Christina Aguilera's new movie, 'Burlesque,' continues a long tradition, from 'Jailhouse Rock' to 'Purple Rain' to 'The Bodyguard,' of singers starring in films for which they also dominate the soundtrack. Which got us thinking about singers who have defined the sound and spirit of an entire film without ever appearing onscreen. Here are 15 of our favorite examples of singers whose voices alone are like an uncredited main character.
'Magnolia' director Paul Thomas Anderson didn't just want Aimee Mann's music playing in the background; he let her lyrics shape some of the film's characters and even took the unusual step of injecting her songs directly into the narrative. At one point, the entire cast drops everything to sing 'Wise Up' from start to finish.
'Good Will Hunting' (1997)
In an apparent bid to make the sad parts of 'Good Will Hunting' 10 times sadder, director Gus Van Sant reached out to fellow Portland, Ore. resident Elliott Smith. Along with three older songs, Smith contributed 'Miss Misery,' which earned him unexpected fame and an Academy Award nomination. Tragically, Smith didn't share Will Hunting's Hollywood ending, but his music earned a much-deserved place in history.
'The Graduate' (1967)
Simon and Garfunkel
Director Mike Nichols was at odds with the studio over the film's music, as well as Nichols' choice for the role of Mrs. Robinson. (He wanted the French actress Jeanne Moreau.) Forced to pick his battles, Nichols stuck with Simon and Garfunkel. Smart move, because their songs, especially 'Mrs. Robinson' and 'The Sound of Silence,' helped the film capture the confusion and alienation of an entire generation.
When director Ivan Reitman asked Ellen Page what music the film's characters would listen to, she told him to check out the Moldy Peaches. So, Peaches singer Kimya Dawson, whose twee "anti-folk" songs evoke the joy of being young and too smart for your own good, ended up all over the movie, including the closing scene: Page and Michael Cera duetting on the Peaches' 'Anyone Else but You.'
'Harold & Maude' (1971)
These days Yusuf Islam (aka Cat Stevens) doesn't seem like the natural choice for a darkly comic cult classic about a 20-something guy falling in love with a 79-year-old woman. But in the early 1970s, cheery, up-with-people folk tunes like 'If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out' and 'On the Road to Find Out' were the perfect accompaniment to the film's "be who you are" message.
'Dan in Real Life' (2007)
This thinking-man's romcom, in which Steve Carell's sad-sack widower raises two daughters and searches for love, walks the fine line between lighthearted and heartbreaking. Which is also a pretty good description of Sondre Lerche's music. The Norwegian singer-songwriter's combination of quirk and sensitivity on songs like 'To Be Surprised' keep 'Dan' from getting too goofy or sinking too low.
'Away We Go' (2009)
Sensitive singer-songwriters and indie movies about sensitive people-two great tastes that taste great together. British neo-folkie Alexi Murdoch gave heartstrings a good, hard tug with his music for Sam Mendes' 'Away We Go.' Even the film's trailer made a big splash, thanks to Murdoch's 'All My Days' (a song that had already inspired waterworks on episodes of 'The O.C.' and 'Grey's Anatomy').
'Super Fly' (1972)
To say that no one could imagine Gordon Parks Jr.'s 'Super Fly' without Curtis Mayfield's music would be something of an understatement. The fact is, many (if not most) of the soundtrack's fans have never even seen the movie; album sales far outstripped the film's take at the box office, and classics like 'Freddie's Dead' and the title track helped define not just the movie but the entire blaxploitation genre.
'The Virgin Suicides' (1999)
Sofia Coppola's soft-focus vision of 1970s suburbia includes plenty of period music by Heart, Styx, ELO and others, but it's the dreamy swoon of the French duo Air -- especially 'Playground Love' and the main theme, 'Highschool Lover' -- that really gives the film its, er, air of melancholy nostalgia.
'About a Boy' (2002)
Badly Drawn Boy
The songs in 'About a Boy,' in which an emotionally stunted bachelor befriends an awkward teenager, were the work of Badly Drawn Boy, the stage name of singer-songwriter Damon Gough. Gough must have done something right, because Nick Hornby, who wrote the original novel 'About a Boy,' even included an essay in his book '31 Songs' about how much he was affected by Badly Drawn Boy's song 'A Minor Incident.' Got all that?
'Wonder Boys' (2000)
On top of Bob Dylan classics like 'Buckets of Rain,' 'Wonder Boys' included the singer's brand-new track 'Things Have Changed,' featuring a world-weary vibe and a central lyric, "I used to care but/Things have changed,' that perfectly capture Michael Douglas's character, Grady, a once-promising writer who's been stoned and stuck on his second book for years. Unlike Grady, Dylan still had the magic touch; The song won him a Golden Globe and an Oscar.
'Maximum Overdrive' (1986)
When gazillion-selling horror writer Stephen King sat down in the director's chair for the first (and, thankfully, last) time, he asked his favorite band, AC/DC, to bring the noise. A movie about homicidal trucks on the rampage calls for a fairly muscle-bound soundtrack, so the band lent some of its biggest hits and recorded an original song, 'Who Made Who,' that is unquestionably the film's high point.
'She's the One' (1996)
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
Edward Burns's winning romcom got a major assist from its Rick Rubin-produced soundtrack of original Tom Petty songs. The collaboration was a success all around: The film's signature tune, 'Walls (Circus)' (featuring Fleetwood Mac's Lindsey Buckingham on backing vocals) garnered Petty his only charting single of 1996, and the film garnered Burns the last good reviews of his career.
'Into the Wild' (2007)
Eddie Vedder's songs had already been used in two movies featuring Sean Penn ('Dead Man Walking' and 'I Am Sam'), so when Penn decided to direct 'Into the Wild,' he immediately brought in the Pearl Jam singer. Given Vedder's penchant for anti-corporate earnestness, he seems like an obvious choice for a film about someone giving up his possessions and disappearing into the Alaskan wilderness, and these rootsy, meandering songs don't disappoint.
'To Live and Die in L.A.' (1985)
William Friedkin's sleek, sun-soaked action flick about a reckless Secret Service agent on the mean streets of Los Angeles is so totally '80s it makes 'Miami Vice' look timeless, and Wang Chung's music deserves a lot of the credit/blame. Recorded in a mere two weeks, the songs, especially the mini-hit title track, are just as slick and jaded as the movie ... so roll up the sleeves of your turquoise blazer and enjoy.