Favorites: Ten Great Scores From Bad Movies

Here at 25YLSite, we handle a lot of heavy lifting. Analysis, interpretation, deep discussion, introspective interviews…you name it, we’ve got it. “Favorites” takes a lighter approach to the material we normally cover. Each week, we will take you through a list of favorites—whether its moments, scenes, episodes, characters, lines of dialogue, whatever!—in bite-sized articles perfect for your lunch break, a dull commute, or anywhere you need to take a Moment of Zen. So, sit back and enjoy this week’s offering: Jason Sheppard’s top scores from bad movies.


We’ve all seen bad movies in our lives but most of the time, we can pick out a quality or two about them that saves it from being a complete waste of time. It could be a single performance, a good scene or two, or it can be the music.

For this list, I have chosen ten great scores from many of cinema’s all-time greatest composers (Williams, Goldsmith, Jarre), who have delivered memorable, exciting, wonderful scores that stand head and shoulders above every other aspect of the movies they were in. So, while many of these movies may have been forgotten (or deserve to be), the music for them will always endure and perhaps find a new appreciative audience.

Dying Young (1991) Music by James Newton Howard

In the spring of 1991, Premiere magazine predicted that summer’s upcoming weeper Dying Young would be the season’s biggest box-office winner. Of course, history has now shown that they were way, way, way off. Today, Dying Young is the kind of movie that Hollywood would release in the box-office dump of mid-January and hope for the best. The movie starred Julia Roberts as Hillary O’Neil, a young care-free woman who answers a newspaper ad, placed by Campbell Scott, to be his caretaker/reason to live while he’s battling leukemia. It turns out that the only dying was audience’s patience and the movie’s chances of being a top box-office earner (it barely cracked the top ten).

So what exactly did Dying Young have going for it? Well, it had James Newton Howard’s score which is much better than the movie it was written for. Howard’s main theme for Dying Young features a virtuoso saxophone solo (performed with aplomb by Kenny G) integrated with a pop drum beat which demonstrates why Howard was the go-to arranger for everyone from Elton John to Celine Dion for many years. So sure, you may laugh at the thought of a Kenny G/Julia Roberts romance collaboration being anything even near good. You may think this is the kind of music you’d expect to hear inside a doctors office waiting area, but keep in mind, Ennio Morricone wrote his love theme for Cinema Paradiso in a much similar style.

And no, Dying Young may not be quite in that league, but it does deserve a second listen. It holds up pretty darn well. Standout Track: “Hillary’s Theme”

King Solomon’s Mines (1985) Music by Jerry Goldsmith

During the early to mid ’80s, there were many cheap-o Raiders of the Lost Ark rip-offs made which attempted to capture the success of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas’s adventure masterwork. One of these was J. Lee Thompson’s King Solomon’s Mines. While the company behind this project, the notoriously cheesy Cannon Films, skimped on story and production value, composer Jerry Goldsmith didn’t cheap out on the music—his score to King Solomon’s Mines ranks among his most inspired and lively. Of course, Goldsmith’s heroic brassy Alan Quartermain theme may not be as memorable or ear-worm catchy as Willliams’ Indy/Raiders theme, but it is certainly robust and heroic enough.

King Solomon’s Mines was actually written during a time when Goldsmith was experimenting in synthesized scores such as those for Gremlins and Supergirl so this output, written for a full orchestra (performed with gusto by the terrific Hungarian State Opera Orchestra) absolutely soars. While the movie was lambasted by critics, the musical sound and style Goldsmith created for it would be more praised 14 years later with 1999’s The Mummy. Standout Track: “No Sale”

Hook (1991) Music by John Williams

Remember back in the early ’80s how a John Williams scored movie would mean wall-to-wall non-stop glorious, action music? The entire last hours of Return of the Jedi and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom showed the composer at the height of his abilities in this area and no composer has been able to match Williams there since. It would be some time before Williams himself would return to the world on non-stop music storytelling for his films (with Star Wars: The Phantom Menace and Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone), as during the ’90s Williams took on more dramatic movies which used music sparingly (Presumed Innocent, JFK, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan).

That doesn’t mean Williams didn’t  jump back into the fun-house from time to time when the opportunity arose. Home Alone gave Williams the chance to score a real-life Looney-Tunes cartoon, and the year after that came Hook, Steven Spielberg’s ode to Peter Pan and finally growing up. Hook was a costly, muddled, hazy-looking, overly long slog with too many ideas in it and let’s not even mention the middle-aged men in wigs and tights. Of course, Williams as always elevates the material with a grand, robust, adventure score in the style of Korngold. The opening of Hook with its soft chimes, children’s and men’s choruses and flutes is lovely, but when Tinkerbell arrives to bring Peter back to Neverland, the music flitters, flutters and soars. Williams then introduces an absolute masterwork for the theme of Hook himself that can easily take a place alongside Williams’ own glorious “March of the Villains” from Superman. So while Hook the movie may resemble the equivalent of a messy cinematic food fight on screen (and Hook does have a food fight scene because why wouldn’t it?), its music will always remain extraordinary. It’s a Williams fan favorite and if you think about it, that truly is saying something. Standout Track: “The Ultimate War”

Days of Thunder (1990) Music by Hans Zimmer

More commonly referred to as the Tom Cruise race car movie or the movie where Tom met Nicole Kidman, Days of Thunder was every bit as loud and annoyingly plotted as Top Gun—it had the play-by-his-own-rules speed junkie (Cruise), the rival speed junkie (Michael Rooker), the dying friend (also Rooker), the educated, should-know-better hottie woman who takes up with the speed-loving rule-breaker, and it had the wise, old mentor (Robert Duvall). However there is one aspect to this movie that is different from its originator—the  rip-roaring, rock-arena style musical score by Hans Zimmer.

Zimmer wrote for Cruise an anthem (known as Cole’s theme); a simple Morricone-like western guitar riff that dominates the soundtrack with heavy electric guitar, pounding drums and soaring synths. In fact, it’s pretty much the type of sound Zimmer would use many years later for Superman, which during the better part of the 1990s, was pretty much Tom Cruise himself. But it’s not all ear-splitting loudness. Zimmer’s love theme is similar in style to many of his charming early ’90s scores such as Green Card (one of my all-time favorites) and Driving Miss Daisy, and if you really pay attention, you can hear elements of his African-inspired work which he was incorporating into his scores at the time. A few  years later, he utilized this style most famously and triumphantly for The Lion King.

Without a doubt, Days of Thunder is prime Zimmer. Standout track: “The Last Race

Casper (1995) Music by James Horner

1995 was probably the single most prolific year for James Horner with six movies scored by the very in-demand composer. These included three huge projects released within a single month during that year’s early summer blockbuster season: Braveheart, Apollo 13 and Casper.

While the first two titles went on to earn acclaim, audience and critical approval (and even a certain coveted gold statue for Mr. Horner), the forgotten middle stepchild (or step ghost), Casper, quickly evaporated from audiences’ memories.

You’d think Horner would have been fresh out of ideas and energy at this point, but Casper actually features some of the most energetic, enjoyable, comedic, lovely and—forgive me for this—spirited music the composer has written.

Flute, harp, clarinet, chimes and most tenderly, a piano for Casper himself all prominently feature.  There’s even a children’s choir which emphasizes the growing friendship between Casper and his human friend, Kat (Christina Ricci) as “Casper’s Lullaby” might be one of the strongest tear-inducing film themes showcasing a bond between a lonely being and a human since John Williams “E.T. and Me.”

It’s all the more remarkable that Horner wrote this beautiful,  comedic, tender, lively score while simultaneously deep into composing the music to Braveheart and Apollo 13.  All I can say is that wherever you are, James, we dearly miss you. Standout track: “Casper’s Lullaby

Indecent Proposal (1993) Music by John Barry

 

With 007 long behind him and an Oscar recently in his palms for Dances With Wolves, composer John Barry turned his attention to lush, romantic, dramatic scores during the early ’90s and would remain there until his passing.

In 1993, Barry was chosen by director Adrian Lyne to write the music for his absurd big-budget, weepie Indecent Proposal; the story of a down-on-their-luck couple (Woody Harrelson, Demi Moore) who gamble their marriage away as he hands her off to billionaire Robert Redford for what they imagine is one night but you know, things happen and the down-on-their luck couple becomes a down-on-his-luck single guy.

The movie was a surprise box-office hit in the spring of 1993, and while some reviewers (notably the team responsible for the Razzies) remarked that Barry’s Indecent Proposal music was as “sickly sappy as can be imagined,” fans of Barry’s felt differently—fans of Barry’s tender melodies were in for a treat.

Even the classy Barry incorporates one of this movie’s themes (the couple theme) into a song (performed by singer Lisa Stansfield) with the suggestively titled “In All The Right Places”  and damn if it doesn’t have that marvelous old Barry/Bond sound and feel to it. Standout Track: “Main Title

Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004) Music by Thomas Newman

 

One of Thomas Newman’s fullest and richest scores of recent years is every bit as wondrous and playful as his Finding Nemo score even while the movie itself is pretty dour. The music written for Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events runs the gambit from Gothic chiller to frenzied fantasy to Disney cartoon. Newman’s scores are often bursting with ideas and Lemony Snicket is popping.

Basically, if you’re one of the many film score lovers who marvel at the early Danny Elfman/Tim Burton collaborations and wonder who is writing like that anymore, the answer is right here: his name is Thomas Newman and he is one of the coolest names in the game. Standout track: “The Letter That Never Came

Moon Over Parador (1988) Music by Maurice Jarre

 

Out of the movies on this list, Moon Over Parador shouldn’t actually be considered a “bad” movie by any means, as it’s a decent adult farce with some terrific performances—the kind of movie which would never see the light of a multiplex today. Then again, this movie only earned a 42 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and only $11 million back of it’s $20 million budget.

The reason I include this forgotten movie here is the score by Maurice Jarre, which is a joyous, flamboyant, outrageous blend of Spanish, Jamaican, Mediterranean flavors that instantly creates a smile on the listener’s face. The tango is truly alive here, as are most of the musical ideas pouring out throughout Jarre’s heart and mind.

What’s remarkable is that this score is so unlike what Jarre was creating during this period, which was mainly moody, ambient synthesized works for such movies like The Mosquito Coast, Fatal Attraction and No Way Out. I almost wonder if mid-80s Danny Elfman inhabited the French composer’s soul for a brief period because I think it’s an odd circumstance that this whirlwind of a score was released less than a month after Elfman’s dynamic Midnight Run.

Ah, who knows and why complain? Just close your eyes, listen and imagine yourself in a tropical clime far away. C’est exceptionnelle! Standout track: “Flyaway

Spies Like Us (1985) Music by Elmer Bernstein

Again, not really a “bad” movie. I mean, I always laugh while watching it. But it very well might be the last good movie associated with John Landis or Chevy Chase (not including Christmas Vacation, of course).

This 1985, fish-in-the-CIA, fish-in-the-desert, fish-in-the-Russian-arctic spy caper starred Dan Aykroyd and Chevy Chase as two hapless CIA decoys sent into the middle of a covert operation by Washington pinheads. These two are there so that the real CIA operatives (whoever or wherever they are) can carry out their mission before the Russians kill them. Wow. Remember when Washington and Russia didn’t much like each other? These days real life is funnier than the comedic spy movies of the 1980s.

Spies Like Us was released the year after Ghostbusters, and although this movie isn’t even remembered alongside that classic comedy, they do both share another aspect—both were scored by the admirable Elmer Bernstein. who delivers a wonderfully comedic score where different cues work perfectly with the globe-crossing aspects of the story. Bernstein even composes an ode to Jarre’s Lawrence of Arabia. which for once stands as an heir instead of the parody that so many comedies have lazily relied on over the decades. I dare say it, Spies Like Us is quite perhaps an even more enjoyable and richer score than Ghostbusters, and once you’ve heard it, you might even agree. Standout track: Escape

Curly Sue (1991) Music by Georges Delerue

1991’s schlub/dirty orphan comedy Curly Sue starring Jim Belushi did terribly at the box office and quickly faded from theaters, but the movie is notable for two reasons: it was very sadly the last film the brilliant John Hughes would ever direct, and it was also one of the final movies the esteemed French composer Georges Delerue would ever compose the music for.

Earlier that year, Delerue had his score for Regarding Henry scrapped by Director Mike Nichols and was quickly replaced by Hans Zimmer; the reason being was that his score was deemed too downbeat.

Delerue would not make that mistake with Curly Sue, which incorporates the whimsical classic sound of his Francois Truffaut youth movies; this time for a young street urchin (Alison Porter) with long curly red locks. Delerue composes a gingerly theme for young Curly Sue with his typical use of warm melodic strings, flutes and chimes. Be warned before buying this soundtrack though: Warner Bros. had to include several very dated rap tracks on the disc in between Delerue’s lovely score—not at the end. Standout Track: “Yacht Club Swing


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