By Michael W. Harris
One of the great things about using a song, or numerous songs, in a film is that they can immediately evoke a time or a place. Think of George Lucas’ American Graffiti (1973) which gets so much of its power from its amazing use of music (and DJ banter) to recreate the ‘50s era, along with some great set and costume design. The music immediately evokes the spirit of the time and everything that went along with the youth culture of the era…or at least what George Lucas and others wish to remember of the time (rarely do our memories of a time and place include all of its faults, as Jay Gatsby has reminded us recently).
But the music of American in the 1950s evokes only that period and may not exactly have the same semiotic and emotional connection to someone who didn’t live during the time or who might not be native to the country. Such is the case of the soundtrack for The World’s End, the new film by the Brits who gave us Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Hot Fuzz (2007). To me, the film feels like their version of Kevin Smith’s Clerks 2; an exploration of how the Gen Xers are dealing with the fact that they are getting older. The film is basically about a group of five friends who are summoned back to their home town by the one friend who can’t seem to escape the past and move on (played very much against type by Simon Pegg) to recreate, and hopefully finish, a legendary pub crawl called “the Golden Mile.” But everything is not as it seems and it quickly becomes apparent that the normal cinematic tensions that accompanies the question of aging and maturation (refusal to change, people realizing that they cannot do all the things they used to, or that those things once considered cool are not, and were never really, cool), are not all that they seem. That, in reality, it is the city that has changed because it has been taken over Invasion of the Body Snatchers style.
The soundtrack for The World’s End is full of late ‘80s and early ‘90s British rock that, for a native English audience, will immediately evoke the time in which the main characters first undertook the challenge of “the Golden Mile.” However, for an American audience that finds deep enjoyment in the films of Pegg, Edgar Wright, and Nick Frost, unless they are true Anglophiles, this musical evocation will most likely pass right over their head. But does that make it any less effective? This is a question that any filmmaker must ask themselves when selecting music. For someone like Lucas in Graffiti, the music was a key component that had to work because it was used diegetically and was a huge part of the world of the film. In The World’s End, this is not the case as the music is all non-diegetic, though there are some interesting moments of connection that I will discuss in a moment.
However, even if an average American moviegoer would not recognize the alternative British rock tracks from the early ‘90s, there is enough of a stylistic footprint that is similar to much of what was going on in the US during the time that most will be able to put the music in its correct temporal position. Plus, the film is so rich in other areas (the metaphorical names of the bars that connect to the plot points that happen in them, how their new journey actually mirrors their experience back in 1990, and many others), that any disconnect that might exist between film and audience in regards to music doesn’t truly matter.
There is one song, though, that does not come from neither the time period that the lead characters are trying to recapture, nor the present day of the film’s actual setting: The Door’s cover of “Alabama Song” (originally from Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s 1927 stage work Mahagonny and later opera Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny in 1930). Obviously, the song makes sense lyrically because of the repeated line “Oh show me the way to the next whisky bar,” and it plays while the boys are walking between the first and second bar (or second and third…I cannot exactly remember), before they fully realize that something is not quite right in the old home town. To me, while I enjoyed the amusement of the song playing over the boys walking slow mo style to the next bar accompanied by the song, it did ruin the cohesion that the soundtrack had created up until then.
(Spoilers for the end of the film, so don’t read further if you hate spoliers.)
One interesting connection between the songs and the actual film is with the track that opens the entire film, “Loaded” by the group Primal Scream. The song opens with a quote from the Peter Fonda B-film The Wild Angels (Roger Corman, 1966), in which Fonda says, “We wanna be free! We wanna be free to do what we want to do, and we wanna get loaded, and we want to have a good time. And that’s what we’re going to do. We’re gonna have a good time, we’re gonna have a party.” This line is quoted almost verbatim (as far as I can remember) by Gary (Pegg) when he confronts the aliens at the The World’s End who are trying to “civilize” Earth through the covert infiltration means seen in the city in order to prepare humanity to join the galactic community.
I will admit to being puzzled initially at the beginning of the film to hear these snippets of another movie quoted in the song. Not knowing the context of them, that they were part of the song, made me wonder where they were coming from. Was it coming from the film’s diegesis and were we going to be shown a character watching this movie we were hearing? Could it be part of the song? What was this recording related to, and what is its relationship with the film? It was actually only after listening to the song on the soundtrack album that I finally made the connection with the song, the attitude of the character, for who this music is still part of his life in 2013, and the speech he makes to drive the aliens away.
Now, would a British audience have made the same mistake? Maybe, maybe not. But they would have had a better chance of knowing the song “Loaded” than an American audience. Similarly, the end credits kicks off with the song “Happy Hour” by The Housemartins. This song was released in 1986 and was a hit in the UK and also had some airplay on college radio in the US. For me, however, I heard the song and what I heard was lines that reminded me of the song “Hello City” by the Barenaked Ladies (the lead track off their breakout album, Gordon). It wasn’t until I got home afterwards and looked up the song that I learned that BNL paid homage to “Happy Hour” by breaking into an arrangement of it at the end of “Hello City.”
Again, this is the sort of disconnect that can occur between filmmakers, musical supervisors, and an audience. But, let me reiterate that this disconnect does not have to detract from a movie, as in the case The World’s End, which I found to be wonderfully funny. But these things can happen, especially when a film travels, either in time or geography. It also illustrates that while any type of creator might have specific intentions for a film or song or book, once it is released to the public, it really does belong to both creator and consumer. And just like this blog, or any piece of criticism, in the end these are the opinions and interpretations of an audience member of the content and that your reactions are just as important. Creators may not like this fact because it allows for what they would consider misreadings of their works.
This whole post could devolve from here into literary theory—authorial intent vs. interpretative communities and the like—but I think I will forgo that entire discussion and just say that The World’s End is a great and funny film, but like so much of British humor, the music requires either a knowledge of British popular culture or the patience to do some research to figure out why it is funny or appropriate.
 Thankfully, the filmmakers opted to take out the “Oh show us the way to the next little girl” verse, which was adapted from the “next pretty boy” line in the original song. That would have just been creepy given the plot of middle aged men trying to recapture their lost youth. Or maybe they did leave it in and I’ve blocked it out.