Nine Feature Films That Were Based on Songs

Purple People Eater

These days, movies are adapted from everything: books, stage plays, video games, comics, even trading cards (Mars Attacks!). And then there's this peculiar subgenre, an example of which will pop every few years: films that are based on songs. I'm not talking about movies that borrow the titles of hit records (e.g., Pretty Woman, Stand By Me, American Pie) or those where the songs are sort of spiritually related (e.g., Valley Girl, Blue Velvet, My Own Private Idaho). I mean movies actually adapted from pop songs. Here are nine.

  1. The Indian Runner (Sean Penn, 1991). One of Penn's few directorial efforts, this bleak drama starring David Morse and Viggo Mortensen was based on Bruce Springsteen's "Highway Patrolman".
  2. Alice's Restaurant (Arthur Penn, 1969). Arlo Guthrie's 1967 hippie saga "Alice's Restaurant Massacree" – more a monologue set to music than an actual song, and clocking in at 18 minutes – was so popular that somebody decided to make a movie out of it, even casting Guthrie as himself. Though the film is forgotten today (like Guthrie in general), it scored Penn – no relation to Sean – an Oscar nomination for Best Director.
  3. Purple People Eater (Linda Shayne, 1988). This bargain basement family fare was based on the Sheb Wooley novelty hit from 1958. Wooley, a onetime cowboy actor, was given a small role, but the film's cast was a weird mix of has-beens (Ned Beatty, Shelley Winters) and an unusually strong collection of child actors, led by Neil Patrick Harris.
  4. Ode to Billy Joe (Max Baer, 1976). Bobbie Gentry's Southern Gothic number about the fictional Billie Joe McAllister and his jump from the Tallahatchee Bridge was dramatized a decade after its 1967 peak and directed by – yes, really – the guy who played Jethro on The Beverly Hillbillies. I don't know why they changed "Billie" to "Billy", but the low-budget drama performed well at the box office, no doubt thanks to star Robby Benson's teen idol status.
  5. Born in East L.A. (Cheech Marin, 1987). Marin, of Cheech and Chong fame, wrung a few laughs out of his 1985 "Born in the U.S.A." parody song and video, so he channeled that minor success into this middling vanity project.
  6. Convoy (Sam Peckinpah, 1978). C.W. McCall's 1976 crossover hit about truckers and their CB radio banter was such a smash that it may have been singlehandedly responsible for the late '70s CB radio fad. The great Sam Peckinpah, whose career was ebbing to a close, was tapped to direct a cast of distinctly '70s faces (Kris Kristofferson, Ali MacGraw, etc.) in this feature-length version of the song.
  7. Harper Valley PTA (Richard C. Bennett, 1978). Another country song movie, this took the anecdotal 1968 tune by Jeannie C. Riley and turned it into a Barbara Eden vehicle. Eden even starred in 1981's short-lived TV adaptation, because why wouldn't she?
  8. Take This Job and Shove It (Gus Trikonis, 1981). The last of the big country music film adaptations, this comedy, based on the Johnny Paycheck hit (or, more to the point, based on its title), was a little late to the game. But it is a reminder that, for a couple of years, Robert Hays was a bona fide movie star.
  9. White Christmas (Michael Curtiz, 1954). Irving Berlin's classic carol "White Christmas" was actually introduced in the 1942 Bing Crosby movie Holiday Inn, and in fact won the Oscar for Best Original Song. Twelve years later, both "White Christmas" and Der Bingle were dusted off for this corny seasonal favorite. Thankfully, the cringeworthy blackface number from Holiday Inn ("Abraham") did not receive such treatment.