Play the Album, Burn the Film: 20 Great Soundtracks From Bad Movies - Rolling Stone
Home Movies Movie Lists

Play the Album, Burn the Film: 20 Great Soundtracks From Bad Movies

From disco fevers to drive-in-movie homages, we sift through those musically blessed movies that were better heard than seen

saturday night fever

Fox Seachlight/courtesy Everett Collection; 20th Century-Fox/Getty Images; Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images; Universal/Getty Images

If one were to judge a movie based purely on its soundtrack, then Purple Rain — Prince’s breakthrough film, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary  — would possibly trump Citizen Kane on just about every “best movie” list there is. “When Doves Cry,” “Let’s Go Crazy,” “Darling Nikki,” “I Would Die 4 U,” “The Beautiful Ones,” the title track: these songs are all on one album, people! Unfortunately for the artist formerly known as the Artist Formerly Known as Prince, great music can’t hide, say, some less-than-stellar acting, shaky direction, and/or a shoddily written script. No offense, Prince fans, but even the purifying waters of Lake Minnetonka can’t cure everything.

The 30 Greatest Rock and Roll Movie Moments

But Purple Rain is hardly the first “bad” movie to boast a killer soundtrack, nor will it be the last. In honor of the Purple One’s film hitting the big 3-0, we’re counting down 20 other bad movies with great soundtracks. Open your ears, cover your eyes, and read on.

Play video

‘Saturday Night Fever’ (1978)

It's okay to think that disco sucks, but there's something different, and dare we say special, about the Bee Gees-and-beyond soundtrack to John Badham's love letter to leisure suits (which we named the fifth best soundtrack of all-time). Perhaps it's a catching the zeitgeist at just the right moment, as the film — which features genre staples like "Stayin' Alive" and The Trammps' "Disco Inferno"— was released precisely as the musical movement was hitting its tipping point. As a time capsule, this look at Seventies' club culture and dance-floor fads is invaluable; as a drama about outer-borough nobodies trying to make it in the big city, however, it leaves a lot to be desired. Still, the double-album behemoth proved popular enough that it would take 15 years to be supplanted (by Whitney Houston and The Bodyguard) as the best-selling soundtrack of all time.

Play video

‘Flash Gordon’ (1980)

In the pantheon of Saturday-matinee action movies, Mike Hodges' take on the comic-strip hero Flash Gordon ranks somewhere near 1984's Supergirl and 1997's Steel (starring Shaq!) at the very bottom of the list. But it says something about its soundtrack, composed by Queen, that the band's "Flash's Theme" is likely the only thing you remember about the movie. (Flash, aaaa-ah…he'll save every one of us!) On the plus side, the film is one of the first to turn a notable rock group into movie composers — a trend that is still often seen today in movies like Oblivion (M83) and TRON: Legacy (Daft Punk).

Play video

‘Under the Cherry Moon’ (1986)

Prince's movie after Purple Rain was not, alas, its sequel; that dubious honor belongs to 1990's Graffiti Bridge, which sees The Kid and Morris Day's rivalry continue into the next decade. But the Purple One's directorial debut holds the distinction of having the widest disconnect between the watchability (or unwatchability) of a film and the listenability of  its soundtrack — in this case, Prince's psychedelic pop-infused album Parade (featuring "Kiss" and "Mountains"). Blame it on the studio heads at Warner Bros., who should have known the movie was headed for disaster when director Mary Lambert — who proudly put her stamp of approval on the lackluster Stephen King adaptation Pet Sematary — departed the project due to creative differences with the music icon. The result was a soundtrack that sold more than two million copies and a wannabe-Felliniesque musical drama that won five Golden Raspberry Awards, including Worst Actor and Director for Prince, and a tie (with Howard the Duck) for Worst Picture.

Play video

‘Maximum Overdrive’ (1986)

Stephen King is the man to credit for AC/DC's Who Made Who album's release as the soundtrack for his big-screen adaptation of "Trucks," the short story from his Night Shift collection about machines turning on their makers. It was King's first and only directorial effort — but what the master of horror wants, the master of horror gets. And what he wanted for this campy (and not in a good way) movie were some choice cuts by his favorite band, with "Who Made Who," "You Shook Me All Night Long," and "Hells Bells" among its background music.

Play video

‘Judgment Night’ (1993)

Emilio Estevez was still trying to find his way in a post-Brat Pack world when this utterly forgettable action film  was released about a gang of drug dealers (lead, laughably enough, by Denis Leary) chasing yuppies Estevez and Cuba Gooding Jr. through the mean streets of Chicago. See, the bad guys are white and the heroes are multiethnic! While its purposeful counterintuitivity made no lasting impact, the film's soundtrack of "Walk This Way"-inspired rock and hip hop mash-ups — which includes such pairings between Cypress Hill and Pearl Jam, Teenage Fan Club and De La Soul, and Helmet and House of Pain — still holds up surprisingly well today. 

Play video

‘Last Action Hero’ (1993)

It takes a particular kind of acting talent to successfully pull off a sharp meta-satire — and let's just say that's a talent that the "Austrian Oak" Arnold Schwarzenegger doesn't have and leave it at that. Which is one of many reasons why John McTiernan's much-anticipated post-postmodern take on he-man action movies flopped at the box office. The film's hard-rock soundtrack managed to transcend its turkey-like source material, however, thanks to tracks from the likes of Alice in Chains, AC/DC, Def Leppard, Cypress Hill, Fishbone, Anthrax, and Aerosmith.

Play video

‘Reality Bites’ (1994)

If you were an angst-ridden recent post-grad in the mid-1990s, you may have cinnected with Ben Stiller's cinematic attempt to capture the zeitgeist of…angst-ridden recent post-grads in the mid-1990s. For everyone else (i.e. viewers over the age of 27), there was the Gen X-approved soundtrack that mixed old hits from The Knack, Squeeze, and Crowded House with newcomers like Lisa Loeb, whose "Stay (I Missed You)" brought the unsigned artist a number one hit.

Play video

‘Dead Presidents’ (1995)

It sounds like a headline you might read in the Weekly World News: "Movie Bomb Spawns Two Separate Soundtracks!" But that is indeed what happened with Allen and Albert Hughes' follow-up to their hit debut Menace II Society (1993), an oddly Vietnam-themed pseudo-heist movie. Thankfully for us, it also doubles as a Greatest Soul Hits of the Seventies mix tape, with major hits from James Brown, Al Green, Isaac Hayes, Barry White, Curtis Mayfield, The O'Jays, and Sly & the Family Stone.

Play video

‘A Life Less Ordinary’ (1997)

A year after perfectly melding songs and imagery with Trainspotting, director Danny Boyle had the clout to command some of America's most popular musicians to create a soundtrack for his tedious tale of angels, kidnapping, and Ewan McGregor making goo-goo eyes at Cameron Diaz. The soundtrack's later tracks include a few lackluster additions like Bobby Darin's "Beyond the Sea," but its earlier alt-rock nuggets — Ash's title song, Beck's "Deadweight," Luscious Jackson's "Love Is Here," Sneaker Pimps' "Velvet Divorce," and Folk Implosion's "Kingdom of Lies"  — are the stuff for which the repeat button was made.

Play video

‘City of Angels’ (1998)

Though it was intended to be a loose remake of Wim Wenders' excellent Wings of Desire, Brad Silberling's Americanized version feels more like a retread of every uninspired romantic fantasy film ever made. Nicolas Cage playing the role of a lovelorn angel may have looked good on paper, but on screen, well…subtlety has never been Nic's strong suit. And while some of the movie's tracks would have been better left in the late 1990s (we're looking at you, Paula Cole), it also serves as a reminder of that decade's popular musical offerings, with The Goo Goo Dolls' "Iris," Alanis Morissette's "Uninvited," and Eric Clapton's favorite cover ("Further On Up the Road") helping to land the soundtrack at the top of the charts.

Play video

‘200 Cigarettes’ (1999)

Following in the footsteps of Adam Sandler's The Wedding Singer (1998), this ensemble indie capitalized on Eighties nostalgia by cramming every rising star of the moment (Dave Chappelle, Kate Hudson, Christina Ricci, Paul Rudd, Courtney Love, Jay Mohr, and both Afflecks — Ben and Casey) and decking them out with decade-appropriate hairstyles and costumes. Which could have been fun, had the filmmakers not forgotten that a coherent, or even mildly entertaining, script is also an essential movie element. Whatever money they saved in development costs found its way to the soundtrack, filled with a mix of period hits like Blondie's "In the Flesh," The Cars' "Just What I Needed," The Ramones' "I Don't Care," Joe Jackson's "It's Different for Girls," and Roxy Music's "More Than This."

Play video

‘The Beach’ (2000)

Danny Boyle's adaptation of Alex Garland's novel, which sees a fresh-off-the-Titanic Leonardo DiCaprio on a quest to find a legendary island of lost souls, was met with criticism at every turn — most notably by the Thai government and environmental groups, which sued the production for bulldozing the beaches of Ko Phi Phi Lee. All of it is really for naught, as the film only managed to earn back about 75 percent of its $50 million budget. Its only lasting legacy is the soundtrack, which features a mix of rock, electronica, and Britpop from more than a dozen artists, including Moby ("Porcelain"), Blur ("On Your Own"), and New Order ("Brutal").

Play video

‘The Million Dollar Hotel’ (2000)

It's a rare day when one finds him or herself in agreement with Mel Gibson. But Mel's assessment of this Wim Wenders tale —based on a concept by Bono — as "boring as a dog's ass" is rather astute. That the soundtrack was the first and only moment of "genius" the film's star mentioned in a later retraction about that statement is also right on; executive produced by Bono, the moody U2 contributions and three versions of Lou Reed's "Satellite of Love" are the only reason to not mute the film. If the movie was meant as a way to right the wrong that was yet another bad movie/great soundtrack entry on which Wenders and Bono collaborated — in the form of 1991's Until the End of the World — it may be time they try again.

Play video

‘I Am Sam’ (2001)

Sean Penn's lack of success in securing the rights to original tunes from the Beatles may have been the only place where he actually succeeded in the making of sodden melodrama, in which he plays a mentally challenged adult fighting for custody of his young daughter (Dakota Fanning). The daughter's name: Lucy Diamond. (Get it?!?) This seeming failure opened the door, however, for a flood of impressive Beatles covers, including Eddie Vedder's "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away," Nick Cave's "Let It Be," Stereophonic's "Don't Let Me Down," and Rufus Wainwright's "Across the Universe."

Play video

‘Garden State’ (2004)

Calling Zach Braff's directorial debut an outright "bad movie" may be a bit harsh. But its reliance on the Braff's love of the Shins as a critical plot point makes it difficult for the film to stand on its own, and the writer/director/star's weak rehashing of The Graduate's twentysomething angst isn't doing itself any favors by throwing in a Paul Simon tune ("The Only Living Boy in New York"). Which means that if one were to separate the music (including tunes from Coldplay, Iron & Wine and Nick Drake) from the movie, you'd only be left with a series of unconnected dots. Oh, and one Grammy Award for Best Compilation Soundtrack.

Play video

‘Elizabethtown’ (2005)

Music has always been a major plot point in the work of journalist-turned-moviemaker Cameron Crowe; it would be impossible to imagine Say Anything… without Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes" or a "Tiny Dancer"-less Almost Famous. And while his 2005 road movie has its own fair share of musical moments— including Orlando Bloom's "remembering dad" montage, set to Elton John's "My Father's Gun" — the movie part of this movie soundtrack could have easily been shelved. Which would leave audiences with nothing but a well-curated two-piece collection of rock and alt-country tunes from heavy hitters like Tom Petty, Ryan Adams, My Morning Jacket (who also appear in the movie as a fictional band named Ruckus), and Nancy Wilson, a.k.a. the then-Mrs. Cameron Crowe.

Play video

‘Marie Antoinette’ (2006)

Sofia Coppola went the postpunk-pomo route with the two-disc New Wave soundtrack to her energetic, if frustratingly shallow and superficial, biopic on the life of Marie Antoinette (played by Kirsten Dunst) in the years leading up to the French Revolution. Sure, watching the Queen work her magic to New Order's "Ceremony," Bow Wow Wow's "Aphrodisiac," Gang of Four's "Natural's Not In It" or the Strokes' "What Ever Happened" may be anachronistic, but it makes the 127-minute running time vastly easier to digest.

Play video

‘Grindhouse’ (2007)

Quentin Tarantino has largely avoided the many pitfalls that accompany the typical filmmaker's rise from obscurity to the Hollywood A-list. But he let his ego get the best of him when he and his buddy/frequent collaborator Robert Rodriguez decided to put two movies in one for this ode to exploitation cinema. Rodriguez composed the bulk of his own soundtrack (including the John Carpenter-inspired score) while Tarantino, true to form, relied on vintage tracks like Smith's "Baby It's You" and The Coasters' "Down in Mexico" for his half, titled Death Proof. What this D.O.A. homage to drive-in car-chase movies and slasher flicks lacks in quality, it makes up for in choice Sixties and Seventies jukebox cuts.

Play video

The ‘Twilight’ Movies (2008-2012)

A funny thing happened as this megapopular franchise moved along over the years: The movies got worse as the soundtracks got better. Which isn't to say that the franchise's music didn't start out strong; music supervisor Alexandra Patsavas spent years cultivating a signature sound style for the supernatural tween series, which helped to launch the careers of several musical newcomers. Maybe that's simply because the budgets grew, too, which allowed Patsavas to enlist the likes of better known artists as the series unfolded. The franchise's second film, New Moon, may be the best example of that, with a fatter wallet allowing for contributions from Thom Yorke ("Hearing Damage"), the Killers ("A White Demon Love Song"), Muse ("I Belong To You"), and Bon Iver ("Roslyn").

Play video

‘Tron: Legacy’ (2010)

Entrusted with fashioning a long-awaited sequel to the original 1982 video-game-cinema landmark/cult classic, director Joseph Kosinski called upon EDM pioneers and Seventies-disco revivalists Daft Punk to help bring the cyber-updated Tron 2.0 into the new millennium. It worked: The mysterious French duo took a more orchestral road to creating the film's soundtrack, utilizing a 100-piece orchestra for many of the album's 22 tracks, and creating one of this lackluster movie's only bright spots. With any luck, its lasting legacy will be its man-machine, future-funk score.

In This Article: Prince, Purple Rain

Arrow Created with Sketch. Calendar Created with Sketch. Path Created with Sketch. Shape Created with Sketch. Plus Created with Sketch. minus Created with Sketch.