Great Music, Bad Movie: What soundtracks rise above their films?

daft-punk-pressImage Credit: Kevin LynchTRON: Legacy left me feeling pretty underwhelmed when I saw it opening night in December. (I wasn’t alone: EW’s Owen Gleiberman gave the film a B, and it currently has an unhealthy 49 rating over on Metacritic.) However, I am positively addicted to the TRON: Legacy soundtrack by French techno-gods Daft Punk. It’s a fine addition to an intriguing cinematic canon: Soundtracks that are much, much better than their own movies. Can you think of any others?

I have to point out that I literally listen to the TRON: Legacy soundtrack all the time — at work, at the gym, on the subway. When I’m stressed out and need music that will inspire me like an Al Pacino halftime speech, I turn my frail laptop speakers as high as they can go and blast one of Legacy‘s more action-heavy tracks: “Recognizer,” say, or “The Game Has Changed.” But the soundtrack also has some plenty of fun, even party-worthy tracks (like “Derezzed”), not to mention the truly epic main theme.

In short, Daft Punk’s soundtrack vividly emboadies a whole assortment of emotional states that the actual movie didn’t really come close to capturing. That’s a common thread when it comes to great soundtracks for not-so-great movies. Just look at Jerry Goldsmith’s incredible music for Star Trek: The Motion Picture — the composer creates an energizing sense of galactic adventure that is mostly lacking in the film’s staid, colorless narrative.

Maybe bad sci-fi movies just bring out the best in their composers: Danny Boyle’s Sunshine was an interesting failure, but John Murphy’s score is simultaneously mournful and exciting. Some soundtracks seem to hint at what failed films could have been: Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy felt unnecessarily stagy, especially compared to Danny Elfman’s jazzy Batman-ish score and Steven Sondheim’s original songs.

And sometimes, a great soundtrack seems to be created almost in opposition to its film: To Live and Die in L.A. seems in theory like a sober (and rote) cop drama, but the soundtrack by Wang Chung takes the film into astronomical, only-in-the-’80s territory. To me, though, the biggest disparity in movie-to-soundtrack quality is Superman: The Movie. The 1978 superhero film isn’t terrible, but it’s also not great — I’ll take the gonzo sequel any day. (Hey, if you want to love a movie that features Superman traveling back in time by circling the Earth, it’s a free country.) John Williams’ score for the first Superman, though, is one of his very best, especially the gorgeous main theme, which feels like pure sonic heroism.

PopWatchers, do you have any other favorite soundtracks that come from meh movies? Feel free to add in non-score compilations, too: I’m not sure I’ve ever actually laughed at The Wedding Singer, but it’s fun watching the movie just to listen to a parade of ’80s songs.

Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich

Comments (263 total) Add your comment
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  • RT

    “The Big Chill.” Dreadful, dreadful movie. Great songs on the soundtrack, though.

    • Britt

      agreed. I keep the soundtrack in my car, never actually made it all the way through the film.

    • Untitled

      I agree that The Big Chill has an outstanding soundtrack, but I actually really liked the movie.

    • Kim E

      Hate to bring up Twilight, but New Moon and Eclipse have excellent soundtracks. Especially New Moon with a song called Roslyn by Bon Iver and St Vincent, one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard.

      • Josie

        Possibility is also an amazing song related to the twilight franchise. I think it’s Lykke Li

      • Carrie

        I have to agree. The “Twilight” movies are pretty mediocre, but the soundtracks are fantastic, especially for NM and “Eclipse”. I believe the “Eclipse” soundtrack was nominated for a Grammy.

      • Ruby

        Don’t forget Muse. Still can’t believe they agreed to do those soundtracks…

      • Bobby’s Robot

        Agreed. I’d also add Million Dollar Hotel by U2

      • PMD

        YES! The Twilight soundtracks are amazing… The movies and books aren’t great, but honestly the last soundtrack – New Moon? – was amazing! The song by the Editors was amazing. So many great artists – Sea Wolf – and great songs!!

      • MattyWillWinSeason23

        Literally the 1st movie series I thought of.

      • Jeanne

        I have to agree with this. I’ve not seen the movie, but the New Moon soundtrack is great. In addition to the ones mentioned already there’s OK Go, it’s a great song.

    • LOL

      “Less than Zero” soundtrack was popular.

      • D.B.

        Yeah, but “Less Than Zero” was a pretty decent film. Not as good as the book, but still not horrible.

    • Mark

      I’ll admit The Big Chill hasn’t aged well, but it was great when it was first released. And that soundtrack is still the best way to introduce young kids to sixties music.

    • Erin

      All of the Twilight movies. The movies are not that great, but th esoundtracks are incredible!! I own all three. The only reason Im excited for Breaking Down(Which should be any where from freaky to awful or both)is for the soundtrack.

      • Kim E

        I agree, only waiting for soundtracks.

    • Erin

      Sorry, two typos in there– Dawn not Down and the soundtracks, not th esoundtracks.

      • Zack

        who gives a fkuc

    • Fingerlakes Dave

      ‘The Big Chill’ is a dreadful movie? Not the last time I checked. Nominated Best Picture, 1983, Best Supporting Actress, Best original Screenplay.

      • Fingerlakes Dave

        Oh, and also one of my favorites

      • samuels

        The Big Chill is an amazing film. The merging of the music selections with the storyline was genius!

    • Mikey M

      One of my favorite movies. How can you not like a film so rich in dialogue and great performances. Not enough action in it for you?

    • JP

      Love the Big Chill and love the soundtrack too. Always think of it when “I Heard It On The Grape Vine” pops on and how I wish it woulda beat out Terms of Endearment that year for Best Picture. . .

      • JP

        Through the grape vine* ; ). . . Have had a bit too much of that grape WINE at this point hehe

    • Chaddogg

      I’d disagree with Big Chill being a “bad” movie.

      If you want “bad” movies with great soundtracks — “A Life Less Ordinary.” Weird, arguably terrible movie….with a weird, eclectic, arguably excellent soundtrack.

  • Steve

    I just bought the Tron: Legacy soundtrack yesterday – good stuff so far!

    • ajmalzx

      Hells yeah, listening to TRON sountrack makes me want to watch the film, then I watch the film and felt… disappointed.

  • House of Wax Remake

    THE HOUSE OF WAX remake

    had a My CHemical Romance SONGONIT

  • Padraig

    I loved Superman: The Movie, but I do agree with you about the score – to me, it’s the best that ever was.

    • BG 17

      The Superman score is epic in the true sense of the word. I think that Bryan Singer created the whole Superman Returns debacle just so he could resurrect it…

    • Carrie

      I agree. I loved the movie and the score is unforgettable.

      • Helenann

        Got it in my head right now, just after reading this! LOL. Now THAT, sir, is how you make music that lasts.

  • Daniel F

    Glad to hear I’m not the only one who didn’t like SUNSHINE, Darren.

    SPEED RACER, which most everyone hated, has a great score by Michael Giacchino.

    • Will

      I thought Sunshine was great

      • tvgirl48

        I thought Sunshine was great, but it did veer into a totally different direction in the final act. It’s a shame, though, since the soundtrack is beautiful. The theme is getting used everywhere now.

      • amah

        The Sunshine soundtrack is one of my faves of all time. Danny Boyle movies always have awesome soundtracks- starting with Shallow Grave, Trainspotting, etc. I love the movie, too- I thought it was gorgeous. I usually allow myself to fall asleep for the last 20-30 minutes or so I can forget the “twist,” although I enjoy the final shot.

    • Mary

      Agreed! But then again everything Michael Giacchino puts together is solid gold.

      • MsSuniDaze

        Totally. I have many Michael Giacchino songs on my iPod.

      • Anna

        i agree. Giacchino is absolutely brilliant

    • maya

      I liked Speed Racer.

    • Mallory

      Sunshine is one of my favorite movies. It was beautiful and thought-provoking. And the score was amazing.

      • amah

        Yes.

  • Erin

    Queen of the Damned. Horrible, cheesy movie, but excellent soundtrack.

    • Baxter D

      Love it. Best soundtrack EVER.

      • Glenda

        Mega agree!!!

  • Sonny

    Never heard of ‘em.

  • Rebec

    Last Days of Disco

  • Will

    “The City of Angels” soundtrack dominated my household my household for quite sometime…the movie itself…well, all I remember is that Meg-Ryan-logger-truck scene

    • Will

      oops, remove one of those “my household”s

    • laura

      Horrid movie. Excellent soundtrack. U2, Alanis Morissette, and Goo Goo Dolls? 90’s nostalgia…

      • Peter

        Peter Gabriel. I’m not sure how he got talked into that one.

    • V

      I agree! I have this soundtrack but I didn’t care for the movie. I really thought I was the only one!

    • MsSuniDaze

      Agreed. Awesome soundtrack!

  • lunaburning

    Down In The Valley. The movie was alright, but the soundtrack was killer. It’s actually the only movie soundtrack that I’ve been compelled to buy.

    • Kim E

      Yes, love Mazzy Star!

  • Bobby F

    Love Reality Bites soundtrack. Or are we only talking about scores?

    • 90s girl

      I was hoping someone would bring up Reality Bites! Incredible soundtrack, everyone I knew had it at the time. Tried to rewatch the movie the other day and it’s nigh unwatchable…slacker/hipster badness in abundance! Empire Records is in a similar category.

  • DJ Jazzy Jeff

    The Ethan Hawke/Gwyneth Paltrow version of “Great Expectations” had a haunting soundtrack from a group called Mono.

    I also loved “Magnolia.” Aimee Mann. Wow.

    • PMD

      Ok I liked this movie – but the soundtrack far surpassed the movie. I love that song by Mono. I still listen to the soundtrack!

  • clio

    Great Expectations. Fantastic soundtrack—I still listen to a lot of it now. But man that was a lousy movie.

    • Krist

      Funny, I was just about to comment with that choice.

  • katy

    200 Cigarettes. I couldn’t even get through the whole movie, but the soundtrack is full of gems.

  • Mike

    The Fountain comes to mind. That movie was unfocused and poorly executed, but Clint Mansell’s score was haunting in that movie.

    • Adam

      The Last Kiss. A great Zach Braff-inspired soundtrack, but not nearly as good as Garden State.

      • Anitamargarita

        I’ll second Last Kiss. Have the soundtrack, love it. Won’t ever watch the movie again.

    • Fingerlakes Dave

      I’ll second The Fountain.

    • Mallory

      I loved The Fountain, but a lot of people I know didn’t like it. But the score is so beautiful!

      • mmk4

        I’m with you Mallory. I love the movie a lot, but even I admit that the score is probably the best part. Actually, as a rule, I always look forward to Mansell scored movies…even when they’re less than great.

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