Bad Santa Is One of the Most Brilliant Christmas Soundtracks Ever

Thirteen years after its release, the original Bad Santa’s reputation as one of the best Christmas movies of modern times (and certainly of this century) only seems to grow. Yes, it’s a pitch-black comedy about a drunken loser and his dwarf accomplice who rob a different department store every Christmas Eve, but the plot is almost secondary to the film’s scathing critique of the way consumer society has corrupted what some might call the true spirit of Christmas. Indeed, it’s a lot more wholesome than a movie with dialogue like “I beat the shit out of some kids today…but it was for a purpose” has any right to be.

Bad Santa is a great film for a lot of reasons: Billy Bob Thornton, finding a crucial kernel of humanity (and tons of laughs) in one of the most unpleasant lead characters in recent film history, the con man/raging alcoholic Willie Soke; the superb supporting cast of Tony Cox, Lauren Graham, Bernie Mac, John Ritter (in his final role) and guileless/fearless newcomer Brett Kelly as Thurman Merman, a.k.a. “The Kid”; Terry Zwigoff’s sly and unsentimental direction; and Glenn Ficarra and John Requa’s astoundingly ribald screenplay, which nonetheless packs a surprising amount of heart. But the soundtrack is just as important — the music of Bad Santa does a lot more than simple scene-setting, often providing commentary of its own that can be as funny or pointed as the script.

The original score, by David Kitay, isn’t much of a factor. Most of the music is divided between easy-listening holiday standards from several generations back and light classical works that are even older, though still fairly familiar. Zwigoff deserves credit for the film’s near-total absence of contemporary music; St. Louis power-pop group Bunnygrunt’s “Season’s Freaklings” finally appears near the end of the closing credits. It’s nearly impossible to think of another recent Christmas movie whose soundtrack doesn’t use a handful of the same seasonal pop/rock songs, including at least one pointless remake/update by a current artist; Ludacris’s “Ludacrismas,” from 2007’s Fred Claus, is built off a sample of Doris Day’s “Here Comes Santa Claus,” to name one especially egregious example. (In the unrated version of Bad Santa, the track playing while Willie visits a Miami strip club is so nondescript it’s not even listed in the credits.)

Much of the film takes place at an average suburban shopping mall, and so we hear quite a few familiar holiday tunes as background Muzak — songs whose original versions may be quite merry and joyful, but here act as a musical anesthetic to soothe throngs of shoppers shuffling between stores like so many two-legged cattle. The pop-song setpieces, meanwhile, come from the likes of Andy Williams, Bing Crosby, Burl Ives and Dean Martin, crooners who were horribly unhip (except maybe Martin) even at the height of their popularity several decades ago. But here, their tackiness comes with an edge.

Ives’s “Holly Jolly Christmas” is the only song written into the screenplay, rudely awakening Willie from a drunken slumber into a frenzy of flying curse words and beer bottles. When Willie and his partner, Marcus (Cox), trek through the parking lot of a mall in suburban Phoenix — heat waves literally rising from the asphalt — over Dean Martin’s “Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow,” it makes a desert-dry sight gag. But Williams’s “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” is deployed with extreme irony, playing as Cox’s wife/accomplice Lois (Lauren Tom) scopes out her future loot. Only when Crosby’s “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” shows up late in the film does Bad Santa’s sentimental side surface.

The classical pieces in Bad Santa open up further unexpected avenues of insight into its characters, especially Thornton's. The opening-credit sequence unfolds to the melancholy piano notes of Frederic Chopin’s “Nocturne No. 2 in E-Flat Minor”; the elegant, haunting melody helps the audience sympathize with Willie, sitting dejectedly by himself in a Milwaukee pub crowded with oblivious merry-makers, before anything he says or does can convince them otherwise. Then, as the film’s title flashes onscreen, he pukes in a trash can. Pyotr Tchaikovsky by himself is responsible for two of Bad Santa’s best musical sequences — one, when Cox, disguised as a snowman, deactivates a store’s alarm system as The Nutcracker’s “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” plays; in the other, the sweeping Sleeping Beauty waltz covers Thornton and Cox smuggling their burglary tools into the scene of their final heist.

Classical music also helps give Bad Santa a certain cartoonish quality. When Thornton is getting it on in a car with Sue (Graham), a bartender with a serious Santa fetish, the audience hears Rossini’s William Tell overture. The Kid’s sweet revenge on some neighborhood bullies is aided by the "Toreador” dance from Bizet’s Carmen. And Verdi’s “Anvil” chorus, Rossini’s Barber of Seville overture and even Chopin’s nocturne all help drive Bad Santa toward its climax. As these rousing orchestral passages help bring the excitement onscreen to a head, they also seem to awaken the heroic impulses within Thornton’s character that had been buried in a bottle for most of the film. Lest we forget, no less than Bugs Bunny was also a big Barber of Seville fan.

Bad Santa 2 is in theaters now. The soundtrack features music by Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Albert King and 2 Live Crew.
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Chris Gray has been Music Editor for the Houston Press since 2008. He is the proud father of a Beatles-loving toddler named Oliver.
Contact: Chris Gray