Singer Eric Carmen had a love for classical music from childhood. In 1974, he wanted to incorporate it into his solo work after the breakup of his previous band The Raspberries. His first two songs come partially from the works of Sergei Rachmaninoff. In particular, Carmen based his first single on Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor. He also took the first few notes from the Raspberries’ song “Let’s Pretend.” This song would become “All by Myself.”
Carmen released the song in 1975, and despite the predictions of the record label, it quickly became a hit. Twenty years later, it would start on a path in television and movies to become a shorthand for filmmakers to express disappointment, loneliness, and heartbreak.
This article will focus on the most prominent uses of the song in narrative films and television. This excludes game shows and reality shows.
The Actual Song
At its core, “All by Myself” focuses on a man aging. Nothing proves this more than the opening lyrics:
When I was young
I never needed anyone
And making love was just for fun
Those days are gone
I think of all the friends I’ve known
But when I dial the telephone
In many of the cinematic versions of this song, the film cuts off the opening lyrics in favor of the first overture of “All by Myself,” thus making a song about aging into a song disappointment and heartbreak (depending on the context).
For the song’s first twenty years of life, very few American movies or television featured the song. During this time, Carmen wrote songs that appeared in Footloose (1984) and Dirty Dancing (1989). Multiple artists also covered the song during this time and after (most notably Celine Dion in 1996).
From the 1970’s through the 1980’s, three projects utilized the song prominently in narrative filmmaking. First, Greg Brady (Barry Williams) sang the song on The Brady Bunch Variety Hour (1976-1977) after he leaves home. He sings it because he yearns for the Brady’s old home. Greg moves back in right after the song ends. Secondly, it appeared in the French adult film The Woman of Gourpanoff (1983). However, the most prominent example did not come from an English language film.
Italian Cinema: ‘Viva Italia!’
Finally, the most explicit use of the song before 1995 came in the Academy Award nominated Italian comedy anthology film Viva Italia! (1977). Known in Italy as I Nouvi Mostri (“The New Monsters”), the film is a sequel to I Mostri (1963), directed by Dino Risi. Viva Italia! added a few new directors, but Risi directed the episode containing the song.
The episode (titled “Senza Parole” or “Without the words”) follows an Airline Hostess (Ornella Muti). She meets a handsome Foreigner (Yorgo Voyagis), who does not speak the language, but seduces her with his charm. This song plays over the second half of their date and on a portable radio that the Foreigner gives the Hostess as a farewell present before she takes off. Little does she know, the radio contains a bomb that blows up the plane, killing everybody on board (this happens off-screen). The episode ends with the Foreigner (labelled “Il Terrorista” in the credits) watching a news broadcast about the crash. After watching it, he puts on a pair of sunglasses and walks away.
The film presents the song in two different ways. In the first way, it serves as romantic mood music. A Man and Woman share an intimate moment in time despite their differences in culture and language. When he walks away again, the song plays as a cruel joke.
Satires: ‘Clueless’ and ‘To Die For’
The song started appearing in American movies in 1995 when two satires featuring it were released in theaters: Clueless and To Die For. Coincidentally, both centered around women.
The lighter of the two films, Clueless centers on Cher (Alicia Silverstone), a Beverly Hills teenager. When Cher realizes that she loves her ex-stepbrother Josh (Paul Rudd), Jewel’s cover of “All by Myself” plays. The film cuts the moment of realization to the music and has Cher stand in front of a fountain when it occurs.
To Die For has a more cynical use of the song. The film revolves around Suzanne Stone (Nicole Kidman). An ambitious local TV weathergirl, she seduces a group of teenagers (Joaquin Phoenix, Casey Affleck, Alison Folland) into killing her husband (Matt Dillon). After the Teenagers carry out the plan, Suzanne plays the grieving widow for the media. This includes playing “All by Myself” on a boom box at the funeral. Like Viva Italia!, this move expresses Pamela as a predatory figure who cares more about her image than her husband’s life.
As 70’s Nostalgia: ‘That 70’s Show’ and ‘Nearing Grace’
In the mid to late 1990’s and early 2000’s, many TV shows and movies came out celebrating the 1970’s. These projects often focused around a group of teenagers during that time period.
This is the case with That 70’s Show, which premiered in 1998 and focused on a group of teenagers in Wisconsin. The song appears in an episode after Eric (Topher Grace) breaks up with Donna (Laura Prepon). As a bearded Eric lies depressed in bed, it comes on the radio.
The most prominent dramatic version of the song is in the 2005 film Nearing Grace (2005). Based on Scott Sommer’s 1979 novel, the movie takes place in 1978 and follows Henry Nearing (Gregory Smith), a disillusioned high school student who just lost his mother. In one scene, his childhood friend Merna (Ashley Johnson) sings the opening of the song to suggest a new part of their friendship. While both feel attraction towards each other, they both have other love interests at the current time.
In both cases, the song acts as a way of expressing the stage of a high school relationship. One expresses a breakup, while the other represents a crossroads.
Mocking the 1970’s: ‘Under Wraps’
If a comedy series or movie did not openly celebrate the 1970’s, they would openly mock it.
In many cases, the narrative tended to portray an anachronistic character attracted to the 1970’s living in the present. The Simpsons created the character of Disco Stu (voiced by Hank Azaria) in 1996. The character exists in a permanent anachronistic state that defines him (unless he breaks character for a joke).
The first Disney Channel Movie Under Wraps (1997) features the most extensive use of the song. The film follows the goofy adventures of a mummy (Bill Fagerbakke) coming back to life and befriending three children.
The film often mocks the bygone era of the 1970’s. This includes the mummy being attracted to “All by Myself.” The song first appears in the film when the mummy (named “Harold” by the kids) accidentally turns on a radio playing the song and immediately loves it. They quickly try to get him to turn it off before the boy’s mother comes up to check on them. The cool girl of the group, Amy (Clara Bryant), tells them to turn it off “before she gags.” By the time this movie had aired, the song had aged twenty-two years. This is the type of music these kids’ parents would listen to.
The song later reappears at a school Halloween party where a lot of parents and faculty members in their forties dance to it. In the movie, it randomly starts playing in the middle of another song and has more lyrics than the actual song. The trio tells “Harold” to wait outside, but he cannot resist going in when he hears the song. The song stops when a horny staff member unwraps “Harold” to reveal his true identity.
Getting Older: ‘Me Myself I’ and The ‘Bridget Jones’ series
In the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, two films used covers of “All by Myself” to portray their characters aging process: the modest Australian film Me Myself I (1999) and the hugely successful Bridget Jones’ Diary (2000). Both tell the story of a thirty something career woman figuring out what she wants to do with her life.
Me Myself I revolves around successful Journalist Pamela Drury (Rachel Griffiths), who is much less successful in love. After discovering that her new potential love interest is married, Pamela lies in the tub, depressed about her life choices. The first lyrics of the song play. Unlike Bridget Jones, Me Myself I never received a wide release in the United States.
Bridget Jones’ Diary tells the story of Bridget Jones (Renee Zellwegger), a 32-year-old trying to figure out her life. An American-British co-production, the soundtrack for the film features many popular American songs and covers of American songs on its soundtrack, including “It’s Raining Men,” “Someone like You,” and “All by Myself.” After a disastrous Christmas party at her parents’ house, the opening titles of Bridget Jones’ Diary has Bridget mouthing the words to “All by Myself” as she sits on her couch eating ice cream in her pajamas. Bridget Jones’ Baby (2016) features Bridget doing the same thing before switching the song House of Pain’s “Jump Around.” This choice (along with the narration) tells the audience that Bridget has gone back to the place she started at before subverting expectations.
After Bridget Jones became a hit, the song became much more prominent in American media. It would appear in movies, TV shows, and commercials.
As a Shorthand
Probably the trailer for Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008) best illustrates how films and television tend to utilize the song:
The song does not make an appearance in the actual movie, but provides a quick shortcut to suggest the mood. As a song, it tends to appear in blunt genres that demand quick clarity. In particular, it shows up the most in three places: Commercials, Comedies, and Children’s films.
Due to their short runtime, Commercials tend to utilize the most recognizable storytelling choices to sell a product. What would seem obvious in a narrative film or television show works as a virtue in a commercial.
When used in commercials, the famous lyrics of the song often suggest that the product will make the person watching less lonely. Both Wendy’s and Burger King had their mascot act depressed to the song when deprived of their product. An Indonesian Visine commercial uses the strong to illustrate a far sided character’s point of view. Various locations stretch in front of the camera to suggest how the character’s poor eyesight isolates him.
In two foreign car ads (one from Japan and one from Thailand), the song plays as the car streaks down an empty road or highway. However, in these ads, the song seems to represent the freedom of the car.
In most of these ads, the focal point of the ad exists alone in a wide-open space. Sometimes the character/object exist in solace. Sometimes they are just waiting for the right product to come alone.
Since the beginning, Comedy has had the most diverse uses of the song. It can easily work as part of a cutaway gag. A character can sing the song when depressed or boxed in. A soundtrack can easily sample it for a musical sting. However, the most prominent and consistent use of the song comes at the low point in the story.
At this point of the movie or TV show, the Hero has lost. The journey has failed. “All by Myself” kicks in on the soundtrack. All seems lost until the song ends. Then the hero finds a way to save the day.
The independent comedy documentary My Date with Drew (2004) revolves around Brian Herzlinger’s extremely low budget journey to win a date with Drew Barrymore in thirty days or return his rented camera to Circuit City. When Herzlinger fails at his initial goal, the song plays over pictures as they walk into the store.
The parody movie Superhero Movie (2008) uses the song the same way. After Rick Riker (Drake Bell) breaks up with his girlfriend, Gabriel Mann’s cover plays over a montage of Rick moping around as happy couples together express affection around him. These displays range from holding hands to literally having sex in a bed on the street. All of this signals that Rick’s relationship has failed.
In an episode of Friends (1994-2004), Chandler and Joey decide to live separately. The song plays over the ending montage of Chandler and Joey separated and being unable to enjoy the activities they once did together. The episode ends here, leaving the audience waiting on a cliffhanger.
How I Met Your Mother (2005-2014) puts a spin on this trope. New couple Barney and Robin (Neil Patrick Harris and Cobie Smulders) get “dumped” by another couple, Marshall and Lily (Jason Segel and Alyson Hannigan), after a bad fight. The parody song “All by Ourselves” plays as Barney and Robin watch two couples do things together. It plays like the scene in Superhero Movie, but with couples.
All four projects use the song as part of a montage or extended sequence. With all these examples, the song serves as part of a prominent plot point.
Children’s Films: ‘Zootopia’ and ‘The Grinch’
Children’s films tend to express character beats through the song. Zootopia (2016) and The Grinch (2018) utilize the song to illustrate a character at a low point in their life at the start of the film.
Zootopia focuses on Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), a rabbit police officer relegated to meter maid work due to her size. When she goes home and turns on her clock radio, a whole bunch of depressing songs play including REM’s “Everybody Hurts” and “All by Myself.” Only the famous lyric plays for a split second.
The Grinch has the most prominent version of the song. Early in the film, the titular character (Benedict Cumberbatch) plays the song on an organ he has built out of the stalactites of the cave he lives in. While the Grinch might be a grump, he wants to be loved deep down. The song suggests this, making it easier to understand his motivation.
Children’s films tend to focus on finding a place in the world. With the song, the film quickly establishes that the character has not found their place yet.
In its lifetime, “All by Myself” has transformed from a hit into a shorthand that filmmakers and television producers use to convey sadness in media. Depending on how it’s used, it can take on multiple meanings.
The song also helped to further Sergei Rachmaninoff’s legacy even more. Since Carmen thought the song was public domain, he did not ask Rachmaninoff’s estate for the rights to it. When Carmen found out otherwise, he agreed to a quick settlement. Aside from the estate getting a share of the profits, Rachmaninoff would serve as a credited co-writer on the song.
- Coronation Street (1960- )
- Episode # 1.8645 (2015)
- Viva Italia! (1977)
- To Die For (1995)
- Clueless (1995)
- Under Wraps (1997)
- Comedy Lab (1998)
- Meet the Magoons (2001)
- Half Baked (2000)
- Me Myself I (2000)
- Friends (1994-2004)
- The One where Eddie Moves in (1996)
- The One with Mac and C.H.E.E.S.E. (2000)
- Phoenix Nights (2001-2002)
- Episode 1.4 (2001)
- Down to Earth (2001)
- Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001)
- That 70’s Show (1998-2006)
- Eric’s Depression
- Dawn of The Dead (2004)
- My Date with Drew (2004)
- Shrek 2 (2004)
- Scrubs (2001-2010)
- My Old Friend’s New Friend (2004)
- Nearing Grace (2005)
- Superhero Movie (2008)
- Bedtime Stories (2008)
- Everybody Hates Chris (2005-2009)
- Everybody Hates the Bachelor Pad (2007)
- Everybody Hates Boxing (2009)
- How I Met Your Mother (2005-2014)
- The Sexless Innkeeper (2009)
- 30 Rock (2006-2013)
- Argus (2010)
- Glee (2009-2015)
- Showmance (2009)
- A Night of Neglect (2011)
- Psych (2006-2014)
- Neil Simon’s Lover’s Retreat (2011)
- Zootopia (2016)
- Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising (2016)
- Bridget Jones’ Baby (2016)
- The Grinch (2018)
- Doom Patrol (2019)
- Pemultimate Patrol (2019)