The Best Soundtrack Moments Of March 2014: Game Of Thrones, Archer, The Americans, & More
This column has started to take me to unforeseen territory: like a luxury theater in Naples, FL, the odd-man out amongst elderly retirees and pre-teen spring breakers killing a rainy afternoon at a showing of Divergent. The reason I wound up at Divergent is that it’s yet another YA franchise that has gone about curating a soundtrack that strives toward being taken more seriously than a coming-of-age tale aimed at teens might usually be in the grander scheme of the media. Of course, the phenomena of Twilight and Harry Potter were always huge, and I know plenty of adults who are fully invested in The Hunger Games. It was somewhere around New Moon where I first noticed the trend of these kinds of movies getting of-the-moment indie artists to record new music for them, a practice that struck me as an attempt to garner a version of hip credibility to (somewhat pointlessly?) bolster their already titanic mainstream success. This worked out pretty well, because in between a few unfortunate mall-rock moments, that soundtrack gave us one of the best solo Thom Yorke songs (“Hearing Damage”) and a stunning collaboration between Bon Iver and St. Vincent. Just last year, The Hunger Games featured the National, Arcade Fire, and a sweeping Coldplay ballad called “Atlas” that, in hindsight, prefigured the shift from the day-glo pop sheen of Mylo Xyloto to the more subdued hues of the forthcoming Ghost Stories.
Having grown up during part of the Harry Potter boom, this feels different to me than that series’ self-contained universe. All of these YA franchises still take place in some sort of alternate, supernatural reality, or some sort of post-apocalyptic dystopia. They’re not our world, and having soundtracks full of pop music feels like an odd connection back here, akin to when fantasy or sci-fi shows eschew the typical orchestral or choral music and drop a bunch of rock music in or something. Of course, the practice makes sense — Twilight and Hunger Games are plenty huge on their own, but boosting their credibility with well-curated soundtracks (full of songs that, by the way, may or may not actually be included in the movie itself) puts them in conversations and on sites where they otherwise wouldn’t be written about, just further increasing their ubiquity.
Anyway, Divergent is the least impressive of these I’ve come across so far, but it still seemed worth investigating. There are a bunch of Ellie Goulding songs, a BANKS track, a contribution from M83, and, bizarrely, that remake of Tame Impala’s “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards” with Kendrick Lamar (now just called “Backwards”). A lot of the soundtrack is more EDM-y than those of the more major YA franchises it follows, and as it turns out none of the pop songs were used in too prominent a fashion in the film itself. There was some big bass drops at one point, but it mostly was a vaguely electronic-inflected orchestral score courtesy of Junkie XL. The Divergent soundtrack falls more so on the side of companion piece, an extra bit of marketing and identity-building for the franchise.
Even if Divergent didn’t warrant inclusion in the actual list this month, the relevance of the trend it represents had me thinking about not just the “best” soundtrack moments of the month, but also ones that just happened to be notable and that wound up sticking with me even if they disappointed me. Because of that, and because this month there were a handful of commercials whose use of music was memorable, the March addition of Trackspotting is a little super-sized. Consider it like a Japanese Bonus Track Edition.
7. Southern Comfort Commercial — Marco Valle, “Estrelar”
Before a glass of Southern Comfort appears alongside the tagline “Whatever’s Comfortable,” this commercial basically exists as a nonsensical, almost Pop Art-esque thing soundtracked by a cheesy Brazilian funk-pop song from 1983. It works.
And just so you know, this is the cover of Marco Valle’s album, which is entirely appropriate.
6. Game of Thrones Season 4 Trailer — London Grammar’s cover of “Devil Inside”
Though the music within the episodes themselves has always remained of the more traditional folk/orchestral fantasy soundtrack, Game Of Thrones hasn’t shied away from breaking its borders with our world, too, once commissioning the National to record a version of “The Rains Of Castamere” to close out the landmark episode “Blackwater,” and once calling on the Hold Steady to add an extra slap in the face right after you see Jaime Lannister get his hand cut off. With a soft spot for INXS’ singles, I was interested to see headlines promising a new Game Of Thrones trailer featuring London Grammar’s cover, imagining how odd but potentially cool that song’s distinctive pulse would sound over scenes of dragons and swordfights.
Turns out London Grammar’s version is a slowed down, dramatically mystic take on the song that’s a little reminiscent of Florence & the Machine, if less bombastic. This was all a little bit of a letdown. The cover itself isn’t bad, and its use in the trailer isn’t jarring, which paradoxically is why it’s a little less memorable. Still, coming off of Divergent it reminded me again of the relevance of shows like this using pop music in any capacity. And that part where Jamie asks “Why have the gods made me love a hateful woman” while that little hint of the “Devil Inside” riff plays — one of the only elements recognizable from the INXS version — right before the trailer abruptly ends is pretty great.
5. Rob The Mob — Deee-Lite “Groove Is In The Heart”
One of the things that I had mixed feelings about with The Wolf Of Wall Street soundtrack was its fixation on blues music when the thought of Scorsese uncharacteristically using ’90s pop music seemed to promise some exciting possibilities. Deee-Lite’s “Groove Is In The Heart” was one of the first things that jumped to mind as something that could’ve hilariously soundtracked some of Jordan Belfort’s debauched life, so it was a sort of vicarious bit of satisfaction to see it pop up as the opening credits music in Rob The Mob, a movie that inevitably has some traces of Scorsese influence, if on a small scale.
The story focuses on a Queens couple who start robbing Mafia social clubs, but the parallel story has to do with a conflicted romanticism for a bygone time: a major element in the background of the film is the Gotti trial, which is positioned as a symbolic end of the old era of the mob. Throughout, the film alternates between more comedic moments and tonal shifts that set the stage for the inevitable tragic ending. These opening credits are an early bridge between the different voices and concerns of Rob The Mob. The use of “Groove Is In The Heart” is cheeky, playing over images of a New York that was beginning to cease to exist. You see decrepit corners in the outer boroughs, and heavily graffitied subway cars being washed clean. The chorus hits as the camera briefly lingers on the Twin Towers. I wouldn’t necessarily call “Groove Is In The Heart” a contemplative-sounding song, but oddly it’s effective in setting the stage for a meditation on the loss of the grittier, more mythologized New York of the past.
4. Bad Words — Smashing Pumpkins, “Snail”
Despite indie gestures like a pervasive sepia tone and a few artistic camera flourishes along the way, Jason Bateman’s directorial debut Bad Words has an emotional arc and structure not dissimilar from your typical mainstream comedy. That goes for the music, too, with a soundtrack that’s well selected and plays out in a succession of moments that are a lot of fun, if not the most unique cues. An early, chunkier Black Keys cut “Heavy Soul” plays as a sort of opening theme, as Bateman’s Guy Trilby flees the first spelling bee he wins, trophy in hand and a horde of enraged parents chasing him out of the school. Beastie Boys’ “B-Boys In The Cut” is used during a montage in which Guy and his ten year old compatriot/fellow contestant Chaitanya get drunk and spend the night playing vicious pranks on people.
The highlight, though, was in the movie’s final sequence, when Chaitanya has returned to being bullied at school despite/because of achieving his goal of winning the National Quill Spelling Bee. The quiet, forlorn beginning of Smashing Pumpkins’ “Snail” comes in, building to that inevitable guitar crash that has all the power you’d expect from an early ’90s Billy Corgan guitar crash. That climactic moment happens just as Guy pulls up in a cop car that looks exactly the same as the toy car he and Chaitanya had bonded over, and then there’s some shots of them spinning around while Corgan’s guitars keep churning and peaking. It’s an unapologetic and likeable feel-good moment, channeling the catharsis of the Smashing Pumpkins into a triumphant ending for Bad Words.
3. Archer Season 5, Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone”
Archer has always made use of a dense network of references to aggressively unhip and retro pop cultural touchstones, gradually building the huge array of recurring jokes and lines that have helped make the show as funny as it is. Right up there with Burt Reynolds or “Phrasing!” or Bret getting shot has been Archer’s fixation on “Danger Zone,” that Kenny Loggins Top Gun song. The reference goes all the way back to the early episodes of the first season, and has resurfaced again and again since. Last fall, FX released a promo that had all the Archer characters playing out Top Gun scenes to, of course, “Danger Zone,” for it all to be revealed as a drunken fantasy of Archer’s as he rides one of those plane machines they used to have outside shopping malls for kids. The ’80s-ness of it wound up foreshadowing the pseudo-reboot to Archer Vice for Season 5, and it seemed the pinnacle of where they could take the “Danger Zone” joke for now.
While Archer has made plenty of references to music, its use of music has been less substantial, with the show rarely incorporating actual pop music. With the fall of ISIS and everyone pursuing new careers, this changed in the current season when Cheryl rebranded herself as Cherlene and decided to become a country star. Some of it has felt a little forced, but now there’s often a sequence revolving around her playing a song. For the episode centering on Lana’s baby shower, Archer did itself one better and actually got Kenny Loggins to guest star as a parody of himself and record a country-fied duet of “Danger Zone” for his character and Cherlene to play at Lana’s party. The cover is fine, and the use in the episode is actually somewhat less substantial than you might expect, but we’re talking about gratification for almost five full seasons’ worth of jokes. That makes this rare foray into actually using music well worth the time for Archer.
2. Fargo, Promos
Hey, remember that inescapable weepy-piano hit by Daniel Powter from 2005, “Bad Day?” Yeah, I had repressed that memory, too, and then it came back in the form of a muzak cover playing in a diner as Billy Bob Thornton pulls out a massive, brutal-looking knife when he grows impatient with the butter knife the restaurant has provided.
The marketing for FX’s forthcoming Fargo series has been remarkably strong, a series of short and striking promos that in mere seconds seem to do a lot of work towards establishing the tone and environment of the show. Notably, that tone seems to alternate between sinister, sardonic, and farcical, which means Fargo seems a logical continuation of the Coen brothers’ original film’s universe. Another promo is shot from the perspective of being inside a shopping cart — being lead, presumably, by Thornton’s character as well — as a variety of products are selected then dropped in: a crow bar, a hunting knife, a rifle bag, some Scrunyuns. You know, the essentials. The soft rock of Dan Fogelberg’s “Longer” plays over that one. Like the steak scene and its horrific “gratingly pleasant instrumental that your bank makes you listen to on loop while you wait on the phone for ten minutes” reading of “Bad Day,” the shopping cart sequence is as foreboding as it is hilarious. Collectively, they suggest the show already has a clearly defined sense of style, and if Fargo itself makes good on the promise of these trailers, chances are FX has another strong addition on the way to an already stacked lineup of dramas.
1. The Americans, S02E03 (“The Walk In”) — Peter Gabriel, “Here Comes The Flood”
The first season of The Americans had some of my favorite uses of music in 2013, and was actually one of the reasons I started to think about doing this column. Last month, I talked about Season 2’s promos, including a chilly and hauntingly impressionistic one set to Sting’s “Russians.” All that being said, Season 2 has turned out to be light on pop music so far this season, with several instances of songs playing on a radio in the background, but not having much of a prominent role. (Though, Paige’s confrontation with her mother while Modern English’s “I Melt With You” persisted in the background was well done.)
That is, of course, aside from the stunning ending to the season’s third episode. For several minutes, Peter Gabriel’s “Here Comes The Flood” plays over scenes of the Jennings family going about different activities, all separate from one another. Paige is the only one who even says anything; the rest is devoid of dialogue, instead relying on the sudden crescendoes of the song’s chorus and the starkness of each family member in isolation. Based on the strands the show’s following this season, the sequence played as a hint at the ruptures that could soon come in these people’s lives: at some point in this show, Stan will find out who and what Philip and Elizabeth are, as will their kids. Who knows how long the series will tease that out. Watching a clearly changed Elizabeth, who has the bulk of the screentime during “Here Comes The Flood,” quietly wait as she burns Leanne’s letter — and thus breaks a fifteen year old promise — makes you feel like that fragmentation is already well on its way.
A confession: when I included The Americans in my end of year countdown, I actually hadn’t caught up with the last two episodes, and thus failed to shout out the use of Peter Gabriel’s “Games Without Frontiers” in the season finale, one of the show’s best moments to date. Clearly, something about his music just works for The Americans. If the show makes it to 1986, they have to use “Red Rain” right?