This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.
Can a film soundtrack rescue a movie that is otherwise a lost cause? One thing’s for sure: throughout the history of cinema, music has often been the redeeming feature of many an underwhelming movie. Here are 25 amazing film scores composed for films that, frankly, didn’t deserve them.
25) Meet Joe Black (Thomas Newman, 1998)
This somnambulistic three hour romantic drama should really feature an extra screen credit for star Brad Pitt’s fetishised blonde locks. Rising way above the torpid melodrama of the plot is one of Thomas Newman’s most hauntingly melodic and attractive scores, one that leaves his characteristic quirkiness at the door to paint a portrait of death that is both melancholy and hopeful. The spectacular 10-minute finale That Next Place remains one of Newman’s towering musical achievements.
24) Timeline (Brian Tyler, 2003)
The musical history of Richard Donner’s flop-tastic Michael Crichton adaptation is a messy one, with a declining Jerry Goldsmith contributing an initial score but ultimately unable to work around the movie’s numerous re-edits. His successor Tyler nevertheless provided a muscular, energetic and more than worthwhile substitute score, one that helped pave the way to a successful career that’s included the likes of the Fast And Furious films and Iron Man 3.
23) A Good Day To Die Hard (Marco Beltrami, 2013)
This once estimable franchise has taken a severe nosedive in the last few years (Dire Hard is more like it) but action stalwart Beltrami doesn’t appear to have noticed. His uniquely aggressive, fearsome music marks some of the most accomplished action writing in recent years, honing the relentless tone of Scream and Hellboy and elevating it to new levels. That Beltrami honours original Die Hard composer Michael Kamen also helps give the score an identity, even when the movie utterly fails at the same aim.
22) The Wicker Man (Angelo Badalamenti, 2006)
“Step off the bike!” Have any remakes been as hilariously misguided or flat-out inept as this Nicolas Cage starrer? Fortunately, the movie does have a distinguished musical pedigree in the form of David Lynch regular Angelo Badalamenti, whose chilling and spiky score works overtime to make the film seem scarier than it is. The music can’t claim to be anything as distinctive as the creepy folk tunes that graced the classic 1973 original, but it’s almost certainly the best thing about the movie.
21) Eragon (Patrick Doyle, 2006)
One of many fantasy epics that attempted to ride the coat-tails of Lord Of The Rings, this campy extravaganza (based on the bestselling book) sank without much trace on release. What’s really sad is that Patrick Doyle’s rambunctious and glorious score went down with the ship too, a heroic throwback to Hollywood’s majestic Golden Age sound of memorable themes, quieter moments and rip-roaring action material. Doyle is renowned for his musical intimacy but this proves he can really let rip when he wants to.
20) Bless The Child (Christopher Young, 2000)
Horror veteran Young has made something of a career out of scoring movies that don’t deserve him; this Satanic chiller is one such project, boasting a tagline reading ‘Mankind’s last hope just turned six.’ No matter, Young’s orchestral/choral powerhouse of a score can be salvaged from the wreckage, one of the most powerful musical depictions of good vs. evil since Jerry Goldsmith’s The Final Conflict way back in 1981. Beautiful and terrifying by turns, it confirms Young as one of our finest storytellers.
19) Wild Wild West (Elmer Bernstein, 1999)
Less a six-shooter and more a misfire, this mega-budget Western TV series adaptation couldn’t even be saved by star Will Smith. At least director Barry Sonnenfeld was sage enough to enlist the services of The Magnificent Seven veteran Elmer Bernstein, whose ripe and nostalgic score is easily the movie’s most enjoyable aspect, showing more affection for Western conventions than the story itself. It was one of the final scores from the masterful Bernstein who also employed his son Peter to write some of the cues.
18) Australia (David Hirschfelder, 2008)
Baz Luhrmann’s intentionally overblown outback epic divides opinion for that very reason: everything is cranked up to 11, from the cinematography to the lead performances from Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman. Even so, it allowed underrated Aussie composer Hirschfelder the chance to spread his wings and create a sumptuous symphony of a score, one blending star-crossed romance with the indigenous Aboriginal textures of the country itself.
17) The Golden Compass (Alexandre Desplat, 2007)
The first of author Philip Pullman’s formidably intelligent fantasy novels sadly didn’t get the treatment it deserved, Pullman’s provocative religious subtext neutered in favour of a token ‘destiny’s child’ action story. The end result is a lifeless movie, but one that allowed the brilliant Alexandre Desplat a chance to unleash his familiar engrossing style, enveloping the drama in hypnotic chimes and swirling strings whilst occasionally bursting into thrillingly aggressive action material.
16) The Haunting (Jerry Goldsmith, 1999)
Ah Goldsmith, truly the king of awe-inspiring scores for poor movies. If this effects-strewn remake of Robert Wise’s classic 1963 chiller is remembered for anything it’s Goldsmith’s typically accomplished score, one that expertly glides along the divide between the spooky and the attractive. Orchestrated and recorded with a sense of Gothic expansiveness, it has welcome echoes of his earlier classics Poltergeist and Basic Instinct, a powerhouse soundtrack for a deeply silly movie.
15) Soldier (Joel McNeely, 1998)
With his boisterously robust orchestrations, bold action music and sense of melody, McNeely firmly belongs in the old-school camp of film composers, which makes it all the more frustrating that Hollywood has deployed him so infrequently. Even more frustrating is the fact his brilliant music is used on movies such as this misfiring Kurt Russell actioner; McNeely’s full-blooded homage to the likes of Jerry Goldsmith warranted a much better showcase than this.
14) Howard The Duck (John Barry, 1986)
How on Earth does a composer go about scoring a movie featuring a heroic, talking intergalactic duck? In typical John Barry style, he seemed to ignore the ludicrous plot altogether, instead deploying the same sense of tender melody, soft jazz and forthright action music as heard in his seminal James Bond scores. It isn’t really the score the film needs, or indeed deserves, but if anyone brought a sense of class to this fascinating George Lucas-produced fiasco, it was Barry.
13) Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (Elliot Goldenthal, 2001)
Visually impressive though it was, this CGI-animated take on the beloved PlayStation gaming series didn’t quite do its source justice. One area where it did amaze was the typically ambitious score by Goldenthal, fusing his characteristic churning orchestrations from the likes of Interview With The Vampire with soaringly beautiful melody honouring the movie’s core spiritual themes. Really, it’s best to leave the film itself at the door and appreciate Goldenthal’s epic symphony on its terms.
12) Alice In Wonderland (Danny Elfman, 2010)
The disparity between a bad movie and a great score is often an odd one. This distinctly underwhelming Tim Burton fantasy blockbuster, adapted from Lewis Carroll’s timeless source, hardly ranks as one of the quirky director’s best but the score from Elfman is superb. Anchored around a haunting sung theme for Alice herself, the score deploys all the choral and whimsical forces heard throughout Elfman’s career but with a far greater maturity and sense of focus than is displayed in the movie.
11) The Black Dahlia (Mark Isham, 2006)
Even if certain Brian De Palma movies don’t quite come up to the mark (and The Black Dahlia certainly fits that bracket), his track record with film composers is pretty sterling, having worked with John Williams, Ennio Morricone, and many others. Isham doesn’t let the side down here, drawing on his jazz background to represent the movie’s 1950s setting with maximum panache and elan. A thrilling, modern-day noir score, it’s a successful fusion of Isham’s own voice with that of his esteemed forebears.
10) Judge Dredd (Alan Silvestri, 1995)
The gritty 2012 take on the comic book icon may have finally done him justice – but the much-maligned 1995 version had the better tunes. Replacing Jerry Goldsmith, Back To The Future and Predator veteran Silvestri delivered one of his beefiest and most enjoyable works, built around a muscular theme for horns and snare drums that perfectly embodies the movie’s militaristic overtones. Silvestri’s creativity also comes out in the utterly bizarre whale noises for the Angel family.
9) The Scarlet Letter (John Barry, 1995)
Star Demi Moore famously changed the ending of this Nathaniel Hawthorne adaptation, reasoning that not many people had actually read the classic novel. Thankfully, maestro Barry doesn’t make such errors of judgment in his beautifully gauged and melancholy soundtrack, one capturing the novel’s essential themes of forbidden romance and emotional anguish with his customary sense of class. The Love Scene cue remains one of this legendary composer’s greatest achievements.
8) Lady In The Water (James Newton Howard, 2006)
10 years on, does anybody really know what M Night Shyamalan’s misguided fairy tale is all about? Piercing through all the nonsense about narfs and scrunts is Newton Howard’s exquisitely ethereal score, a truly magical piece of composition that steadily builds the choir up until a breathtaking climax. That the composer, who has worked with Shyamalan on all but one of his movies, was able to conjure superb music for such a mess must mean he has a sixth sense of his own.
7) Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (John Williams, 1999)
George Lucas may have let down the fans (and indeed everybody else) with his first entry in the Star Wars prequel trilogy – but there was no risk of Williams doing the same. In-keeping with his fellow composers on this list, he looked beyond the deficiencies in the movie’s narrative, crafting a score that honoured the rich history of the original trilogy whilst moving the saga forward in exciting new directions. That the colossal Duel of the Fates was wasted on The Phantom Menace remains galling to this day.
6) Cutthroat Island (John Debney, 1995)
Perhaps not quite as awful as its savage critical reputation would suggest, this costly box office piratical bomb does suffer from dramatic inertia, although it’s not the fault of composer Debney whose rousingly spectacular score is easily one of the best of the 1990s. Hans Zimmer and the Pirates Of The Caribbean crew can walk the plank; Debney’s wonderfully entertaining and spirited homage to Erich Wolfgang Korngold is what pirate scores are supposed to sound like: thematically rich, adrenaline-fuelled and lots of fun.
5) The Swarm (Jerry Goldsmith, 1978)
“I never dreamed that it would turn out to be the bees…” Goldsmith attributed his often dubious choice of film projects as being down to restlessness; in which case, he must have been positively antsy when he signed on to disaster master Irwin Allen’s utterly foolish killer bee movie starring Michael Caine. Amazingly, Goldsmith conjured up one of the most rousing and heroic scores of his career, whilst also utilising the buzzing textures of the orchestra to represent the winged threat.
4) Batman & Robin (Elliot Goldenthal, 1997)
Critics and audiences repeatedly fall over themselves to kick Joel Schumacher’s Batman movie to death. But let’s not forget that buried in there is Goldenthal’s typically genre-defying score, wildly eccentric and diverse that throws around a whole host of textures from frenetic acid jazz to the rousing central Batman theme. It’s just as chaotic as the movie but a lot more accomplished and enjoyable, although quite why Goldenthal’s singular talents were wasted on this particular movie is anyone’s guess.
3) King Solomon’s Mines (Jerry Goldsmith, 1985)
Quite possibly the worst movie Goldsmith ever scored (and that’s going some), this Indiana-Jones-on-a-poundshop-budget travesty not only sullies H. Rider Haggard’s hero Allan Quartermain; it also reinforces Goldsmith’s bad luck in endlessly coming second-fiddle to John Williams (see also Jurassic Park v Congo). Nevertheless, Goldsmith’s tongue-in-cheek sense of adventure is as entertaining as ever, never taking itself too seriously but composed with all the dignity and pizzazz we expect from this towering composer.
2) Exorcist II: The Heretic (Ennio Morricone, 1977)
Following in the footsteps of one of cinema’s most notorious horror movies was never going to be an easy task. Even so, it’s pretty unanimously agreed that John Boorman made a terrible hash of this Satanic sequel – except for the score that is. In hiring the one and only Morricone, Boorman was pretty much guaranteed an extraordinary score, and that’s what Morricone delivered: an onslaught of terrifying horror material, tender lyricism and flat-out demented modernistic beats. Regan’s Theme was recently used by Quentin Tarantino in his Western opus The Hateful Eight.
1) The Last Airbender (James Newton Howard, 2010)
It’s time to give the underrated Newton Howard a medal: anyone capable of conjuring up such an epic score for a movie this wretched clearly has a very special gift. M. Night Shyalaman’s movie is a tin-eared, tedious mess but Newton Howard’s score is exactly the opposite, a carefully woven tapestry of ethnic instrumentation and shimmering wonderment that culminates in the extraordinary climactic cue Flow Like Water. Where on Earth he got his inspiration from is a question for the ages. Candidate for the best piece of score music ever heard in a truly dreadful movie? It’s certainly up there.