The iconic scene in Ghost—the one with Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze and that phallic clay and that Righteous Brothers’ cover of “Unchained Melody” playing in the background—has been parodied everywhere from Glee to In Living Color to Family Guy to Ellen to Saturday Night Live to Community to Two and a Half Men to Bob’s Burgers to 30 Rock to The Naked Gun series to Wallace and Gromit. Ghost, released in mid-July of 1990, is now 25 years old; to the extent that the rom-com-meets-morality-play has endured in pop culture—in theaters, on TV, and now on the Internet—it owes much of its long lifespan to that literally pivotal scene. Not until Don Draper’s slide projector would so much be evoked through a cinematically whirling wheel.
And that scene, in turn, owes much of its power to the song that accompanied Demi and Patrick and their nocturnal pot-throwing: “Unchained Melody.”
The song—first released 60 years ago, in 1955—has a history that, like its eponymous tune, ebbs and flows at unpredictable intervals. The song that has served as a backdrop for dances and weddings was born as a soundtrack of a more conventional variety. It’s named “Unchained Melody” not because it concerns itself with the various freedoms and captivations of romantic love, but because it was written, originally, for a movie about life in prison. Unchained, based on the book Prisoners are People, was a low-budget film released to limited acclaim in 1955. It features a scene, though, in which an inmate perches on a bed in his prison dorm and sings a song—accompanied only by a mournful acoustic guitar—for a group of his fellow prisoners: “Time … goes by … so slowly … and time can do … so much…”