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The Best Songs in the (Fictional) Universe

Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper’s “Shallow” got us thinking: What are the best songs written or performed on screen by characters in a movie?

Warner Bros./Disney/Universal/New Line/Getty Images/Ringer

On Friday, at long last, one of the great cinematic achievements of our time hit theaters, peaking with one of the great musical achievements of our time. I am talking, of course, about Venom, and specifically Eminem’s titular contribution to the soundtrack, which includes such incendiary lines as “Ain’t no telling when this chokehold / On this game will end, I’m loco / Became a symbiote, so / My fangs are in your throat, ho.” Incredible. Shout-out to Eminem, and America, and symbiotes, and the cinema.

Also in theaters: the Bradley Cooper–Lady Gaga remake of A Star Is Born, which slaps, to use jokey slang that nobody in this movie would use. I thought it was ridiculous, with very confusing ideas about rock and pop and authenticity, and I loved it very much, and cried a great deal in the theater at like 10:30 a.m. when Cooper and Gaga sing “Shallow” together for the first time. Virtual Best Song Oscar lock, instant classic, the whole deal. I’m smitten, I stan it, I’m in the hive—pick your jokey slang.

This, then, is a thing in which my true best friend Shea Serrano and I run down the 28 best fictional songs in movie history. Meaning, original songs either written or performed (or both) on screen by that movie’s fictional characters. (The fact that 28 is not a very round number is the least of this list’s problems, as you will see.) Further ground rules will be adopted or discarded so as to serve our personal agendas. Speaking of, let’s kick the list off with a song I’d never heard of that Shea yelled at me for failing to include. I can’t figure out whether he’s joking. Given how bizarre this particular corner of pop culture tends to be, get used to that feeling. —Rob Harvilla

28. Samantha James, “Forgiveness” (Just Friends, 2005)

Shea Serrano: I was not joking, Rob. This was literally the first song I thought of when you asked whether I wanted to write about fake songs from movies. Have you seen Just Friends? It’s wonderful. It’s a little too silly to be an actual romantic comedy, but that’s basically what it is. Ryan Reynolds plays a record producer who, among other things, ends up having to ferry around Samantha James, a pop star played by Anna Faris. (Reynolds is not in love with Samantha James. He’s in love with a different person.)

“Forgiveness” is a song that Samantha writes that she’s really excited about. And listen, it’s mostly a bad song, but it’s bad on purpose, which is a thing that’s way harder to pull off than it should be. (The Eminem song you mentioned earlier is Bad on Accident.) That’s a big part of the reason I like “Forgiveness” so much. Faris delivers it perfectly; the lines in it are perfect; the length is perfect; it’s all just so perfect. Everyone has lost their mind over A Star Is Born—and RIGHTFULLY so, because it’s a beautiful movie and “Shallow” is an actual beautiful song. But I might argue that it’s harder to make a song like “Forgiveness” than it is to make a song like “Shallow.” That’s why it’s able to sneak onto this list in the 28th spot.

The thing you said about “ground rules”—what are you talking about there? What are the ground rules here, Rob? Am I not allowed to just write 6,000 words about how underappreciated Anna Faris is?

27. Aldous Snow, “We’ve Got to Do Something” (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, 2008)

26. Rex Manning, “Say No More (Mon Amour)” (Empire Records, 1995)

25. Billy Mack, “Christmas Is All Around” (Love Actually, 2003)

24. Aldous Snow, “African Child (Trapped in Me)” (Get Him to the Greek, 2010)

Harvilla: This website feels very strongly about Anna Faris, and will certainly run as many thousands of words about her as you wish to generate. I agree totally that “bad on purpose” is very difficult to pull off and very enjoyable when somebody pulls it off. For example, here are four exceedingly pompous English rock songs spanning four movies and 15 years. Rex Manning and Billy Mack are the fading pop-idol buffoons of their respective rom-coms, the hopeless old guys who contextualize all the beautiful young people falling in love. They are designed to age poorly on purpose, at least.

Aldous Snow, played by Russell Brand as the kooky villain of Forgetting Sarah Marshall and the anti-hero of extended-universe quasi-sequel Get Him to the Greek, is a bit more complicated, not to mention vivid. His songs are laugh-out-loud stupid and wildly inappropriate Oasis rip-offs, and very successful as such. Revisiting them now, I confess that they remind me a lot of the Harry Styles solo record, but that’s going to get me in a lot of trouble around here.

As for the ground rules, here’s a way to think about it: Eminem’s “Lose Yourself,” while a fine song that might inspire you to change your life and/or punch someone, was written for 8 Mile but is not part of 8 Mile’s fictional universe. Which is to say that Eminem is rapping about being his character B-Rabbit, but not rapping as B-Rabbit. Whereas B-Rabbit’s climactic, winning freestyle is delivered in the movie by a character in the movie, and enjoyed by other people in the movie. And yes, it’s just one freestyle in the midst of a giant battle competition, not a full song, but that’s what I mean about the other criteria being irrelevant whenever we feel like it.

23. Blueshammer, “Pickin’ Cotton Blues” (Ghost World, 2001)

22. Tone Def, “I’m Just a Human” (Fear of a Black Hat, 1993)

Serrano: The freestyle battles at the end of 8 Mile are superb, and certainly better and more interesting than “Lose Yourself,” of that we can both agree. However, a thing that we can not agree on here is you tasking me with writing about Blueshammer’s “Pickin’ Cotton Blues” and Tone Def’s “I’m Just A Human Being.” I’m not going to do that.

Harvilla: I respect your position. “Pickin’ Cotton Blues” is a horrible song by a horrible frat-blues band that Ghost World uses to convey how horrible the modern world is, and definitely the meanest Bad on Purpose fake song in film history. I think about the lead-guitar tone once a month. (It’s horrible.) “I’m Just a Human” is a two-minute poop joke disguised as a P.M. Dawn parody, or vice versa. It’s a little less mean, but only by comparison. But please, continue.

21. Steel Dragon, “We All Die Young” (Rock Star, 2001)

Serrano: Instead, what I’m going to do is highlight those two selections, then click delete, then type the all-caps question, “WHY IS STEEL DRAGON NOT IN THE TOP THREE ON THIS LIST THAT YOU HAVE PUT TOGETHER, ROB?” Because Steel Dragon, the fake band from the movie Rock Star, in which Mark Wahlberg plays the lead singer of a tribute band who ends up becoming the lead singer of the band his tribute band was paying tribute to, is a top-level act, and I’m just so, so, so sad that you’ve ignored them here.

And even if you somehow manage to talk yourself into not liking the entire movie, I can’t figure one single way you can talk yourself into at least not liking the audition scene when Wahlberg wins the job with Steel Dragon. They pump-fake you by making it seem like he’s going to choke, then they pump-fake you again and it really feels like it’s all about to be a disaster, then he finally gets his feet underneath him and goes nuts and it’s so beautiful and great and uplifting and inspiring.

Also, and this is going back to the rules you seem to be making up as you go along, but how do we handle situations where a real band is in a movie and they’re pretending to be a fake band but they’re playing real, actual songs? Because that’s exactly what happens with the Jeff Healey band in Road House. Or what about a movie like Popstar? How do we handle that? Because Popstar, which is wildly and offensively underrated, has a good four or five songs in it that are better than all but the very best of the ones mentioned in this article.

Harvilla: I fondly remember Jeff Healey, and I feel bad that he spends basically the whole movie in a cage, but I’m pretty sure he’s playing his real-life band’s songs and just happens to be named “Cody.” And if not, well, I have a strict policy against thinking too hard about Road House. (It’s a closer call, but this same approach is what excludes, say, “Purple Rain,” which is definitively a Prince song, not a “The Kid” song. Same deal with Whitney Houston in The Bodyguard, and also, it’s a cover.) Whereas Popstar totally counts, yes, absolutely. Shea, please tell me about your favorite song from Popstar.

20. Seal, “Ashley Wednesday” (Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, 2016)

Serrano: Jesus. Where do I start? “I’m So Humble” is wonderful. (I was expecting a lot of things when I watched Popstar, but a hologram of Adam Levine twerking on another hologram of Adam Levine was not one of them.) “Equal Rights” is wonderful. “Finest Girl (Bin Laden Song)” is obviously a genius-level thing. “Things in My Jeep” is funny, but somehow not as funny as when Nas says he couldn’t relate to the song because he had different things in his Jeep. “Incredible Thoughts” gets into the conversation off the Bolton cameo and also the line about what if a garbage man was actually smart. They’re all so great, and the movie is legitimately hilarious and sweet and a large amount of fun to watch. I think if I have to pick one musical moment from it, though, then it has to be that “Ashley Wednesday” song that Seal performs when Conner proposes to Ashley. He’s just always (to me) been such a serious person, and so watching him lean all the way into the silliness of the song in the most serious way possible—it just makes me so happy.

19. Breathless Mahoney, “Hanky Panky” (Dick Tracy, 1990)

18. Esther Hoffman, “Evergreen” (A Star Is Born, 1976)

Harvilla: We’re into the Bad on Accident tier here, which, OK, that’s a worse tier generally, but both of these songs have their champions. Shea, please don’t tell me how old you were when Dick Tracy came out, but suffice it to say that it was a multimillion-dollar contrivance to get Madonna and Warren Beatty to date for awhile, and also Madonna plays a bombshell nightclub singer named Breathless Mahoney whose big upbeat signature song has a chorus of, “Like hanky panky / Nothing like a good spanky / Don’t take out your handkerchiefs / I don’t wanna cry, I just wanna hanky panky.” It did for kinky sex what Eminem’s “Venom” does for violence. In a peak-Madonna era, however, this is somehow a compliment.

Given A Star Is Born mania, I am very curious how many people will revisit the 1976 Barbra Streisand–Kris Kristofferson version, and I am even more curious what percentage of those people will make it through the whole movie. Streisand plays Esther Hoffman, who is a star, and it is a whole lot to deal with. I hope someone in the studio hosed off that microphone afterward.

17. Revenge, “They’re So Incredible” (Revenge of the Nerds, 1984)

Serrano: At the center of all of this, there really are only two types of fake songs that appear in movies. There are (a) songs that you’re expecting, which happen in movies like A Star Is Born or Rockstar or Coco or La La Land or when music is integral to the mechanics of the movie’s plot; and (b) songs that you aren’t expecting, which happen in non-music movies as cute or charming little asides.

That second category is where “They’re So Incredible” falls. And it’s not that the song is good, because it’s definitely not. (It’s kind of all over the place; there’s an electric violin and a guitar and an Asian guy dressed as a Native American playing a gong and two guys playing drum machines and a different guy rapping and breakdancing and a smaller guy breakdancing with him; it’s like one of the in-between acts on America’s Got Talent that they throw in there so the judges can buzz them away.) The song is supposed to represent a good moment, as it is presented as the culmination of a victory that was never supposed to have happened. It’s not a song—it’s a trophy. It’s the nerdy, nerdy, nerdy Lambdas finally besting the handsome, popular, all-American Alphas. That’s why it was so great, and so much fun to watch.

OR, RATHER, that’s what it was supposed to be, all the way up until the moment when you realize that the nerds are guilty of several prison-level sex-based crimes. I mean, just earlier that day they not only sold naked pictures of women that they took after installing videos cameras in a sorority house, but Lewis, leader of the nerds, was on stage performing mere hours after having raped a woman. I move that we strike this song from this conversation and from the public record.

16, Violet Sanford, “Can’t Fight the Moonlight” (Coyote Ugly, 2000)

15. Otis “Bad” Blake, “Fallin & Flyin’” (Crazy Heart, 2009)

14. Dewey Cox, “Walk Hard” (Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, 2007)

Harvilla: Agreed. On to a few far less discomfiting time capsules. A mutual friend of ours—and, more importantly, our editor—was very insistent on the inclusion of “Can’t Fight the Moonlight,” which is written and performed by Piper Perabo’s character in Coyote Ugly, delivered on the soundtrack by LeAnn Rimes, and sounds exactly like Britney Spears. For me, the most memorable thing about Coyote Ugly is when John Goodman dances on the bar to INXS’s “Need You Tonight,” so I may be the wrong person to assess this.

Crazy Heart is probably due for a reassessment also, given the past and present A Star Is Born parallels. Certainly Jeff Bridges is as grizzled as it gets and surprisingly tuneful: He’s more convincing than Bradley Cooper as a fading-superstar drunk but less affecting, if that makes any sense. And overall, fake country music in particular may best lend itself to total, gleeful parody, and “Walk Hard” is absurdly perfect from the title on down.

13. Robbie Hart, “Grow Old With You” (The Wedding Singer, 1998)

Serrano: This is a line in The Wedding Singer, a movie in which Adam Sandler plays a wedding singer whose fiancé ditches him at the altar and so his life crumbles into a trillion pieces but then he meets Drew Barrymore (she works for a catering service) and they fall in love and it’s beautiful. Anyway, here’s the line. It’s from a scene when Sandler is helping Barrymore choose a wedding singer for the wedding she’s supposed to be having soon. She asks him about music and he says, “I kind of just wanted to be a songwriter, you know? I think that’s the hardest thing: to write a song; a song that, you know, when people hear it they go, ‘Whoa. I know what that guy was feeling when he wrote that.’”

I pull that line out and highlight it here because that is the exact feeling Sandler is able to pull off with “Grow Old With You,” the song that he sings to Barrymore in the movie’s big ending when he convinces her to ditch the a-hole she’s supposed to marry so she can marry Sandler instead. He’s at his most charming, his most vulnerable, his most in love. It’s dripping off of his eyelashes, how much he loves her. And Barrymore, a brilliant actress, is able to summon all of those same feelings without ever even saying a word. The two create this extremely tender and sincere and honest moment, and I’m not sure what else you’re looking for from a song in a movie besides this exact feeling.

12. Mitch & Mickey, “A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow” (A Mighty Wind, 2003)

11. Eddie and the Cruisers, “On the Dark Side” (Eddie and the Cruisers, 1983)

10. Stillwater, “Fever Dog” (Almost Famous, 2000)

Harvilla: Amazing fake Ian & Sylvia vs. amazing fake Bruce Springsteen vs. amazing fake Led Zeppelin. Stillwater gets the nod because Almost Famous is the best movie here, and also because in the early 2000s, when I was bored at work, I would call up random friends, wait until they said hello, then yell “FEEEVVER DOGGGGG” and hang up. It was hilarious.

9. Sing Street, “Up” (Sing Street, 2016)

Serrano: Can I tell you a dumb thing? The only reason I put my name down to write about this entry when I saw the list that you put together is because I confused Sing Street, a “musical coming-of-age comedy-drama” from 2016 that I have never watched all the way through, with Sing, a “computer-animated musical comedy-drama” from 2016 that I have watched all the way through several times because there is a 5-year-old child who lives in my house and likes movies where animated animals do things that real-life humans do, the most relevant of which here being “sing songs.” There’s a song performed at the end of the movie called “I’m Still Standing”—it’s really good. There’s this young gorilla whose father is in jail because he’s a criminal and he tried to get the young gorilla to be a criminal too, but the young gorilla only wanted to be a musician and he’s the one who sings the song and it’s about being a survivor and he plays the piano while he’s singing it and there’s a part where he’s so overcome with power and strength and confidence that he stands up off his little seat and plays “I’m Still Standing” while he’s standing and, oh man. Whoa. You should’ve put that song on here instead of this “Up” one.

And, look, I know that you had that rule earlier about it has to be a song that exists only within the movie, but I just don’t care, is all. And besides, it’s a loophole here anyway, because the song does exist within the movie, and function as a part of the movie. And if you don’t want to accept that as a reason for including it, then I’d like to play the Elton John card here, Rob. Because listen: “I’m Still Standing” is an Elton John song, yes. But Taron Egerton plays the young gorilla in Sing, and also Taron Egerton is going to play Elton John in the upcoming Elton John biopic Rocketman. And I don’t know exactly how that proves my case that you should replace Sing Street’s “Up” with Sing’s “I’m Still Standing,” but I know that it does.

Harvilla: There’s a lot of upsetting information here. Please do not judge Sing Street by its Wikipedia entry: It is very sweet and rousing, and I watched it with my mom, and we both enjoyed it very much, and I won’t let you take that away from me. It is certainly more poignant than somebody standing up while singing “I’m Still Standing,” even if that somebody is a cartoon ape whose father is in jail. (I took my kids to see Sing in the theater on Christmas Eve because they wouldn’t calm down, which resulted in them singing “Baby Got Back” for the next three weeks. I don’t care for Sing.) Also, quit messing with the ground rules, the ground rules make perfect sense.

8. Guy and Girl, “Falling Slowly” (Once, 2007)

Harvilla: Real quick before Shea fouls this up somehow, let’s also shout-out the other super-poignant comedy/drama/romance about a struggling Irish musician. This one won an Oscar, which is what I assume Taron Egerton will do for starring in the Elton John biopic.

7. Spinal Tap, “Big Bottom” (This Is Spinal Tap, 1984)

6. Dead Mike, “I’m Black Y’all” (CB4, 1993)

Harvilla: The two funniest fake-song moments of all time are “How could I leave this behind?” and “I’m bliggedity-black blackety black black, I’m blacker than black.” Thank you.

5. PoP!, “Pop! Goes My Heart” (Music and Lyrics, 2007)

4. The Oneders, “That Thing You Do!” (That Thing You Do!, 1996)

Harvilla: “Pop! Goes My Heart!” is peak fake ’80s and involves Hugh Grant cosplaying as a member of Duran Duran; it was written by Andrew Wyatt, a.k.a. the mid-tier indie-rock guy who also cowrote “Shallow.” Figure that one out. “That Thing You Do!” is peak fake bubblegum ’60s and was written by top-tier power-pop guy Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne. He did not contribute to A Star Is Born, but it would’ve been better if he had. Regardless, both songs are now stuck in your head simultaneously. You’re welcome.

3. Three 6 Mafia, “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” (Hustle & Flow, 2005)

Serrano: The one part of this scene that takes it from VERY GOOD (which is what many of the music scenes in Hustle & Flow are categorized as) and turns it into INSTANTLY ICONIC doesn’t even have anything to do with Terrence Howard, who is the star of the movie. It’s a tiny thing that Taraji P. Henson does, is what makes this scene so special.

She spends the whole entire movie just getting shit on by everyone and everything. It’s really, really bad for her. And then Terrence and Anthony Anderson and DJ Qualls pull her into the makeshift studio where they’re recording and ask her, unprompted, to sing the hook of a song. She’s totally scared, and nervous, and anxious, and she just keeps fucking it up. She finally gets one of the takes right, and when she does, Anderson and Qualls shoo her and Terrence away so they can work. You hear all this stuff happening in the background and she’s sitting outside the door while Terrence stalks around the room getting madder and madder that he’s also been kicked out of the room. Qualls finally opens the door and brings them back in. Anderson queues up the music, and as these snare drums are tapping over and over again to set up the chorus, the camera bounces around between the people in the room, each of them looking a little hot and a little frustrated and a little uneasy. It finally settles on Taraji, and right then is when her singing comes on through the speakers. And it sounds so beautiful and so gorgeous and so pitch-perfect.

The camera pulls in tight on her face as she covers her mouth with her hand, absolutely in shock from what she’s hearing. She experiences this giant wave of emotion, and, even after seeing that scene a good 15 or 20 times, it’s still overwhelming to watch her pull it off so convincingly. She explains later in the movie how much that moment meant to her, and how desperately she needed it. But even if she hadn’t, you’d have known. It’s impossible not to.

2. Jackson and Ally, “Shallow” (A Star Is Born, 2018)

Harvilla: I’d like to take this opportunity to embed this video on this website just one more time.

1. Miguel and Mamá Coco, “Remember Me” (Coco, 2017)

Serrano: Here’s how I know this is the right pick for the no. 1 spot, assuming we’ve arranged these into order toward a no. 1 spot: Typically, I feel weird in situations when I have to explain why a Mexican-related thing is the best pick of a bunch of things, what with me being a Mexican and all. Part of me always feels like other people are sitting there going, “Well, of course that was going to be the no. 1 pick. Look who they have working on it. It’s Shea, a known Mexican. He’s always going to pick entries from his team over the other teams.” But I don’t feel even 1 single percent of that feeling right now. Because the scene at the end of Coco when Miguel and Mamá Coco sing “Remember Me” together as she’s drifting toward death is a fucking mammoth moment. It’s so perfect. The whole movie builds up to it without you ever even knowing that’s what’s going to happen. And when all the pieces finally snap together and Miguel is singing through his tears and Mamá Coco is sitting there catatonic and the whole family is in the room watching the scene play out … I mean … geez. It’s real art, is what it is. And that’s nothing to say of the stakes involved (if Miguel can’t get Mama Coco to sing along with him, then she’s not going to be able to remember her father, and if she can’t remember her father, then his spirit is going to be lost into the ether forever). Rob, please tell me you also have this as your no. 1.

Harvilla: As the guy who made this list and put “Remember Me” at no. 1, I am happy to confirm that “Remember Me” is no. 1. Thank you for not confusing it with another movie.

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