Ten Best: Movies based on Songs

by Brian Clarey

Take this Job and Shove It, 1981

The song was penned by none other than David Allan Coe and hit the country charts in 1978. The film, which utilized a cover of the song by Johnny Paycheck, starred ’70s heartthrob Robert Hays, Art Carney, Eddie Albert and a slew of country performers including Charlie Rich. Coe and Paycheck also had small roles in the film, about a failing brewery being taken over by a big corporation.

Convoy, 1978

CW McCall’s ode to truckers and CB radios, released in 1975, struck a chord with a nation that was, for a short time, in the throes of a fascination with big-rig culture. The song was kind of a rap number, a narrative of CB radio conversations between Rubber Duck, Pig Pen and Sod Buster as they drive across the nation during a fictitious trucker rebellion. McCall recorded a new version of the song for the film, which starred Kris Kristofferson, Ali McGraw and Ernest Borgnine.

Harper Valley PTA, 1978

Jeannie C. Riley hit country and pop gold with this number penned by Tom T. Hall in 1968, about a small-town mother whose scandalous ways set tongues atwitter. It was a natural for a movie, made 10 years later starring Barbara Eden. Eden reprised her turn as Stella Johnson for the 1981 TV series of the same name.

Alice’s Restaurant, 1969

This film, cribbed from Arlo Guthrie’s 18-minute song “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree,” released in 1969, which itself was based on a true Thanksgiving story from 1965, touching on the Vietnam draft, small-town corruption, ’60s idealism and people who don’t like hippies. I personally think the film is unwatchable, but it earned an Academy Award nomination in 1970 for best director (Arthur Penn).

Elvis/The Beatles

These guys get their own category in the interest of conserving space. Besides, most of the Beatles’ film oeuvre – Yellow Submarine, A Hard Day’s Night, Let it Be and the like – were more or less extended music videos and marketing tools. And the films of Elvis Presley… well, they barely qualify as films, in my opinion, though they did turn me on to a young Shelley Fabares.

Ode to Billy Joe, 1976

The only flaw in Bobbie Gentry’s 1967 chart-topper is that it never gave a concrete reason as to exactly why Billie Joe McCallister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge (down in Choctaw Ridge). This was rectified in Herman Raucher’s novel and screenplay based on the song, which used an alternate spelling of the name “Billie” – a drunken homosexual experience prompted his suicide. The object thrown off the bridge is still a matter of some speculation, though most believe it was a child.

The Gambler, 1980; Coward of the County, 1981

Before Kenny Rogers became a chicken magnate and a plastic surgery horror story, he was a pretty big star. In his prime, these two numbers were recast into television movies, each starring the Gambler himself. The Gambler was so popular that a sequel, Gambler Returns: The Luck of the Draw, aired in 1991.

Stayin’ Alive, 1983

True, the Bee Gee’s song “Stayin’ Alive” was an integral part of the 1977’s Saturday Night Fever, used in the opening sequence as a mookified John Travolta cruised the sidewalks of Brooklyn holding a can of paint. But it was also the title of Fever’s sequel, which saw Tony Manero attempt to make it as a Broadway dancer. The film was just terrible, but it gets bonus points because it was written by Sylvester Stallone, features his brother Frank and has an uncredited bit part by Patrick Swayze.

Copacabana, 1985

Perhaps this adaptation of Barry Manilow’s 1976 disco hit doesn’t exactly qualify for the list because it was a made-for-TV musical. But it stayed true to the plot (Lola and Rico figure in prominently) and it remains one of the only original musical scores written expressly for television. It was adapted for the live stage and is still in production today.

Pink Floyd The Wall, 1982

This one makes it in because, dammit, I love Pink Floyd. It also bears the distinction of being the name of a studio album, a movie, a tour, a concert and a live album. The original work came out in 1979 and the original tour lasted until 1981. The film was always to be a part of the project, but initially it was to be comprised of concert footage. Bassist Roger Waters took it upon himself, after a crash course in screenwriting, to turn it into a narrative storyline.