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Burning Questions: Movie Killing Scores?

Michael C. here to take a cue from the Summer movie season and release the first Burning Questions sequel. 

The story goes that at the eleventh hour the original score to Chinatown was deemed a film-ruining disaster and composer Jerry Goldsmith was brought in and given just ten days to write a replacement.  Miraculously, the score Goldsmith delivered turned out to be the quintessential film noir soundtrack. When the AFI listed the 100 greatest film scores Goldsmith’s trumpet-laced masterwork ranked #9. So a happy ending, which is one of the rare times when that phrase can be used in conjunction with Chinatown.

This is a terrific example of the filmmakers having the resources – and more importantly the will – to strive for perfection even if it meant taking a risk late in production. We’ve all heard enough terrible soundtracks to know tales such as this are bound to be the exception rather than the rule. Perhaps commissioning a new score would be too much of a hassle or too big an expense. Maybe the filmmakers in question are blind to the damage the music is doing to their movies. Then there are those unfortunate cases which are merely the victims of their times. Today’s trendy soundtrack is tomorrow’s time capsule punchline.

These musical misfires are the subject of today’s column. A few months back I posted a colum asking for the names of great soundtracks wasted on lousy movies. This time it’s the opposite question: Which scores are movie killers? I’m talking soundtracks that seriously distract and detract from otherwise quality movies. 

I’ll get the ball rolling with these three unfortunate cases that never fail to aggravate me:

Ladyhawke (Score by Andrew Powell)
I chose Ladyhawke as a particularly odious offender, but really, on the subject of disastrous scores, one could simply type “The 80’s” and move on. So many of that decade’s artificial, synth-heavy scores that have aged like rotten fruit, stinking up countless otherwise strong movies. (Manhunter, I’m looking in your direction) Ladyhawke’s music is so bad I wonder if the film would actually work better as a silent film. Or hit the subtitles and play a classical music channel on Pandora. Any random shuffle has got to be an improvement 

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (Score by Ira Newborn)
This is also an eighties title, but I think it’s such a uniquely awful case of a score bringing an otherwise terrific comedy to a screeching halt that it deserved to be singled out. Exhibit A on why experimental scores and comedy rarely go together and why you should never, ever mix snippets of the film’s dialogue into the score.

Eyes Wide Shut (Score by Jocelyn Pook)
I have struggled with this title since it came out, but if there is one thing that will always stand between me and fully appreciating this fascinating waking nightmare of a movie it is that godforsaken plink-plink-plink piano score. I can imagine a psycho killer from Hannibal using this music to torture a victim tied up in their basement. Before you say it, yes, I freely admit that this may have been exactly what Kubrick was going for, but even if I believed this to be true (I don’t) it would make no difference. The music is viscerally alienating in a way that bypasses the intellect entirely, like jackhammers or squeaky balloons. Just thinking abou it sets me on edge.

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

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Reader Comments (47)

Gorillas in the Mist has a downright offensive score. I generally find that to be a terrible movie, though, apart from SigWeavy's performance, which is also highly overrated within her own filmography.

August 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterHayden W

Notes on a Scandal.


August 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBeau


You are dead on about Notes on a Scandal, good call.
Great movie, awful score.

I also think Rachel Portman's score for the Cider House Rules was beyond repetitive.
It's not that it's bad per se but used way too much throughout the film when it doesnt need to be.

August 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDavid

American Beauty and all the copycat clones it spawned!!! lol

August 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

i generally love Bernard Hermann but there's something about the MARNIE score that I just feel like begging for mercy. Just STOP it with the violins and the decibals and the constant yelling at me!

August 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNathanielR

Beau-you got to it before me, but Notes on a Scandal was instantly what I thought of when I saw this article.

August 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJohn T

The first movie that comes to mind is the Coen Brothers' True Grit. It was interesting to fill the score with traditional hymns, but it was way too saturated with Leaning on the Everlasting Arms. By the end of the movie, I was wanted to scream and that song has since become a huge joke in my family.

August 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAndy

A Few Good Men, the Best Picture nominated basic cable staple (AMC is almost guaranteed to show it 3 times a week). Solid enough, if heavy-handed, but has a score tailor made for a late 80s true-crime series. Just awful.

And I have to disagree about the score for Eyes Wide Shut. The piano piece is definitely repetitive, but each time it is cued up feels appropriate, and it fit the mood of the film. I actually love the way the music flips from being fairly heavy on more romantic/sexy themes in the first half, to something much more somber and a bit sinister towards the end. It also helps if you like the film. If you don't, I can only imagine the music being hell.

August 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterVal

I can't really remember about the rest of the movie, but I completely hated the music used in the opening credits of Last Tango In Paris. It's probably the most annoying music I've heard in a movie.

August 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMeghan

I just watched Jagged Edge, and that's some pretty awful music happening there. I couldn't eat Velveeta for three days.

August 5, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

Val-I agree about the score in A Few Good Men. It was terrible.

August 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMeghan

Liked "Blue Jasmine" a whole lot but...that score. Every time that one old time plunky plunk track started to happen it pulled me out of the downward spiral/ slo-mo train wreck suspense. (I'm not including Blue Moon uses...those were effective.)

August 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTom M

_Eyes Wide Shut_ is simply a bad movie. The score simply emphasized that point.

August 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRrhain

Amazing how divisive Eyes Wide Shut is here. Those piano keys give me the chills every time. Best year Tom Cruise ever had was in '99, between this and Magnolia.

Plus, I love this trailer of the flick:

August 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBeau

Witness, which sadly enough was even Oscar-nominated. And not because it's so 80s-sounding but because its sound is the antithesis of Amish sensibility.

August 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEvan

Evan beat me to the punch - WItness is such an awful, off putting score.

I also had a had time with Footnote, the Israeli film from a couple years ago, which is this serious-minded film about academic infighting and politics and stuff, and has this TWEEDLY DEEDLY DEEDLY DEE CARNIVAL MUSIC that is so distracting and awful, I could hardly stand it.

Can I divert the conversation to TV music for a second? Because I randomly watched an episode of The West Wing on Netflix the other day and was suddenly reminded me of how atrociously bad the score was for that show.

August 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRoark

To my mind comes Lincoln. I'm not a fan of the movie or Spilberg's, but I distinctly remember hateing the score, I don't remember why, maybe i thougth it was corny, or something like that. I know I'm not alone in this. Somebody told me the same thing about the movie.

August 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSebastian

Oh boy, Notes on a Scandal, of course.

I would say The Hours, too, but the movie would be awful with any score or composer.

August 5, 2013 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

The first one that comes to mind for me is GoldenEye. I literally don't know anyone who likes that score (and my world is full of Bond fans!). Thank goodness the producers realised how awful it was and got David Arnold on board for the next five movies to improve matters to a factor of ten!

I agree with Sebastian about Lincoln. Corny is the word. Typical Spielberg-Williams collaboration post-1993.

Witness, however, I must defend. Even though it's mid-80s synths, to me it still holds up remarkably well. A rare pulse-pounding score that gives the movie a lot of help in the suspense department.

August 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEdward L.

The Social Network. I'm not sure if I'd call the film a "quality movie" without hesitation, but not one of the film's other flaws could ever have prepared me for this ... this ... Well, I don't know what it is that those two assholes are shitting over the movie, but it certainly is not a score, and it deserves a lot of extra hate for being the by far worst winner in an Oscar category where AMPAS ususally makes choices I can live with (and yes, I'm talking about Best Original Score here and not about Most Annoying Metallic Sounds). Not to mention that the only scene apart from the opening and end titles that features movie music really prominently is one that's accompanied by a variation of In The Hall Of The Mountain King. Yeah, that's how you win Best "Original" Score these days. Apparently, some people believed that doing the impossible and turning Edvard Grieg into puke would be award-worthy.

August 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterWilly

I don't think it killed the movie, but every time there was a song playing in Django Unchained, it got me out of the movie. Not that that was a bad thing, but I guess I have anachronistic music fatigue.

Add me to the pile that found the piano keys in Eyes Wide Shut really creepy-appropriate (except in a couple of unnecessary occasions).

August 5, 2013 | Unregistered Commenteriggy

Heh, I love the Witness score. It might not be very Amish, but it's right for the tone of that movie. Of the funky synth score, I remember Klute being an odd duck. Some stunningly perfect moments, some truly awful ones, named anything that plays with the tape recordings or the murderer. As for recent scores, ugh Lincoln. The worst. Totally took me out of the movie.

August 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTB

Edward L., I agree about Goldeneye, but the worst offender is Never Say Never Again.

There's a fan piece making the rounds for several years called "Never Say McClory Again." It's NSNA with a new score, created by sampling John Barry's work on several Bond films (including Thunderball and On Her Majesty's Secret Service). It's remarkable how much better the movie is!

August 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDeborah Lipp

I have to laugh at cal's post about The Hours. That music is just perfect for parody. I can't tell whether I like the score or not. The friend who I saw it with went on and on how he hated that clinking piano. LOL. It's definitely not the kind of score you play at home for entertainment. Maybe while vacuuming.

August 5, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

The British gay-themed movie "Get Real" is absolutely delicious and a wonderful coming-out story (as well as a story of first love found and then lost). But the score is turgid--like a bad 40's movie, very heavy-handed and overdone, and completely melodramatic.

I think "Hook" has some bits of the worst music John Williams has ever done--his symphonic flourishes are fine, especially in the last 1/2 hour of the movie, but he throws in some bizarre noodling jazz early on that makes no sense in terms of tone, style, etc. (Maybe I'm just biased towards James Newton Howard's vastly underrated score for 2003's "Peter Pan.")

August 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDback

Meghan beat me to the opening credits in Last Tango, and I enthusiastically second Edward's pick of GoldenEye, but for me the obvious answer to this question has, for years and years, been fellow Bond movie For Your Eyes Only, which could very easily end up in the top 3 or 4 Bond films of all time for me, if not for that unendurable Bill Conti disco-soaked score, ruining all the action scenes and making the whole thing seem more painfully dated than being a 1981 James Bond movie already did.

That said, the music in Eyes Wide Shut is one of my favorite things about a movie that I adore. The plink-plink piece you're talking about isn't original, for what it's worth (it's a Ligeti composition), so it's maybe not entirely fair to include it in this discussion.

August 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTim

Willy: Huh? I get that the score is probably horrible separated from the movie, but a series of subtle metallic hums is PERFECT for a movie that, lest you forget, IS ABOUT THE INTERNET. Not day to day college drudgery. Not guys having unrestrained fraternity fun. The focus is on THESE GUYS DEFINED THE INTERNET. So...subtle metallic hums.

August 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

I love the score from The Hours. It felt like another character to me.

August 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoey

I can't think of any movie scores that haven't already been mentioned, but this does remind me of my new Trailer Music Pet Peeve: the Inception-style "BWAAAAAAAAH" that's suddenly appeared in every. freaking. action trailer.

It worked for Inception for obvious reasons, but oh dear lord please make the French horns go away! Your movie is about robots. Do your robots play French horns? No? THEN WHY ARE THERE FRENCH HORNS BLARING???

(Quick fade in) "BWAAAAAAAAAH" (Quick fade out)

August 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Marie

Volvagia, when I read your comments, then I usually wonder what (cinematic) world you're living in, but in this particular case I'll give you that the piece of shit that came out of the two assholes is even worse as a standalone listen.
Nevertheless, Mark, Eduardo, and Dustin (whom the movie largely ignores) did not define the Internet. They may or may not have defined what we understand by social networking these days, but I at least am not hearing metallic noises when I use the Internet or social networking sites. But maybe you do. Not to mention that the vomit does not merely consist of metallic noises (which in this case are anything but "subtle"), but also of a simpleminded main theme, blood-curdling beats etc.
More importantly, The Social Network is not, as you claim, ABOUT THE INTERNET. (Actually, it is much more about what you call "guys having unrestrained fraternity fun" than it's about the Net). This film is - or at least could have been - about the consequences of success. I'll give you though that this conflict frequently gets lost, and when I take a look at the mostly one-dimensional structure of the roles and, what's even worse, David Fincher's hideous color palette consisting of bilious green and fecal brown, then I can't help but thinking that the Uber-Egomaniac mistook the material for one of his serial killer movies. Which would also explain the frightening "score".

August 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterWilly

I believe Kubrick wanted an alienating effect in Eyes Wide Shut, which is a big part of the film itself. Kubrick often had off-kilter scores. The idea of the score is good. I believe Kubrick would have sent Pook back to revise the score to be a bit more consistent with the film.

August 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRobert G

"The Big Bounce" (1969)- an otherwise excellent Elmore Leonard adaptation, Full of good performances, especially from Leigh Taylor-Young, Robert Webber and Lee Grant. But , oh that appalling Mike Curb score,especillay the epically uncool choral outbursts. The movie was a box-office flop - so, unfortunately, chances of anyone spending a nickel on re-issueing it with a new score are zip.

August 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterKen

I do like the Latin/Gregorian chants on Ladyhawke soundtrack. They always give me an instant medieval feel.

August 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAgent69

The Breakfast Club score isn't terrible, but it has got to be the worst USE of a score in a film. The kids are acting their guts out, and it all gets undermined by Swelling Emotional Dark Secrets Being Revealed music. Just awful.

August 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJake D

I seem to remember comedies with a decided lack of score killing the atmosphere rather than scores.

August 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn

Had a hard time thinking about an answer for this one but the most recent one for me was the music used for Wreck-It-Ralph. Found it to be so irritating in what was otherwise a charming movie, not to mention how inappropriate it is to use a Rihanna song in a movie for kids when she's always singing about sex. Just because the song has the word drive in its title.
Also, I've always hated Owl City so the credits song was especially irritating.

August 5, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterpaco.


Tangerine Dream? Jerry Goldsmith?

Even though it's tacky, I prefer the Tangerine Dream score.

August 6, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRobert

Deborah Lipp: I will search out Never Say McClory again – it sounds great!

Dback: I’m with you on Peter Pan – one of my favourite scores of all time!

Tim: I like the For Your Eyes Only score – but then I like cheesy, dated disco! Also, I think that film would be far too sombre if it weren’t for the score. I can understand, though, why not everyone thinks it works for the movie.

August 6, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEdward L.

Notes on a Scandal was my first thought too. Damn, that was annoying. Although one wishes that the film had been as good as Dench's titanic performance. And directed by Jonathan Demme or someone interesting.

Ghost is a pretty fun, sad, romantic and lively popcorn flick but ugh, that bombastic late 80s music.

I'm sure there are plenty of others but luckily I've tuned them out. *rimshot*

August 6, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMark The First


The Last Tango score is, on the whole, genius. I used to listen to it all the time. I was never bothered by the opening title either.

August 6, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

I don't get how someone can be that blind/deaf to find The Hours soundtrack to be one of the worst. It's brilliant, one of the best movie scores of all time without any doubt; and not just based on how beautiful the music itself is (which is subjective), but on how it works within the movie, as another character, but in a deliciously subtle way, almost as a lubricant for all the feelings and emotions conveyed in the film. It's simply the definition of what a movie soundtrack should be.

As for the bad, I love Glass but yes Notes on a Scandal falls in the other side. I also remember myself loving Paul Cantelon score for The Other Boleyn Girl when listening to it but deeply hating it within the movie; especially in THAT Natalie Portman scene. The score totally ruined her performance!!

August 6, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterdeerleonard.

Dragonslayer is a really good film almost ruined by its soundtrack. It isn't inappropriate, just bad. If only it could have been scored like Poledouris' Conan music.

August 6, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGregarius

Philip Glass goes green with envy: Maurice Jarre - at least in his later career - doesn't seem to be exactly popular around here. He now got cited for Witness, Gorillas In The Mist, and Ghost. All three scores were Oscar-nominated.

August 6, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterWilly

"A Passage to India", because it is the exact same score as "Ryan's Daughter", trust me.

August 6, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDan

i rarely notice / remember scores but for in the moment reactions... so for me this answer would be LADYHAWKE which was in the main post. I love that movie so much and am convinced it would seem like a classic if it had an epic classic score instead of anachronistic 80s synthesizer.

also I hate the EYES WIDE SHUT score (also covered in the post) but then i don't like the movie either so it didn't ruin anything for me there.

August 6, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNathanielR

I want to say this is one of my favorite posts ever. I can recognize brilliant scores that make me want to go out and buy the CDs (I have for The Mission, Crouching Tiger, The Hours, Cinema Paradiso, The Right Stuff, Gone With The Wind, Ben-Hur, etc.), but it's hard for me to recall or even notice a really bad score, particularly in a good movie.

I know I love the movie Witness but can't recall the music at all. Now I get a chance to see it again!

People keep on mentioning the 80s, and I guess this is all Chariots Of Fire damage? That score was anachronistically brilliant and probably got the movie the Best Picture win (I'm pretty serious), but it could so easily have gone completely off the rails with the slightest miscalculation. The imitators (and even Vangelis himself) never really pulled it off again.

August 6, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDave in Alamitos Beach

I love this topic because every score that someone mentions is one that I like! so much 80's Maurice Jarre hate! personally I hate scores that don't do anything special. better to have no score. so my vote for most annoying goes to John Williams for Minority Report.

August 8, 2013 | Unregistered Commentermitchell

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