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‘Encanto,‘ ‘Top Gun’ and ‘Elvis’: Inside the Return of the Soundtrack Smash

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In January, the success story of Encanto and its hit single “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” kicked off a banner year for music from movies: Five songs written for films reached the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 in 2022 — the most since 2018, when four original songs from movies reached the upper echelon.

Encanto was a true phenomenon, becoming the first soundtrack with a corresponding song (“Bruno”) to simultaneously top the Billboard 200 and Hot 100 for at least four weeks in 29 years since The Bodyguard and Whitney Houston’s version of “I Will Always Love You.” “Bruno” spent five weeks at No. 1, the most for any song from a Disney movie in the chart’s history. The animated film’s “Surface Pressure,” sung by Jessica Darrow, reached No. 8.

“Part of the reason you’re seeing music in film generally do better is because it’s used in a more integral way to the story,” says Disney Music Group president Ken Bunt. “If the song is used in a more meaningful way, it tends to do better. And I think that’s something that got lost for a while.”

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Other 2022 feats include Rihanna’s “Lift Me Up” from Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, which debuted at No. 2 on the Hot 100, giving the superstar her first top 10 since 2017; OneRepublic’s “I Ain’t Worried” from Top Gun: Maverick, which hit No. 6, the band’s first top 10 since 2014; and Doja Cat’s “Vegas” from Elvis, which reached No. 10.

“When you can put a great song in a movie and then have radio make it a hit song, it not only makes the movie more popular, it elevates the artist singing the song,” says Jim Ryan, vp of programming for the Audacy radio chain. 

In the case of “Bruno,” Ryan is first to admit he was skeptical. “I said, ‘This can’t be a radio song,’ ” he recalls. “But we had really good success with it. I think that came from young parents that are certainly in the demographic that we try to reach with our radio stations. Parents watch movies with their kids. I thought it was going to be a spike song for a couple of weeks, but we got a lot of mileage out of it.”

Not only did “Bruno” take off without a star name attached as the performer, it also persisted following a delayed start. After the song debuted on the Hot 100 at No. 50, Bunt credits the film hitting Disney+ last December, a month after its theatrical release, for the music’s sudden and sustained climb. “That’s when things really started to explode,” he says. “More people had access to it because not everybody was comfortable going into a theater.”

By the time Top Gun: Maverick opened in May, theaters were more crowded as COVID-19 numbers declined. And the soundtrack, released by Interscope, had the added benefit of star power. Lady Gaga co-wrote and performed the end-title power ballad “Hold My Hand,” and OneRepublic’s whistle-hook pop track “I Ain’t Worried” (which interpolates “Young Folks” by Peter, Bjorn and John) got a pivotal placement during a beach touch-football scene.

“Hold My Hand” reached No. 9 on Billboard’s Adult Contemporary Songs chart. As for OneRepublic, Interscope was already promoting the band’s “West Coast” to radio when — given Top Gun: Maverick’s box-office success — it yanked that song for “I Ain’t Worried” to capitalize on the momentum.

And according to Interscope vice chairman Steve Berman, the film also had the benefit of building on the 1986 original blockbuster, whose “Take My Breath Away” by Berlin took home the Oscar for best original song. It’s why, he says, the label’s initial conversations with Paramount’s president of motion picture music Randy Spendlove centered on, “How do you be respectful to the importance of a film like Top Gun and how do you carry it forward? Because music was so instrumental in the original film.” (It’s also why, he says, Lady Gaga worked so closely with star Tom Cruise, composer Hans Zimmer and director Joseph Kosinski.)

“Theaters were clawing back, and Top Gun was this explosion that happened of people seeing a film together. That film was such a global force,” Berman continues. “When you combine that with social media platforms, the power of the culture of the film and the scene in which [“I Ain’t Worried”] was played, it felt like it was unstoppable.”

Placement in a pivotal scene and use of a familiar hook similarly helped propel Doja Cat’s “Vegas,” which includes a sample of rock classic “Hound Dog” sung by the song’s original performer, Big Mama Thornton. Helmed by Doja Cat’s longtime producer, Yeti Beats, “Vegas” was “an opportunity to hear Doja rap again, which she hadn’t done as much of the last couple of tracks,” says Karen Lamberton, executive vp of soundtracks and film/TV licensing for RCA, which released the soundtrack. “Fans were hungry for that.”

In addition to “Vegas” hitting the top 10 on six Billboard charts, six other songs from the movie appeared on various charts, including “The King and I” by Eminem featuring Cee Lo Green, which reached No. 12 on R&B/Hip-Hop Digital Song Sales.

Integral to the songs’ success was director Baz Luhrmann’s involvement in “absolutely every note of every track,” Lamberton says, which leads to an emotional connection that the listeners can sense. “There’s a joy and appreciation for bringing all kinds of art together in one place,” she continues. “When artists are inspired by other artists, you end up with great results.” 

A version of this story originally appeared in the Dec. 10, 2022 issue of Billboard.

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