6 Bad Movies Redeemed by Great Original Scores
Bad movies are rarely ever completely bad. A strong case could be made for Battlefield Earth, but most of the time, given the sheer amount of people involved in making a movie, there’s a good chance somebody in the crew has done their job right. But if all else fails, there’s always hope that the composer will somehow salvage the mess with an inspired original score. Below you’ll find some hidden musical gems from maestros as great and as varied as John Williams, Elliot Goldenthal and Vangelis. The scores are among the composers’ most inventive and exciting works, and they don’t deserve to be buried under layers of bad cinema. The movies haven’t aged well at all, but perhaps the time has come to face the music.
6. Batman Forever (1995)
Joel Schumacher’s take on Batman is memorable for all the wrong reasons – Bat nipples, the glow-in-the-dark gang, and a smorgasboard of acting misfires. It started the franchise’s downward slide into camp territory, leading to the disastrous Batman and Robin that put the caped crusader on hiatus until 2005’s Batman Begins. But Batman Forever also introduced composer Elliot Goldenthal to the world of the dark knight, for which we should be truly thankful.
Danny Elfman would have been a tough act to follow, but Goldenthal – composer for Alien 3 and Interview With The Vampire – met the challenge in full force. He upped the Gothic grandeur and mystery, and threw in plenty of French Horn rips (you’ll know them when you hear them). In this clip, he talks about finding inspiration for the score by recalling the kind of music he would have improvised as a kid playing with Batman toys. Classical music buffs will notice more than a few nods to Wagner, which Goldenthal acknowledges in the track names ‘Fledermausmarschmusik’ and ‘Batterdammerung’. One of the great things about Batman is that, regardless of the films’ quality, the musical scores are consistently stunning. Goldenthal’s Batman Forever could be the best of them, laced with menace and majesty.
Key tracks: ‘Main Title & Fanfare’ is Bat music at its finest; Goldenthal said of the opening theme “I wanted to have a sense of power and of flight.” Also worth listening to is the melancholic ‘The Pull of Regret’ and the slam-dunk bombast of ‘Batterdammerung.’
5. Hook (1991)
When I was eight years old, as far as I was concerned Hook was the greatest movie ever made. Robin Williams, swordfights, Neverfood – what’s not to like? Well, when you’re not looking at it through nostalgia-tinted glasses, the flaws tend to pile up. Steven Spielberg’s re-working of Peter Pan is less of a movie and more like a cinematic tour of a theme park. And what was with the baseball-playing pirates? They’re armed to the teeth with cutlasses and daggers, yet they get their asses kicked by Lost Boys in wooden armour wielding a chicken-egg cannon.
But even as a kid, I remembered loving John Williams’ music. In Hook he’s in top form, delivering a rip-roaring, swashbuckling, heroic soundtrack that makes the movie seem so much more exciting than it actually is. Williams is known for his masterful use of ‘leitmotifs’, musical themes that accompany particular characters or situations, and Hook contains some of the composer’s most memorable examples. Despite Hook‘s faults as a movie, it created a world that gave Williams an almost limitless creative license, as he told Cinema Magazine:
This area, the area of fantasy, is the best one that can exist for music. Because only there music has the ability to create what it is trying to do, transfer people elsewhere, disconnect them from anything human, and trite. Composing music for films like Hook is a wonderful gift.
Fans of the score got a welcome surprise in 2012 when La-La Land Records remastered Williams’ music for a Limited Edition release. The 140 minute album contained more than 65 minutes of unheard cues. It’s absolutely stunning. Pirates of the Carribean may have the most recognizable ‘pirate’ music today, but for me Hook‘s score reigns supreme.
Key tracks: ‘Prologue’ instantly cast the spell, and you know you’re in for an adventure. ‘You Are The Pan’ plays during the movie’s best scene, when Peter wins back the Lost Boy’s respect. And, however ridiculous the final battle might be, ‘Ultimate War’ still makes me feel like charging in to fight Hook and his cutthroat crew.
4. Die Another Day (2002)
All due respect to Sean Connery, but Pierce Brosnan was always my favourite Bond. It’s a shame he ended the series on the overstuffed, over-the-top Die Another Day. At times it feels more like a Bond parody. Seriously -- an invisible car? Even Roger Moore thought it went too far, and that’s coming from the Bond who inflated a villain with a compressed-air bullet. In fact, one of the film’s worst facets was a musical one: Madonna’s unlistenable theme song.
Thank God for David Arnold, then. He joined the Bond franchise for Tomorrow Never Dies, at the recommendation of long-time Bond composer John Barry. Arnold, perhaps more than any of his predecessors, perfected taking each movie’s theme song and working it into the score. But this time he opted not to use the theme song (good call), crafting instead a descending four-note motif that brings to mind Barry’s legendary title theme for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Arnold shakes the tune up with the Bond theme and a barrage of electronic effects, and the resulting cocktail is one of the most visceral Bond scores in the franchise’s history. Granted, it’s not perfect – it may be a little too busy at times, and it loses some points for recycling the ‘Pipeline’ motif from The World Is Not Enough. But play this score when you’re on the freeway, and it’ll instantly transform your car into an Aston Martin. Hopefully not an invisible one.
Key tracks: ‘Iced Inc.’ is featured during the car chase on the frozen lake, and when the trumpet starts to growl you know Bond is back. For pulse-pounding action, look no further than ‘Hovercraft Chase’ and ‘Gustav Graves Grand Gravitational Exit’. It’s also worth checking out ‘Going Down Together’, probably Arnold’s most John Barry-esque melody.
3. The Last Airbender (2010)
After Earth has proven that M. Night Shyamalan’s spectacular fall from grace isn’t over yet. Still, it hasn’t sunk quite as low as his previous film, The Last Airbender. Based on a popular animated series, Shyamalan’s take was hampered by a string of poor performances, distracting 3D effects, a bad script, and just having no soul in general – except for the music of James Newton Howard. The Last Airbender is (almost) worth watching just for the music. At times it’s rousing and adventurous, then elegant and mysterious. JNH spoke to Go See Talk about his specific composing method, which might explain how the score triumphed while the movie failed:
I generally will write a suite- like an eight or a ten minute suite just based on my impressions of the script and my conversations with the director. I really started that process when I started working with Night (M. Night Shyamalan), and I’ve been doing it that way ever since. Night was really the first director I had ever worked with who wanted a lot of music before he started shooting.
He’s stuck by Shyamalan for eight films now, and while the director seems to be in freefall, the composer is only getting better. (For another bad Shyamalan movie redeemed by its original score, check out Lady In The Water).
Key tracks: ‘Flow Like Water’ and ‘Earthbenders’ are the standouts, but do yourself a favour and get the whole album – you won’t regret it.
2. Mission To Mars (2000)
This is one mission that should have been aborted when it was still a script, because that’s where most of the problems lie. It’s part sci-fi thriller, part philosophical 2001: A Space Odyssey wannabe, and it’s got one of the least convincing alien encounters in cinema. Even more disappointing is the fact it came from such a dynamic director as Brian De Palma.
So, what’s the good news? Ennio Morricone. Swapping the deserts of Spaghetti Westerns for those of the red planet, Morricone’s score is genuinely beautiful. The composer is no stranger to science fiction, having scored John Carpenter’s horror masterpiece The Thing, but he’s chosen a different approach here. Morricone is known for experimenting with unconventional sounds (and Mission To Mars does feature some creepy, ethereal musical passages) but the score really excels when it’s in traditional territory. When the lush strings, proud brass and wordless choirs kick in, Morricone manages to capture the awe and romance of voyaging into outer space. It’s closest in tone to the composer’s scores for The Untouchables (a great De Palma flick) and The Legend of 1900, and thoroughly deserves to be recognised among his best works.
Key tracks: ‘Where’ – the build starts at 2:48, climaxing in an emotional Morricone fanfare. ‘A Heart Beats in Space’ transports you into the mind of a lonely astronaut, making great use of oboe and trumpet.
1. Alexander (2004)
Let’s get one thing straight: Alexander isn’t all bad. There are some riveting moments – like the young Alexander taming his horse, Bucephalus. On whole though, it’s a lumbering and uneven mess that’s gone through three different versions – theatrical, director’s cut, and a ‘final cut’ – and still fails to capture the allure of Alexander’s story.
But where director Oliver Stone failed nobly, Greek composer Vangelis triumphed. His music soars. It shines. It makes you want take off and conquer the world. It’s probably his most traditional score – the electronic elements are still there, but the orchestral sound has a greater presence than his earlier scores for Chariots of Fire and Blade Runner. In the composer’s own words, he sought to convey the ancient world through a modern soundtrack:
I try to remember how it is to live at the time, to be there. At the same time, I must speak [a musical language] that is understandable today.
Key tracks: ‘The Young Alexander’: At around the 1:40 mark, Vangelis hits it out of the park. If you’re looking for epic battle music, ‘Drums of Gaugamela’ delivers. You’ll recognize ‘The Charge’, which sounds like it echoes a little bit of Verdi’s ‘Dies Irae’, from the movie’s best moment – when Alexander’s horse rears up in front of a mighty Indian war elephant.
Whether music alone is enough of a reason to make you sit through these movies again, I can’t say. I’m sure you’d rather not remember Colin Farrell’s blonde mullet, or Pierce Brosnan surfing a shoddy CGI wave. But these films also feature some formidable composers working at the peak of their game. It’d be a shame to forget about the scores along with the movies. Perhaps it’s best to let the music speak for itself; sit back, play the soundtracks, close your eyes, and let your imagination do the rest.
What do you think? Leave a comment.