Time was, a good score actually made a film seem better, while bad movie music had the power to cripple. This summer, the rules seem to have been yanked through the looking glass. In short, the lousier the movie, the better the soundtrack; the stronger the movie, the more doltish the score.
Take Speed, for instance (no, not that way). The movie's a little overrated by the pointy-heads, but still a fine, fast, dead-from-the-neck- up chunk of cinematic asphalt. So how come the soundtrack album sounds like it was programmed by a sponge? Worse, a sponge time-warped from 1982. Ric Ocasek? Billy Idol? Pat Benatar? They've even dug up Gary Numan for a pseudo-ambient new version of his ancient New Wave anthem ''Cars.'' The only thing that saves this is Cracker's ''Let's Go for a Ride'' and that's because singer David Lowery's weary bray is the musical equivalent of Keanu Reeves' starquality. As you can tell, most of the songs are here for their titles, not because they might actually fit the movie. All told, a cynical album that feels like it was packaged by out-of-touch Hollywood ponytails.
The Forrest Gump soundtrack looks foolproof enough: two CDs featuring 32 pop ''American Classics'' (31 actually; the last cut is an arrangement of Alan Silvestri's twinky orchestral score). But while there are few bum tracks, there aren't many surprises, either; from Elvis to Creedence to the Doors to the Fifth Dimension, it's a lot like those smorgasbord CDs they give away with subscriptions to this magazine. Worse, the feel-good nostalgia being sold here ignores the fact that the movie itself explicitly dumps on '60s youth culture, presenting Tom Hanks' Forrest as too saintly to fall prey to the times. Gump the movie is complex enough to dance around the issue; Gump the album just smells like tie-in hypocrisy.
Those are the good movies with problematic music. In the middle of the road stands Wyatt Earp, a big, square, unfocused score for a big, square, unfocused Western. Composer James Newton Howard is capable of better; his richly idealistic music for 1993's Dave was one of the most inspired of recent scores. Here he swerves between over-orchestrated Copland lifts and somewhat more dissonant-yet still uninvolving-arrangements for Wyatt's later years. This isn't a bad soundtrack; it's just aural wallpaper.
Then there are movies that rightly push up daisies in the theater, yet whose soundtracks do have a way of landing in your CD drive time and again. I'm glad I heard the Naked in New York album before seeing the film, because it's doubtful I would have treasured a memento of aesthetic pain. While writer-director Dan Algrant had enough chutzpah to get Martin Scorsese as executive producer and some big-time stars (Eric Stoltz, Kathleen Turner, Tony Curtis) for his cast, none of them keeps this from being the worst sort of self-pitying blarney.
But the soundtrack. It's a compilation of songs by second-rank alternative bands, mostly British, mostly lightweight, and mostly signed to the Sire Records label. And the bargain-bin approach pays off with a tasty summer record: music to be half-heard while swaying in your hammock. There's the dream-pop of the Ocean Blue's ''Crash,'' the mild house of D:Ream's ''U R the Best Thing,'' the mordant ebullience of the JudyBats' ''Ugly on the Outside,'' and a sublimely dopey disco novelty called ''Conga Te'' from Doubleplusgood. It's all as passive-aggressive as Naked's playwright protagonist, but hummable instead of intensely annoying.
Little Buddha isn't a terrible movie for a vacation to Bhutan and ancient India, you can't beat the price but it is terribly bland, and coming from Bernardo Bertolucci, that's a mite depressing. Yet Buddha's score, by Japan's Ryuichi Sakamoto, is close to nirvana. Two streams of music merge here: a swooning orchestral score that recalls the glory days of 1960s French flicks, and a soul-shivering tide of Indian ragas, arranged by percussionist Zakir Hussain. In the climactic cut ''The Reincarnation,'' Sakamoto puts across a vast sense of serenity that the movie never even approaches. So here's a concept: Why not put out a sequel to the soundtrack and let the movie itself rest in peace? Speed: D+