Sunday, June 12, 2011

And While We’re at It: What if the Movie’s Good, but the *Music* Stinks?

That previous post about great scores to bad movies made me realize that a perhaps harder list to compile would be one of good movies with lousy scores. Indeed, it’s difficult to do a list like this without taking into account changing musical tastes – most of the examples I thought of were from the ‘80s, for example. And I’m sure that in a less generous mood I could probably find fault with all sorts of classical Hollywood soundtracks that now sound a bit too bombastic or whatever. But in creating this list of six examples, I’ve tried to avoid retroactive anachronisms – those Harold Faltermeyer scores to Beverly Hills Cop and Fletch may sound a bit dinky now, but they seemed pretty awesome back then. Rather, a number of these scores seemed out of place or misguided right out of the starting gate.

6.) The Prince of Tides (Director: Barbara Streisand, composer: James Newton Howard)

In the wrong hands, James Newton Howard’s patented over-sentimentality can become a deadly weapon. I can’t say this is one of his worst scores, but director Barbara Streisand’s over-use of it is crippling to this psychological melodrama, which I’ve always thought had its moments otherwise.

5.) The Firm (Director: Sydney Pollack, composer: Dave Grusin)

Is The Firm a good movie? I’m not sure. There’s a lot of great stuff in it, to be sure. But there’s also a general pall of dullness that covers pretty much the entire film, and I can’t help but think that Dave Grusin’s score is one of the main culprits. It felt like needles being stuck in my ears when I recently saw the film again.

4.) Major Dundee (Director: Sam Peckinpah, composer: Daniele Amfitheatrof, Christopher Caliendo)

Now here’s an interesting situation: At the time of its original release Sam Peckinpah’s brutal cavalry epic, which had already been hacked by both its studio and its producer, had a rousing, zippy, brassy score by Daniele Amfitheatrof that was so ridiculously over-the-top and inappropriate it would have felt out of place in 1945, let alone 1965. Peckinpah understandably wasn’t happy with the score either. When a longer version (though not a director’s cut) was edited together in 2005, the score was replaced by one considered a bit more understated and appropriate, by Christopher Caliendo. That also doesn’t really work. Neither score had anything to do with Peckinpah.

3.) Gregory’s Girl (Director: Bill Forsyth, composer: Colin Tully)

My fondness for Bill Forsyth’s cinema is well-documented, and I actually think that he’s marvelously adept at using music as a director – those Mark Knopfler scores for Local Hero and Comfort & Joy are perfect. And while I like Gregory’s Girl, the overzealous jazz score – which more than anything sounds like you’re stuck in a dentist’s waiting room circa 1983 -- has always been an obstacle for me.

2.) The Makioka Sisters (Director: Kon Ichikawa, composers: Shinnosuke Okawa, Tohiyuki Watanabe)

The generally somber and deliberate tone of Kon Ichikawa’s masterful family drama – which recently enjoyed an overdue revival at Film Forum – is almost hilariously out of synch with its now-utterly-deranged-sounding synth score.

1.) Ladyhawke (Director: Richard Donner, composer: Andrew Powell)
I love this film. I loved it when I saw it as a kid, and I loved it when I saw it again recently. But even before I first saw it – even when they were just showing clips of it on Sneak Previews – I was distracted by that hyper, poppy electronic score, which is so catastrophically wrong words can’t quite describe it. Here, have a listen:


  1. Don Siegel's Madigan: a gritty thriller ruined by a jaunty score.

  2. Ooooh, I've never seen MADIGAN. Interesting -- Siegel's usually pretty good with music, as I recall.

  3. Nice list. Plus, without naming any names, "Mickey Mouse" is not your friend!

  4. Dunno if it counts as "bad", since it's clearly a deliberate choice, but Michael Kamen's score for Rita, Sue and Bob Too (1986) struck me as spectacularly wrong for a gritty, ribald working-class comedy - and I think/hope I'd have felt the same way in 1986.

    The title song:

  5. Most would probably disagree, but The Terminator fits the bill for me. The first time I saw it, I was choking back laughter during scenes that were supposed to be tense because of the silliness of the noodling sawtooth synthesizer.

  6. Oh, also Eric Rohmer's Le Beau Mariage. I can't remember if the bad electronic music plays anywhere between the titles and the credits, but it was so out of place that it felt embarrassing.

  7. Well, THE TERMINATOR theme is a classic, but the original's tinkly synth score is definitely problematic, though I feel like it might have something to do with the lowish budget as well.