Hit Movie Songs from the 1970s

by | September 20, 2013 | Comments

Throw on your moth-eaten leather jacket, lace up your platform shoes, and join Rotten Tomatoes as we take a journey back to the hottest movie songs of the 1970s. Ah, yes, the 1970s: a time when blockbusters stormed theaters, disco and punk rocked the clubs, and hit soundtracks flew out of record store bins. We dug through the crates to present to you a mix of the essential cinematic singles of the “Me Decade,” so without further ado, it’s time to drop the needle on RT’s Hit Movie Songs from the 1970s!


The Bee Gees – “Stayin’ Alive,” Saturday Night Fever (1977)

In addition to providing an invitation to pack the dance floor , “Stayin’ Alive” also serves to articulate the conflicts raging within Tony Manero (John Travolta). Strutting down the street with his impeccably styled hair and top-of-the-line threads, Tony projects an air of cavalier bravado (“Well, you can tell by the way I use my walk…”) that masks a desperate yearning to escape his stifling home life and limited career prospects (“Life goin’ nowhere/ Somebody help me”). “Stayin’ Alive” offers further proof (if any were needed) that even the most despondent lyrics can go down easy if the music’s funky enough. Or, as the brothers Gibb might put it, “feel the city breakin’ and everybody shakin.'”


Isaac Hayes – “Theme from Shaft,” Shaft (1971)

Pop quiz time! 1. Who’s the black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks? 2. Who’s the cat that won’t cop out when there’s danger all about? 3. What’s the Isaac Hayes track with the funky wah-wah guitar and the stirring symphonic orchestration that topped the charts and won an Oscar for Best Original Song? Answers: 1. Shaft. 2. Shaft. 3. “Theme from Shaft.”


Elton John with the Who – “Pinball Wizard,” Tommy (1975)

The Who’s 1969 rock opera Tommy had a narrative sweep that put virtually every other concept album to shame; the tale of a “deaf, dumb, and blind kid” who “sure plays a mean pinball” must have seemed like a natural for the big screen. However, director Ken Russell wasn’t one to do things halfway; sure, the album had great songs, but the movie needed big stars. So he recruited noted thespians like Jack Nicholson, Oliver Reed, and Ann-Margret, along with rockers like Elton John, Eric Clapton, and Tina Turner, to join the Who in their working class fantasia. The Rocket Man was in particularly exuberant form as the Pinball Wizard, whose suspenders, jewel-encrusted glasses, and gigantic boots are of little use in the face of Tommy’s pinball skills.


James Brown – “The Payback,” Hell Up in Harlem (not used) (1973)

The Godfather of Soul recorded this funkdafied ode to vengeance for the Hell Up in Harlem soundtrack, but the film’s producers rejected it for being “the same old James Brown stuff.” Mr. Dynamite got the last laugh, however, as “The Payback” became one of the most sampled songs of all time and a staple of movie and TV soundtracks (including a remixed version featuring 2Pac that figured prominently in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained.)


Johnny Mandel – “Suicide Is Painless,” M*A*S*H (1970)

Though MASH was a sizable box office hit and inspired a spinoff TV series that would become one of the most popular sitcom of all time, the individual who made the most money off the film was its director. His son, 14-year-old Mike Altman, wrote the lyrics to Johnny Mandel’s tune, and as co-writer, earned well north of $1 million, which dwarfed his dad’s $70,000 salary.”


Richard O’Brien, Patricia Quinn, and Little Nell Campbell – “Time Warp,” The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

You have to wonder what people were thinking the first time they jumped to the left and stepped to the right; did the crowds that flocked to The Rocky Horror Picture Show in 1975 know that subsequent generations would also be spaced out on sensation like they were under sedation? That the film would become such a cult favorite that folks would be doing the time-warp in perpetuity? Now that would really drive them insane.


Rose Royce – “Car Wash,” Car Wash (1976)

Nobody likes looking for a new career — especially in these uncertain economic times. Fortunately, the good folks of Rose Royce are here to provide a body-moving treatise on the perks of working at the car wash! Now, they’ll be the first to tell you that the pay is less than optimal, but the physical demands of the job are preferable to trench excavation. Plus, you might just make the acquaintance of a celebrated thespian or the leader of a Native American tribe, and your manager is unlikely to take exception to any horseplay that occurs during business hours.


Ramones – “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School,” Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (1979)

The glue-sniffin’, brat beatin’, shock treatment-demadin’ Ramones seemed more likely to play hooky than hit the books. In the Roger Corman-produced Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, the band inspired a full-fledged rebellion among the student body. (It’s unconscionable that the Academy ignored Dee Dee Ramone’s stirring performance as Dee Dee Ramone, pizza enthusiast.) The theme song is a typically fine slice of the type of pop-punk the Ramones perfected, with a bouncy, sing-songy chorus that celebrates the joys of extra-curricular pursuits like having kicks and getting chicks.


Paul McCartney & Wings – “Live And Let Die,” Live And Let Die (1973)

The Beatles and James Bond were Britain’s two most important pop culture exports of the 1960s, but it took a transitional moment for the two to come together. Live and Let Die was the first 007 movie starring Roger Moore, and the title song was one of the first releases credited to Paul McCartney’s second band, Wings. And like a globe-trotting Bond movie, “Live and Let Die” covers a lot of musical territory: it opens as a piano ballad before segueing into some crunchy guitar licks, symphonic rock, and a bit of reggae skank — all in just a minute and a half!


Bette Midler – “The Rose,” The Rose (1979)

Is somebody chopping onions? In The Rose, Bette Midler plays a hard-luck rock belter loosely based upon Janis Joplin who succumbs to a fatal combination of bad relationships, substance abuse, and nonstop touring. Before playing the great gig in the sky, however, our heroine pulls a Dewey Cox and summarizes her whole life with this tear-stained ballad.


Jesus Christ Superstar Cast – “Superstar,” Jesus Christ Superstar (1973)

In the early 1970s, it wasn’t unusual to hear stuff like “Spirit in the Sky” and “Jesus is Just Alright” blasting from longhairs’ transistor radios. Tapping into the tenor of the times, composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice hit paydirt with Jesus Christ Superstar, a rock opera that took Broadway by storm; Norman Jewison’s big screen adaptation brought the groovy, psychedelic vibes of “Superstar” (with Carl Anderson, of ” Friends and Lovers ” fame, on lead vocals) to a wider audience — one that was receptive to a new spin on The Greatest Story Ever Told.


Bill Conti – “Gonna Fly Now,” Rocky (1976)

The perfect musical accompaniment for punching slabs of beef, ascending the stairs of the Philadelphia Art Museum, or jogging along the beach with an old pal, Bill Conti’s “Gonna Fly Now” is also a tune you might recognize if you’ve ever attended an NBA game in which the home team is down by a couple points with a minute left in the fourth quarter.


John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John – “You’re the One That I Want,” Grease (1978)

If Saturday Night Fever evoked the pain and confusion of young adulthood, Grease represented a sunnier, campier, smuttier flipside. Grease was a massive box-office smash that solidified John Travolta’s star status and elevated Olivia Newton-John from middle-of-the-road pop singer to A-lister; their duet on “You’re the One That I Want” is an irresistibly catchy bit of honky-tonk soul that’s toe-tapping enough to turn any soire into a dance party.


Steely Dan – “FM,” FM (1978)

As a film, FM is a forgettable rebels-against-the-Man comedy. However, as an audio portrait of the album-oriented rock era, it’s priceless, featuring hits from the Eagles, Tom Petty, Linda Ronstadt, Boston, and plenty of other mustached classic rockers you’re too cool to admit you like. On the title tune, the subversive yacht rock maestros of Steely Dan deliver a largely irony-free (and decidedly static-free) tribute to the joys of listening to the radio — a pleasure that the kids today, with their iPods and Pandoras and such — have largely been denied.


Jimmy Cliff – “The Harder They Come,” The Harder They Come (1972)

The Harder They Come is more than a great soundtrack — it’s one of the definitive reggae albums, period. In Perry Henzell’s drama, Jimmy Cliff stars as Ivan, an aspiring singer who suffers at the hands of shady record executives; when his life devolves into criminality and murder, his songs rocket up the charts, bringing new meaning to the term “number one with a bullet.” Cliff’s contributions to the soundtrack range from the optimistic (“You Can Get It If You Really Want”) to the heart stopping (“Many Rivers to Cross”), but it’s the title track that most fully embodies the movie’s tone of hope and desperation.


Cat Stevens – “If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out,” Harold and Maude (1971)

It may be 40 years old, but Harold and Maude continues to be a cult favorite of angst-ridden teenagers, and it’s not hard to see why. Its influence can be felt all over the indie landscape: It’s a pitch-black comedy that tempers its cynicism with the touching, unconventional bond shared by the title characters, and it’s got a mellow, catchy soundtrack that subtly and melodically underscores the action without intruding upon it. Cat Stevens’ songs are alternately joyous and heartbreaking, particularly “If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out,” which serves as a mantra for how one of the major characters tries to live and — spoiler alert! — die.


Curtis Mayfield – “Super Fly,” Super Fly (1972)

A so-so blaxploitation thriller about a reformed drug dealer, Super Fly has two very big things going for it: the fabulous fashions and Curtis Mayfield’s stone-cold classic soundtrack. Alternately cool, sinister, and impassioned, Mayfield’s falsetto is an instrument of immense power, and it merges seamlessly with a killer bassline and some hard-boiled percussion to make “Super Fly” one of the baddest songs of the decade.


Bob Dylan – “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973)

With its echo-y drums, forlorn vocals, and elegaic themes, “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” would sound like the aural equivalent of a Sam Peckinpah western even if it wasn’t actually featured in one. Dylan himself played a small role in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid as Alias — a fitting name for the perpetually elusive folksinger. Still, there’s nothing mysterious about the appeal of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” — it’s one of the most straightforward of Dylan’s classics, and perhaps not coincidentally, one of the most often covered.


Michael Jackson/Diana Ross – “Ease on Down the Road,” The Wiz (1978)

Regardless of its lack of critical acclaim, The Wiz‘s place in cinema history is assured by nature of being Michael Jackson’s only major film role. A year before taking the pop music world by storm with Off the Wall, the future King of Pop was both raggedy and graceful as the Scarecrow, easing down the yellow brick road with Dorothy (played by real life Jackson pal Diana Ross). Even if this revisionist take on The Wizard of Oz doesn’t fully hold together, it’s electrifying in spots –particularly Jackson’s high-spirited performance of “Ease on Down the Road.”


The Muppets – “Rainbow Connection,” The Muppet Movie (1979)

The Muppets are savvy performers with the skills and panache to turn even the hoariest material into something inspired (and let’s face it: Fozzie Bear’s jokes are about as hoary as they come). Case in point: “Rainbow Connection.” It’s a decent pop song that could come across as sappy or schmaltzy in the wrong hands. In the banjo-strumming hands of Kermit the Frog, however, it’s guaranteed — guaranteed — to put a lump in your throat.

Get the party started with RT’s Hit Movie Songs Fom the 1970s Spotify playlist!