Jay-Z was apparently so moved by watching Ridley Scott’s 2007 biopic American Gangster that he created an entire concept album in response. Others have taken a more specific approach, writing anthems to a particular actor or director or, in some cases, turning the plot of a movie into song lyrics. Below are a few great tunes about the moving pictures and the people that make them.
“The Right Profile,” The Clash
Tucked away in the British punk legend’s most legendary album London Calling is this jaunty horn-flecked ode to actor Montgomery Clift. The producer of the album Guy Stevens apparently loaned singer/guitarist Joe Strummer a biography of the troubled actor, inspiring the tune. It pulls no punches either, commenting on Clift’s struggles with booze and drugs, and referencing the fact that, after needing plastic surgery to fix a broken jaw, the actor’s face could only be shot from the right side.
“E=MC2,” Big Audio Dynamite
The debut album from the first post-breakup project by ex-Clash singer/guitarist Mick Jones featured a more modern hip-hop sound and oddball lyrical subjects, including a tribute to the films of director Nicolas Roeg. Peppered throughout are samples of dialogue from 1970’s Mick Jagger-starring fever dream Performance but Jones sing of the “magic imagery” of many of the British filmmaker’s best work: The Man Who Fell To Earth (“Space guy fell from the sky/scratched my head and wondered why”), Don’t Look Now, and Insignificance (“The king of brains, queen of the sack/executives have heart attack”).
“Ingrid Bergman,” Billy Bragg
Woody Guthrie never recorded a version this slightly bawdy tune about his crush on the Casablanca star, but it was resurrected in 1998 on Mermaid Avenue, an album by Billy Bragg and Wilco that wrote new music around some of the folk legend’s unused lyrics. On this track, it is only Bragg and his guitar, calmly working through this short and sweet song with a fingerpicked guitar melody and his iconic vocal delivery.
“What’s Yr Take on Cassavettes?” Le Tigre
Consider these tracks to be the two sides of a great 7” single. The former is pure agitprop punk hero worship, with Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto marveling at the genius of director John Cassavetes and lamenting the lack of films that, as he sings, “send it with truth.” The latter goes electro-pop but dares to debate the two sides of the director’s mercurial personality. Or as the lyrics go: “Misogynist? Genius?/Alcoholic? Messiah?”
“The Seventh Seal,” Scott Walker
Former pop star and current creator of challenging avant garde musical epics, Scott Walker has long acknowledged the influence of cinema on his creative efforts, in particular the work of European directors like Pier Paolo Pasolini and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. This track from Walker’s 1969 LP Scott 4 gives his love of film a more direct outlet by turning the plot of Ingmar Bergman’s modernist classic into lyrics and musically framing them with some peppy Latin flair.
“The Wicker Man,” Bruce Dickinson
One of the erstwhile Iron Maiden vocalist’s lesser known solo efforts, Bruce Dickinson’s skyscraping homage to the 1973 British horror film was hidden away on the second disc of a best of collection. But thanks to the wonders of YouTube, we can all now revel in this song’s triumphal rock and how Dickinson’s distinctive vocals make lines like “From the hills of Tarna see the Beltane fires” sound like a call-to-arms.
“Night of the Living Dead,” Misfits
Misfits vocalist Glenn Danzig regularly mined the world of b-movies for inspiration, even going so far as to call his record label Plan 9 in honor of Ed Wood’s most well-known film. On this New Jersey punk band’s debut LP, the cinematic references run deep, including a track dedicated to the camp sci-fi epic Astro Zombies and this song that takes you inside the world of George Romero’s 1968 cult classic.
“The Red Shoes,” Kate Bush
The 1993 album of the same name by British art pop superstar Kate Bush was borne from her love of the 1948 Powell/Pressburger classic. But nowhere does this come to light more than, naturally, the title track. The lyrics speak to the same sort of hypnotic joy that Victoria Page feels in the film as she dances—“Feel your feet start kissing the ground/feel your arms opening out/and see your eyes are lifted to God”—and is matched step-by-step by rousing Middle Eastern rhythms.
“I Watched The Film The Song Remains The Same,” Sun Kil Moon
Mark Kozelek’s musical project Sun Kil Moon has morphed into an outlet for his talking blues-like explorations of his id and ego. And on his most recent album Benji that comes out with mixed success. He finds the sweet spot on this epic-length track where he speak-sings his way through his remembrance of seeing the titular Led Zeppelin concert film “at the midnight movies…at a Canton, Ohio mall with friends,” using it as a jumping off point to talk about some bitter memories from his younger days.
“Nebraska,” Bruce Springsteen
The centerpiece of Springsteen’s stark and beautiful album of the same name hauntingly spells out the plot of Terrence Malick’s equally unforgettable 1973 debut feature Badlands. And like the film, The Boss’s take on the story is about as devastating as it gets, aided by his trembling vocal delivery and light touches of xylophone and harmonica.