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Burning Questions: Great Soundtracks, Lousy Movies

Will people like this soundtrack more than the films it's for?Hey everybody. Michael C. here. Most of the time I try to find a topical question to address in this column, or failing that a universal question that is always pressing to some degree or another. But sometimes there is that third category of utterly random questions that bubble to the surface and refuse to stop nagging me until I’ve shared them with the world. Where the minds of most people produce useful thoughts like “Let’s go walk in the sunshine” or “It’s never too early to plan for retirement!” my mind cranks out gems like “It’s crucial that we know which film to soundtrack ratio has the biggest disparity. Quickly! Stop what you’re doing and make up a list of candidate films!”

I suspect many faithful readers can relate.

So let’s call this week’s episode more of a simmering question than a burning one, because that’s the query I want answered. Some films are best remembered only for introducing a star (The Silver Chalice) or for a single line of dialogue (Beyond the Forest). What movies would drift off into obscurity, if not for their killer playlists? What is the biggest difference in quality between a crappy film and an awesome soundtrack? 

Doing a preliminary scan I realized finding a definitive answer was going to be trickier than I thought...

The vast majority of beloved soundtracks are from equally beloved films. Saturday Night Fever, Goldfinger, The Graduate. You name it. Great soundtracks and great movies more often than not go hand in hand.

Beyond that I noticed an interesting phenomenon. Popular albums which I found to be weak or overrated (and I stress we’re talking about my own subjective taste here) were by and large weak or overrated in direct proportion to the films that spawned them. Outside some soul classics the appeal of the Dirty Dancing soundtrack has always eluded me but then so has the appeal of that movie in general (I await your scorn in the comments). Danger Zone and Take My Breath Away are exactly the processed cheese that Top Gun deserves, just as the guilty pleasure value of watching Footloose the movie roughly parallels the experience of listening to Footloose the album. 

Still, there were exceptions to be found. After running through lists of best selling and most beloved albums it seemed to me the clear favorite was The Bodyguard, the soundtrack of which is as beloved as the film is ignored. I have never met anyone who claimed to like it and it is rare to hear it spoken of except as it as a bestselling album or as a milestone in Houston’s career. The only hitch here is I have never actually seen the movie, and mother taught me never to badmouth a film I haven't seen. Same goes for Superfly another movie that has been entirely eclipsed by its landmark album of Curtis Mayfield tracks. If anybody wants to rally to the defense of either of these films in the comments please do so. I can only state from my objective perspective they clearly have legacies dependent entirely on their bestselling soundtracks.

As for a personal choice mine would have to be for the soundtrack to Hanna. I'm sure I'm in the minority here, plus it’s a bit mean to knock Joe Wright so soon after this blog heaped praise on him, but Hanna is a film I’ve come to loathe since its release. In addition to the score it takes great performances from Saoirse Ronan and Tom Hollander, as well as some terrific visuals, and flushes them all down the toilet in the service of a flashy exercise in violent pointlessness. Plus, for some reason the viewer is forced to endure several scenes of Cate Blanchett dramatically flossing.

Meanwhile, as the film falls in my esteem, the brilliant, propulsive soundtrack supplied by The Chemical Brothers only improves with each listen. It is, no fooling, one of the great modern film scores. I’ve scarcely gone a week without listening to it since 2011, whether it be while running or writing or making my subway ride more exciting than it has any right to be.

So that’s my answer. What’s yours? There must be loads of examples I’ve overlooked. Now is your chance to champion your soundtrack darlings no matter how embarrassing their cinematic parentage. 

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You can follow Michael C. on Twitter at @SeriousFilm. Or read his blog Serious Film

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Reader Comments (48)

I don't think the film is a disaster by any means, but whilst people were (rightly) lauding Cliff Martinez for his work on Drive, I found myself listening to his soundtrack to Contagion much more in 2011.

In terms of nostalgia, I don't think I'll ever tire of listening to the soundtrack for Cruel Intentions - the Craig Armstrong/Elizabeth Fraser track alone - even though I re-watched the film recently and...yeesh, is that script bad. However good the performances are, somebody actually wrote the line, 'I hate when things don't go my way; it makes me so horny.'

May 9, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterben1283

The first thing that came to my mind was "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now", a piece of quintessential 80's ambrosia that happens to be the main theme of the cinematic masterpiece, Mannequin. Not exactly a whole soundtrack but that song takes me places. It even got an Oscar nom so I can't be the only one who loves it.

There's also Burlesque which has a lot of nice numbers from Christina Aquilera and isn't as heavy with her usual vocal gymnastics as most of her albums are. Plus, there's Cher and "You Haven't Seen The Last of Me" which is as Cher of a song as you can possibly get.

I hope I won't have to include The Great Gatsby on this list because i have high hopes for the movie and i already adore the soundtrack. I even like Fergie's contribution and i usually can't stand her music.

I would've included The Bodyguard but i don't actually mind the film.


May 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDerreck.

@ ben1283 - That line is only one of a few reasons why i love Kathryn Merteuil and SMG's performance in Cruel Intentions.

May 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDerreck.

I love Cruel Intentions, too. Yeah, it has a camp quality, but all the actors really commit, plus SMG has a killer monologue at the end ripping into Ryan's character.

Id also rate the Great Expectations soundtrack. I love that.

May 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBia

The first one that springs to mind is Xanadu--nearly unwatchable, but with killer songs. I still think Magic or the title track should have been nommed for Best Song. Love Story, which I didn't think was that bad when I saw it years ago, is universally despised, but many seem to love the score.

May 9, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

Cruel Intentions is one of my favorite soundtracks EVER.

May 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoey

Let me pose a better question for conversation. You watch a movie with music. Not necessarily a musical (Music of the Heart). The original anonymous vocalist of the piece warms your heart with the performance of these songs. When the soundtrack is released it's replaced by well known singers without the emotional attachments the film versions carried with them. You're stuck because the movie version of the tracks aren't made commercially available as standalones. This practice has occurred since the 70's.

May 9, 2013 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

I'm not sure that it would qualify as great, but my classmates and I were absolutely enamored of the "Sister Act 2" soundtrack as eighth-grade Catholic school students. We even sang "Pay Attention" at our matriculation ceremony. Ah, the good old days -- before Lauryn Hill went crazy.

May 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTroy H.

Hands down the answer is SLIVER.

That erotic thriller with Sharon Stone, Tom Berenger and William Baldwin.

Had AMAZING music but a HORRID film.

May 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDavid

Michael C.: Superfly is a middling early 70s Blaxploitation. Not really something you NEED to see.

May 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

Dirty Dancing!

May 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRaul

I am going to throw Batman Forever out there. I love the movie but it's really not that good. U2's Hold Me Thrill Me Kiss Me Kill Me. Seal's Kiss From a Rose.

May 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoey

I'm going to throw in a mention of Hercules. I left it out of the post because the movie isn't bad so much as firgettable, and the soundtrack is hit and miss. But that said, "I Won't Say I'm In Love" is as good as any of Alan Menken's classics from the 90's Disney renaissance and it deserved to be in a better movie.

May 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMichael C.

"Plus, for some reason the viewer is forced to endure several scenes of Cate Blanchett dramatically flossing."

Your supposition implies there need be a "reason" for such a thing to exist, Michael, therefore it's flawed from the outset. It just is, man. ;)

May 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJA

Mine is particularly odd, or so I've been told. It's for a movie called 'Meet the Deedles,' some Disney movie from the late 90s with Paul Walker. I'm not even sure I've seen the whole thing, but it came out when ska was going through its resurgence and had strong new songs by Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Goldfinger, Hepcat, etc. I still listen to it, even though I'm sure 99% of people don't even know the movie or soundtrack exist.

May 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBrianZ

I cannot really say I even like a movie's soundtrack if the movie was bad. I guess Tron: Legacy maybe.

Okay I admit, Batman Forever's soundtrack is amazing.

And I really love Django Unchained's soundtrack of original songs and rock songs (though the Morricone and Goldsmith re-appropriations reached a saturation point) and despite my mixed reaction to the movie, I thought Rick Ross and John Legend each got robbed of a Best Original Song nomination.

But movies I think are indispensable without their soundtrack:

Hanna (I love that it gets so out of Joe Wright's comfort zone, the movie of pop fairytale that has campy performances)

Dead Man


Drive- Because those scenes of pensive pauses and silence upon re-watch are really a chore to sit through

Jackie Brown- Now I LOVE this movie. But the movie is quiet, precise, and in a more direct manner than any Tarantino movie. It cannot just be QT having fun with his choices because he appreciates the Leonard novel as a template and wants one of his strengths as a supervisor of music to feel genuine than shoe-horned. This soundtrack runs through the veins of characters than just being this third party Greek Chorus or post-modern re-appropriation like his other movies have.

Willow with the Tangerine Dream soundtrack (and thank Ridley Scott's director's cut sans Tangerine Dream cut to make us aware of the score's importance)

May 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCMG

I'm surprised no has mentioned the '67 Casino Royale. I think it's truly awful, but it probably has one of my very favorite soundtracks with the wonderful Herb Alpert and the TIjuana Brass and Dusty Springfield singing the Look of Love. No greater disparity in my book.

May 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTW

CMG, your mention of Tangerine Dream reminds me of Sorcerer, and how I read they did an absolutely hypnotic score for Friedkin's film. I've always wanted to see it but it's so hard to find. I remember when it opened, and the movie poster, with its swirling, spooky graphics, fascinated me.

May 9, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

CMG, the Ridley Scott/Tangerine Dream film to which you're referring is Legend, not Willow (still a fantasy, but different people).

May 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterFaith

Totally agree with the already mentioned
Cruel Intentions
Great Expectations
The Bodyguard
Dirty Dancing

and i'll add
Woman on Top
Tron Legacy
Summer of 42
Love Story
A Little Romance
Betty Blue
The Life of David Gale
The Fountain

May 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterManolis

Alright, I had written something longer but it was a bit offtopic (it sprung from your "nobody likes The Boduguard").

All I'll say is that I loved The Bodyguard as a kid and I'm sure there are people who like it.

Great Expectations (1998) (my favorite movie until a few years ago), great soundtrack as Bia said.

Don't remember any movie whose soundtrack I like much more than the film. I do feel very sleepy now, though :p

May 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJames T

I can think of movies l love with terrible soundtracks easier than the reverse. I HATE Ladyhawke's electronic score and if there was a way to put in temp music on a special dvd I would score it myself (with pre-existing music) and be content with the movie from then on.

May 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

i like the twilight soundtracks

May 9, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterrafael

James T - I have no doubt there are people who like The Bodyguard. I've never met one though. I'd be interested to hear a defense of the film.

Manolis - Ah! Had to slip The Fountain there in at the end of that list of great choices, didn't you? I'm not taking the bait.

Vol - I suspected as much.

TW - Good call.

JA - I gotta hand it to Blanchett. She doesn't do anything half-hearted. When the director said "In this scene you're going to floss like a crazy person." She went for it like she expected it to be in her lifetime achievement award highlight reel.

May 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMichael C.

rafael... i feel like you whispered that in small type confessional. you do know it's public, right ? ;)

May 9, 2013 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Spice World...just kidding, I love the movie. ;)

May 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSad man

For me it has to be THE MISSION. I have listened to that soundtrack for years and have never really gotten tired of it. The movie on the other hand I watched exactly once and I appreciated a lot about it, i.e. the acting commitment, the scenery, the, well, costumes and makeup etc. And that was about it. But man that Morricone score is amazing.

As far as "pastiche" movies where they plug in music that sorta fits, I'd go with WOMAN ON TOP which is one of my favorite soundtracks and almost made me like the movie. Almost.

that's my feelings about XANADU. I know it's objectively terrible but I love it so it doesn't really qualify for this question despite having an awesome soundtrack.

May 9, 2013 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Nathan, at a huge summer festival last year here in Chicago, ONJ played a concert, and the first song was Xanadu. So cool. When I told my sister about the show, her first question was: Did she sing Xanadu. LOL. The classics always hold up.

May 9, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

Dang, I knew I would confuse Legend and Willow!

May 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCMG

@Michael C.
Well i thought it twice before i included "The Faintain". It isn;t a terrible or a bad movie. It's a very ambitious one, that ultimately fails to deliver. But i admire Aronofsky for his vision,

May 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterManolis

Haha, I would say Spice World too, but that movie is so much of a guilty pleasure that I don't even feel guilty about it any more.

May 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSquasher88

Rock and Roll High School!

May 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterChristine

I second the nomination of Elizabethtown. Great soundtrack, very blah movie.

I think we should also delineate between awesome soundtracks full of original songs against those scored to pre-existing hits. In a terrible movie, the use of the former is much more intriguing. It means that the director was doing at least one thing right. As for the latter, who cares if a bad director chose a nice arrangement of already popular hits to play during his/her movie?

May 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEvan

While I don't quite think it's a bad film per se, surely the soundtrack to The Harder They Come has more than eclipsed the film for which it was made. Many critics actually consider it to be the greatest reggae album of all time, while the movie is really just a B-movie that has a small cult following.

May 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEdwin

Purple Rain.

One of the greatest pop albums of all time and an Academy Award winner. The movie is a cult classic, but it is mostly atrocious.

The Grace of My Heart soundtrack is a great album and I loved the movie (starring Miss Illeana Douglas), but a lot of folks hated it or missed it entirely.

May 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

Christine, Rock and Roll High School is a fine movie! Mary Woronov is unforgettable. And the raw energy gleefully lobotimizes us into youthful abandon.

May 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBrookesboy

Some not mentioned yet:

P.S. I Love You
She's Having A Baby
Absolute Beginners
Even Cowgirls Get The Blues
I Am Sam

May 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMike G.

Sorry, oops--lobotomizes

May 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBrookesboy

Magical Mystery Tour
Tron Legacy

May 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRubi

Okay, I changed my mind. Purple Rain wins. I went to a Purple Rain sing-a-long a few years ago and everyone was rolling on the floor with laughter and shouting at the screen. I still stand buy my stance that Rock and Roll High School is a bad movie though. It's bad the way Xanadu is bad in that it still has some lovable qualities (it does has some raw energy, and it also has the awesome PJ Soles, but that's about it for me.)

May 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterChristine

The soundtrack to Glitter is in heavy rotation on my ipod. I would include the soundtrack to Nine if it weren't for the vastly superior Broadway versions.

May 9, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterthefilmjunkie

New Moon is to me the best example of this. Terrible story, terrible direction, terrible acting, In short, it is a terrible movie. But the soundtrack is wonderfully atmospheric a amazing combination of splendid songs.

May 10, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTheis

200 Cigarettes is not a terrible film, it's just meandering and uneven and mostly bad with some good moments. Awesome soundtrack.

Bond films, of course, are judged on their title songs, and the very worst Bond movie has one of the best: A View to a Kill.

Many Bond fans adore On Her Majesty's Secret Service. I do not. I think it is a very weak film indeed, but the score is a John Barry masterpiece, one of the greatest things he ever did.

May 10, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDeborah Lipp

The scores for the Star Wars prequels are all pretty epic, far outshining the films themselves in my opinion.

May 10, 2013 | Unregistered Commentermatt

Michael C. - I don' have a defense for the film because I don't know what I'd think of it if I watched it now but the reasons I liked it back then are the mystery, the thrill, the romance, the ending and Whitney's version of The Song. All but the last one might leave me uninterested in a future viewing.

May 10, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJames T

As Adam Scott (as Ben Wyatt) would say on NBC's "Parks and Recreation" on the topic of soundtracks:

I kind of look at it like it’s your favorite directors making a mixtape just for you.</I>

My favorite case of the soundtracks being way better than the film it's for: "I Know Who Killed Me." It's unfortunate that they never released a soundtrack for it, other than the original score, but with it did help me discover artists like Trans Am, VietNam, The Sword, and Architecture in Helsinki.

May 10, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGeorge P.

I loved (I guess still do) the Empire Records soundtrack. But that movie, while it still holds a place in my heart, is not good.

May 10, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSawyer

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