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Saved by the soundtrack: 12 films that owe it all to the music

Editorial Staff

Have you ever found yourself moved to tears at the movies, despite a hackneyed storyline and mediocre acting? Totally engrossed in a scene even though the dialogue is unnatural and the directing heavy-handed? The chances are it was the music that drew you in and pushed you beyond the emotional brink.

They say music plays just as important a role as the actors onscreen. In some cases, however, it saves their necks. So when that Robert Pattinson vampire shimmer isn't lucrative enough for you, maybe the blockbuster soundtrack will keep your gaze.

 We look at 12 films saved by their soundtracks.

Phenomenon (1996)

Am I really endorsing an album that starts off with limp easy-listening like Eric Clapton’s smug treatment of Babyface’s “Change the World” and features Jewel chewing her way through a beautiful John Hiatt song? Yes. Because even in its worst moments — and these two songs are the worst moments, so that’s pretty good — the Phenomenon soundtrack is earnest, uplifting, warm and, occasionally, kinda sexy. Bryan Ferry’s “Dance With Life” shimmers, Aaron Neville’s “Crazy Love” is silky smooth and the Iguanas’ “Para Donde Vas” is vibrant and lively. But it’s the spun gold of Taj Mahal’s “Corrina,” the generous majesty of Marvin Gaye’s “Piece of Clay” and Dorothy Moore’s soulful, sublime “Misty Blue” that make this soundtrack a secretly stacked powerhouse befitting a far better movie than this manipulative and messy John Travolta vehicle. — Andrea Warner

Elvira Madigan (1967)

A Swedish film about a tightrope walker and an AWOL soldier who want to run away together. IMDB doesn’t even have a synopsis. It did win a best actress Golden Globe, and a nomination for director Bo Widerberg, but really the only thing people remember is its effective use of the slow movement from Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21, which has since become known — anachronistically — as the Elvira Madigan concerto. — Robert Rowat

Josie and the Pussycats (2001)

Let me start by saying that Josie and the Pussycats was actually a pretty good movie but ultimately what made it all work was the film’s incredible soundtrack. The film was, of course, an adaptation of the Archie comic, which tells the story of a band made up of three best friends who sign to a major label and are sucked into a world of glamour, greed and consumerism. This pristine pop world was given the perfect soundtrack thanks to songwriters like Adam Schlesinger (who is currently the executive music producer of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend) and Counting Crows’ Adam Duritz, as well as Letters to Cleo singer Kay Hanley, who took on the vocals for lead character Josie. The result was a soundtrack packed with infectious pop-rock melodies like “Pretend to Be Nice,” “3 Small Words,” “Come On” and “Spin Around” — all songs that could’ve been real-life hits for No Doubt, Paramore or Sum 41. Heck, even the film’s fallen boy band DuJour produced some bangers like Backstreet Boy rip-offs “Around the World” and “Back Door Lover.” Even if you’re not a fan of Archie comics, Rachael Leigh Cook or rainbows and puppies, you won’t be able to resist the hooks on this classic soundtrack. — Melody Lau

Da Vinci Code (2006)

After a whole lot of hype, this Ron Howard-directed film fell flat. (Its cinematic cousin, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, did a much better job of adapting a best-selling book.) However, the score by Hans Zimmer, with a full orchestra, choir and soloists recorded at London’s Abbey Road Studios, totally salvaged the film. Zimmer got a Golden Globe nomination for best original score. — RR

The Bodyguard (1992)

Let the record show that The Bodyguard, starring Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston, is unequivocally terrible. Costner's portrayal of Frank Farmer — a tired former Secret Service agent-cum-personal bodyguard who falls in love with his client — is wooden ,and Houston’s performance as pop star Rachel Marron is even stiffer than that. Let the record also show that this abomination of a film, made on an estimated $25,000,000 budget managed to gross over $120,000,000 in the U.S. Why? That soundtrack, y’all.

The Bodyguard soundtrack is half Houston, all fire and arguably Houston’s best recorded work. From the chart-smashing lead single — the Dolly Parton-penned “I Will Always Love You,” which spent more than three months at number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart — to the still danceable “I’m Every Woman” and the gospel slow jam that is “Jesus Loves Me,” Houston makes it all sound effortless as her six songs not only manage to carry an entire soundtrack but also the truly wretched film whence it came. — Judith Lynch

Head (1968)

This pop-art film took the Monkees to a new, weird level. Appearances from Jack Nicholson, Frank Zappa and Dennis Hopper couldn’t make audiences groove to the psychedelic film experiment. Davy Jones was quoted in 2011 as saying, “We should have made Ghostbusters,” despite the fact that lots of people now look back at Head as an important moment in film. The soundtrack, though, is something that everyone can agree on. — Nicolle Weeks

The Twilight Saga (2008-2012)

“Saved” may be pushing it for the Twilight series, but there’s no denying that its five soundtracks were juggernauts. The first one debuted at number 1 on the Billboard 200, and was nominated for a 2010 Grammy. Artists across the soundtrack set include Paramore, Muse, Ellie Goulding, Feist, James Vincent McMorrow, Florence and the Machine, Vampire Weekend (get it?) and the list goes on. It’s as if music supervisor Alexandra Patsavas knew that five brooding teen vampire movies — filled with religious connotation and the opposite of feminism — needed something to brag about. — Holly Gordon

Waiting to Exhale (1995)

This lukewarm 1995 box office hit averages reviews of about 5/10 on Rotten Tomatoes and IMDB, but the film’s soundtrack really shines. Featuring a list of the most prominent female R&B singers of its decade (Whitney Houston, Mary J. Blige, Toni Braxton, Aretha Franklin, Brandy and many more), all songs written for Waiting to Exhale were produced by Babyface. Putting this soundtrack on is sure to transport the listener right back to the '90s. — NW

Space Jam (1996)

It’s a movie about Michael Jordan joining forces with the Looney Tunes, what did you expect? The movie’s actually pretty self-referential (Michael Jordan plays himself, trying to get good press after finding out he’s not as good a baseball player as he was at basketball) but the alien cartoon thing is a wash. On the soundtrack, though, you’ll see the name of one Shawn Carter, better known today as Jay Z, who wrote the Bugs Bunny rap “Buggin’.” Busta Rhymes, Coolio, LL Cool J, Method Man and B-Real are all on the Monstars’ anthem, “Hit ‘Em High.” Salt-N-Pepa, Seal, Quad City DJs, Monica and D’Angelo each have songs on the list, and no one escaped the late ’90s without hearing R. Kelly’s song “I Believe I Can Fly.” — HG

Empire Records (1995)

Variety’s film critic called Empire Records “a soundtrack in search of a movie.” While the film is entertaining enough for what it is, it’s never going to go down in history as a great one. That being said, the soundtrack is, again, a snapshot of the '90s that encapsulates the importance music has on the film. With bands like Suicidal Tendencies, Cracker, the Buggles, AC/DC, Better Than Ezra, Evan Dando, the Cranberries and a song and cameo from Gwar, music fans have to recognize how fun this soundtrack is. — NW

Purple Rain (1984)

Often just considered to be a great album, this soundtrack was way more successful than the 1984 film starring Prince. The Globe and Mail went so far as to call Purple Rain “a cosmic letdown” but that didn’t stop the album from being a mainstay on best album lists. The Purple Rain soundtrack was nominated for album of the year at the Grammys, hit number 1 on several charts around the world (including Canada and the U.S.) and it was certified diamond in the U.S. (for albums that sell over 10 million copies). — NW

The Legend of 1900 (1998)

Ennio Morricone composed the original scores for so many excellent films — The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, The Mission, Cinema Paradiso and The Untouchables come immediately to mind — that we tend to overlook the music he wrote for more obscure pictures. In 1998, Tim Roth starred in The Legend of 1900, a film about a jazz pianist at the turn of the last century who spent his entire life on an ocean liner. It didn’t leave a lasting impression, but Morricone won a Golden Globe for his stunning music. — RR