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Criticwire Survey: Lousy Film, Great Soundtrack

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by Sam Adams
October 21, 2013 10:12 AM
13 Comments
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Every week, the Criticwire Survey asks film and TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday morning. (The answer to the second, "What is the best film in theaters right now?" can be found at the end of this post.) Leave your own response in the comments, and send suggestions for future questions to sam at indiewire dot com.

Q: Many great movies draw strength from their musical soundtracks, but sometimes the films don't measure up to the songs themselves. What's your favorite example of a great soundtrack to a not-so-great film?

Tim Grierson, Screen International, Paste

There was some talk before Singles came out that writer-director Cameron Crowe was making a movie about the Seattle music scene of the early '90s that was just starting to explode. That made sense since Crowe had gotten his start as a music journalist, but his film was actually just a mediocre romantic comedy set in Seattle, with a few references to the city's alternative rock movement thrown in. The soundtrack turned out to be far more culturally signficant. It's not a definitive overview of grunge -- Nirvana's not on it -- but it has Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, and Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell, and as a great meta-commentary, the soundtrack also features Seattle's own Mudhoney doing a song called "Overblown," which expresses their disdain for the hyped-to-death scene of which they were a part. But you also hear Paul Westerberg, who with the Replacements in the '80s helped give birth to the alternative/college-rock environment that paved the way for most of the Singles bands. As a nod to Seattle's rock roots, Jimi Hendrix is included, and as a warning of what was to come in grunge, there's also Mother Love Bone, whose lead singer Andrew Wood died of an overdose in 1990, a sad harbinger of the drug problems that would plague Nirvana's Kurt Cobain and Alice in Chains' Layne Staley. (In terms of Mother Love Bone's legacy, it's also worth noting that a few of the band's members went on to form Pearl Jam.) There's even room on Singles for Smashing Pumpkins, which had nothing to do with grunge or the Seattle scene but would become one of alt-rock's biggest bands in the '90s. I just rattled off all that history about the Singles soundtrack off the top of my head. The movie, I remember almost nothing about.

Alissa Wilkinson, Christianity Today

Elizabethtown, for sure: I have fond associations with that film because my husband and I saw it on what turned out to be our first date, but it's basically just Garden State (which has an exceptional soundtrack itself), except with Orlando Bloom, and nobody needs that movie to exist. But I still listen to Elizabethtown's soundtrack all the time. It's great southern-inflected rock and alt-country. And It's nice to have something to be nostalgic about from the movie itself. Cameron Crowe sure can pick 'em.

Sean Axmaker, Parallax View, Cinephiled

The first Austin Powers has its moments and its fans and yeah, I get a kick out of the way it pokes fun at sixties spies and mod culture, but the soundtrack to the movie brings the sixties and the nineties together even better than the film. There are some covers (Susanna Hoffs, married to director Jay Roach, is heavenly on "The Look of Love"), composer George S. Clinton provides spot-on Bond-esque cues, and Hoffs and Matthew Sweet jam with Myers on the sixties TV-style drop-in "BBC," but what works so well in is the mix of period and contemporary songs in a single sensibility. The funky swing of Quincy Jones' instrumental "Soul Bossa Nova" and the Top 40 psychedelia of "Incense and Peppermint" by the Strawberry Alarm Clock meets the contemporary psych-inflected electronica of Broadcast's "The Book Lovers" and the abstract indie pop of The Cardigans, pulling decades together in a continuum of musical conversation. I don't know if credit for the musical line-up goes to Clinton or producer/writer/star Myers or director Jay Roach, but together they came up with a great set of songs that set a sensibility of the sixties in the nineties (and to give credit where it is due, Myers' movies all have good soundtracks). It's an inspired jukebox soundtrack that shouldn't necessarily all work together -- "You Showed Me," the Lightning Seeds' almost spooky cover of the Turtles hit, kicks the sixties song right out of time -- but it does, and I still spin the CD constantly. Far more often than I think of rewatching the film.

Mike D'Angelo, Las Vegas Weekly, The Dissolve 

k.d. lang's soundtrack was the sole worthwhile element of Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. I'm also quite fond of Mark Isham's jazzy score for Jodie Foster's meh directorial debut, Little Man Tate. And then there are some more controversial cases -- Michael Nyman's work in The Piano does much more for me than Jane Campion's, for example; likewise Clint Mansell vs. Darren Aronofsky in Requiem for a Dream. Oh, and Stewart Copeland's Rumble Fish score. And Philip Glass' amazing work in Mishima, which I owned for more than 20 years before finally seeing and being pretty underwhelmed by the movie itself. Wow, I own a lot of film scores, he suddenly realized.

Dan Kois, Slate

I barely remember anything about Until the End of the World, Wim Wenders' sort-of road movie, sort-of spy thriller, sort-of apocalypse sci-fi. I remember being really, really disappointed by it when I saw it my senior year in high school. But oh, wow, the soundtrack, which served as rich mixtape fodder that same year: crucial unreleased tracks by R.E.M. and Talking Heads; Elvis Costello doing the Kinks; grim and great Lou Reed, k.d. lang, and Depeche Mode songs; and my first introduction to CAN, Patti Smith, and Nick Cave. Plus that Achtung Baby song, before I got sick of everything on Achtung Baby.

Peter Keough, Boston Globe, Critics a Go-Go

My choice would be the soundtrack to Robert Altman's Pret-a-Porter or Wim Wenders's Until the End of the World. Neither shows the director at his best, but the soundtracks make for great CDs

Mike McGranaghan, The Aisle Seat, Film Racket

As much as I disliked the entire series, the Twilight movies have had amazing alt-rock soundtracks. Over the course of five films, this franchise has utilized Paramore, The Black Keys, Muse, Death Cab for Cutie, Metric, Florence + the Machine, Vampire Weekend, Passion Pit, and The Joy Formidable, among many others. I'd go so far as to say that the music is the best part of the Twilight Saga by a mile. Even when I felt tortured sitting through the movies, I often loved cranking the soundtracks in my car later on. More recently, I walked out of Ron Howard's Rush feeling very disappointed, yet the first thing I did when I got home was download Hans Zimmer's striking score, which makes for inspiring listening when writing movie reviews.

Carrie Rickey, Philadelphia Inquirer

The Blues Brothers. It's a variety show disguised as a movie, but boy are the individual acts fantastic.

Kate Aurthur, BuzzFeed

My answer is one that has been altered by time, because I certainly thought Purple Rain was a good movie when I first saw it. But whoa: It's a terrible movie! And yet, it's one of Prince's best album's, if not his absolute best. The fortuitous thing is that when you listen to it, you can completely divorce the film from the music. One other offering: I haven't seen the movie The Crow in years, so I can't write with authority about whether it's good or bad. And I never had the full soundtrack. But when I hear "The Big Empty" by Stone Temple Pilots, I'm always secretly pleased. 

Anne-Katrin Titze, Eye For Film

Purple Rain: an extended music LP video turned into a film by Albert Magnoli in 1984. 

Richard Brody, The New Yorker

Fred and Ginger: not Ginger and Fred but the Astaire-Rogers "classics" of the thirties, which are irresistibly listenable and borderline unwatchable. Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields, and George and Ira Gershwin delivered unto Astaire some of the crown jewels of the American songbook, and he puts them over with a breezily conversational understatement to match his seemingly effortless virtuosity on the dance floor, which is a marvel to see but is filmed with a suffocatingly bland lack of inspiration -- neither inventively interventionist nor starkly documentary -- that is partly Astaire's own fault. His contractual control over the filming of his numbers was a straitjacket to his directors, who didn't have had the inspiration to overcome the imposed obstacles. It wasn't until his career was slumping that he entrusted his genius to the genius of Stanley Donen -- and Royal Wedding is the first Astaire film that is fully worth watching (as opposed to those earlier ones, which are only worth seeing and, above all, listening to). So, of course, is Vincente Minnelli's The Band Wagon, from 1953 -- and I just found out that Astaire also starred in the original stage show, in 1931 (a revue from which the movie derives nothing but some songs).

Sean Hutchinson, CriterionCast.com and Latino-Review.com

I was tempted to say Daft Punk's score for TRON: Legacy because most of the songs are still pretty killer if you're in the right mood, but that seems way too obvious and will probably be everyone's answer. Instead I'm gonna go with the soundtrack for Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette, a movie I don't outright hate or think is particularly lousy but one that definitely isn't Coppola's best. The soundtrack, however, is her best and is my post-punk dream come true. You've got your Siouxsie and the Banshees straight off the top and you throw in some New Order, Gang of Four, The Cure, and probably the only tolerable Bow Wow Wow song for a great foundation. Then you have newer stuff like The Radio Dept., Aphex Twin, the best song The Strokes ever made after "Is This It?", and some Kevin Shields remixes for a soundtrack with gem after mopey gem. So, so good, yet the movie is so, so meh.

Jordan Hoffman, ScreenCrush, NY Daily News

A strong recent example: TRON: Legacy. Come to think of it everything about TRON: Legacy was great -- great costumes, great marketing, great use of special effects -- everything was great about the movie except the movie. I don't think there's been a bigger budget "cart before the horse" boondoggle in quite some time. Going back a few years, Wim Wenders' Far Away, So Close fit this bill. I must confess, though, I saw the movie once -- at its release -- and don't remember it all that sharply. It could be do for a revisit.

Christopher Campbell, Nonfics, Movies.com

I enjoyed TRON: Legacy more than most, but while I have no interest in seeing it ever again I still listen to Daft Punk's score all the time. Honorable mentions go to Jerry Goldsmith's score for Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend and the soundtrack to Xanadu (minus the Tubes track).

Scott Weinberg, FEARnet, Fandango

Everyone will say this but I don't care: Daft Punk's TRON: Legacy score is so cool. and the film is so not. I'm tempted to mention John Williams' rousing score for 1941, which is one of the master's very best, but I truly adore 1941 so that'd be a lie. But the truest answer I can think of is The Pirate Movie (1982). The film is outstandingly bad whereas the music is only hilariously bad. Enjoy the trailer

Gary M. Kramer, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News

If we're talking soundtrack (not score) then I would have to nominate I Am Sam. I'm convinced the only reason this film exists was so contemporary pop stars could cover Beatles tunes. (Apparently Sean Penn commissioned the cover versions when he couldn't get the rights. I'm guessing Michael Jackson still owned them?) Some of the tracks are inspired, especially Heather Nova's rendition of "We Can Work It Out," or "Two of Us" by Aimee Mann and Michael Penn. Despite (though some might say because of) Sean Penn's Oscar-nominated turn, the film is pretty insufferable.

Adam Kempenaar, Filmspotting

Wow, did I hate the 2001 film I Am Sam starring Sean Penn and Dakota Fanning. But how can you not love the soundtrack, at least if you're a Beatles fan? All the music is Fab Four, but since they couldn't secure the rights to the originals, they enlisted some great artists to do covers. Highlights for me are: Aimee Mann and Michael Penn doing "Two of Us"; Eddie Vedder's "You've Got To Hide Your Love Away; and Paul Westerberg's "Nowhere Man."

Matt Prigge, Metro

I wouldn't call it "lousy," but Richard Linklater's Suburbia (sorry: subUrbia) isn't one of his best works. However, it has a pretty killer soundtrack, one totally worth looting for in the used stacks of hipster record stores. Sonic Youth are all over it, including the rare "Bee-Bee's Song" and a longer, more languid "Sunday." But there's also a cover of X's "The Unheard Music" by Elastica and Stephen Malkmus -- made, I think, when they cuckolded Damon Albarn -- Beck, Superchunk, U.N.K.L.E. and the ace Butthole Surfers song, "Human Canonball." It's thoroughly, almost toxically late '90s (the latter song and Gene Pitney's "Town Without Pity," both from decades prior, excepted), and a better time capsule than the movie it holds up.

Joanna Langfield, The Movie Minute

Tommy; Ken Russell's 1975 adaptation of The Who's rock opera is a bloated, star tilted extravaganza. Yet the soundtrack, produced by and with the band, along with the somewhat surprising cast of the film, is enduringly listenable. Elton John's "Pinball Wizard" is still a hit and Tina Turner's "Acid Queen" is the stuff of legend. It's kind of wild to listen to movie superstars (Ann-Margaret, Jack Nicholson and the ferocious Oliver Reed) along with Daltrey, Clapton, Moon (yes, Moon) and Townshend bring the story of the deaf, dumb and blind boy to a very theatrical life. The best, most revelatory recording of Tommy, though, is the original cast recording of the spare and stunning 1992 Broadway stage version, starring Michael Cerveris.

Steve Dollar, Wall Street Journal

I don't have a proper answer, but I can think of a couple of examples where the theme song eclipses the actual film. All I can remember about the Stephen King movie of the month Pet Sematary is the great, funny Ramones title song (and Fred Gwynne, as a munster-iffic Maine oddball who bites the dust all too soon). Likewise, the Terrence Howard vehicle Hustle & Flow, which wasn't even a bad movie. But all that sticks is the refrain "It's hard out here for a pimp," which I like to use as often as tolerable as a freelance catch-phrase. Three-6 Mafia won the justified and historic Oscar for best song (eat it, Randy Newman, even if you weren't nominated), the first black rap artists to do so, a great source of pride for the Dirty South.

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13 Comments

  • Aaron | February 24, 2014 7:30 PMReply

    I'm in the minority, but I actually think Lyne's "Lolita" is a great movie (well, a miscast Melanie Griffith aside), though it's definitely helped along by Morricone's excellent score.

    And my pick for a bad movie with a great score: "Piranha 2: The Spawning". Even at its cheesiest (it was an early 80s Italian horror production--there's going to be some cheese), it's enjoyable. But thankfully the camp is only confined to a couple outdated tracks--the rest of Stelvio Cipriani's score, especially the main theme ("Profondo Sinfonico"), is incredible. Unfortunately, it was all overshadowed by a terrible movie and the whole James Cameron fiasco.

  • Peter | October 28, 2013 7:53 PMReply

    Air: Virgin Suicides.

  • W. David Lichty | October 25, 2013 10:44 PMReply

    America got an odd, 2 1/2 hour cut of Wenders' 3 film series Until the End of the World. At 90 minutes each, that represents just short of half the movie gone. It is a fundamentally different beast in its proper form. A good one too.

    Also, I was surprised at the consistency of pop song soundtracks referenced. When I thought of movie soundtracks, those didn't even come to mind. What did were John Williams' Spacecamp, Heartbeeps, 1941 and Jaws 2; David Arnold's Stargate; John Barry's Raise the Titanic; James Horner's Krull and Battle Beyond the Stars and helf the movies scored by Jerry Goldsmith.

    But if we're just going this direction, how could Flash Gordon go unmentioned?

  • Dean Treadway | October 24, 2013 6:31 PMReply

    Burt Bacharach's terrific score for the 60s James Bond debacle CASINO ROYALE has to be considered the greatest score ever written for a terrible movie (bonus points for the Dusty Springfield version of "The Look of Love"). I'd also have to posit Manfred Hubler and Sigfried Schwab's fantastic score for Jess Franco's VAMPYROS LESBOS, Stewart Copeland's magnificent tracks for Coppola's RUMBLEFISH (which is not a TERRIBLE movie, but not a good one, either), Jerry Goldsmith's Oscar-nominated score to the ugly BOYS FROM BRAZIL, and Francis Lai's Oscar-winning score for LOVE STORY.

  • serena | October 24, 2013 4:22 PMReply

    -THE EDGE OF LOVE. A well-cast, even occasionally well-acted film about a love square involving Dylan Thomas that got drowned out by John Mayberry's style over substance. The score by Angelo Badalamenti, even if it does occasionally feel like a re-hash of Badalamenti's older catalogue, is still as romantic and hypnotic as the the film wishes it were. The interesting choice of covers and Keira Knightley's debut at singing also round out an interesting soundtrack.

    -W.E. Abel Korzeniowski's hip and elegant score for Madonna's (watchable) clusterf--k of a movie was the best thing about it. If Kate Middleton had a soundtrack as cool as "Duchess of Windsor," all violins and electric guitars, I might be more supportive in the British monarchy.

  • Nathan Cone | October 24, 2013 3:56 PMReply

    John Barry's score for Disney's THE BLACK HOLE is magnificent. Haunting, bold, mysterious, heroic. The movie itself is full of junk science and clunky dialogue (though I love it anyway).

  • Julie | October 24, 2013 1:17 PMReply

    The tepid Cole Porter biopic "De-Lovely" with Kevin Kline has amazing modern covers of Porter songs from the likes of Alanis Morissette, Elvis Costello, and Robbie Williams. Don't remember a thing about the movie, but I still listen to the music all the time.

  • DanteJ | October 22, 2013 6:13 PMReply

    I'm rather fond of the film 'Still Crazy', but I love the soundtrack. I wish Steange Fruit were a real band, Bill Nighy and Jimmy Nail make a great vocal duo.

  • raindog | October 21, 2013 6:01 PMReply

    Listening to the Bernard Hermann right now...awesome. Thanks.

  • Michelle | October 21, 2013 4:39 PMReply

    Xanadu

  • Pepe | October 21, 2013 3:06 PMReply

    Pump Up The Volume

  • Katy Kern | October 21, 2013 11:44 AMReply

    This was a great Criticwire question. I have many soundtracks that I listen to, but normally I also liked or loved the movie. Soundtracks/scores can make a film SO MUCH better which, I guess, could be the point somewhat to this survey. (Although totally disagree with the Blues Brothers selection.)

    One question to think about for a future survey: where a good movie is nearly ruined by a terrible score. Doesn't happen often, at least if memory serves. But one film leaps to mind immediately: LADYHAWKE (1985)- an original storyline with a fantastic romance and adventure rolled into one. It stared Matthew Broderick, Michelle PFeiffer and Rutger Hauer. But the score is now even harder to get through.

  • Josh Rosenfield | October 21, 2013 10:37 AMReply

    The Great Gatsby anyone? I'll probably never see that movie again for as long as I live, but the soundtrack was in my rotation all summer.

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