Thoughts on ‘Watchmen’

So I was going to post this Saturday afternoon after I got back from seeing Watchmen that morning, but a computer virus on my desktop prevented that post.  Luckily, my laptop remains unaffected, so now, after much craziness and frustration with said desktop, I’ve decided to beat a strategic retreat until I have more time and mental fortitude to take on the task of reinstalling many programs, possibly even Windows itself.  I won the battle in defeating the virus itself, but the after effects linger.  Think Iraq: I’ve toppled Hussein, but now I’m dealing with the insurgency.

Okay, enough political commentary.

So Watchmen, highly anticipated movie to geek-kind the world over.  Released to mixed reviews, and my own feelings on the film itself are mixed, but this is a music blog, so I’ll leave the movie reviewing to others.  I’ll divide my commentary up into two segments.  First the score itself, followed my the many song sequences.

Warning, some spoilers ahead.

The Score:

In a word: meh.  In another word: derivative.  Looking at Tyler Bates’ filmography, I have actually only seen one other film scored by him: 300.  And I haven’t seen or heard that score recently enough to make any comments on his style, but given this outing in Watchmen, I’m not encouraged.  I picked up the score album the night before I saw the film and got through it once before seeing the film, and in just that one pass I heard at least three other composer’s work easily: Elfman – Batman, Don Davis – The Matrix, and Bear McCreary’s Battlestar Galactica (and maybe even some of Richard Gibbs’ work for the original mini-series).  Now, a lot of these things were quite obvious, like the brass chords from The Matrix (you know, the ones Davis originally got from John Adams?), and who cannot help but hear Bates’ use of Taiko drums as reminiscent of McCreary’s Battlestar, the sound of those drums is so wrapped into the aural aesthetic of the show that a composer would have to do something very different to avoid the comparison.  As for Batman, it wasn’t anything as blatant, but on the opening cue on the album, “Rescue Mission,” in the first thirty seconds, there is a low brass bit that comes in after the chorus that is almost, note for note, Elfman’s original Batman theme.  Here though, it is secondary melody, so it might be easy to miss.

Another score that came to mind in some of the more noir-ish cues was Vangelis’ Blade Runner.  The same sort of synth sound is used, but in many ways I think that it was deliberate given the 1985 setting of the film (example: track 9 on the score album).  The score here is echoing an ’80s film that was set in the future, while the film its for is set in the past, though contemporary for the period in which the first film was made.  Does that sentence make any sense?  Easy version: Blade Runner released in 1982 and set in 2019, Watchmen released in 2009 and set in 1985.  So in a way, the usage of music reminiscent to Blade Runner is clever in and of itself, but when put in relation of the derivativness of much of the rest of the score, it seems to mean less.

In terms of music-visual relation, the true test of any score, I was underwhelmed.  No sequences really jumped out at me as good examples of music to image relations, and when the score was used in a scene with little dialogue, it felt clunky.  I would need to see the film again to give actual examples, but color me unimpressed.

The Songs:

But where I felt the movie really fell down with music was its use of songs.  If it was just the score, then I would say that it neither added, nor really subtracted from the film, but the songs!  Oh my.  There were a few good sequences, but for the most part the addition of song backed sequences really had the, hopefully, unintended effect of leaping of the screen and screaming, “LISTEN TO ME, IT’S TIME FOR A SONG MONTAGE.”  This also extends into the use of some classical works (which I’m including here because of their inclusion on the Soundtrack album).  Furthermore, there were just to many of them…way to many.

First, the good.  I though Nat King Cole’s ‘Unforgettable’ was used quite well to underscore the opening fight and murder of the Comedian.  I’m a big fan of using music that deliberately goes against the grain of the image (so here, a rather sweet, lovely song, to underscore a brutal fight), what Michel Chion calls the anempathetic effect.  Defined by him in his book Audio-Vision as when, “music…exhibit[s] conspicuous indifference to the situation by progressing in a steady, undaunted, and ineluctable manner: the scene takes place against this very backdrop of “indifference.””  In the case of the scene at hand, the song first appears in the diegetic space, being played during a television commercial.  As the fight starts and continues, the song moves into the non-diegetic space (though director Zack Snyder is careful to show us that even though the tv screen is broken during the fight, that the set continues to work).

The one other sequence that doesn’t offend me too much is the use of Hendrix’s ‘All Along the Watchtower’.  This song, like another Bob Dylan penned tune on the soundtrack album (‘Desolation Row’, though here covered in an 80s punk style by My Chemical Romance…for some reason), were chosen due to the inclusion of quotes that were used at the end of every issue of the original series.  ‘Watchtower’ is the only one that is actually used as it was in the original, as the Nite Owl and Rorschach are approaching the Antarctica compound of Adrian Veidt, and the line “two riders were approaching,” is synced up with a helicopter shot of them doing exactly that.  Maybe a little obvious, but hey, it works well.

Okay, two sequences that I thought did not work at all.  First, the Comedians funeral which is overlayed by Simon and Garfunkle’s ‘The Sound of Silence.’  On the surface, you think, “Okay, funeral, sound of silence, a person’s death is the silencing of their voice, yadda yadda yadda.”  But then, you think about the entire milieu of the world that is created by the film, what the character of the Comedian represents (which is everything that the ’60s hippie culture/Simon and Garfunkle were protesting against), and it becomes…well…really weird and then just poor song choice.

Secondly is a sequence that almost made me laugh out loud, and at least elicited chuckles from the audience I saw it with.  If you’ve seen it, you probably know where I’m going…yes it’s the scene of Doc Manhattan in Viet Nam, towering over the land, surrounded by helicopters as Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ plays.  Okay, we all get the obvious ‘Apoclypse Now’  imagery, but really?  By now it’s just cliche.  And if that was funny, I was just left scratching my head about the inclusion of the Philip Glass cues from Koyaanisqatsi, the same cues that were used in the second trailer for the film.  They work okay in the context of the film, for the most part, but just like the inclusion of Wagner, and later on a bit of Mozart’s Requiem, it serves to pull me out of any sort of cohesive aural space.

And if anything, that is the worst part about the entire aural track for Watchmen.  It is a jumble of styles that really doesn’t work well together.  With the classical and Glass tracks, it’s almost like those were on the temp track for the film and Snyder fell in love with them (a la 2001).  And even the songs did much the same thing.  Yes, some worked well in context (even ones as disparate as ‘Unforgettable’ and ‘Watchtower’), others just clashed with the images.  The inclusion of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ also strained the love-making scene for me, if only because the various covers of that song have been used entirely to often in film and television.  But that’s another blog post entirely.

So those are my thoughts on the film’s score and soundtrack.  Agree, disagree?

3 thoughts on “Thoughts on ‘Watchmen’

  1. Hello there – firstly, allow me to introduce myself since we don’t actually know each other and I’m only here via Brad’s blog. I’m Mike, Brad’s fatter, more evil twin. Okay, now that that’s out of the way, I’d like to both agree and disagree (hey, you offered right?) with some of your points if I may.

    Firstly, let’s start with the score. At this point I’m not even sure why Zach Snider even bothers to hire a Bates any more…after the infamous fiasco with 300, and now with the inclusion of the Mozart and Glass in Watchmen, I think it’s safe to say that Snyder isn’t sure what he wants musically…he just knows that someone has already composed it for something else altogether. With a little searching you’ll find that the Wolfie and Phil pieces were in fact temp track cues and that Bates composed replacements that obviously weren’t up to snuff. As for the rest, it had some great moments (also some pretty derivative ones) in the film – I can’t say to its effectiveness on CD. I think the effect intended by the inclusion of the Glass piece was brilliant – but Snyder needs to grow a pair and either let Bates handle the scene, or find another composer with better chops to do it (like ME!!!).

    As for ‘Sounds of Silence’, I think it’s giving WAAAAAYYYY too much credit to Snyder as a filmmaker to assume anything other than that this song was used for mood, and not for content or context. In any case, I’ve always liked the song, so its inclusion didn’t bug me too much.

    I too loved the ‘Unforgettable’ inclusion – a rare stroke of genius from a director who has style to burn, but little substance. ‘All Along the Watchtower’ was a touch tongue-in-cheek, but again, I love the song, so I found the placement aesthetically pleasing.

    As for the Wagner…well…count me in as one of those people who was absolutely laughing his a$$ off when that came on. I’m going to give Snyder the benefit of the doubt and guess that he intended for the audience to be laughing with the scene…not at it. But, going back to my earlier thoughts on the man as a filmmaker…I may be giving him too much cred – he may really be that unoriginal!

    The song that put me off the most was the ‘Hallelujah’. At least right up to the part when she hit the flame-thrower (then I was in stitches – I felt that was actually a brilliant bit of sound and visual editing). I don’t know what I would have used in place of the song – honestly, it’s a wretched song IMO – NOBODY can sing it! And I certainly wouldn’t have scored the scene – anything other than some kind of 70’s porn riff would’ve been out of place – so a song for certain, but for the life of me I don’t know what!

    I suppose one could argue that the logic behind a punk cover of ‘Desolation Row’ was that of playing to the time period. By 1985, punk as a force in popular music had peaked and was on its way out, making way for hair bands and indie rock. Listening to the song away from the film, it’s actually a very well-produced cover – but in the film (at least in the theater I was it), it was so damn loud you could barely make out what it even was. Funny part – my mom absolutely loved it, the irony being that she’s likely very familiar with the original but didn’t know (due to the extreme decibel levels) what she was listening to!

    Anyway – there’s my two cents – or in this case, change for a buck!

    1. Actually, I think I agree with most of your points. I think, though, that the Wagner bit had the opposite effect that Snyder intended. In the original, it was meant to be both terrifying and also emblematic of America’s arrogance that they would send Manhattan to solve the problem in Viet Nam. And I think Snyder was hoping to have a similar effect to the usage of ‘The Ride’ as it had in ‘Apocalypse Now.’ But it came of as comical instead of terrifying becuase it is so cliched in today’s audio-visual vocabulary.

      In all, for a film whose first trailer was such a great example of the marriage between film and sound, I was greatly dissapointed by the film’s audiotrack.

  2. Having only listened to the score album I found it to be underwhelming from a purely musical standpoint. Granted, the album isn’t the purpose of the score, but if these are the most “listenable” bits then that doesn’t bode well for what’s left in the film. There are a couple of really interesting cues but otherwise the whole thing is kind of bland and colorless. It’s too bad, too, because, if anything, this film should’ve been an opportunity for a composer to really spread their wings and see what they could come up with.

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