The brilliant, bizarre use of John Farnham’s You’re the Voice in US comedy Hot Rod

As John Farnham doco Finding the Voice releases, Dominic Corry looks back at the one of the great music cues of all time. He can write what he wants to write.

When Andy Samberg and The Lonely Island guys used John Farnham’s 1986 hit You’re the Voice to score the build up to the climax of their 2007 comedy Hot Rod, pop culture oceans were crossed.

Hot Rod—one of the last proper examples of the “pals-from-SNL-all-do-a-movie-together” model—wasn’t a success upon its release, but it has gone on to become a super-beloved semi-classic, especially in an era when the studios seem less interested in big screen comedy than ever.

Andy Samberg plays useless aspiring motorbike stuntman Rod, and the whole film builds up to him performing an ambitious jump over multiple buses. On the morning of the big stunt, Rod performs Swayze-in-Road House-style tai chi next to a lake as the legendary Aussie power pop ballad begins.

After being greased up by a nearby woodsman, Rod determinedly heads into town for his big moment. He starts off walking alone down the street just as the first verse kicks in, and is gradually joined by his compadres (played by Jorma Taccone, Danny McBride and Bill Hader), Buckaroo Banzai-style.

Then the whole town joins in behind them, with little clusters of three people lip-syncing along to the song’s hilariously earnest lyrics. It’s a big powerful victorious moment that is also very funny. Then the crowd breaks into a violent riot.

The usage of Farnham’s track here is glorious, and it serves as both a pisstake and a celebration of these kinds of scenes and the way they use uplifting music. While extremely hilarious, it is also a highly effective spirit-rouser for the film’s finalé.

It’s even more impressive now that rousing pop music cues have been run into the ground, with many big movies relying way too much on familiar songs for their emotional resonance.

The You’re the Voice moment in Hot Rod undoubtedly played differently to audiences in New Zealand, Australia (and parts of Europe)—where You’re the Voice was a huge hit—to how it did in America, where it is (or was) relatively unknown. It also raises the question of how the song ended up in Hot Rod in the first place, considering Farnham’s relative obscurity in the New World.

I interviewed Samberg about SNL for a magazine article back in 2010, and I took the opportunity to enquire how they came across the song. Turns out, it was thanks to another bike-centric movie from twenty years earlier.

“[John Farnham] did a song on [1986 BMX movie] Rad called Break the Ice,” Samberg told me in 2010. “[Fellow Lonely Island members/Hot Rod collaborators] Jorma and Keev, and me a little bit, not as much as them, were obsessed with Rad growing up. While making Hot Rod, we were listening to the Rad soundtrack a lot, and we were like ‘This song by John Farnham is so great’ and it led us down the road of listening to a bunch of John Farnham songs and we got to You’re the Voice and we were like ‘Holy shit this song’s incredible’ and one day we were just writing that [Hot Rod] scene and I happened to have that song playing in the background and we all sorta looked at each other like ‘Oh man, we have to set this scene to this song.’”

Farnham actually has three songs on the Rad soundtrack, in addition to Break the Ice, there’s Thunder in Your Heart (which plays over the end credits, but is set to some primo Rad footage in the linked video) and Love Theme from ‘Rad’, which sadly isn’t online.

Something I didn’t ask Samberg (but wish I had) was how the song was received in America. It’s not hard to imagine audiences presuming someone had been instructed to write the cheesiest power ballad of all time for the film. But no. It is a real song. Farnham devoid of context must be very strange indeed.

It can’t help but bring to mind that time when a clip from the Kirin J Callinan song Big Enough that featured a kaiju-sized Jimmy Barnes wailing like a mega-banshee went viral in the wake of the Twitter freak out following Donald J. Trump’s COVID diagnosis in late 2020. What must Barnes-less Americans have made of this?

One thing is for sure: it accurately captured the online fervour of the moment.

Outside of movies centered around two-wheeled vehicles, Farnham drops don’t show up in a huge amount of movies. He had the slow ‘n’ treacly Running for Love in 1985’s Fletch and performed a peppy cover, duetting with singer named Rainey, of My World Is Empty Without You for a 1984 movie called Voyage of the Rock Aliens.

Then there’s the obscure Linda Blair movie Savage Streets, also from 1984, which features three John Farnham numbers. The film appears to be most remembered for its glam/AOR-leaning soundtrack, all of which you can listen to here:

Six years after Hot Rod, Steve Coogan used You’re the Voice in the 2013 Alan Partridge movie Alpha Papa. The song is just about due for another ironic usage any day now, so keep an eye for that. But nothing will ever top its usage in Hot Rod. Down the barrel of a gun.