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Criticwire Survey: Lousy Film, Great Soundtrack

Photo of Sam Adams By Sam Adams | Criticwire October 21, 2013 at 10:12AM

From 'TRON: Legacy' to 'Revenge of the Sith,' critics pick movies that don't measure up to their music.
13
Lolita

Bilge Ebiri, New York/Vulture

This is a subject near and dear to my heart, having been a fairly obsessive film music collector for most of my life. I even wrote about this phenomenon a couple of years ago. The answer for me is still Ennio Morricone's score for Adrian Lyne's Lolita. God knows Morricone wrote a number of great scores to terrible movies. Very often, you can tell that his heart wasn't really in the film, because he goes off and does his own thing, and the music is often upholstered throughout the film without any rhyme or reason. But with Lolita, you actually get the sense that he *cares.* It's some of the best work he's done from his later period -- subtle, lilting, evocative. And it's totally wrong for this belabored, shampoo commercial of a movie. At times you even get the sense that Morricone is trying to bring down the temperature somewhat, trying to undo some of the emotional crimes of Lyne's direction. (Of course, I'm being glib -- I'm sure Lyne had quite a bit to do with the music Morricone composed and how it was used in the film.) But what a heavenly score for such a misfire of a movie.

Kenji Fujishima, Slant Magazine, In Review Online

Brian De Palma's 1976 film Obsession is, to my mind, a minor work for him at best, but Bernard Herrmann's score for the film is so extravagant and overpowering that it practically makes the film all by itself, doing most of the heavy lifting when it comes to elucidating the drama and expressing its inner emotions. If ever there was a film in which its composer could be considered an auteur, it's Herrmann in his swooning score for this blatant, perverse riff on Vertigo.

Peter Labuza, The Cinephiliacs, Masters of Cinema

Merit is up for debate, but John Brahm's Hangover Square is a nifty little British noir with at least one quite fascinating body disposal scene on Guy Fawkes day and a strong, manic performance by Laird Cregar. I'm not so sure it's a great film, but the final sequence features a sequence that might be my favorite Bernard Herrmann's score ever, a fiery orchestral performance tuned and rhymed to his score. It's a rare showing where the composer is perhaps most in command of the scene, and the images and dialogue seem tuned to Herrmann's baton than the directing on set.

 

Adam Nayman, The Globe and Mail, Cinema Scope

The great Jerry Goldsmith won his only Academy Award in 1977 for scoring The Omen, and with apologies to Bernard Herrmann (who was tapped that year for Taxi Driver) boy oh boy did he deserve it. I grew up adoring 20th Century Fox's grab at the classy-horror brass ring forged by Rosemary's Baby and The Exorcist, mainly because it was one of the more lurid movies in my mother's extensive VHS collection: hangings, maulings, and that indelible decapitation (shot and replayed from multiple angles in what may have been Richard Donner's little tribute to Zabriskie Point). Looking at it again a few weeks ago -- for probably the first time since high school -- I was disappointed at how boring it really is. All the down time in between those fatal set pieces is absolutely deadly, especially since David Seltzer's script eschews any ambiguity about whether or not little Damien is actually the Antichrist. While it's true that nearly a decade after Rosemary's Baby a big budget studio thriller probably couldn't get away with too much coyness, The Omen is played so straight by the unholy trinity of Donner, Seltzer and the desultorily trusty Gregory Peck that it becomes funny in spite of itself. It's the inverse of Polanski's film, which keeps striking lightly comic notes until revealing itself as a spooky dirge. But I'd choose Goldsmith's moody mix of surging strings and spooky chants over the work of Polanski's house composer Krzysztof Komeda -- hell, I'd take it over the tubular bells that open The Exorcist or the creepy Casio riffage of Halloween. The story goes that Donner got Fox to shell out at the last minute for Goldsmith, and he was worth every penny. His brilliantly arranged Black Mass compositions, filled with faux-liturgical Latin lyrics that sound especially great underneath shots of deserted rural cemeteries, are just overwrought enough to raise the energy level of the movie around them (those suddenly shrieking choirs are a fit complement to Donner's cheesy crash-zoom aesthetic). There are some lovely, almost pastoral passages early on, before the Devil gets his due, but my favorite is the sinister synth motif that plays when Damien's nanny is hypnotically compelled by a wandering Rottweiler to off herself. It's beautifully mixed so as to seem almost subliminal at first, and then builds steadily in intensity until it becomes overwhelming -- a perfect example of a soundtrack doing the heavy lifting for an otherwise feeble movie.

 

Ali Arikan, RogerEbert.com. Dipnot TV

First, two instances of great final moments from films that leave the viewer wanting: The ending scene of Cruel Intentions as The Verve's "Bittersweet Symphony" plays while the school finds out just how much of a bitch Kathryn really is. It's kitschy as fuck. But unlike the film, it succeeds. The second is the "Vanity, definitely my favorite scene" transformation in The Devil's Advocate with the first few notes of "Paint It Black" in the background. Great moment in a pretty shitty film. Actually, that entire movie is one great scene after the next, yet none of them quite cohere. For what it's worth, the "absentee landlord" speech is so brilliant. Anyway, as for the question proper, Maximum Overdrive, which is terrible, has a pretty awesome soundtrack by AC/DC, who provided compositions old and new. As for scores, Jerry Goldsmith pretty great and distinctive scores for a whole bunch of shitty films, like The Swarm and Supergirl. And even though I like the prequels fine (well, The Phantom Menace and Revenge of the Sith; Attack of the Clones is rubbish), I must admit that John Williams' scores towered over their respective films.

Marc V. Ciafardini, GoSeeTalk

James Newton Howard may be one of the most accomplished and versatile composers out there but he still has some real stinkers on his resume as of late. Sadly his musical might just can't put M. Night Shyamalan's recent films in the win column but it doesn't stop him from trying and because of that perseverance the score for The Last Airbender contains some of the best work Howard has ever done. Though the film falls flat in every single way Howard's music, especially in tracks like "Journey to the Northern Water Tribe" and "Flow Like Water", is simply exceptional and prove with each passing second that he's still got it. Now close second choice would be John Williams' Hook. Removing nostalgia from the equation the film is not as bad as people make it out to be... but granted it isn't very good either. Yet of its few redeeming qualities the film contains one the top 5 scores John Williams has ever done. It's extraordinary work and even naysayers will have trouble arguing with the complexities, sophistication and grandeur in a track like "You Are the Pan" which in and of itself is a precursor to the music he created for Harry Potter.

John Semley, NOW Magazine, Slant

I wouldn't say that John Boorman's Exorcist II: The Heretic is a lousy movie. I mean, it's lousier than The Exorcist. And maybe lousier than doing anything that's not watching Exorcist II: The Heretic. But I've always found it more-or-less watchable, thanks in large part to Ennio Morricone's excellent soundtrack (and a few memorable special effects). Tracks like "Pazuzu," with its halting vocal chants, and the disco toe-tapper "Magic and Ecstasy" are impossible to shake, awesome even by the high standard Morricone sets for himself. It's a soundtrack as weird, and in places confusing, as the movie.

Peter Howell, Toronto Star

I still listen to Polish composer Wojciech Kilar's richly ominous soundtrack for The Portrait of a Lady, although the memory of Jane Campion's misbegotten 1996 film has largely faded.

Alonso Duralde, The Wrap

I'm something of a Leslie Bricusse fanatic, particularly his scores for Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (in collaboration with Anthony Newley) and Scrooge. And while I'm a big fan of his songs for the 1960s musical remake of Goodbye, Mr. Chips -- yes, even the ones sung by Peter O'Toole -- the movie itself is one of those overdone, stodgy warhorse epics that pretty much killed the musical for a while around the dawn of the 70s. I own a DVD that I have yet to pop in, but I keep the soundtrack in fairly regular rotation.

Danny Bowes, RogerEbert.com, Tor.com

I didn't really mind the Eddie Murphy remake of Dr. Dolittle all that much, especially in comparison with a lot of the other entries in the post-good chunk of his resume, but when the best even a defender can come up with is "cute" and "inoffensive" we are not dealing with an enduring classic. The soundtrack, on the other hand, was awesome, in particular the four and a half minutes of fierce realness that is Aaliyah's "Are You That Somebody?" The rest of the OST is a fairly representative sampling of 1998-vintage R&B and hip-hop (i.e. lots and lots of Timbaland) but "Are You That Somebody?" is a total classic. Honorable mention goes to every other soundtrack Aaliyah had a song on. RIP.

John Keefer, 51 Deep

The Batman Forever and Batman and Robin soundtracks scored back-to-back hits with a not-that-great and god-awful movie respectively. Highlights include an introduction to the Flaming Lips for a young and grateful John Keefer with the Bad Days track, Foolish Games by Jewel who was singing that song directly to me and the track Gotham City by R. Kelly in which R. Kelly sings the line, "A city of justice, a city of love / A city of peace, for everyone of us / We all need it, can't live without it / Gotham City, oh, yeah".  While Mr. Kelly remains an R&B genius he clearly needs to brush up on his comic book reading since the city he describes would not need The Batman. Though perhaps this was a subtle commentary on the failure of the film to capture what it is about Batman that audiences love. R. Kelly, secret cinephile.

Pat Padua, DCist, Spectrum Culture

I had fond memories of Allan Arkush's rock-star satire Get Crazy when it was in heavy rotation on cable in the 1980s. But when I had the chance to program the film for a repertory series, I found it almost unwatchable, an even worse programming decision than my screening of the Donny and Marie movie Goin' Coconuts, which drew a crowd of five people, four of whom were friends, two of whom walked out. But Get Crazy ends with a great Lou Reed performance that appears nowhere else but on this soundtrack: the sweet ballad "Little Sister."

Adam Batty, Hope Lies at 24 Frames a Second, Periodical

I've long remarked that it's a crying shame that John Murphy's booming, enthralling score comes attached to a film as downright flaccid as Danny Boyle's Sunshine

Jeff Berg, Local IQ

Although long forgotten by most everyone, and probably that is for the best, there was a Terrence Stamp western Blue (that Robert Redford was scheduled to star in) that came out in the '60s. I never saw it until years later, with great anticipation, but with even greater anticipation, I bought the soundtrack, which turned out to be better, albeit it only a little, better than the film, which was tepid and dry.  

John DeCarli, FilmCapsule

The first soundtrack I thought was for Undercover Brother, the 2002 blaxploitation parody starring Eddie Griffin. There's nothing very stylish, biting or even funny about the movie, but the soundtrack is full of classic disco and funk songs by the likes of James Brown, Commodores, Earth Wind & Fire, etc. Even the cheesy theme song is pretty awesome, written by funk bass legend Stanley Clarke.

Edwin Arnaudin, Ashvegas

Roland Emmerich's Godzilla may not be a great film, but it did give rise to two things that, at least at the time, were pretty great. The first is Taco Bell's gordita, which I ate regularly until realizing that fast food is gross. The second is the film's soundtrack, sporting an impressive array of late '90s talent. Once you get past The Wallflowers' unfortunate "Heroes" cover and Puff Daddy's bastardization of "Kashmir" (which weren't that terrible in 1998), there's a string of originals from in-their-prime Jamiroquai, Rage Against the Machine, Ben Folds Five, and Foo Fighters. Toss in a retooling of Green Day's "Brain Stew," a decent Silverchair number, and a fun "Secret Agent Man" knock-off from Joey DeLuxe and there were/are worse things to play in your Y2K bunker.

Luke Y. Thompson, Topless Robot

Judgment Night all the way. Had the soundtrack over a month or so before the movie came out, and it's clear more thought went into it than the film. The only caveat is one track on there called "I Love You Mary Jane," by Cypress Hill and Sonic Youth. Because I had stoner roommates and they insisted on playing that damn song every time they got high. Took a decade or so before I could enjoy that song again.

Ryan McNeil, The Matinee

The first film that jumps to mind is one that is seen (by some) as a fun film, but one not-so-great movie that comes with a great soundtrack is Empire Records. It should come as no surprise, considering the story is set in a record store, but some really stellar tunes pepper the goings-on at Empire. We get AC/DC, Dire Straits, The Buggles, The Flying Lizards, and Daniel Johnston all playing in the background. Then for all the '90s children there are appearances by The Gin Blossoms, Toad The Wet Sprocket, Edwyn Collins, and The Cranberries. Even the so-called "cheesy track" by Rex Manning is kinda fun! Unfortunately it's all wrapped around a film that is super-silly, made all the worse by a handful of grating performances. Perhaps it's fitting that the film was sent straight to video back in 1995.

Joey Magidson, The Awards Circuit, First Showing

I'll confess to sometimes liking a movie more due to a great soundtrack (I contend that earlier this year Stuck in Love was unjustly ignored and a quality little flick, but part of why I dug it was the terrific soundtrack), but one such instance where that didn't occur was earlier this year with Safe Haven. The movie is absolutely atrocious, but perhaps embarrassingly I actually own the soundtrack. It's on the country/pop hybrid side of things (think moody Taylor Swift from a few years ago) and really is a great soundtrack that deserved a less piss-poor movie. Especially the Tristan Prettyman song "Say Anything" is tremendous, in my humble opinion at least.

Jason Shawhan, Nashville Scene

There are lots of films that, while they're not necessarily bad, they aren't really good either that happen to have great soundtracks/scores -- and for some reason, I'm thinking of Franck Khalfoun's Maniac remake and Philip Noyce's Sliver (which has actually had a catastrophic music change on its DVD and Blu-Ray releases, losing Lords of Acid's "The Most Wonderful Girl" due to licensing issues). But the ideal example of a weak, weak film that has an exceptional piece of music is David Prior's 1987 Killer Workout (also known as Aerobicide, because why not). It's Donna DeLory-sung theme song "Only You Tonight" could have been an international hit in clubs and pastel-colored boomboxes everywhere -- but to no avail, without any kind of official release anywhere. As a lover of both horror cinema and Eurodisco, I could choose no other.

Josh Spiegel, Mousterpiece Cinema

Though I have a tiny soft spot for the film, I'd be hard-pressed to say that Joel and Ethan Coen's remake of The Ladykillers is great or even very good, aside from the rarity that is Tom Hanks getting to play a scoundrel. However, I loved the gospel-heavy soundtrack as soon as the movie came out. Working again with iconic music producer T-Bone Burnett, the Coens were able to create an old-fashioned soundtrack full of standards specific to the part of the country where the story took place, much like their excellent soundtrack for O Brother, Where Art Thou? I've revisited the Ladykillers soundtrack many times in the last decade, but I've seen the movie just once.

Slave

Q: What is the best movie currently in theaters?

A: 12 Years a Slave

Other films receiving multiple votes: Gravity, All Is Lost, A Touch of Sin, Wadjda

This article is related to: Criticwire Survey


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