A Good Trailer Is Hard to Find: Thoughts on Music and Trailers

By Michael W. Harris

I have written about trailers and music more than once on this blog, though it has been quite a while since last I thought about it. For the most part, trailers are quite unremarkable and meant to be little more than hype reels to sell a film, but that is really missing a golden opportunity to make an audience really excited for a film and drive interest (see the first Force Awakens trailer).

As I wrote in two very (VERY) early posts on this website (so please excuse the weirdness of my earlier writings), part of what can really sell a trailer is a good music choice. Rather than using canned, generic trailer music or reusing tracks from an earlier film (unless it part of a franchise), one of the best decisions can be to find the right pop song that somehow conveys something about the tone or story of the film.

In my first proper post on this blog I contrasted two trailers for the then upcoming Watchmen film by Zack Snyder and how the second trailer made great use of the Smashing Pumpkins song “The Beginning is the End is the Beginning.”

You can read that post here and watch the trailer below.

About a year and a half later I saw the first trailer for David Fincher’s The Social Network, which sent chills down my spine and made me more hyped than one should be for a movie about the founding of Facebook. Read that post here and watch the trailer below.

Most recently, I was struck by the new trailer for Hugh Jackman’s final outing as Wolverine: Logan. This trailer makes stunning use Johnny Cash’s cover of the Nine Inch Nails song “Hurt.”

The choice was pitch perfect for a film which is based in part on Mark Millar’s classic Old Man Logan storyline in which an aging Wolverine, beaten down in a world in which he is one of the last living heroes, sets out on a final mission with Hawkeye (who will obviously not be in this film). Part road trip and part Mad Max, the story is imbued with the aged Logan’s bitterness and sadness at a world now devoid of both friends and hope.

It is this feeling that the Logan trailer captures with its use of Cash’s cover. While the NIN original is a bleak song, it took on a new feeling and starkness when in the hands of the old Cash and you can sense him singing about his own life through Trent Reznor’s music and lyrics.

Seeing and hearing this trailer made me think of an older trailer which featured a NIN song: 2009’s Terminator Salvation.

“The Day the World Went Away” was an apt choice for a film about the aftermath of an apocalypse, even if that is not what Reznor was writing about in the song—though to be fair we still don’t really know what he was writing about in the song, and the video that was made for the it was never released.

What I am getting at here is that a good, well made, well thought out trailer, one that has a good musical choice and that is cleverly synced to the song, can elevate what is an otherwise mediocre film (<cough>Watchmen and Terminator Salvation</cough>) into something to be excited about.

A good trailer should not be a hype reel…or at least not just a hype reel. As I said in another post, it should be approached as a short film. Something that ebbs and flows with emotions just like an actual film. A good song will assist that thanks to the natural contours of music, but a bad song or generic music choice will kill the excitement faster than Sam Smith’s “Writing’s On the Wall” killed the rush from one of the best Bond film opening scenes since Moonraker.

Movie trailers are an art form involving editing, not only video but also audio. That truly great trailers get made is a minor miracle and we should appreciate them when they come along.

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