The 8 Greatest Nerd-Movie Empowerment Anthems
With several “big” movies arriving in theaters this weekend, including Liam Neeson’s Non-Stop and the religious epic Son of God, it remains to be seen how long The Lego Movie will hold onto the top spot at the box office. But long after its overall impact on moviegoers begins to wane, there is one part of the film that seems guaranteed to linger, if not move in, unpack its bags and gain 15 pounds of relationship weight in people’s memories: “Everything Is Awesome,” Tegan and Sara’s unforgettably, irresistibly upbeat theme song.
As with just about everything else in the movie, “Everything Is Awesome” becomes more than just a fun addition to the story – it transforms from a mind-numbing, ubiquitous soundtrack for conformity into an empowerment anthem for Emmet the nerdy main character. But it follows an illustrious history of theme songs that have made 97-pound weaklings feel like Charles Atlas, and we’ve assembled a playlist of some of the best.
1. Better Off Dead – “Everybody Wants Some,” Van Halen
John Cusack spent the better part of the 1980s standing in as a proxy for the slighter members of teen society who hoped one day to meet a pretty girl, and prevail over their decidedly more athletically-gifted counterparts. Better Off Dead marked his leading-man breakthrough, playing a heartbroken kid struggling to get through a devastating breakup.
Playing a cartoonist and surprisingly gifted skier named Lane, he often disappears into his daydreams as he’s sorting through his feelings. But after befriending the French exchange student across the street, Lane eventually discovers that it only takes a good job – and an absent boss – to locate your inner bad ass.
2. The Breakfast Club – “Don’t You (Forget About Me),” Simple Minds
As an iconic portrait of teen social hierarchies, the central focus of The Breakfast Club is the convergence of classmates from different cliques – athletes, brains, criminals, princesses and basket cases. John Hughes, possibly the ’80s greatest purveyor of teen stories, creates a vivid ensemble that simultaneously indulges and razes stereotypes.
After they’ve all gone through a remarkably dramatic wringer, challenging their perceptions of each other and even themselves, the “brain” (Anthony Michael Hall) is tasked with writing an essay that encapsulates their collective experiences. As he reads the essay in voiceover, Simple Minds’ now iconic tribute to self-actualization blasts on the soundtrack.
3. Can’t Hardly Wait – “Paradise City,” Guns N’ Roses
Can’t Hardly Wait is simultaneously a portrait of ’90s teen life and a throwback to the tropes of ’80s teen movies like John Hughes’ Sixteen Candles. The characters are confronted by a possible future as they stand on the precipice of high school graduation, and look into a deep and terrifying – and okay, often funny – darkness that echoes the words of Barry Manilow: “I’m ready to take a chance again.”
In one of the film’s best scenes, William Lichter (Charlie Korsmo) stages a plot to take revenge on his tormentors during a graduation-night party. But he soon finds his carefully-planned revenge interrupted by the prospect of having fun, and after a few beers, he leaps on stage in front his classmates to belt out a positively transcendent version of one of G N’ R’s biggest crowd-pleasers.
4. The Karate Kid – “You’re The Best,” Joe “Bean” Esposito
’80s movies loved nothing more than they loved montages, especially ones set to big, memorable pop songs. And although there are several in John G. Avildsen’s story of a Reseda teenager who learns to fight back against school bullies with the help of a wise but cryptic handyman named Mr. Miyagi, perhaps the most famous one comes late in the film as Daniel is finally using his wax-on, wax-off training to dispatch foes in the ring.
As he moves swiftly from one opponent to the next, Avildsen shrewdly pairs Daniel’s ascent with a tune that has become something of a clich?, but only because it’s so damn effective. Joe “Bean” Esposito never went on to do anything as memorable again, but as the greatest go-to hero-corn theme of the ’80s, he created a true classic.
5. Napoleon Dynamite – “Canned Heat,” Jamiroquai
Starting with his name, Napoleon Dynamite was not cut out to be one of the cool kids. But that social obstacle doesn’t seem to slow him down a bit, especially when it comes to the high school talent show.
After one scene after another of him listening to mysterious music and planning some sort of aerobic exercise, Napoleon takes the stage in front of all of his classmates and delivers a sort of shockingly good dance routine, set unexpectedly to the disco-funk of English pop group Jamiroquai. The sequence soon became legendary – a take-charge, coming out and coming of age moment for modern nerds – which probably explains why there are actually more videos of people imitating Napoleon than ones of Napoleon himself.
6. Office Space – “Still,” Geto Boys
Office Space is an odd film in that most of its soundtrack was hip-hop, in spite of the fact that two of its protagonists are some of the whitest desk jockeys you’ve ever seen. But after living out their empowerment fantasies from behind the safety of their car windows, which conceal tracks by Ice Cube and others, they finally get to stand up for themselves for real – well, sort of.
Following a particularly demoralizing moment of corporate humiliation for his buddies, the newly-promoted Peter Gibbons designates a particularly infuriating printer as the target of their suppressed rage. The trio smashes it to smithereens as the syrupy g-funk of Geto Boys’ song provides them with musical accompaniment, giving them a catharsis so powerful that by the end of their assault, they actually have to be pulled away from the poor machine’s splattered parts.
7. Pee-wee’s Big Adventure – “Tequila,” The Champs
Tim Burton’s feature debut is a gauntlet of weird, wonderful sequences, stitched together with the filmmaker’s trademark ebullience, and Paul Reubens’ indefatigable charm. But after the title character wins the friendship of just about everybody he encounters – except Andy, of course – he encounters his biggest challenge yet: a group of bikers whose hogs he accidentally knocks over.
After cleverly – but to no avail – suggesting he be let go, Pee-wee scrambles to find a way to win over the tattooed tough guys who are threatening to pummel him. Throwing a quarter into the jukebox and donning a pair of platform shoes, Pee-wee turns potential tragedy into triumph and immortalizes a dance in the process.
8. Revenge of the Nerds – “They’re So Incredible,” Revenge
The centerpiece song from Revenge of the Nerds is performed by two different people, depending on whether you’re watching the movie or listening to the soundtrack, but don’t hold that against it. Either way, however, it’s kind of a marvel of geekery, mashed-up into precisely the kind of synth-pop that dominated the charts in the 1980s.
After the geeks have been bullied one too many times by their jock counterparts, they decide to embrace their natural talents, utilizing years of training with musical instruments, computers and anything else they can get their hands on. With their former tormentors watching from the crowd, the nerds give a performance that’s not only a demonstration of defiance, but a soundtrack to their ascendance to the top of their school’s Greek system.
Previously by Todd Gilchrist: