12 Movie Theme Songs That Ruled The Pop Charts

The movie theme song is becoming something of a lost art. Oh, sure, these days we might get some tune playing during the end credits, with whatever pop star happens to be hot at the moment singing or rapping in somewhat abstract terms about the story we just saw — but it used to be a little different, and a lot more earnest. Movie theme songs of days past tended to name-drop characters, wax lyrical about the movie's themes, and sometimes even partially explain the plot, and they weren't usually reserved for the credits — they were apt to show up early and often, even at multiple points during the film, just to make sure you remembered what movie you were watching.

Whether they were sung by major stars or... others, movie themes were even liable to become smash hit pop tunes — sometimes, even if the movie itself wasn't enormously successful. The tunes we'll be looking at today set the bar high: Each and every one of them went to No. 1, and a goodly number of them scored Grammys, Oscars, and heavy rotation on radio stations nationwide. Here they are — the movie themes that came busting out of theaters to conquer the pop charts.

Ghostbusters by Ray Parker Jr.

There is only one acceptable answer to the question "Who ya gonna call?" and it's doubtful anyone needs to be reminded what it is. Even if you weren't yet born when it was released in 1984, the comedy classic "Ghostbusters" is at this point woven into the very fabric of pop culture, and there may be documented cases of babies popping out of the womb already knowing all the words to Ray Parker Jr.'s maddeningly catchy title song. That song, though, had a surprisingly rocky road to Hitsville.

For one thing, while director Ivan Reitman loved the tune, record executive Clive Davis thought it was stupid and opined that it would never be a hit. Reitman stuck to his guns, but even after Parker proved Davis wrong by taking it to the top of the charts, it faced another issue in the form of legendary rocker Huey Lewis. Reitman, you see, had initially created a test cut of the movie's ghostbusting montage scene to Lewis' hit single "I Want a New Drug" — and whether intentionally or not, Parker's tune contained a stomping beat and bassline that were just a tad similar to that song. Lewis sued, the producers settled, and everyone calmed down — until 2001, when Lewis violated a confidentiality agreement by blabbing about the whole situation to VH1's "Behind the Music," prompting Parker to sue him right back. 

Endless Love by Lionel Richie and Diana Ross

The 1981 romantic melodrama "Endless Love" was troubling on several levels. For one, the film's treatment of teen romance, which includes acts of arson, the attempted seduction of a teenager by an adult, and maybe-sorta murder is just a touch over the top. For another, it can be seen as the continuation of a trend at the time of sexualizing its 16-year-old star, Brooke Shields. On top of that, the flick simply wasn't very good, underperforming at the box office and drawing the ire of the majority of critics — but its title tune, sung by iconic vocalists Lionel Richie and Diana Ross, fared a bit better with the public.

This is despite the fact that the song... well, isn't that great, either. The lyrics are trite, the melody and arrangement are workmanlike, and Richie and Ross audibly have little chemistry due to the fact that they had never worked together before, didn't get along very well, and recorded the song in one round at the studio at 3 o'clock in the morning. But the tune did constitute another in a long streak of post-Supremes hits for Ross, and it's also notable for being Richie's first song without his band, the Commodores, marking the beginning of a solo career that would end up working out pretty well.

To Sir With Love by Lulu

The 1967 British film "To Sir, With Love" is the prototypical "hardass teacher takes control of classroom full of juvenile delinquents and teaches them to respect themselves" movie, and it couldn't have had a star better suited to the lead role — the great Sidney Poitier, whose commanding performance still rings true even if the film itself is very much a product of its time. One of those unruly students was portrayed by a Scottish actress by the unwieldy name of Marie McDonald McLaughlin Lawrie, who also happened to be a popular singer in the U.K. under the slightly more manageable name of Lulu. She was tapped to sing the movie's theme, but she initially wasn't too psyched about it, as she felt that all of the songs the producers were considering were, well, crap — so she turned to a couple of friends, composer Mark London and lyricist Don Black, to write a better one.

It turned out to be a pretty good move. "To Sir With Love," the song, was at first relegated to the B-side of Lulu's cover of Neil Diamond's "The Boat That I Row" — but DJs quickly showed a preference for the flip side, which eventually spent five weeks at No. 1. The song was never even released as a single in the U.K., but it did give Lulu her only notable stateside smash.

Ben by Michael Jackson

If someone were to tell you that a song about a homicidal rat — not like a snitch, but a literal rat — went to No. 1 on the pop chart and was nominated for a freaking Academy Award for Best Song, you might accuse that person of pulling your leg hard enough to detach it from your body, or of being under the influence of psychedelic drugs. But the '70s were a very different time, a time in which 1972's "Ben" — the title track to the sequel to the previous year's "Willard," a horror film about a nerdy loner who commands an army of killer rats — did indeed accomplish those feats. Oh, and your friend who may or may not be a liar or astoundingly high failed to mention that the tune was sung by none other than future superstar Michael Jackson, when he was just a precocious and blindingly talented 13-year-old.

The tune, which is a paean to a loving friendship without explicitly spelling out that said friendship is between a disturbed boy and, once again, a killer rat, made a big enough splash that it also served as the title track to Jackson's second solo album. Young Michael even performed it at the Oscars ceremony, and its success likely played a part in "Ben," the movie, raking in even more dough at the box office than its predecessor. Such was the power of MJ, who would have slightly greater success with another horror-adjacent tune a decade later.

Theme from Shaft by Isaac Hayes

Here's a question: Who's the Black private dick who's a sex machine to all the chicks? Anyone who can correctly answer the query will be rewarded with an injection of pure, unfiltered funk directly into their brains; an ode to a man who will risk his neck for his brother man, a cat that won't cop out when there's danger all about, and an all-around bad mother you-know-what. His name, of course, is John Shaft — the title character of writer-director Gordon Parks' legendary blaxploitation flick of the same name, portrayed by Richard Roundtree. Its title track, "Theme from Shaft," was personally commissioned from the great Isaac Hayes by Parks himself — but Hayes, misunderstanding the assignment, originally presented the tune to MGM executives as an instrumental.

"I thought that that was what a 'theme' song in a movie was supposed to be," Hayes later explained in an interview (via Library of Congress). "They told me it was cool, but it needed lyrics or the kids wouldn't buy it. So I wrote the lyrics in 20 minutes. The lyrics on the song are the exact same lyrics I wrote on the fly." The tune, featuring lyrics written in less time than it takes most people to have dinner, spent two weeks at No. 1 on the pop chart and collected an Oscar for Best Song, but it's a pretty straightforward piece of work — it's just talkin' 'bout Shaft.

Gonna Fly Now (Theme from Rocky) by Bill Conti

The film that launched Sylvester Stallone to international stardom, 1976's "Rocky," was as much of an underdog as its title character. Written by its low-wattage star and helmed by unknown director John G. Avildsen , expectations were not high for the character study of a down-and-out boxer who gets an unlikely shot to take on the heavyweight champ. Needless to say, the film surpassed those expectations mightily — and its narrative hinged on one key sequence, a montage in which Stallone's Rocky Balboa whips himself into shape, transforming before our eyes from a schlub into an actual contender. It's the mother of all training montages, set to a song guaranteed to energize the very blood of anybody hearing it: "Gonna Fly Now," a jazzy, urgent, trumpet-driven track that has become synonymous with grit and determination.

Composed by journeyman film scorer Bill Conti, the tune propelled "Rocky" to cinematic glory just as surely as it propelled Rocky to go the distance with Apollo Creed. The song was a No. 1 smash and was nominated for an Academy Award, one of a whopping 10 nods for the movie, which won three — including Best Picture and a directing statue for Avildsen. "Rocky" also spawned a ginormous run of sequels and spin-offs that continue to this day with the acclaimed "Creed" series — none of which may ever have come to pass without Conti's absolute corker of a theme song.

Flashdance... What a Feeling by Irene Cara

If one were to put the entire '80s in a juicer and squeeze it, the resulting juice would be 1983's "Flashdance." From its story (beautiful, inner-city welder girl aspires to become a famous dancer) to its visual style (which could be termed "Neon Pastel New Wave Deluxe," courtesy of director Adrian Lyne) to its soundtrack (which included contributions by the likes of Donna Summer, Kim Carnes, and Laura Branigan), the movie helped to define the young decade. One of its major hit singles, Michael Sembello's "Maniac," was one of the first videos to be composed entirely of footage from the movie it was promoting, and it resided comfortably in heavy rotation during the early days of MTV. A No. 1 hit, the tune was so huge that it's easy to forget that it's not the movie's actual theme song — that would be Irene Cara's "Flashdance... What a Feeling," which likewise went to No. 1.

Cara's song shouldered its way in to stand alongside "Maniac" by virtue of a dope composition by legendary, pioneering producer Giorgio Moroder, deft production by future Billy Idol and Simple Minds producer Keith Forsey, and a stunning lead vocal that ascends from a near-whisper to a belting declaration of joy and accomplishment. Speaking of accomplishment, it also pulled off a few tricks that "Maniac" could not — spending three times as long at No. 1, winning an Academy Award for Best Song, and notching a Grammy win for Cara.

Arthur's Theme (Best That You Can Do) by Christopher Cross

In 1979, a round-faced, fedora-sporting dude by the unlikely name of Christopher Cross came out of nowhere to absolutely dominate pop music for a short time. Today, his music is seen as embodying the genre somewhat derisively known as "yacht rock" — but during his heyday, pop fans simply couldn't get enough of Cross' oddly comforting, sort of reedy vocal tone, which carried some undeniably expertly-penned tunes. At the 23rd Grammy Awards in 1981, he became the first artist to win all four major statues awarded to solo performers — for Song of the Year, Album of the Year, Record of the Year, and Best New Artist — in the same night, with a bonus win for Best Arrangement for his hit "Sailing." He followed up that triumph with three Grammy nominations the following year, all for "Arthur's Theme (Best That You Can Do)," from the 1981 romantic comedy "Arthur."

The story of a rich, drunken playboy (Dudley Moore) who gains a new perspective on life thanks to the love of a working-class girl (Liza Minnelli), "Arthur" was nominated for four Oscars and won two, including a statue for Cross' tune, which was co-written by veteran songwriters Burt Bacharach and Carole Bayer Sager. Neither the song nor the film left much of a cultural impression, and the less said about the 2011 Russell Brand-starring remake, and the cover of the theme song by Fitz and the Tantrums, the better. But the tune served as a fitting exclamation point to the extraordinary, if brief, run of Cross, who managed only one subsequent Top 10 single.

Against All Odds (Take a Look At Me Now) by Phil Collins

Eighties hit machines didn't come much more prolific than the great Phil Collins. When he wasn't busy cranking out smash tunes like "That's All," "Land of Confusion," and "In Too Deep" with his iconic band Genesis, he was going off and killing it on his own with a solo career that saw him notch a jaw-dropping 14 Top 10 hits, including seven that went all the way to the top. The very first of those No. 1 solo tunes: "Against All Odds (Take a Look At Me Now)," a piano-driven ballad which features what may be Collins' single greatest vocal performance, and which served as the theme song to the 1984 romantic crime drama "Against All Odds," starring Jeff Bridges and Rachel Ward.

The flick's director, Taylor Hackford, had a bit of experience wrangling hit movie themes; "Up Where We Belong," the theme from his 1982 drama "An Officer and a Gentleman," was an Oscar-winning, Grammy-winning No. 1 hit. Hackford nearly cinched that trifecta again when he enlisted Collins to supply the theme song for his next movie — "Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now)" won a Grammy and hit No. 1, but it lost the Oscar to Stevie Wonder's "I Just Called to Say I Love You" from the soundtrack to the Gene Wilder comedy "The Woman in Red."

The Way We Were by Barbra Streisand

The 1973 romantic drama "The Way We Were," starring Robert Redford and Barbra Streisand, is the kind of film that could probably never be the massive hit today that it was upon its release. A quiet, contemplative study of a relationship through all of its phases, from friendly infatuation through marriage, childbirth, and eventual demise, the film was a box office smash and was critically well received, particularly with respect to Streisand's performance. She scored a nomination for Best Actress for her efforts, one of six nods — and while she didn't take home that statue, she did collect one for singing the wistful, melancholy theme song of the same name.

The song was penned by Marvin Hamlisch, with an assist from lyricists Alan and Marilyn Bergman. Hamlisch had served as a rehearsal musician during Streisand's run of "Funny Girl" on Broadway, and had long dreamed of having Streisand sing one of his songs. He certainly got his wish — but amazingly, the studio almost balked at including the tune in the film's final cut. After he personally paid for a recording session in which the movie's final scene was re-scored with the song, a test audience vindicated Hamlisch, who later said in an interview, "I heard a woman start to cry. And then another. And within minutes, there wasn't a dry eye left. I knew I was right. And that made it worth every penny" (via American Songwriter).

St. Elmo's Fire (Man in Motion) by John Parr

Few things scream "'80s!" louder than the Brat Pack — that gang of then-young and hungry actors that included Emilio Estevez, Rob Lowe, Demi Moore, and Molly Ringwald — and John Parr, the mulleted emotist who had scored a Top 40 U.S. hit in 1984 with MTV staple "Naughty Naughty." In 1985, smack dab in the middle of the '80s, the two united for a project that would define the decade: "St. Elmo's Fire," an angsty coming-of-age drama that featured pretty much the entire Pack and produced a No. 1 pop hit in Parr's equally angsty, arpeggiated synthesizer-driven theme song. 

The film was an early directorial effort from future legend Joel Schumacher, although nothing about it bore his visual fingerprints; likewise, the tune was co-written with Parr by 16-time Grammy winner David Foster, and it screamed to No. 1 despite sounding like the aural equivalent of cottage cheese. Parr never had another significant hit — perhaps because he was simply peak '80s, and his lone No. 1 constituted the decade's peak.

9 to 5 by Dolly Parton

Few singers or songwriters are more beloved than Dolly Parton, and while she is a legend in the world of country music, she is certainly no stranger to the pop charts, either. The tune that heralded her most significant period of crossover success: "9 to 5," the theme song to the 1980 dark workplace comedy of the same name, an early collaboration between stars Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin in which Parton also starred.

The story of three beleaguered female office workers who plot increasingly hardcore revenge against their sexist, overbearing boss, "9 to 5" was a huge box office success — and the chord it struck with the public carried right over to Parton's bouncy, piano-laden theme song, which scored two Grammys, received an Oscar nod, and spent two weeks atop the pop chart. The film has held up surprisingly well, in that it is completely bananas — and as long as there are disgruntled workers in need of a raise, a little appreciation, and perhaps a cup of ambition, Parton's song will remain timeless.