One of the small joys of seeing a successful film can be the seamless way in which the soundtrack complements the images and dialogue on screen. Whether an original score, re-purposed compositions from elsewhere, or a collection of classic or contemporary pop songs, many great films have been elevated by the music they’ve utilized. Think of Bernard Hermann’s brilliantly jarring score for Vertigo; the way in which Trainspotting underscored key moments via the songs of Lou Reed and Underworld; McCabe and Mrs. Miller‘s anachronistic yet spot-on use of Leonard Cohen; and Spike Lee choosing Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” to open Do the Right Thing.
What follows is a list of instances where that perfect blend of music and film hasn’t been achieved — where terrific songs have found their way into a thoroughly flawed film, for instance, or where a not-entirely-successful experiment in pacing and tone nonetheless is bolstered by a selection of majestic songs.
Given that the protagonist of 2009’s Crazy Heart — one Bad Blake, played by Jeff Bridges — is a veteran country singer, it’s no surprise that the film is suffused with music. The original songs heard in the film make for its most memorable moments, lyrically speaking to its characters’ long histories and sung and performed with just the right amount of regret. They feel thoroughly lived-in — a tone that the film unfortunately can’t sustain when a wholly predictable plot kicks in.
Lars von Trier’s 2000 film Dancer in the Dark is uncomfortable to watch, attempting to find some sort of stylistic middle ground between the flights of fancy embodied in the classic movie-musical form and a much more dour kitchen-sink realism. That realism gives way to melodrama, which in turn gives way to a relentlessly contrived domestic tragedy that never rings true on any level. Still, the lead performance by Björk — and her accompanying album of songs from the film, Selmasongs — are both fantastic.
Whether or not 2006’s The Departed is better than the film it remade is a question for an entirely different top ten list. And — much like at least one more movie that will appear on this list — this is a case of a film that seems most flawed when compared with the bulk of its director’s body of work. By any other standards, this would be a fine, bleak, nasty crime drama. Given that the source material (the 2002 film Infernal Affairs) is fantastic and the director is Martin Scorsese, the bar for The Departed was already set high — and most of its thrills come from the soundtrack (featuring the Rolling Stones and Dropkick Murphys) rather than the milieu of corruption and violence depicted onscreen.
Jim Jarmusch is a director with nearly impeccable instincts when it comes to his film soundtracks: from Broken Flowers‘ use of the music of Mulatu Astatke to Neil Young’s improvised guitar work for Dead Ma. The Limits of Control is no different, and though the film, a surreal thriller that occasionally feels more like an exercise in stylized tones and repeated actions, never entirely clicks, the soundtrack — featuring the likes of Boris and Earth — is utterly majestic.
The 1999 film Ravenous, directed by Antonia Bird and starring Guy Pearce and Robert Carlyle, is a bleak and occasionally surreal work contrasting cannibalism with the notion of Manifest Destiny. Its tone and weight never entirely click, but the score, written by Blur’s Damon Albarn and the minimalist composer Michael Nyman, is beguiling — sometimes evoking the nineteenth-century frontier setting, sometimes summoning the film’s more surreal tendencies. (And it’s prompted some admirers, including the musician behind this ingeniously assembled cover.)
The Coen Brothers’ 2004 remake of the 1955 film The Ladykillers boasts two astonishingly good comic performances, from Tom Hanks and Irma P. Hall. The rest of the movie is wildly uneven, relying heavily on moments that weren’t particularly funny to begin with — one plot point involves a character’s Irritable Bowel Syndrome, for instance. (In retrospect, it seems like a stylistic dry run for the Coens’ much more successful Burn After Reading.) Periodically, though, the plot stops in its tracks for some thrilling and utterly compelling gospel performances, which are arguably the high point of the film.
Alex Proyas’s 1994 adaptation of James O’Barr’s comic book The Crow featured one of the best examples of the alt-rock-oriented soundtracks that were nearly ubiquitous in the mid-1990s. (Another: the Lou Barlow-heavy soundtrack to 1995’s Kids.) The mood of The Crow‘s soundtrack — not surprisingly — was brooding, weighty, and textured, with contributions from the likes of The Cure, Helmet, Pantera, and The Jesus and Mary Chain. The highlight, though: Nine Inch Nails covering Joy Division’s “Dead Souls.”
Sometimes, the mid-’90s alt-rock soundtrack could lead to deeply surreal juxtapositions of music. Consider 1995’s Batman Forever, in which Massive Attack, Method Man, PJ Harvey, and Seal all make appearances. And if you were a diehard Sunny Day Real Estate fan, craving more music from them after their acclaimed 1994 debut Diary, you might have sought this album out for no other reason than the appearance of their song “8.” It is, admittedly, breathtakingly good — and can’t be heard at all in the film itself.
Like Scorsese and Jarmusch, Olivier Assayas has nearly impeccable instincts when it comes to his use of pop music — the way Clean incorporates Brian Eno’s “Spider and I” (or Carlos makes use of New Order’s “Dreams Never End”) could be used in a master class on the subject. His 2002 film Demonlover loses itself in a circling series of corporate plots and role reversals, but the soundtrack from Sonic Youth is appropriately unsettling.
Technically, the soundtrack to Brotherman wins over its film on a technicality: as the liner notes from The Numero Group’s 2008 reissue of this album mention, the cinematic version of Brotherman itself was never completed. Recorded in the mid-1970s by a Chicago group (unfortunately named The Final Solution), Brotherman is a dense, atmospheric collection of R & B songs, anchored by rapid-fire guitar and layers of vocal harmonies.