Bad Movies with Great Musical Scores

I make it a rule that I have to see a movie through to its end, even when I know it’s not going to get better — this means that I’ve subjected myself willingly to thousands of hours of cinematic torment because of my principles. There can be no doubt that each of us has seen our fair share of bad movies. Depending on where we’ve viewed them, whether on the big screen or on TV late at night, they haven’t been worth our time or worth our money. I’m sure others can empathize with me when I say that I’ve felt guilty and even angry that I’ve been tricked or coaxed into watching a bad movie.

My stubbornness to endure bad movies rather than walking out, switching the channel or switching off forces me to salvage some good amidst the bad. Perhaps it’s a mechanism we all have to comfort ourselves — to believe that the experience hasn’t been a complete loss. There has to be a saving grace, a silver lining.

Maybe there’s a performance that’s worthy of a meme. Maybe there’s terrible dialogue that becomes a personal in-joke between friends — so bad it’s good. Beyond the ironic aspects of a bad movie sometimes there is a legitimate piece that stands alone. It doesn’t belong because it’s too good for such bad filmmaking.

Musical scores have the ability to capture what a poorly constructed movie can’t. The intimacy, the scope, the emotion of a story can be found at the hands of the composer better than the surrounding film they were created for. The following movies explored below demonstrate why the surrounding fails, and in contrast why the score succeeds.

Red Sonja (1985)

Why is the movie bad? Let’s start with the titular character. Brigitte Nielsen is a charmless and flat rendition of the character, who was likely cast because of her physical stature more so than for her acting abilities (the irony is not lost on me that the same could be said of Arnold Schwarznegger early in his career). Sandahl Bergman is equal to Nielsen in her wooden performance as the evil Queen Gendren and the supporting cast fares no better. Schwarznegger has openly admitted this is the worst movie he has ever made — this is the same man who played the punning Mr. Freeze, Hercules in New York and a pregnant man in Junior.

Why is the score good? Somehow the producers were able to hire Ennio Morricone, among the greatest film composers of all time, who has created some of the most iconic film scores of all time. Where the acting and action of Red Sonja is lifeless and plodding Morricone’s music promises us adventure and excitement in step with Basil Poledouris’ score for 1982s Conan the Barbarian. Listening to the score in isolation one can imagine the film that could have been, where the music perfectly compliments the passion and energy of Sonja’s character and the scope of Robert E. Howard’s Hyboria on screen. Morricone’s musical hallmarks are done a disservice to be associated with this wreck.

Ennio Morricone, Red Sonja

Dune (1984)

Why is the movie bad? The notion of adapting Frank Herbert’s seminal, dense space opera novel into a single two hour film sounds absurd, and yet it happened. Where Alejandro Jodorowsky’s earlier attempt to film Dune had collapsed David Lynch took the creative reins under Dino De Laurentiis and his production company (who also incidentally produced Red Sonja). The result was a jumbled, incoherent mess with long expository voiceover from multiple narrators in an effort to unload the rich, detailed world building celebrated in Herbert’s writing. The producer’s intervention led to Lynch disowning the film and a critical drubbing upon it’s theatrical release. No subsequent attempts to adapt the novel have made it to the big screen, although there has been an unrelated TV miniseries and sequel made in 2000 and 2003, respectively.

Why is the score good? If Dune was ever going to be adapted for big screen again I could only imagine Toto providing the score. I hum the main theme, I whistle the main theme. When I hear the word ‘dune’ I immediately hear that Toto score and Brian Eno’s ‘Prophecy Theme’. A blend of electronic and orchestral composition, the music is quintessentially the planet Arrakis and its desert landscape — I cannot separate the two. Ambient soundscapes play alongside thundering beats, capturing the epic qualities of the Frank Herbert novel with the messianic ascent of his central character, Paul Atreides aka Paul Muad’Dib aka the Kwisatz Haderach. I’m not even a Toto fan.

Prologue/Main Theme — Toto, Dune

Judge Dredd (1995)

Why is the movie bad? In the translation from comic book page to feature film the understanding of who Judge Dredd is and what he represents is completely lost. In the movie Sylvester Stallone’s Dredd is depicted as a hardline yet honorable character, belonging to a police force that is inherently doing good for the citizens of Mega-City One — any notion of 2000 AD’s biting allegory and moral murkiness of their decades-spanning character is gone. The movie’s Dredd removes his helmet in the middle of the first act, the story carries an inconsistent tone throughout, and Rob Schneider co-stars as a ‘comedic’ criminal-turned-sidekick, only adding kindling to the bonfire.

Why is the score good? Like Red Sonja (which stars Stallone’s ex-wife, Brigitte Nielsen — movie connections galore) when Alan Silvestri’s score is isolated from its sub-par film I can connect back to the intentions of the original material. Listening to the music with a satirical bent the bombastic trumpets and militaristic motifs reflect the pomposity of Dredd’s character and his incorruptible loyalty to an oppressive, totalitarian system. In the same way Paul Verhoeven and his composer Basil Poledouris utilized music in RoboCop and Starship Troopers in a mockery of fascism, Silvestri communicates the subversive comic’s overriding themes and thinly-veiled subtext, something wholly absent in the live action adaptation.

Epilogue — Alan Silvestri, Judge Dredd

Alien 3 (1992)

Why is the movie bad? It doesn’t feel fair to call Alien 3 a bad movie, but in comparison to Ridley Scott’s atmospheric horror and James Cameron’s action sequel fans of the series view David Fincher’s installment and feature debut with ambivalence. The long development history of Alien 3, and the director’s personal horror struggling for creative control against 20th Century Fox during production, has become the subject of filmmaking infamy. In the end executive meddling and indecision led to the release of a dark and nihilistic film consumed in death, both thematically and character-wise, with the series protagonist Ripley seeing her demise in the finale. David Fincher disowned Alien 3 citing his experiences fighting with the studio.

Why is the score good? Elliot Goldenthal’s work is unmistakable in his style and techniques. Unlike the other films here Goldenthal’s first major work as a film composer is inseparable from the tone and themes explored in Alien 3 — his haunting compositions straddle between classical structure, dissonance and complex atonalities, creating a dichotomy between the human and the monstrous. Several pieces evoke a religious funeral dirge that perfectly compliments accompanying scenes, whereas others accentuate the cat and mouse chase between Ripley, the prison inmates and the deadly alien. The score enhances a film beset with behind-the-scenes chaos with aural ambition, intense emotion and creative dexterity. Where Alien 3 is viewed with mixed reception, the score from Goldenthal is near perfect.

Adagio — Elliot Goldenthal, Alien 3

There are many movies that fail to live up to our expectations, and yet there may be something that can soften the blow — something long after we’ve seen a movie that resonates with us. A tune can enter our consciousness from the aether of our minds and we can’t explain how it got there or where it came from. Then the connection clicks, and suddenly those bad movies have value. We find the silver lining.

Coming soon: The Last Refuge of a Screenwriter

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