Thursday, June 9, 2011

When the Music’s Great, But the Movie Stinks

I still argue about movies and directors with my father, but there was a time when we really used to argue. Back then, one of his chief debating tactics was to tell me that I only really liked certain films because I liked the music. (Spaghetti Westerns, I seem to recall, were the chief targets of this accusation, which was kind of ironic since he’d been the one to turn me on to Spaghetti Westerns in the first place, by giving me an LP of Morricone’s scores for the first two Dollars films, and then watching A Fistful of Dollars with me when I was, what, nine?)

He had a point, sort of: I do tend to be partial to a movie with a great score. I’ve never felt guilty about this, because I’ve always felt that the music in a film is as much a part of it as, say, the performances, or the dialogue, or the imagery. It’s always been a bit of a mystery to me why a great performance can be said to dramatically enhance an otherwise mediocre film but a great score can’t. Is it just because you can buy a soundtrack album and thus “separate” the music from the film, in a way you can’t with a performance?

But I digress. Like everyone else, I do have my limits. There are some amazing soundtracks – scores I listen to over and over again, almost obsessively – that nevertheless belong to some genuinely dreadful films. Here, in ascending order, are the seven that come most prominently to my mind. I’d be curious to hear other readers’, uh, “favorites.”

7.) The Day of the Dolphin (Director: Mike Nichols, Composer: Georges Delerue)

Every time I hear Delerue’s lush score, I remember that I really, really wanted to like this strange, strange film. In a way, the score highlights one of the film’s key problems. The music is lyrical, melodic, and in its classical stylings it’s not that far removed from Nichols’s matter-of-fact approach to what is, let’s face it, an insane, ridiculous story. Word is that Jean-Luc Godard desperately wanted to make this film, and one wonders what that might have looked like – it may well have still had Delerue, who memorably scored Contempt.

6.) King Arthur (Director: Antoine Fuqua, Composer: Hans Zimmer)

I’ve been meaning to give Fuqua’s massive, tangled epic another shot, and it’s in part because Zimmer’s score is one of his better ones. Yes, it’s full of the sweeping, heroic brass and thundering crescendos of his other work (Gladiator, Crimson Tide, etc.) but it feels a cut above the rest. Which makes it tragic, in a way – evoking in an instant a far better film than the one we got.

5.) The Fountain (Director: Darren Aronofsky, Composer: Clint Mansell)

I don’t hate The Fountain as much as I hate Pi or Requiem for a Dream, and I think it’s partly because Mansell’s virtually non-stop score is so amazing. At one point while watching the film I remember closing my eyes for about thirty seconds and just letting myself listen to it – an infinitely better experience.

4.) The Specialist (Director: Luis Llosa, Composer: John Barry)

I wrote about this (and this whole great-music-bad-movie phenomenon) back in January at the time of Barry's death. It truly is a godawful film, and the score really is one of Barry's absolute best. So good that I actually sat through this dreadful film several times. Though, admittedly, Rod Steiger's for-the-ages performance certainly helped.

3.) The Last Airbender (Director: M. Night Shyamalan, Composer: James Newton Howard)

Those who know me know that I am not as down on Shyamalan as are some others – I love the much-derided The Village and I quite like the beyond-hated Lady in the Water – but even I can’t defend his confused, mangled attempt at kiddie fantasy. I can, however, defend James Newton Howard’s lilting score – which is actually odd for me, since I usually find Howard’s music to be rather overwrought.

2.) The Bloody Hands of the Law (Director: Mario Gariazzo, Composer: Stelvio Cipriani)

Cipriani’s music combined the earnest melodies of Morricone with a jazzy playfulness all his own, and this score might be the best thing he ever did. So much so that I actively sought this film out, only to discover that it was utterly, irretrievably lame. The composer, not unlike Morricone, composed a number of scores for Z-grade Eurotrash genre flicks, but this one is especially atrocious, in part because of the music: The score feels randomly tossed into the film, bursts of music coming in at completely inappropriate moments.

1.) Lolita (Director: Adrian Lyne, Composer: Ennio Morricone)

I have to give this the top spot, because the music is so good (really, it’s one of Morricone’s best) and the movie is so bad. It’s certainly not the first time Adrian Lyne’s unique brand of shampoo commercial schmaltz ruined a great story, but there’s something particularly unsettling about the fact that this is Lolita we’re talking about here. But Morricone’s score is surprisingly understated – and completely wrong for a film so tonally strained. (Actually, it’s not unlike his score for Bugsy, another film I pretty much hate.) Of course, Morricone’s career is full of great scores to terrible films, but it’d be unfair to devote this entire list to him, so his sublime score to this bewildering atrocity will have to represent.


  1. matthew david wilderJune 9, 2011 at 8:26 PM

    Very, very well chosen, sir.

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  2. Nice list. I'd disagree on the quality of The Fountain's score.

    Other worthy entries for me would be Cutthroat Island, Matrix 3, The Core, Star Trek 5, and Krull,

  3. Was THE MATRIX 3's score that much different from THE MATRIX 2? I actually like 3 marginally better than 2 as a film, though I still can't say I like either much.

    CUTTHROAT ISLAND sounds like an excellent choice. I feel I can say that even without having seen the film.

  4. I can't think of any downright awful movies with great scores off the top of my head, but I do find AKIRA, HEART OF GLASS, and FELICIA'S JOURNEY thoroughly mediocre apart from their amazing scores.

    Also, does Takashi Miike's IZO count? It's the most mind-numbingly tedious metaphysical splatter film ever made (if occasionally quite striking - Miike's always good for an unforgettable moment or two), but Kazuki Tomokawa's gut-wrenching musical interludes (mostly performed live on set) are so powerful that I started scouring the web for his albums as soon as the movie ended (and ultimately bought six of them!).

  5. Of course IZO counts!! In other news, I'd give FELICIA'S JOURNEY another shot. It put me to sleep the first time I saw it, but I actually revisited it again recently and was mesmerized.

  6. you LOVE The Village but hate The Fountain?...gotcha.

    This means that I can safely ignore anything you have to say about films.

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