is a centerpiece of the recent biopic I Wanna Dance with Somebody.
TAKE MY BREATH AWAY
It took Tom Cruise 37 years to get a sequel to Top Gun (1986) off the ground, but the wait was worth it. Top Gun: Maverick (Joseph Kosinski, 2022) reigned over the summer box office, and nobody threw a hissy fit when it got an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture. It is a vast improvement on the original, except for one little feature. Lady Gaga’s original song is eminently forgettable. We love Stefani Germanotta as much as the next guy, but Hold My Hand does not hold a candle to Take My Breath Away. Berlin’s theme topped the Billboard charts at number one and took the Oscar and the Golden Globe.
MY HEART WILL GO ON
In 1997, James Cameron made the Titanic sail again, with Leonardo Di Caprio and Kate Winslet playing star-crossed lovers. They danced an era-appropriate Irish jig, but Celine Dion’s power ballad was more memorable. The Canadian chanteuse’ voice sailed away on James Horner’s overwhelming score and sold over 15 million records back when buying music was a thing. It also earned 4 Grammy awards and an Oscar for Best Original Song. Cameron is bringing Titanic back in a remastered 3D, 4K, high dynamic range version. Leo still can't get on the improvised raft, but everything looks better. You can tinker away to improve visuals, but the music? Not a chance, Jimmy.
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