The Six Most Painful Film Scores Of All Time

The Six Most Painful Film Scores Of All Time

Before I list these painful scores, let me clarify what I mean by “painful.” What I mean is “excruciating.”  Bad scores are a dime a dozen, especially since the advent of the pop music score, which quite often replaced an orchestral score, thereby substituting a “composer” who had hardly studied the craft for someone who actually knew how to read an orchestral score.

Usually the composers of a bygone era knew the craft of composition; how to develop a theme, how to evoke different emotion through the colors of the orchestral palette and the shifting harmonies underlying them, how to modulate from one key to another without the wrenching shift of the neophyte or the same chords repeated ad infinitum.

But the most painful scores are those which accompany a good film, a film that cries out for better treatment of its material. Thus, these scores are from films that are of some lasting quality, not films that never should have seen the light of day.

With that exposition, we can get started.  Counting down …

6. Chariots of Fire: Okay, shoot me. We are in 1924, preparing for the Olympics and what are we hearing when the poetic images of the runners float across the screen? An electronic score, no less — and a theme which never goes anywhere, just keeps being hammered into the audience’s ears. Sorry, but I’m a big believer in music reflecting the time period its purporting to represent, and the score took me out of the movie. Here’s an example of what I’m saying: in Sondheim’s masterpiece Sweeney Todd, the orchestration by Jonathan Tunick sounds as if you’re in Victorian England, while in the execrably orchestrated Les Miserables, we have a rhythm section in the pit while 1820’s and 1830’s France is on stage. Sorry, Chariots of Fire needed a period score, and it didn’t get one. 

5. Coming Home: Although I despised the political stance of this movie, it had some good performances. Sadly, the movie was your classic here’s-what-the-scene-is about-but-in-case-you’re-too-dumb-to understand-it-I-will-play-you-a-song-to-tell-you film. To make matters worse, songs overlapped scenes, because the film’s director, Hal Ashby, didn’t have the brains to stop the music when the scene changed. It’s painful enough to watch a film with Jane Fonda, but the score just made it worse.

4. The Third Man: I’m not exactly going out on a limb here; most people with an IQ over 50 hate this score. The movie is a good one, but the zither theme, which has nothing to do with anything, is omnipresent, obnoxious, overbearing, and oppressive. By the time you’re done watching this film, you want to find every zither in the world and smash it to pieces on the composer’s head.

3. The Princess Bride: Unbelievably bad score for a wonderful, wonderful film. Mark Knofler of Dire Straits, who may have known how to write a pop song but was woefully, woefully, woefully miscast as a film composer, ruined the chance this movie had for being an all-time great. Can you imagine, instead of the synthesizer score this film is saddled with, what a tongue-in-cheek orchestral score by a master like Elmer Bernstein would have done for this film. I would watch this film frequently, but the damn score is an irritant beyond belief.

2. The Social Network: How, how, how did this piece of dreck win the Oscar over How to Train Your Dragon, which was a masterpiece? Forget the fact that there were two other scores that were not at Dragon’s lofty level which were still miles better than a social network; Inception and The King’s Speech.  This score is the most childish, immature attempt at film scoring that was ever perpetrated on a major film. I found myself yelling at the TV (I won’t pay money to watch Aaron Sorkin repeat himself again): “Can you develop the motif ONCE?!?!” Nahh. Trent Reznor has no freaking ideas of how to compose anything, anything that resonates emotionally with the audience; his idea of musical development is to play his theme one more time. Now, as the great composer Arnold Schoenberg said, repetition ensures coherency, so maybe Reznor thought he’d take that statement and amplify it to the max. I doubt it. I just think he sucks, and every time I think of him winning the Oscar instead of John Powell, it makes me want to do a Spike Lee and give Reznor’s home address to the furious film score fan public.

1. The Pawnbroker: This movie has one of the great performances of all time. In Rod Steiger’s anguished and searing portrayal of a Holocaust survivor living in Harlem, deadened to the world around him after losing his children in the Holocaust and seeing his wife forced by the Nazis into prostitution before her death, the movie had every right to be honored with a score as good as John Williams’ Schindler’s List.  Instead, director Sidney Lumet chose Quincy Jones, an extremely gifted jazz arranger, who, of course, wrote a jazz score that was noisy, intrusive, and completely inappropriate for this passionate film. I cannot think of any score that ever angered me more, considering the subject under discussion. Lumet, who I seem to remember once received a review of his film “The Verdict” this way — “When Lumet tries to be quiet, it’s the noisiest quiet you’ve ever heard” — absolutely butchered this powerful film by not trying to replace this grotesque mockery of a score with something that would have been poignant and powerful.  

Next up: The Ten Best Film Scores Ever. Don’t expect any by synthesizer manipulators or three-chord rock composers!

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