Out of tune: the big star songs that were rejected for movie soundtracks

As Sufjan Stevens reveals his unused song for I, Tonya, here’s a look back at other artists, from Bruce Springsteen to Frank Ocean, who failed to make the final cut

This week Sufjan Stevens released Tonya Harding, a five-minute tribute to the “shining American star”, as he sings in the song, that the songwriter says he’d been trying to write for over 20 years. In composing the song, Stevens says he felt a “conviction to write something with dignity and grace, to pull back the ridiculous tabloid fodder and take stock of the real story of this strange and magnificent American hero”.

When the song was first released, most assumed that Stevens’ portrait of Harding was connected to the debut of I, Tonya, Craig Gillespie’s dark comedy starring Margot Robbie as the figure-skater that hits theaters on Friday. But in a message to fans, Stevens confirmed that isn’t the case.

“I sent [the song] to the music supervisors,” Stevens says, “but they couldn’t find a way to use it.”

There’s been a rich history of pop music being rejected for film soundtracks, from Ed Sheeran writing a series of songs for Hunger Games that have never seen the light of day to the scores of artists, from Johnny Cash to Ace of Base and Blondie, who have written songs for James Bond films only to be turned down. Here are some of the most notable examples:

Bruce Springsteen – I’ll Stand By You Always – Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Not long after earning several Oscar nominations in the 90s for his songs in movies such as Philadelphia and Dead Man Walking, Bruce Springsteen took a stab at writing a heartfelt ballad for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. The song, I’ll Stand By You Always, is a vague, non-specific portrait of JK Rowling’s tale, “a story of heroes who fight on at any cost”, as Springsteen sings. “Very uncharacteristic of something I’d sing myself … it was something that I thought would have fit lovely [in the movies]” Springsteen said of the song in 2016. “At some point I’d like to get [the song] into a children’s movie of some sort.”

Radiohead – Spectre – Spectre

Before ultimately losing out to Sam Smith for the theme song to the 2015 James Bond film Spectre, Radiohead halted all work on their studio album A Moon Shaped Pool to devote themselves to coming up with an original Bond theme. Spectre director Sam Mendes, who ultimately turned the song down for being too moody, described the situation as “an utter nightmare … we had this beautiful song and we weren’t able to use it”. In the end, however, Radiohead made the best of the situation, releasing the song as a free Christmas gift to fans later that year. “It didn’t work out,” the band explained, “but became something of our own, which we love very much.”

El-P – Trailer Theme – Blade Runner 2049

There were no hard feelings when producer/rapper El-P’s score for the trailer of Blade Runner 2049 ended up getting turned down. “Honestly even being asked to demo it up was an honor,” he said of his musical contribution, which he described as either “rejected or ignored”. El-P’s track was a loving homage to Vangelis, the Greek composer who contributed the music to the 1982 original, with the Brooklyn producer composing his demo on the same Yamaha synth Vangelis had used.

Haim – Little of Your Love – Trainwreck

Haim had been working on their follow-up to their smash debut Days Are Gone for months with little success when they received an assignment to write a song for Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck in a week. “Suddenly,” recalled Alana Haim earlier this year, “there wasn’t this daunting, abstract, second-record weight hanging over us.” The result, a lightweight, feelgood tune called Little of Your Love, wasn’t a good fit for the comedy, but it ended up proving to be the key creative breakthrough for the sisters’ second album Something to Tell You.

Pixies – Bam Thwok – Shrek 2

Fans of the Pixies never could have envisioned that the first song after the band reformed in the new millennium would be written for a sequel to Shrek. The peppy track, Bam Thwok, a “song about loving everyone … showing goodwill to everyone”, as Kim Deal explained at the time, was written by Deal after she came across a short story a child had scribbled on to the inside of a children’s book that she picked up on the streets of New York. Bam Thwok, which was released exclusively on iTunes in 2004 to help launch the European iTunes Store, would go on to become the first-ever No 1 song on the UK’s brand-new download chart.

Joe Esposito – You’re The Best – Rocky III

Perhaps no rejected soundtrack song ended up having a more successful life in film than singer Joe Esposito’s You’re the Best. According to the song’s performer, the infamous Karate Kid signature song was originally intended to be in Rocky III, released two years earlier, before being replaced by Eye of the Tiger. The song was rejected, once again, by next year’s Flashdance, before finally finding its home in the 1984 martial arts classic. Since then, the song has found its way into South Park, The Simpsons and Bob’s Burgers.

Barbra Streisand – My Heart Belongs To Me – A Star Is Born

Rarely do rejected songs for films end up becoming this popular. My Heart Belongs to Me, written for the 1976 film A Star Is Born, which starred Streisand alongside Kris Kristofferson, ended up not being included in the final list of Streisand songs on the album’s multi-platinum soundtrack. But the tortured ballad was the lead single for Streisand’s 1977 follow-up LP Superman, and the song would end up reaching the top five on the Hot 100.

Harry Nilsson – I Guess The Lord Must Be in New York City – Midnight Cowboy

John Schlesinger was awash in musical riches when he enlisted songwriters such as Harry Nilsson and Bob Dylan to submit theme songs to his 1969 film Midnight Cowboy. Nilsson wrote I Guess the Lord Must Be Living in New York City for the film, while Dylan pitched his future hit Lay Lady Lay. The director instead ended up going with a different Nilsson song, Everybody’s Talkin’, written by Fred Neil. But because the song wasn’t written originally for the film, it wasn’t eligible for an Academy Award, robbing the film of an Oscar for best original song that might well have gone to Nilsson or Dylan had their songs been accepted.

Frank Ocean – Wise Man – Django Unchained

One of the greatest songs the soul superstar wrote in the gap between the releases of Channel Orange and Blonde was almost heard by no one. That’s because the song, which Ocean wrote for Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, was shelved when the director couldn’t fit it in the film. “Frank Ocean wrote a fantastic ballad that was truly lovely and poetic in every way,” Tarantino said in 2012. “There just wasn’t a scene for it.” Ocean eventually shared the song on his Tumblr around the time the movie was released and the song featured in the boxing drama Southpaw instead. “Django was ill without it,” he said.

Madonna – Live to Tell – Fire With Fire

Madonna had only recently started working with her future longtime collaborator Patrick Leonard when the songwriter/producer asked the star if she’d be willing to write lyrics for a song Leonard was working on for the drama Fire with Fire. But when the song was submitted to Paramount, it was swiftly turned down. “They just didn’t think that this theme was any good,” Leonard said. “[They thought] I wasn’t going to be capable of [scoring] the film.” Later that year, however, Madonna’s moody, synth-driven ballad was featured in the crime drama At Close Range, which starred Christopher Walken and Sean Penn, Madonna’s husband at the time.


Jon Bernstein

The GuardianTramp

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