6 Ways Movie Scores and Soundtracks Go Horribly Wrong

Sound board, by Stephen Niemeier

Movie scores and soundtracks are an integral part of the movie experience. When they work right, just a few bars of the theme song or a key part of the soundtrack, brings us back memories of the film itself. But for every auteur carefully assembling, timing and tuning a soundtrack that speaks to us, and for every composer who’s created scores that can move us and thrill us decades later, there are people hastily throwing together soundtracks of ill-matched top 40, or scores that sound just like the last four scores they did (we’re looking at you, Hans Zimmer). So here are a few of our biggest music in movies pet peeves. 

We hate when movie scores and soundtracks…

1. Plagiarize

John Williams is often accused of ripping off composers of “classical music,” as though those guys weren’t all ripping each other off (when they weren’t using melodies from folk songs). The real problem isn’t taking inspiration from other pieces of music, or even intentionally invoking and alluding to them (see “The Imperial March” and Holst’s “Mars”). The real problem is when someone just straight up steals a musical phrase and drops it in untransformed.

James Horner’s soundtrack for Troy was a rush job, but I remember sitting in the theatre as the notes from a trumpet feature from Shostakovich No. 5 began to play (try listening to each song independently as they don’t quite match up). There are forums full of these examples, but that one is definitely the most egregious in my memory. Shok 5 is such a distinct, oft-performed symphony (I’ve performed it twice) that is wholly removed from what was happening on the screen that it completely disrupted my viewing. I mean, the movie wasn’t great on its own, but this didn’t help.

—Kat Overland

2. Are Basically Racist

The second can be best summed up by the “Oriental riff” that haunts ’80s pop music, racist joke set-ups in sitcoms, and anywhere else “otherness” must be evoked (see also: “The Streets of Cairo,” or the “Poor Little Country Maid”). But even beyond obviously racist cliché, there are other, more subtle ways that generally white, Anglo composers try to evoke “exotic” locales. This has led, generally, to composers trading leit motifs back and forth, rarely collaborating with musicians and composers from the region. That’s why you can listen to a track like Hans Zimmer’s “Singapore” from Pirates of the Caribbean 3: At World’s End and, without context, know that whatever scene in the film it goes to is set in Asia. But it’s also why there’s no way to differentiate where in Asia you’re supposed to envision.

Are there certain evocative sounds for locations? Certainly, and integrating non-Western scales, instruments, and choirs isn’t immediately a bad choice. But when certain tones become lazy shorthand for other countries, the effect ends up creating a homogeneous location that doesn’t exist in the world. It’s also incredibly lazy, but the familiarity allows top composers to keep getting away with it.

—Kat Overland

3. Misuse Electronica

I think most film is kind of past this point, especially now that there’s several composers out there who pair with electronica artists to help them properly score a film (Marco Beltrami and Marilyn Manson on Resident Evil, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross on every recent David Fincher film, Cliff Martinez and Skrillex on Spring Breakers etc), but it took a long time for film to metabolize it. There was a time period in the late ’80s and early ’90s when everyone and their dog wanted to pound out a synth score for their movie without considering the effect on the film itself, and you still get a lot of movies that will be enamored with one particular subset, like house, trance, or, and this is the big one right now, employing the I guess you’d call it misappropriation or watering down of trap beats by EDM artists in every movie and trailer that has to do with middle aged dudes (with no history or attachment with it) going out and getting wasted.

—Emma Houxbois

4. Misuse Hip Hop

The trap motif dovetails with this because it’s all about accessing the transgressive or hedonistic aspects of hip hop without any respect for the fact that they’re cultural signifiers or have a much wider context. The Night Before, or at least its trailer is a great example of how to actually do this right. The characters open a scene by referencing Big (start at 0:21), dancing on a giant keyboard in a department store, but they’re playing the opening piano notes to Kanye West’s “Runaway” in the context of a movie pretty heavily focused on discussing the place of music in their lives, from buying Wu Tang onesies to debating the merits of “Wrecking Ball.” They’re touchstones that are somewhat removed from the original context of the music, but there’s a discourse in play there.

Probably the worst example in recent history was, ironically enough, Spike Lee’s much maligned Chiraq. Chicago has a burgeoning hip hop culture of its own and boasts a broad range of artists that span from Kanye West to Vic Mensa and Chance the Rapper, but the rap most relevant to the current violence in the city, and where the term “Chiraq” caught on from, is the drill scene that propelled Chief Keef to fame and infamy. Instead of drawing on that scene, Lee cast Nick Canon to rap over trap beats (which originated in the south far, far away from Chicago) in a venue that no local black rapper has played any time in the last decade. The net effect was to completely disassociate the film from the actual setting Lee was claiming to evoke, made worse by casting actors much older than the teens at the heart of the drill scene and the majority of the violence itself. Lee spent months in Chicago preparing for the film, yet anyone with the time to watch a twenty minute YouTube video produced by Vice could demonstrate more of a fluency than he could.

—Emma Houxbois (with thanks to Terrence Sage)

5. Use Incredibly Obvious Lyrical Cues

Most egregiously, basically any time Aerosmith’s heinous “Dude (Looks Like a Lady)” is used in a movie. Surprise! A cis dude is dressing up in drag! Usually to fool some people. Dude looks like a lady. Get it?

If the primary function of your soundtrack is for lyrics to describe what’s happening in the scene or describe a character’s already obvious feeling—rather than, say,  heighten emotion, set a tone, or provide an interesting contrast–then it’s not a great soundtrack. For example, Adventureland is a movie I’m quite fond of, but it’s hard to find a good excuse for Jessie Eisenberg lulling about, clearly dissatisfied, under a Replacements band poster as none other than the Replacements’ “Unsatisfied” plays. Hardly revelatory. Other painfully obvious lyrical cues that give me a frowny face include any time a character arrives in London or camera pans over London skyline…to the tune of “London Calling,” or when characters go on a road trip (probably with a motorcycle), or otherwise find themselves displaying their wild side as indicated by the super-casual-and-not-at-all-hamfisted sounds of “Born to be Wild.”

—Kayleigh Hughes (@kayleighqueue)

6. Have No Soundtrack At All, Really

Or, an almost entirely diegetic soundtrack, à la the incredibly grating Sofia Coppola film, Somewhere. I recognize the value of hyperrealism, but I hold strongly that if it’s an available option to you in your medium to establish mood, tone, and feeling through musical overlays, then you’re usually doing a disservice to the project to refuse that. It can be a fun challenge to intentionally toss out a few tools in your toolbox and see what happens, but to me, a soundtrack or score is a tool that needs to stay. Frankly, I often hate hearing characters chew, slurp, and breathe heavily, especially complete silence. Sonically stripping a film down to its bare naturalistic bones is useful when you want to make the viewer kind of hate you–and many films do that fantastically and with good reason, such as Two Days, One Night and No Country For Old Men—but in other cases those choices feel like a missed opportunity.

Returning to the Somewhere example, you’ll find that the film’s non-soundtrack breaks only once, during a dreamy and playful poolside scene set to The Strokes “I’ll Try Anything Once.” By using non-diegetic music to such great effect in this scene and only this scene, the film simultaneously puts undue pressure on that scene to represent every theme of story perfectly, while providing a tease of what the entire movie could have been; it’s the only scene that feels complete.

—Kayleigh Hughes (@kayleighqueue)

Kat Overland

Kat Overland

Small press editor Kat Overland is a displaced Texan now living in Washington, DC, where she is perpetually behind on reading her pull list. She's a millennial, Latina, exhausted, and can often be spotted casually cosplaying America Chavez and complaining.