When millions of dollars get put into a movie, we like to be able to tell; while we still may have loved Guardians of the Galaxy if it had been made in James Gunn’s basement with puppets and a live Motown band, it wouldn’t have been quite the same. We got a great finished product from the ground up. Yet the industry often notices only half of that equation: while no truly great movies have been made from a bad script, how many times have bad scripts had millions of dollars pumped into them? Mega-budgets cover everything from marketing to meetings over cocktails…and somewhere in there are music and sound. Even though a movie may be dumb and we may be furious at what we are seeing onscreen, part of the reason the screen evokes any response at all is what we are hearing. So let’s seek solace in the warm corner that is the soundtrack, while the deep, dark murky caves of this year’s letdown films close in around us. Here are some of the greatest soundtracks from some of the not-so-great movies of the year.
POTENTIAL SPOILERS FOR ANY OF THE FILMS LISTED HERE.
1. Sin City: A Dame to Kill For
There’s a lot of speculation why the sequel to the awesome Sin City wasn’t successful. Was is it the dead time in between films? The style not feeling fresh anymore? Or was it simply just not a good movie? No matter what the case, audiences realized Sin City was a place only appealing on your first visit. But from a production standpoint it was primarily still full of the vibe we knew, and a large part of that is from director Robert Rodriguez returning to the composer’s chair and continuing to deliver his vision through music. While A Dame To Kill For posits that maybe one guy shouldn’t do everything (we’re looking at you, Frank Miller) it is also solid proof that it is possible to change roles and still be the right man for the job.
Rodriguez shares soundtrack duties with Carl Thiel, a frequent collaborator on nearly everything in the Rodriguez circle since 2002’s Spy Kids 2. The gritty gloss that grew dangerously close to tiresome on film in A Dame To Kill For is conversely a crucial element to the soundtrack. When the drums and guitars are in full force, it’s not hard to envision a black and white car chase. When things bottom out and the strings take over we are rushed to the lush pockets of the film’s palette. We get street jazz, rock n’ roll, orchestral music – some that’s just plain creepy – but it is all undeniably in and of the world it helps create.
Standout Track: “Dr. Kroenig”
Just as the look of Sin City is instantly recognizable, so is most of the music. The approach from the musicians in both films is one that captures the grimy crime-laced noir it accompanies. However, in the tune “Dr. Kroenig,” a smaller approach is taken (close to Birdman, actually) where the drums take center stage and create the pulse that drives the scene. There is more instrumentation here than just drums, but it feels like a small ensemble rather than a full orchestra. It’s also a lighter side of the music that we’ve heard from the series, and the differences are refreshing. Besides, it accompanies Christopher Lloyd’s scene. This is rarely a bad thing.
2. Dracula Untold
I don’t know how many of us were rooting for this movie, but I’ll admit a fun, crazy, over-the-top take on a classic monster could have been entertaining. Unfortunately Dracula Untold was victim of taking itself way too seriously. The dread permeated every element of the production (soundtrack included). The intro was a straight homage (or ripoff) to the intro of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, a film which also featured its fair share of dread. But that was also laced with psychedelia, sex, Gary Oldman and bloody wolves chasing you through some blue inferno. Dracula Untold was only laced with leather. And tears.
But…hold the phone! This was scored by Ramin Djawadi, composer for Game of Thrones, Iron Man and Pacific Rim! And Pacific Rim is the key to appreciating this soundtrack’s brilliance. Imagine you got drunk and had a really really good time with a mayor or somebody in power. The next day, you see that person on TV being mayor-like. Don’t you point at the TV, laugh, and say “Ha! This guy is funny, you should have seen him do the trick with the lampshade!” That’s kind of how Ramin Djawadi is with Dracula Untold. He’s taking himself really seriously, but dammit if Pacific Rim wasn’t such a good time that it’s hard to take off the cheesy fun filter – the same one Dracula Untold would have benefited from using.
Grandiose orchestral sweeps and driving percussion makes up the majority of the tracks, giving us the most traditional soundtrack on this list. You are supposed to feel a lot of emotion here. If you don’t, that’s understandable. But throw on a cheesy movie of your choice to go with this soundtrack and there is a good chance you will find some hilarity in there. And this is of no fault to the music itself. It serves the film stupendously, and is a prime example of a great soundtrack holding up a movie that just doesn’t hold up.
This is one of the main pieces, and is exactly what I am talking about. Feel! Feel! Feel!
While also sporting some cheese factor, this one also offers interesting elements like the choral chant, the jagged, driving rhythm and coolest of all: the sound of piano strings struck with a drumstick. Michael Kamen used this trick in the first X-Men film as well, when Wolverine first wakes up and is ripping off the diodes from his body as he runs through the basement halls of the school. Quit looking at naked Hugh Jackman and pay attention next time.
Christopher Nolan headed an all-star team of actors and filmmakers with this year’s most ambitious space epic not starring Rocket and Groot. It promised to take us on a journey we’ve only dreamed of, and it would do so with some of the most advanced movie magic we’ve ever seen. It also had Matthew McConaughey fresh off of True Detective, maybe the best performance of his career. It wasn’t hard to watch the trailer and want to see more, even though we had little clue what kind of movie this actually was.
Then, when we finally saw it, the film asked questions that anybody who has pondered the universe for ten seconds has asked. Instead of offering any real answers, it gave us a story with a forced twist and too many tedious details. It was heady when it should have been grounded, grounded when it should have been daring, and busy when it should have flowed.
But Hans Zimmer. The man. He’s one of ‘the greats’ in terms of film composers and Interstellar gave us some of his most gorgeous and haunting music yet. When the film was drifting into 2001: A Space Odyssey territory, Zimmer was right there with it. When we needed a fresh, original vibe for the film to be itself, he designed an auditory experience that easily became one of the year’s definitive IMAX experiences. Overall the soundtrack was a great blend of classic and new sounds that helped create some of the “intermittently stellar” moments.
The low synths and shrieking strings are an example of Zimmer taking classic, timeless sounds and using his style to create something unique. This approach, when done right, is a great way to ensure your piece also REMAINS timeless.
The “ticking” is chilling. The pulse is maddening. The release is nearly depressurizing. Which is appropriate, because Matt Damon’s character knows a thing or two about the perils of depressurization. (Though his Glass Helmet Headbutt technique may indicate otherwise.)
Speaking of Christopher Nolan, if you are a fan of his cinematic look than you are by default a fan of Transcendence director Wally Pfister, Nolan’s go-to Director of Photography. Johnny Depp divides audiences as much as Nolan does, but he is not incapable of a good performance. Slap on some old “computers are bad, playing God is bad” sci-fi tropes (along with the trope of making it as “real” as possible) and you’ve got at the very least a compelling pitch and trailer. The problem was there just wasn’t much else to it. The parts that stood out were just heavy-handed echoes of Lawnmower Man and Tron.
However, Mychael Danna (Life of Pi, Little Miss Sunshine) delivered perhaps the soundtrack of his career. There is restraint everywhere, and when he squeezes in on an intense moment it he really makes it count. But just as the film covers ground that Tron kind of already did, we are given a chance to compare what Danna and Daft Punk do from almost the same starting point:
In this tune, “Get Off The Grid,” Danna sets the stage and brings in the energy with building percussion.
Meanwhile, on Daft Punk’s “The Grid,” we are given almost exactly the same sounds and mood, albeit with a different groove and for a different film entirely.
This may not have been intentional but I find it immensely interesting. Even at its high points, Transcendence is simply a hodge-podge of ideas we’ve already seen. Regardless, most of Danna’s score carries the weight that the movie requires it to, and if you are looking to not smile for about an hour you could pick a far worse soundscape to jam to.
“Why Are You So Afraid Of This?”
That jumping wooden sound is from a marimba, and the tribal feel it evokes blends perfectly with the drum. Add in that BRAAHHM and some sporadic strings and you’ve got yourself a great piece of music that…transcends the film itself.
Director Bong Joon Ho fought producer Harvey Weinstein long and hard to get his version of the film released here in the States, and the fact that we saw the movie at all should be celebrated. It’s a great underdog story, and after being told we would never see his version, we finally got what we wanted. And then some of us left the theater feeling guilty for thinking, “I’m curious what Harvey Weinstein’s version would have been like.”
Marco Beltrami is no stranger to scoring, and most of us are no stranger to some of his bigger claims to fame: The Scream series, Resident Evil, Blade II, and Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines to name a few. However, Snowpiercer‘s aesthetic required different shades than these, and he rose to the occasion wonderfully. It gave the industrial edge when it complemented the setting, but wasn’t scared to dive into sterile tones that contrasted in a way that worked. The story may have been a thinly veiled metaphor, but the scenes that did carry weight featured some of the best film scoring of the year.
The theme in this one was used elsewhere in the film, and I’m not sure where exactly this piece was used. While you’re yelling at me for not loving Snowpiercer, maybe you can tell me. But in the music we get one of those moments when the industrial, synthetic flair meshes nicely with some of the organic instruments used. And that intensity builds masterfully.
This was during a club scene, but it was one of the times when we saw the change from gritty gray train as the story…slowly…picked up speed. That fade out after the beat stops ushers us right back in to melancholy (I believe Chris Evans is crying within 30 seconds of this song ending), but in the context of the song by itself it’s a trick that does its job with some class.
While we’re here, I’ll fan the flames a bit and say that Tilda Swinton’s fake teeth felt like this year’s Johnny Depp Dead Bird Hat- a decision made by the actor that ultimately became a distraction rather than an addition to the character.
Scarlett Johansson in a film from Luc Besson, director of The Fifth Element, Leon: The Professional, and La Femme Nikita. This was enough to get me to watch it, but from the trailers I admit I didn’t have high hopes. It wasn’t boring, that much is certain, but its premise wasn’t buyable. I’m not asking for realism, but the set of rules we are sold was simply not in our budget. The stakes and solutions were haphazard, and when it wasn’t sporadic it was stiff. There’s only so much complaining a guy can do after watching Scarlett Johansson kick ass for a few hours, but even that wears thin as soon as she starts levitating and twitching her head with knowledge overload.
Eric Serra worked on Goldeneye as well as the other Besson joints listed above. He delivered quality as always (listen to La Femme Nikita. Dated, yes, but the quality is there.) The majority of the films listed on here have blended electronic and symphonic elements, and Lucy is no different. But this one may do it best. It’s a smooth blend of ambience, grooves, and the kind of emotions you feel genuinely – as opposed to ones you are told to feel like with Dracula Untold. There isn’t even a low point on the record, while most of these others still have tracks that are very skippable. For these reasons I feel comfortable saying Lucy is my favorite soundtrack on this list.
This track oozes class. It’s subtle but has abrasive moments, and its restrained when most of the action in this movie was balls to the wall. It’s a good representation of the reasons I like album so much.
Gorillaz and Blur frontman Damon Albarn contributed this track for the end credits, but the little drum intro is used throughout the actual score. It made the song tie together nicely with the rest of the music. Albarn’s lyrics kind get a little meta (“just you and me, waiting for the credits to end”), but his orchestral approach and his use of film-appropriate sounds made this a track worth mentioning.
These stories of computers becoming all powerful was a trend this year. Take a look at the trailer for this film, called App, in which all hell breaks loose because the lead character does what the script says and downloads an evil app on her otherwise blemish-free iPhone. I bet the soundtrack is badass.
There is no substitute for a well-written story, and too many times we leave movies talking about how great it looked but how dumb it was. But as humans, our arts are complicated. Removing something powerful like music and forcing it to stand on its own is really only opening up the music to new interpretation. Greatness can be found in more places than the surface of movies, and if you listen you can sometimes hear some incredible performances from some of our era’s best composers and musicians. Just don’t expect to find it in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Also by Bryce Abood: