Tuesday, March 3, 2009

When trailer music sets impossible standards

When I first started this blog way back in January, and was flooded with ideas, one of the things I'd wanted to write was a post called "The impossibility of Pineapple Express ever being good enough." It would have begun this way:

In the past year, I believe I've listened to the song "Paper Planes" by M.I.A. between 50 and 75 times. Because it's a really, really good song, I still haven't gotten sick of it. And because it's a really, really good song, I had ten times higher expectations for Pineapple Express than I should have.

Okay, back to the post that's actually being written right now. I'm not sure if you had the same experience I did, though I know some of you did, because we've discussed it. The original trailer for Pineapple Express was going along compellingly enough, looking like a fun and probably hilarious blending of the stoner and action genres. But then M.I.A.'s enthralling anthem -- with its gunshots, cocked hammers and cash registers providing crucial instrumentation -- kicked in. After that, Pineapple Express became The Awesomest Movie Ever.

Or so I was hoping. When months of anticipation finally culminated for me in a screening on opening weekend last August, the word that came to mind was "disappointment." Not only does the movie's tone turn too violent toward the end, resulting in a bunch of gory deaths that are out of synch with what you want from a comedy, but most crucially, "Paper Planes" never makes an appearance. And I'm sorry, but Huey Lewis' eponymous theme song just didn't satisfy me as a substitute.

It's a phenomenon we've seen numerous times before. A really well made trailer is distinguished by its choice of music far more often than we may consciously acknowledge. Sure, the editing has to be good, and it has to give more of a sense of what to expect, rather than a miniature synopsis of the entire plot. We remember those things. What we may not remember as consciously is how the music can also whip us up into a fervor. Whether it was the stirring Mozart score to the trailer for the Sly Stallone actioner Cliffhanger, or Wyclef Jean covering "Stayin' Alive" for The Big Hit (another sub-par action movie), I remember the way the combination of the perfect music and the perfect images jazzes me up exponentially.

Just think back to that M.I.A. song and the Pineapple Express trailer. "I fly like paper, get high like planes ..." Meanwhile, in the background, James Franco is doing the worm, Seth Rogen is doing some kind of upper-body breakdancing move, James Franco kicks his foot through the windshield of the police car he's driving, Seth Rogen jumps off a balcony onto a baddie below. Awesome stuff, right?

If it weren't for this trailer, I think I probably would have liked Pineapple Express a lot better. After all, the main thing it's guilty of is not being quite as good as it should have been. And I blame the trailer for giving me my notion of how good it should have been. But I wouldn't trade it. I'll always consider that a perfectly executed trailer, and I get chills even now when I watch it, even knowing I was ultimately disappointed.

So how does this all relate to Watchmen? Well, it's happening to me all over again. Watchmen -- based on what's widely considered to be the greatest graphic novel of all time -- has lots of much more significant reasons it's being anticipated than good trailer music. However, most of those reasons belong to the comic book geeks. And though I like a good comic book, I am far from a comic book geek. In fact, when I first saw the cast of Watchmen on the cover of Entertainment Weekly last summer, timed with Comic-Con, I thought, "Who're these fucking guys?" (Thank you, Major League, for the quotation.)

But as soon as I saw the first trailer, it was all over for me. The music got me again.

It's Smashing Pumpkins doing the honors this time. And even though I haven't been a regular listener of Smashing Pumpkins for ten years, there's something about the way "The End is the Beginning is the End" just pushes this trailer over the top. As the music really kicks in, a giant amphibious flying machine bursts through the surface of a river next to a major American city. Then the beats are timed up again for a man being thrown backwards through a plate-glass window. Then again for a masked man using an aerosol can as a flamethrower. The goose bumps are coming out on my skin.

As the music continues to pulse forward, a number of wondrous sites hit our eyes -- a hairless blue dude making people explode by shooting rays from his hands, a Molotov cocktail smashing into a truck, and what's that crazy-ass contraption rising out of the desert? Sure, the images themselves are doing a lot of the work here. But you'd be lying if you didn't acknowledge how well the music brings you to that place.

Will Watchmen live up to the hype? I'll be able to answer that question for you this weekend. You better bet I'm seeing it no later than Sunday, and I'll be opting for IMAX to heighten the experience.

Comic book fans will be trying to see how it measures up to the graphic novel. Me? I'll be wondering if and when that Smashing Pumpkins song will appear.


Don Handsome said...

I've gotta say that I really hope that Smashing Pumpkins song does not show up in Watchmen. I do love Watchmen and have read it annually since 1987. That's right, annually since ten years BEFORE the song from the trailer was ever released. Watchmen is a story that takes place in a specific time - an alternative 1985. IF this alternative world produced the Smashing Pumpkins, the story still takes place 12 years before the song was released. If the Watchmen movie is going to be satisfactory (and all signs point to “no” on that issue anyway) it might want to start by NOT including such an anachronistic song. Also, that particular Smashing Pumpkins song was used already in Batman and Robin (which is probably an even better reason not to include it in Watchmen).

But on to your real point...I think you've got to stop watching trailers. Or at least stop thinking of them as indicative of the movie. At best, trailers are short music videos designed to get your juices flowing for a film. Why not use the World's Most Popular Song to advertise Pineapple Express? It made me excited to see that movie.

Like you I didn't really like Pineapple Express a whole lot, but it was mainly for reasons like the reasons you listed, and had nothing to do with the lack of Paper Planes...in fact, until we spoke about this very subject a few weeks back, I thought Paper Planes was in Pineapple Express.

I think it would be nice if there was more truth in advertising across the board - and including only music that is actually in a movie in that movie's trailers would fall under the 'truth in advertising’ umbrella - but it doesn't bother me when the powers that be choose a dynamite song to advertise their film...they need to fill the seats, after all. But I don't really agree that the song use in the trailer sets the bar too high. I think its just the same as the ubiquitous use of the "Y'all Ready For This?" song in front of a sporting event. Such intro music has no bearing on the outcome of the game and ultimately you just ignore it, don't you? It’s just a song that’s played to get people pumped. Same is true with preview songs...either they rock or they don't, but they have no bearing on the outcome of the movie.

As a side note, once upon a time I went to see movies based on their previews. One such preview featured another Smashing Pumpkins song (the one where Corgan sings: 'despite all my rage I am still just a rat in a cage'...what’s that called? Bullet with Butterfly Wings?) and it made me really excited. So I waited and waited and then when the movie finally got released, I went opening weekend. The movie was called Willard, and I wish I hadn't bothered.

I'm very hopeful that Watchmen will be better than Willard, but I'm not holding my breath. I am a HUGE fan of the book and Smashing Pumpkins or not, I'm convinced that this has disaster written all over it. I WILL see it, but I’m not shelling out extra cash for the IMAX and I’m not bothering for a week or two...

Vancetastic said...


I'm actually quite sure the Smashing Pumpkins song will not be in the movie. I will admit to sometimes adopting a certain "angle" -- like that I expect the song to appear -- just because it works as a good rhetorical device to close the post. But I really don't think that song will be in there, and I don't actually think it will have a bearing on whether I like the movie or not.

Though I must say, I don't buy your argument about how having a Smashing Pumpkins song appear in a movie set in 1985 would be anachronistic. I know you liked Marie Antoinette, and I could say in pretty good confidence that The Cure and New Order weren't around back then. ;-)

As for "Paper Planes" ... well, at the time the trailer first came out, I don't think it was that popular yet ... in any case, in my circle of friends, it was still on the upswing. I think I felt something slightly different about this one, too. I thought "Well, even if the movie's bad, at least I'll get to rock out to 'Paper Planes'." But I never did. (And when "Paper Planes" actually showed up in Slumdog Millionaire, I'd be lying if I didn't credit it with helping provide a smidgen more of probably unnecessary confirmation that I loved the movie.)

I think the point is, I don't logically or intentionally treat a trailer as a good indicator of how good a movie will be. It just happens. I'm helpless.

Don Handsome said...

Vance Vance Revolution:

Its very true that I like Marie Antoinette and much of what I liked about it was the anachronistic songs...I was speaking specifically in terms of Watchmen, and on those terms, I am decidedly against anachronisms. I am afraid that Zack Snyder will decide to change a lot about the book…I think he HAS to change a lot already (there is a scene in the book where a major character is confronted by a woman he impregnated, and he just shoots her in the head…I’ll bet that won’t be in the movie)...but if The Pumpkins song was to appear in the film (which I doubt as well) it COULD be a dark omen for the rest of the film...one that signals that the director not only eliminated some of the darker plot points (which I expect) but also discarded some of the important details about the book that he should not mess with. He should certainly not discard the time setting of the film as it would drastically change the whole cold-war point of the story. To me, the Pumpkins in the commercial is at best a rocking tune to listen to, and at worst an indication that Watchmen may be worse than I could ever imagine.

Wait...Paper Planes was in Slumdog? I'm so numb to it now...I didn’t even notice.
Naw...who am I kidding. I love that song. I even put a crazy African cover of it on that mix I gave you that you can't listen to.

Daddy Geek Boy said...

Hate to be the one raining on the movie parade, but trailers serve one function only...to get butts in the seats. Studios care not if they use all of the good jokes, or in this case, use a song that isn't in the movie.

Once upon a time, I think trailers used to be visionary. Like a good burlesque show they teased without showing too much. Today, studios believe that audiences want to know the entire plot of a movie from the trailer, so they will feel "comfortable" when they see it.

I say that's a load of crap.

With our without the Smashing Pumpkins song, I'm curious but not optimistic about Watchmen.

It was a kick ass trailer, though.

Vancetastic said...

It's true. Why can't more trailers be like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind? Remember how you were like "I don't know what that's about, but it's probably cool?"

But you can't avoid watching them either, can you?