The best songs from teen movies – ranked!

Simple Minds! The Moldy Peaches! Yello! Here are 20 of the most memorable musical moments from the greatest high-school films ever

20. Moving in Stereo by the Cars, from Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)

The visuals of a poolside Phoebe Cates peeling off her bikini top might be more famous than the song that accompanies them, but Amy Heckerling and Cameron Crowe, Fast Times’ director and writer, were no slouches when it came to finding the perfect guitar riff for this early slice of music video-style slo-mo that – legend has it – became the most rewound scene in VHS history.

19. U Know What’s Up by Donnell Jones, from Save the Last Dance (2001)

Ballet wannabe Sara (Julia Stiles) gets a lesson in hip-hop swagger from streetwise new beau Derek (Sean Patrick Thomas) in the best scene of this interracial Flashdance update that kicked off the 00s fad for teen dance pics.

18. Crash into Me by Dave Matthews, from Lady Bird (2018)

Greta Gerwig’s Sacremento-set high-school drama is the smartest coming-of-age tale in years. So much so, you’ll even be convinced that Dave Matthews’ lite-rock blub-fest – the title character’s favourite song – might actually be a work of genius.

17. Canned Heat by Jamiroquai, from Napoleon Dynamite (2004)

Napoleon’s deadpan geekery reaches its zenith as he performs an unexpected dance routine to the showy funk sounds of Jay Kay, in honour of his friend Pedro’s school presidential campaign. His classmates look aghast, but those sweet moves soon turn Dynamite into an unlikely hero.

16. Stay Gold by Stevie Wonder, from The Outsiders (1983)

Francis Coppola’s take on SE Hinton’s YA bible gave the world instant pinups in the form of Estevez, Cruise, Lowe, Dillon, Macchio, Howell and Swayze. If the film boasted a 60s greaser snarl, this closing track highlighted Coppola’s melodramatic leanings, with Wonder pondering the fleeting nature of adolescence in a string-and-harmonica soaked ballad.

15. Anyone Else But You by The Moldy Peaches, from Juno (2007)

Recommended to Juno’s film-makers by lead actor Ellen Page, this actually features twice in the teen pregnancy anti-romcom: in its original form and covered by Page and co-star Michael Cera. Both are things of fragile, lo-fi beauty.

14. Ain’t My Type of Hype by Full Force, from House Party (1990)

Rap duo Kid ‘n Play – hip-hop’s own Bill and Ted – show off their trademark “funky charleston” moves in this dance-off scene from the smilier side of New Black Cinema. It’s a riot of neon outfits and spectacular hair, watched over by a young Martin Lawrence on DJ-ing duties.

13. Cry Little Sister by Gerard McMann, from The Lost Boys (1987)

The British born multi-instrumentalist saw his songs feature in Fast Times at Ridgemont High and early Tom Cruise vehicle All the Right Moves, but it’s this gothic rock belter from the Corey Haim vampire pic that’s best remembered. You won’t find a more spine-tingling use of a church organ this side of Bach.

Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey in Dirty Dancing.
Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey in Dirty Dancing. Photograph: Allstar/Vestron Pictures

12. Hungry Eyes by Eric Carmen, from Dirty Dancing (1987)

The film might have been set in the summer of 1963, but in among oldies such as Be My Baby were a bunch of incongruous-but-catchy contemporary belters that gave Dirty Dancing its lovably ridiculous 80s polish. Hungry Eyes soundtracks the kind of training montage the decade did so well, Jennifer Grey’s Baby evolving from wooden ditz to nimble sex kitten with the help of Patrick Swayze’s hip-swivelling dance teacher Johnny and an ever-decreasing amount of clothes.

11. Boom Clap by Charlie XCX, from The Fault in Our Stars (2014)

In recent years teen movies have mainly been adaptations of YA novels, be they fantastical (Twilight, The Hunger Games) or, in the case of John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, earnest and weepy. Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort hit A-list status after the success of this teen cancer romance, astutely featuring the bursting emotions of XCX’s synth pop anthem. The Amsterdam-set video, featuring clips from the film, is pushing 330m YouTube hits.

Liv Tyler, Johnny Whitworth and Renée Zellweger in Empire Records.
Liv Tyler, Johnny Whitworth and Renée Zellweger in Empire Records. Photograph: Allstar/Warner Bros

10. Sugar High by Renée Zellweger, from Empire Records (1995)

Friends Alicia Silverstone and Liv Tyler led two of the best 90s teen films in Clueless and this, an anti-corporate comedy about a music store from Pump Up the Volume director Allan Moyle. And while it nods to the Nirvana and Kevin Smith-led grunge movement of the time, Empire Records is a lighter look at slackerdom, most noticeably in the appearance of Grease 2’s Maxwell Caulfield as a washed-up pop star and the film’s final moments when sales assistant Gina (Renée Zellweger) belts out this Coyote Shivers rocker to a cheering crowd from the shop’s roof.

9. Old Time Rock and Roll by Bob Seger, from Risky Business (1983)

Music was everything in Risky Business. Director Paul Brickman hired German keyboard noodlers Tangerine Dream to score the movie, their understated atmospherics the perfect accompaniment to a bold story – geeky boy dates hooker – that never wants to be too obvious. But it’s the moment when Joel (Tom Cruise) celebrates being home alone that everyone remembers. Upping the volume on his dad’s stereo, he slides, struts and collar pops around the lounge in just socks, shirt and tiny whities. The song wasn’t cool but then neither was Joel. And in the space of just over a minute, Cruise became a megastar.

8. Can’t Take My Eyes Off You by Heath Ledger, from 10 Things I Hate About You (1999)

The late Heath Ledger’s youthful joie de vivre is a hoot as he woos uptight soccer girl Kat (Julia Stiles) on the sports field with this marching band-accompanied version of the Frankie Valli classic. This high-school comedy had plenty of turn-of-the-century contemporaries – She’s All That, American Pie – but its cheeky reworking of Taming of the Shrew put it in a different league. And even now, the lank-haired Ledger just radiates cool.

7. Oh Yeah by Yello, from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and The Secret of My Success (both 1987)

Director John Hughes was known to prefer his music more eccentrically European than macho American and Ferris Bueller is awash with delicious choices: Sigue Sigue Sputnik, Big Audio Dynamite, the Beatles. But with Oh Yeah’s throbbing bass, purring vocals and whispering nonsense of “Chukka chukkaah”, he really hit the jackpot. It’s no wonder this oddly erotic Hi-NRG from Swiss boffins Yello was used to sum up fast cars and seductive yuppies in two of the decade’s best tales of young bucks taking on the system.

Fame. Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext/MGM

6. Fame by Irene Cara, from Fame (1980)

Bronx-born musical veteran Irene Cara twice hit home runs in the 80s teen movie world, winning an Oscar for the euphoric Flashdance ... What a Feeling! just after scoring big with Fame. While Dean Pitchford’s lyrics for the latter are the ultimate statement of youthful intent (“I’m gonna live for ever!”), set against director Alan Parker’s melancholy snapshot of life at performing arts school, that optimism takes on a more desperate air. If you only remember the smiley spin-off TV show, which belatedly pushed this track to the top of the UK charts, take a look at the original movie. Broken teenage dreams have never looked so good.

5. Mad World by Gary Jules and Michael Andrews, from Donnie Darko (2002)

Richard Kelly’s cult teen sci-fi was an ode to his favourite 80s movies as much as it was a meditation on time travel. The soundtrack delivered accordingly, Echo & the Bunnymen sharing screen-time with similarly sombre post-punks the Church and Joy Division. Tears for Fears’ euphoric Head Over Heels appeared in its original form, but it was the whispery cover of their 1982 hit Mad World that had serious impact. Played during the film’s inspired final moments, this new take by Californian collaborators Jules and Andrews neatly sums up the multi-dimensional weirdness we’ve just witnessed. And as a welcome Christmas UK No 1 in 2003, it spoke volumes about the Bush and Bin Laden era we reluctantly found ourselves living in.

4. Summer Nights by John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, from Grease (1978)

Travolta’s 1978 heart-throb status saw him rule the pop world as well the box office, thanks to a double whammy of Saturday Night Fever and Grease that saw spin-off singles top the charts for most of the year. Fever had the 18-certificate bite – often overlooked in among all that disco – but this track from the ultimate high-school musical is Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus done as a sun-kissed bleachers singalong. “Wella, wella, wella, ugh” indeed.

3. In Your Eyes by Peter Gabriel, from Say Anything (1989)

That boombox moment. It’s been parodied so many times that both Gabriel and Say Anything’s star John Cusack know it will headline their obituaries – but it works for a reason. What’s rumoured to be Gabriel’s ode to former girlfriend Rosanna Arquette is first used during a car seat love scene between Lloyd (Cusack) and Diane (Ione Skye) that has the former shaking with happiness. When it’s played again, now blasting from Lloyd’s ghettoblaster as he stands outside Diane’s house, desperate to win her back, it’s a moment of pure teenage anguish. Statue still and arms aloft, you just know that the winningly weird Lloyd would stand there through rain, sleet and snow until doe-eyed Diane is back in his life.

2. Rock Around the Clock by Bill Haley & His Comets, from Blackboard Jungle (1955)

The song that sums up an era. In Blackboard Jungle it was part of rebellious musical movement linked to juvenile delinquency (a social concern that itself spawned umpteen teen films). Used again in a 1956 Haley-starring film of the same name, it was the theme tune to a phenomenon. By the time it was opening George Lucas’s American Graffiti in 1973, what was once dangerous had become a nostalgic celebration of simpler times. Such was the success of Graffiti’s hit-packed retro soundtrack – a first of its kind – that rock’n’roll scored a resurgence on the charts and Haley’s signature tune cropped up yet again on TV’s Happy Days and in Israel’s influential 50s-set sex comedy Lemon Popsicle.

1. (Don’t You) Forget About Me by Simple Minds, from The Breakfast Club (1985)

The Glasgow band had to have their arms twisted to record this theme to John Hughes’ detention day classic, not keen on either American high schools or material they hadn’t written themselves. However, Jim Kerr’s opening “Heh heh heh heeey!” was, is and always will be an iconic yowl for triumphant teens everywhere. Try (and fail) to listen to it without punching the air, Judd Nelson-style. The track was referenced in 1999’s cheeky smash American Pie, then in 2012 was reprised acapella-style for the ingenious Pitch Perfect. A rousing anniversary performance at the 2015 Billboard Music Awards saw Kerr and the boys introduced by Molly Ringwald (“… the Simple Minds!”) with an overexcited Jennifer Lopez and Taylor Swift singing their hearts out in the audience. Bleached rocker Billy Idol, who turned down the chance to record the song before Simple Minds, has since produced a cover, but it’s the original version that remains unforgettable.

Fast Times and Excellent Adventures: The Surprising History of the 80s Teen Movie by James King is out now


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