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First, some ground rules. We’re not talking about songs which make reference to movies. Breakfast at Tiffany’s song from the mid-90s – there’s no place for you here. Same goes for jokes. Maybe you could argue that Jonathan Coulton’s Re: Your Brains takes place in the world of a Romero movie, but it’s not about the movie. We are looking for songs based on movies, earnestly, or ambiguously ironically at the least.

The Drive-By Truckers The Monument Valley

Strange that on an album of slice-of-life character studies, the most heartfelt song turns out to be about westerns. But then, who doesn’t love John Ford movies?

“It’s all about where you put the horizon / said the great John Ford to the young man rising.” The opening lines describe the act of moviemaking. On the one hand, nothing is more irritating then meta-art. If I have to read one more book which equates writing with physical creation, I’m going to punch a wall. And an artist’s desire to put on display his or her influences is understandable, but tedious. Yes, I’m sure you’re very well-read and that you know a lot about 1920s wax cylinder recordings or 1970s summer camp movies, but show me what you’ve got.

That said, this song pulls it off – mostly because it so accurately captures the long quiet landscapes of the best westerns. And by the final verse, the lyrics tangle John Ford the person with the famous line from The Man Who Shot LIberty Valence. “It’s where to plant the camera and when to say action / When to print the legend and when to leave the facts in.”

In the end, far truer to what makes westerns so enduring than Burt Bacharach’s song The Man Who Shot LIberty Valence. (Sample lyric: “Cause the point of a gun was the only law that Liberty understood / When it came to shooting straight and fast, he was miii-ghtyyyy good!”)

Daniel Johnston King Kong


This might be the most straightforward film-to-song adaptation. It’s a chanted summary of the film, told from the point of view of the titular monkey. Daniel Johnston’s childlike lyrics make for an interesting version of the story, full of straightforward descriptions like “He stripped his woman / he stripped her bare / but there was a pterodactyl / there.” It’s more of a description of individual things which happen in the movie, rather than a story.

The Jimmy Castor Bunch King Kong


Here’s another musical take on the same film, but where Daniel Johnston’s focuses on the obsession and fall of creature, The Jimmy Castor Bunch celebrate his power, size, and restraint, apparently. “He didn’t dance or party,” they tell us. But like Daniel Johnston’s song, a good chunk of time is devoted to straight up summary. Regarding Kong’s fight with a Tyrannosaurus, Jimmy Castor sings “He stretched the creature’s mouth until it split / Then like a child, began to play with it.”*

Bob Dylan Brownsville Girl

Even the most unappealing Dylan album has something to recommend it. Knocked Out Loaded, marred by weird 1986 production, and mostly uninteresting songs, has Brownsville Girl, Dylan’s collaboration with playwright/actor/former Holy Modal Rounder Sam Shepard. Clocking in at close to eleven minutes, it’s a winding, half-sung, half-spoken song about, um, something probably. Dylan mentions a girl, a trial, a bunch of places in Texas. Mainly, the song seems to be about this movie Dylan seen one time, ’bout a man riding ‘cross the desert and it starred Gregory Peck. As Dylan ruminates his way across the song (“The only thing we knew for sure about Henry Porter is that his name wasn’t Henry Porter”, he sings at one point, and at another, “Oh if there’s an original thought out there, I could use it right now”) he returns to his Gregory Peck movie again and again. He thinks he sat through it twice.

*I would’ve included The Jimmy Castor Bunch’s Dracula as well, but in fairness, that’s probably based on the novel.

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