So Chuckdid it once again Monday night. The writers, music production team, everyone, showed just how brilliantly the show melds music into its aural landscape, along with gunshots, knife fights, and its trademark witty banter. This time pulling out all the stops for for the season – hopefully not series – finale. For a climatic shootout at Chuck’s sister’s wedding, we have the dulcet tones of “Jeffster” (a band consisting of two of Chuck’s co-workers) singing Styx’s 1983 hit, Mr. Roboto, from the album Kilroy Was Here.
But the brilliance of the segment is not simply limited to the kitsch of having such a wonderfully geeky song in the episode. The way the song is arranged within the segment shows a keen ear in how to set the music with the image. The song actually comes in three versions for the sequence (a fact already stated in the song’s Wikipedia article!). First we have the intro section plus first verse played entirely by Jeffsterand set against the players of the show moving into place: the groom, who is in the know about Chuck’s double life, finding out that something more is going on, the bride freaking out, and Sarah getting ready to confront the bad guys.
For one who doesn’t know the lyrics, the song may just seems to fit the aesthetic of the show (Chuck’s love for 80s geek culture as epitomized by his Tron poster), but a quick look at the lyrics reveals the brilliance of the song choice. The lyrics up to this point are:
Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto,
Mata ah-oo hima de
Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto,
Himitsu wo shiri tai
(Translation: Thank you very much, Mr. Roboto / Until we meet again / Thank you very much, Mr. Roboto / I want to know your secret)
You’re wondering who I am-machine or mannequin
With parts made in Japan, I am the modern man
I’ve got a secret I’ve been hiding under my skin
My heart is human, my blood is boiling, my brain IBM
So if you see me acting strangely, don’t be surprised
I’m just a man who needed someone, and somewhere to hide
To keep me alive – just keep me alive
A man with a secret? Brian IBM? Wanting to stay alive, needing someplace to hide? Paging Mr. Chuck Bartowski. From here the music moves into a vamp of the main backing part, played mainly by Jeffster, but slowly adding in more orchestral sounds, namely timpani, and also filling out the sound with more guitars. The arrangement, though, kicks into a higher gear as Super Spy extraordinaire Bryce Larkin walks in, and we hear the vocal line for “You’re wondering who I am,” etc. played in the low brass, an arrangement used for much of Chuck‘s score. By going back to this line, though, it essentially moves the song back to its starting point. As the tension in the room builds, the manipulated vocals of “Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto” comes back. The fight finally starts and the song starts to break down as the backing track continues, but vocals, instruments, and other elements drop in and out, mirroring the overall chaos. We also get to see what else is going on in the church: a stunned crowd, the bride trying to hold it together. Finally, the orchestral elements come back as Sarah, Bryce, and Chuck are captured.
The Pre-Chorus for the third verse starts to come back (simply, “Domo Arigato, Mr. Roboto…Domo” repeated), first in a new version for the show, but then the actual Styx version starts to come in as we hear a plane overhead and see shadows…and paratroopers. And as Casey and his commandos drop in through the convenient glass ceiling, the final verse comes in:
Thank you very much, Mr. Roboto
For doing the jobs that nobody wants to
And thank you very much, Mr. Roboto
For helping me escape just when I needed to
Thank you-thank you, thank you
I want to thank you, please, thank you
to hide to keep me alive
Essentially describing the on-screen action. For those keeping score at home, that’s two fits of lyric to story. This music segment, and its transition back to a recap of the intro, plays under the gunfight and Casey’s rescue of our spies, while also cutting back to the wedding and Jeffster’s performance, though we are clearly hearing Styx’s vocalist Dennis DeYoung. From here, though, the arrangement goes back to Jeffster’s performance, and we skip ahead to the last three lines, as the live performance reaches its climax:
So everyone can see
My true identity…
I’m Kilroy! Kilroy! Kilroy! Kilroy!
And in doing so, they set of some flares or something, the fire alarms go off and the wedding is ruined. In all, the sequence takes right around 5 minutes, actually coming in about 30 seconds UNDER the album length of the song. In doing so, they cut out the second verse, and vamped mainly on the material of the third verse, which itself is a vamp the material from the Introduction. But they also cut out a line that could have been very fitting for the show: “The problem’s plain to see: too much technology / Machines to save our lives. Machines dehumanize.” It could very well be a motto for Chuck’s life as all the advanced spy technology has ruined his life. To the CIA and NSA the information in his head (the Brian IBM) make him an “asset” instead of a real person, he has been dehumanized. But maybe that’s a little heady for a show that derives most of its charm by not taking itself too seriously. A shootout at a wedding set against Mr. Roboto? I don’t think they have a problem of taking themselves seriously.
Another great moment happens right before the song starts as the Jeff of Jeffster turns to the string quartet playing the wedding and echoes Michael J. Fox and his instructions to the dance band in Back to the Future as he says, “This is in 4/4 time. It’s in D, watch me for the changes.” Classic. And of course, later on in our many cuts to the performance, we actually see the string quartet playing.
In all, this is another example of just how musically astute this show is, something that probably starts with the show’s creators and producers, and extends to the writing staff, music producers, composers, and editors. Everything about the sequence was carefully controlled to achieve maximum sync of music and image, proof positive that everyone involved cared not just about the on-screen performance, but also the musical performance.