There are magical, inspiring musical moments in movies that everyone remembers: Rocky Balboa jogging up stairs to the tune of ‘Gonna Fly Now’. John Cusack blasting ‘In Your Eyes’ on a boombox held high over his head. Wayne and Garth bashing their heads to ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. Michael Madsen slicing a guy’s ear off to ‘Stuck in the Middle with You’. Tom Cruise dancing in his underwear to ‘Old Time Rock and Roll’. Great musical moments can be funny, disturbing, inspiring, or magical, and at their best they can epitomize an entire movie in the space of three or four minutes.
This, unfortunately, is not an article about moments like those. In fact, you could say these are the total opposite of moments like those…
10: Vanilla Ice: ‘Ninja Rap’, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze (1991)
You really have to respect any movie that has the audacity to use the subtitle The Secret of the Ooze. Really? Did they think ‘ooze’ would pack them into the theatres?
Regardless, this film was probably a step up from the first live-action Turtles film from the previous year. In it, the Turtles search for a new underground lair, while facing off against Shredder, the foe they thought was vanquished in the previous film. Along the way, they meet a scientist (David Warner, perhaps the most out-of-place actor in a kid’s film until Christopher Walken in The Country Bears) who’s unlocked the secret of the radioactive ooze that originally created the turtles.
Things are humming along just fine, sort of decent, sort of funny, and at the very least improving upon the first film. Even the teenaged Ernie Reyes Jr, who completely ruined Red Sonja as a kid, is tolerable here. And then it all comes screeching to a halt when it happens.
‘It’ being the appearance of one-hit wonder Vanilla Ice, along with his posse, all in their jet-black vests, sparkling white silk shirts, and fastidiously crafted hair-gel helmets. When a fight between the Turtles and other mutant creatures crashes into a nightclub, Ice and his posse improvise a song called “The Ninja Rap”, with a refrain of “Go ninja! Go ninja, go!” Amazingly, no chanting of “It’s your birthday!” is included.
The nightmare is complete when the Turtles themselves start to do their own spontaneous synchronised dance to the song. Because, as everyone knows, any martial arts film worth its salt needs to have at least one musical number.
If you ever wondered why Vanilla Ice didn’t have a hit after ‘Ice, Ice Baby’, look no further than ‘Ninja Rap’. It’s basically a remake of ‘Ice, Ice Baby’, minus John Deacon’s bass line, with lyrics about ninja turtles. And the end of the movie provides one final spit in the eye, when the usually classy and restrained Splinter delivers his own reprise of the “Go ninja! Go ninja, go!” refrain.
Sample lyric: “Have you ever seen a turtle get down?” After this movie, I can safely say two things: 1) yes, and 2) I really wish I hadn’t.
9: The Village People: ‘Milkshake’, Can’t Stop the Music (1980)
Disco was dying an ugly death circa 1980, so what better time for Grease producer Allan Carr to release his magnum disco opus, Can’t Stop the Music? And what better time for a musical origin story, detailing the efforts of Steve Guttenberg, Bruce Jenner, and Valerie Perrine to create the Village People?
And most of all, what better time to stage a movie demonstrating that the Village People weren’t really that gay, after all? In every musical number in this film, we find the Motorcycle Cop, the Indian, the Leather Man, and all the rest being conspicuously fawned over by female dancers.
And the worst of these numbers is ‘Milkshake’, an ode to creamy beverages sung by the Villagers in all-white versions of their regular costumes, while they strut and gyrate around Valerie Perrine sitting in a giant cocktail glass filled with milk. On the surface, the lyrics appear to be an innocent tribute to the joys of combining milk and ice cream, but considering this is the same movie that features lots of naked dudes in its ‘YMCA’ segment, I think we can all draw our own conclusions. Look, it’s the Village People singing the praises of milky beverages. Do I really need to spell it out for you?
Sample lyric: “Just get a glass of milk / You see it’s not very hard to make / Add some ice cream and blend / You will have yourself a great milkshake.” And coming up in the next verse, a really rockin’ recipe for lentil soup!
8: Pierce Brosnan, ‘S.O.S.’, Mamma Mia! (2008)
In this adaptation of the ABBA jukebox Broadway musical, Meryl Streep plays a former ’70s disco singer who lives a life of contentment on a picturesque Greek island. Her daughter (Amanda Seyfried) is set to get married, and she really wants her father to give her away at the wedding. Trouble is, her father could conceivably be any one of three men, each more tone deaf than the previous: Stellan Skarsgård, Colin Firth, and most unfortunately of all, Pierce Brosnan.
But, really, who cares about the plot? The filmmakers sure didn’t. Mamma Mia! is not much more than a flimsy excuse to recycle ABBA songs, just as much as the movie version of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (relax, I’m getting to it) existed to recycle Beatles songs. But on the positive side of things, Mamma Mia! doesn’t subject us to the musical stylings of Dom DeLuise, George Burns, Donald Pleasence, or robots.
No, instead we get a whole slew of top-tier actors who can sort of sing, and yet still end up completely annihilating whatever qualities made these songs hits in the first place. By far, the worst offender is recovering ex-Bond Pierce Brosnan, who belts out a number of songs, including “S.O.S.”, like he’s being punched repeatedly in the groin. Vocally, he has a shorter range than a North Korean ballistic missile test.
I really don’t know why Brosnan, the director, or Benny and Bjorn from ABBA (who produced the soundtrack) ever thought he could pull this off. The end result is sheer pain.
Sample lyric: It’s not really fair to make fun of the lyrics here, because the fact that they suck is not the fault of Pierce Brosnan. But I’d just like to point out that if the best metaphor you can find for your relationship is a maritime distress code, maybe you deserve the kind of lover you get.
7: ‘Hooray for Santy Claus’, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964)
In this abysmal ’60s holiday film, the children of Mars are accidentally picking up “Earth programmes” on their TVs and jonesing for a Christmas mascot like our own jolly St Nick. The leader of the Martian people, a guy who looks like Michael McKean with a radiator hose sticking out of his head, kidnaps Santa and brings him to Mars. Santa is overjoyed at the prospect of being held against his will, and even makes toys for all the Martian boys and girls.
I’m not too sure what’s up with the title, because there certainly wasn’t a lot of conquering going on. But there was a 10-year-old Pia Zadora getting her first (but certainly not last) taste of cheese cinema.
The film also features a relentlessly cheery, amateurishly produced theme song called “Hooray for Santy Claus”. The lyrics are unnecessarily cloying (why say “Santy Claus” when “Santa Claus” fits the meter just as well?), but what really makes it sheer hell to sit through is the singing, which features several kids delivering the lyrics in unison. Actually, ‘unison’ is too kind of a word, because none of the kids are singing in the same key, let alone on the same beat. The song plays over the opening credits, is heard as a theme throughout the movie, and shows up again during the closing credits, where the lyrics are actually shown on screen so everyone can sing along. And I pity any parent whose child came home from the cinema singing this.
Sample lyric: “Hooray for Santy Claus / Yay, yay for Santy Claus / He’s fat and round, but jumpin’ jiminy / He can climb down any chim-e-ney!” I don’t really have to explain what’s wrong with these lyrics, do I?
6: Gary Ham: ‘Prescription Beer’, The Howling: New Moon Rising (1995)
By 1995, fans of this werewolf franchise were probably used to films that were only related to the original Howling in name only. Over the course of 12 years and seven movies, only the most tangential links exist between any of these movies. But what fans were probably not expecting was a film full of country line dancing, fart jokes, urinal jokes, fat jokes, more country line dancing, dick jokes, and oh yeah, even more country line dancing.
In Howling: New Moon Rising, some Australian guy who acted in Howling V took the reins of the franchise as writer-director, and promptly drove it straight into the ground. It seems his high concept was to film in a real-life hick town that was the setting for a lot of old westerns, and feature the entire population of the town playing themselves, albeit badly. The end result is a film that spends more time on mentally challenged rednecks making chilli and telling stupid jokes than anything related to werewolves.
There hasn’t been a Howling movie since. I’m pretty sure that anyone unfortunate enough to rent this movie ripped it out of the VCR long before they got to hear the #6 song on this list. You see, in the final five minutes of the movie, the entire cast stops what they’re doing to have a campfire sing-along to ‘Prescription Beer’, a song about how drugs are no fun anymore. If there’s another supposed horror film that features a group sing-along in its closing minutes, I’d be hard-pressed to name it.
And I think it goes without saying that this song lasts about five times as long as the werewolf’s entire appearance.
Sample lyric: “Well, they don’t make good drugs like they used to / Too much Mannitol, too much meat, too much propane.” Ah, I see. The writer-director huffing propane actually explains a lot.
5: Rock Biter: ‘Born to Be Wild’, The Neverending Story III: Escape from Fantasia (1994)
This was the third film based on Michael Ende’s classic fantasy novel from the 1970s. Well, maybe ‘based on’ isn’t the right word, because absolutely none of the events in this movie come from the novel. Family audiences should have expected trouble, considering this franchise was on its third Bastian, and it was the kid from the Free Willy movies.
In the film, Bastian Bux gets bullied (again), gets goaded into stealing the Neverending Story by the mysterious Mr. Koreander (again), and escapes into the world of Fantasia instead of dealing with his crappy life (again). Trivia note: The bullies are led by Jack Black in one of his earliest roles, and I’m sure we’ve all grown tired of the way Jack Black brings up his Neverending Story III role in every single interview, am I right?
For unclear reasons, several creatures from Fantasia end up in the real world, where they do nothing of interest. For this film, the puppets were designed by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, who made them look like rejects from the Dinosaurs TV show. This is no knock on the Creature Shop; I’m sure they had very little money to work with (did I mention they got the kid from Free Willy to star?).
And lack of money is the only way to explain why Atreyu, the warrior kid who was critical to the previous two films, is nowhere to be found. It couldn’t get any worse, could it?
Indeed it could, and it did, when Rock Biter, with his creepy baby in tow, hopped on his stone scooter and headed off to the Wandering Mountain. Along the way, they and all the creatures of Fantasia decide to join into an impromptu rendition of ‘Born to Be Wild’. Yes, the Steppenwolf song that was a hit in 1968. Just to be clear: these are characters from a fantasyland and therefore have no business knowing about classic rock songs of the 1960s.
Another thing to note: this movie is not a musical. This is the only time in the film that characters break out into song. (For which I’m thankful, given that the guy singing evidently gargled with radiator fluid before the take.) It’s one of the most bewildering things ever, and one can only assume the filmmakers desperately needed a cheap way to pad out the running time.
Sample lyric: Really? One of the most overplayed songs of the last 40 years, and you really need me to transcribe the lyrics here?
4: Neil Diamond: ‘You, Baby’ from The Jazz Singer (1980)
In this remake of the classic Al Jolson film that ushered in the age of talking pictures, worldwide recording star Neil Diamond plays a Jewish cantor who would rather be performing to sold-out arenas than singing ‘Kol Nidre’ at synagogue, much to his father’s disdain.
I’m not sure how they chose Neil Diamond, of all people, to star as a jazz singer, because he has never sung anything in his life that sounds remotely like jazz. In spite of the title, Neil’s stuff in this movie is his usual adult contemporary shlock, including the hilariously titled ‘Love on the Rocks’.
The movie really only has two things in common with the original: the title, and the barest outline of a plot. Oh yeah, and one other thing, but it’s a thing that everybody involved would much rather forget: as a homage to Al Jolson, one scene features Neil Diamond in blackface.
Yes, Neil Diamond in blackface. What’s worse is there’s no context for this scene at all. At roughly four minutes into the film, Neil meets up with his black friends, who are about to perform at a club. The promoter demands to see the “four brothers” up on stage, but alas, one member of the band just got arrested for stealing a car (way to buck the stereotypes!). Clearly, the only logical thing to do is to put Neil Diamond in blackface and pretend he’s a brother. Clearly.
The scene was a stunning misfire – Diamond looks like Greg Brady after twelve hours on a tanning bed—but making it even more insufferable is that the song ‘You, Baby’ sounds nothing like what a black singing group would perform in 1980. It’s Neil Diamond’s skewed, twisted idea of what a black group would be singing in 1980.
Trivia note: The guy that first figures out Neil is a white guy is Ernie Hudson, soon to go onto greater fame in Ghostbusters.
Sample lyric: “Only a blind man would leave you behind / But not me” To be honest, that seems like an exceptionally backhanded compliment. Maybe the blackface was just there to distract from the terrible lyrics.
3: Sylvester Stallone: ‘Drinkin’stein’ from Rhinestone (1984)
To explain this song’s inclusion on this list, I’m sure I only need to say two words: Stallone sings.
In Rhinestone, Dolly Parton makes a bet with a sleazy nightclub owner that she can turn the next man she sees into a country star. Unfortunately, that next man is a foul-mouthed cab driver played by Sylvester Stallone. To make sure the transformation is authentic, Dolly takes Sly back home to Memphis to meet her family and learn what being a real country star is all about.
What Sly and the audience find out is that being a real country star involves wearing a coonskin cap and letting a rainbow throw up on you, while you sing an ode to Budweiser and Universal horror films called ‘Drinkin’stein’. The outfit is horrible, the song is horrible, the lyrics are horrible, but most of all, the singing is sheer torture. It appears Stallone was trying to evoke images of horror films with his growling vocals, and he succeeded all too well.
Yes, I realise the whole point of Rhinestone is that Sly is supposed to be a terrible singer. But at the end of the day, we’re still being forced to endure terrible singing. It’s the equivalent of saying, “Hey, those bamboo shoots under your fingernails hurt, don’t they? Well, they’re supposed to hurt. So it’s all good, right?” Like every other comedy Stallone ever made, Rhinestone was a complete critical and financial bomb.
Sample lyric: “And the tavern down the street is the laboratory / Where he makes the transformation all the time.” That lyric may seem pretty innocuous, until you hear mush-mouthed Stallone stretch the word “laboratory” to about eight syllables.
2: Steve Martin: ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978)
It all seemed so promising: round up some of the biggest stars of the late ’70s pop scene (the Bee Gees, Peter Frampton) and have them act in a movie that tries to make a coherent plot out of unrelated late-period Beatles songs. What could go wrong? If you said “everything”, you win!
Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the movie, was an epic, unqualified disaster, as embarrassing as the original Beatles album was groundbreaking. The film has about as much plot as a porno, but what story there is revolves around a rock band called Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, fronted by ‘Billy Shears’ (Frampton) and ‘the Hendersons’ (the Bee Gees). Clever, no?
The band signs a recording contract with an exec played by, of all people, Donald Pleasence, in a bad toupee to boot. And while the boys are out touring, their hometown descends into cheap motel and adult bookstore depravity, all thanks to the schemes of mean Mr Mustard and his robot servants (yes, robot servants – don’t ask). The story is made all the more confusing by the fact that there’s absolutely no dialogue (I’m guessing no one wanted to take a chance on letting Frampton and the Bee Gees act), and all of the exposition is delivered in narration by… George Burns?
Picking a worst moment from this movie was perhaps my toughest choice in assembling this list. After all, this is a film that has a chubby Alice Cooper sarcastically reciting the lyrics to ‘Because’ while the Bee Gees harmonize behind him. This is a film where George Burns actually straps on an electric guitar and performs ‘Fixing a Hole’, turning it into a Vaudeville number. And this is a movie where robots – robots! -sing ‘She’s Leaving Home’.
But in the end, the award for most painful moment goes to Steve Martin, starring as Dr Maxwell Edison and singing ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’. The original song was nowhere near being one of the Beatles’ finest moments, so you just know this performance is guaranteed to suck.
Unlike Martin’s ‘Dentist’ number that was the highlight of the ’80s Little Shop of Horrors remake, Steve doesn’t even bother to sing here, and speaks all the lyrics. But it’s far worse than that. This movie was made during Steve’s King Tut, wild-and-crazy guy, white suit, arrow-through-the-head, ex-cuuuuuuuuuuse me phase, which means he recites the entire song in his ’70s stand-up voice, easily providing one of the most excruciating sounds ever committed to film. Bang, bang, Steve Martin made sure this song was dead.
Sample lyric: I see no reason to get perfectly decent Lennon-McCartney lyrics involved in this.
1: Mae West and Timothy Dalton: ‘Love Will Keep Us Together’, Sextette (1978)
In 1970, the legendary Mae West emerged from retirement at the age of 77 to appear in Myra Breckinridge, as a lascivious casting agent who slept with all her male clients, despite most of them being fifty years her junior. This evidently wasn’t horrifying enough, because Mae emerged from retirement again eight years later to take the general concept behind that brief role and stretch it into a full-length nightmare.
In Sextette, she plays the octogenarian Marlo Manners (basically, herself), who somehow still drives men crazy with desire (a group that includes Ringo Starr, Dom DeLuise, and George Hamilton). This is despite being pale and ghastly, her face barely visible beneath thick layers of makeup and false eyelashes that seem to be made of asphalt.
The film finds Ms. Manners on the occasion of her marriage to Sir Michael Barrington (a pre-Bond Timothy Dalton). The hotel where they spend their honeymoon just happens to be the site of an international summit. Using her geriatric wiles, West seduces the Russian delegate (Tony Curtis) and reveals all the dark, dirty secrets of world leaders (she’s had sex with them all, you see). And all of this somehow brings about peace in our time.
Through it all, Mae not only recycles her most famous pre-Hayes Code one-liners (“When I’m bad, I’m better”, etc.), but also unleashes a dozen other smutty lines that no one ever wanted to hear coming out of a senior citizen’s mouth. Here’s just a small sampling:
Reporter: How do you like it in London, Marlo?West: Oh, I like it anywhere!
Dom DeLuise: Sir Michael is one of England‘s top secret agents! He’s bigger than 007!West: I never got a chance to take his measurements!
Athlete: I’m a pole-vaulter!West: Aren’t we all!
Excuse me while I shudder.
The pain is only compounded when Dom DeLuise steps atop a piano to sing the Beatles song ‘Honey Pie’, and Alice Cooper shows up to perform a disco number. (Going by this and Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, apparently two things were extremely popular in 1978: Beatles songs and Alice Cooper)
But by far, the most excruciating moment comes when West and Dalton perform “their song”, which turns out to be a cover of Captain and Tenille’s #1 hit ‘Love Will Keep Us Together’. Horribly, Dalton kicks things off by speaking the lyrics (“Love. Love will keep us together. Think of me, babe, whenever.”), and when he finally gets to actually singing, his voice is pretty much nonexistent. And West doesn’t help things by chiming in periodically in her standard Mae West voice, leading to exchanges like the following:
West: Oh, stop!Dalton: But I really love you!West: Mmm, stop!Dalton: I’ll be thinking of you! Look in my heart and let love… keep us together!West: What-ev-uh!
It’s like watching a live action version of something from The Muppet Show, only most people would rather do Miss Piggy (hey, at the time, she was far more mobile). Easily, the worst musical moment in movie history.
Sample lyric: (sung by Dalton to West) “Young and beautiful / Your looks will never be gone.” First of all, I’d love to know what process of rationalisation took place in Timothy Dalton’s mind to allow him to sing these lines with a straight face. Second, the original lyrics to the song are “Young and beautiful / Someday your looks will be gone.” Obviously, that had to change, because “someday” had already come and gone for Mae West.