In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week: Great songs in terrible movies.
Where to begin with what went wrong with Romeo Must Die? The 2000 film starred martial-arts master Jet Li and the late R&B singer Aaliyah (in her first film role) as star-crossed lovers who are kept apart by their families who seemingly oppose interracial dating. But despite the title, Li and Aaliyah were far from a Romeo And Juliet pairing. The film borrows more from West Side Story with its urban setting and interracial dating taboo. I know, that musical was inspired by Shakespeare’s play, but the romance in Romeo Must Die is so diluted that you’re hard-pressed to believe that Li and Aaliyah are pining for each other. Also, Li plays a character named Han—Romeo isn’t even his nickname.
So what exactly do we have if not a romance? Well, Romeo Must Die has a lot of stunt choreography—Li fights his way out of a Chinese prison, an apartment complex (where he beats up Anthony Anderson), and a ring of fire. There’s also a brief appearance from DMX, and it’s always nice to see Delroy Lindo (who plays Aaliyah’s father) in stuff. But the premise of the title is missing from the actual film—just who is it that wants Romeo dead? And, since his name is Han and not Romeo, doesn’t Li have a great case for plausible deniability?
But even if Romeo Must Die isn’t going to be remembered for a coherent plot or believable central romance, it did have a good soundtrack that featured songs from Ginuwine (no, not “Pony”) and Destiny’s Child. Aaliyah had three songs on the soundtrack, including the lead single “Try Again,” which was easily the best thing to come out of the movie. Timbaland (who contributed his own track) produced “Try Again” with an intro that doubled as a hat tip to Eric B. & Rakim’s 1987 song “I Know You Got Soul.” (That was the “dope beat” we hadn’t been able to “step to” in so long).
“Try Again” topped the Billboard charts and had international success, and serves as a far better legacy for Aaliyah than the movie from which it sprang. But it wasn’t the first time the late singer provided a great song for a bad movie—she also contributed the Grammy-nominated “Are You That Somebody?” to the soundtrack for Eddie Murphy’s Dr. Dolittle update that was otherwise a waste of everyone’s time.