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Not in the Movie: Fifteen Pop Songs Inspired By Cinema

03/23/2015 12:14 pm ET | Updated May 23, 2015

What's the worst Academy Award? I'll give you a hint. It rhymes with "guessed wrong." As in, "you guessed wrong if you said Sound Effects Editing." The worst award is Best Song.

Don't get me wrong. There have been some outstanding winners. And the category has yielded some glorious moments during the Awards show itself. Without the award, we never would have heard Bruce Springsteen give one of the best acceptance speeches ever after winning for "Streets of Philadelphia" in 1994. Without the award, we wouldn't have seen one dude play a bicycle while another dragged around a vacuum during the performance of "Belleville Rendez-Vous" in 2004. And without the award, we wouldn't have seen anyone from Selmaf- in 2015.

But despite those positives, I still dislike the award. It's ill-defined, in that fish-nor-fowl purgatory. Is it for the best song? Is it for the best use of a song? Some combination of the two? The award is actually for Best Original Song which means some of the most memorable songs I can ever recall in movies don't even qualify. Think "American Girl" was integral to Silence of the Lambs? Sorry, it wasn't eligible. So, anyway, I don't like the award.

But this isn't about that.

It's about songs I really do like. They weren't in movies. They were inspired by movies. Perhaps by a specific film. Perhaps by a star. Or perhaps simply by the entire magical filmic experience. It's a broad definition. Here are fifteen really good songs, covering fifty years of pop music, that were in some way, inspired by cinema.

Ballad of a Teenage Queen - Johnny Cash (1958)

Hollywood could offer more
So she left the boy next door

But never fear, the teenage queen grew tired of her wealth fame and returned home to marry the boy next door. Who worked at the candy store.

Along Came Jones - The Coasters (1959)

I plopped down in my easy chair and turned on Channel 2
A bad gunslinger named Salty Sam was chasing poor Sweet Sue

Comic songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller wrote this send-up of the white hat/black hat redundant Westerns which saturated the marketplace in the '50s. They may have been inspired by Stuart Heisler's 1945 movie of the same name. Gary Cooper does seem to fit their description of slow walkin', slow talkin' Jones.

Celluloid Heroes - The Kinks (1972)

I wish my life was a non-stop Hollywood movie show
A fantasy world of celluloid villains and heroes

References to Valentino and Lugosi, Garbo and Bette Davis, as well as a poignant grasp of everyone's desire for fame, make this Ray Davies composition one of the definitive songs about movies.

Year of the Cat - Al Stewart (1976)

On a morning from a Bogart movie
In a country where they turn back time
You go strolling through the crowd like Peter Lorre
Contemplating a crime

All right, apart from that opening verse, the song has nothing to do with movies. But I really, really, really wish I had written that verse.

Watching the Detectives - Elvis Costello (1977)

Cut to baby taking off her clothes
Close-up of a sign that says "We never close"

This song is more about voyeurism than movies (as if there were a difference), but the sudden shift to screenplay format in the second verse could not have occurred were it not for -- well -- screenplays.

Godzilla - Blue Oyster Cult (1977)

Oh no, there goes Tokyo, go go Godzilla

The first entry that was inspired by a specific movie. See if you can guess which one.

Marie Provost - Nick Lowe (1978; I know, that's a lot of '70s movies. Guess when I was a teenager)

Marie Provost was a movie queen
Mysterious angel of the silent screen

... who died tragically, drunk and depressed at age 39. Leave it to Lowe to make a pop song out of it, based on the rumor that her dog fed on her body after her death. It does have a catchy chord progression.

Marlene on the Wall - Suzanne Vega (1985)

Marlene watches from the wall
Her mocking smile says it all

There have been more famous songs about iconic actresses -- "Candle in the Wind" (Marilyn Monroe) and "Bette Davis Eyes (Bette Davis, duh), but this one is the best, using a poster of the sexually sophisticated Marlene Dietrich to comment on the more mundane adventures of the narrator.

A New Hope - Blink 182 (1997)

And of course I'd do anything for her
I'd search the moons of Endor

The pop-punk generation grew up surrounded by movies so it's not surprising many of them would develop romantic interest in Princess Leia.

The Wicker Man - Iron Maiden (2000)

Brothers and their fathers joining hands to make a chain
The shadow of the Wicker Man is rising up again

I don't actually know if this song was inspired by the fantastic British cult movie directed by Robin Hardy in 1973, but I'd like to think it was. It certainly captures the obtuseness of Edward Woodward's police sergeant.

Clint Eastwood - Gorillaz (2001)

I brought all this
So you can survive when law is lawless

The Italian Western meets hip hop. In a cartoon. It was bound to happen.

Toto Dies - Nellie McKay (2004)

Oh-ee-oh fuck the lawns that need mowing
Oh-ee-oh there is something amiss

From the best album of 2004. Borrowing music from The Wizard of Oz, the rainbow appears to have collapsed.

No Hook - Jay Z (2007)

Please don't compare me to other rappers
Compare me to trappers I'm more Frank Lucas than Ludacris

From the American Gangster album. "Blue Magic" could also go here, but "No Hook" gets it for actually mentioning Denzel Washington's character Frank Lucas. Besides, Chris Bridges (AKA Ludacris) is a serious actor now.

Movie Star - Roisin Murphy (2008)

We'll make a movie, the darlings of cinema
You'll be director and I'll be your movie star

We began with a country song and we end with electronic glam pop. Ah, the eclecticism of cinema.

If you've reached the end and said what about Breakfast at Tiffany's?
Then I say I think I remember that song
And as I recall I think we both kind of liked it
And I said well maybe Deep Blue Something should have been on this list.