Music for the World of Watchmen
How do you score a different world?
You can’t. Not really, not completely. It was a problem at least as far back as the original Star Trek: its composers sometimes tried to suggest alien cultures with music, but often their efforts were taken out. (Jerry Fielding wrote alien bar tunes for “The Trouble With Tribbles”; those were cut.) It doesn’t totally work because we can’t ever truly think like an alien race: biases from millennia as bipedal, 10-fingered creatures of a certain size brain are too strong.
In a less alien way, that’s true of alternate histories. Watchmen – both the complicated, flawed classic of a comic book that Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons created in the 1980s, and the film adaptation directed by Zack Snyder – is set in a society fundamentally altered because costumed vigilantes started appearing in the streets, more than just in comic strips and comic books. The changes go from drawing on the edges of the pages of history to a fundamental shift when the first super-powered human, Dr. Manhattan, is created. Superheroes then help us win Vietnam; and changes tiny and huge reverberate throughout the years.
Art reacts to history. So what famous songs would’ve been written? We can’t know. What famous songs would not have been written? “For What It’s Worth” wouldn’t have been written. “Eve of Destruction,” to take a more disturbing example, probably wouldn’t have been written. Would The Doors have done what they did? Late-era Beatles? The Stones? Would Led Zeppelin have formed? Or The Eagles, The Clash, or The Ramones, for just a few examples? Would punk even exist? I could go on. I could go maddeningly on.
It’s a “What If?” conundrum. Changing a tiny thing could change everything, or almost everything, or almost nothing. Think if Kurt Cobain hadn’t died in 1994, and try to imagine how pop music and pop culture would’ve changed. A little? A lot? Right now [in March ’09], alt-rock and hard-rock radio are playing Pearl Jam’s “Brother,” recorded in 1992 but only released now: would the song have made an impression had it come out back then? What impact would Guns ’n’ Roses’s Chinese Democracy have had if Axl Rose had released it in, oh, 1995 and not 2008 (and had Rose actually been willing to talk about and tour behind it)? And those, ultimately, are tiny examples.
We can’t really know what music – or any art, pop or otherwise – would’ve been created in a world where someone like Batman could be our neighbor. And Watchmen the film doesn’t go that unknowable route. It’s songs we know, even though those songs likely never would’ve been written in that world: from originals like Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” (used jarringly in a sex scene*) to covers like My Chemical Romance, a band from this decade, redoing Bob Dylan’s 1960s epic “Desolation Row.” Which can still work. Like the Peggy Sue Got Married costume designer making Kathleen Turner’s clothes seem more like a twelve-year-old’s, to subconsciously sell us on the idea that the middle-aged Turner was a high school student again, covers could be done today of Sixties, Seventies and Eighties songs and they’d average out to feeling somewhat Eighties-like.
Since Alan Moore is famously detail-obsessed, I’m sure he pondered the music. Whatever his thought process, his comic book mostly sidesteps the music issue. It hints at the world’s big bands, with posters for an upcoming Pale Horse and Krystalnacht show. (For no particular reason while re-reading the comic, I decided to think that Pale Horse had the pop-cultural cachet of Purple Rain-era Prince.) Only one song is heard in the story: a guy passing by Rorshach plays Iggy Pop’s “Neighborhood Threat” on a boombox. (And wouldn’t Iggy Pop show up as a musician in any world?) This makes me wonder if Moore has any skills as a lyricist, and whether he could’ve written interesting lyrics for songs that would allegedly exist in Watchmen’s world. But good lyrics are hard to write – an aside, Stephen King should never again write lyrics – and lyrics are not really needed here, so that was a writing challenge Moore didn’t have to meet.
Other than “Neighborhood Threat,” the book’s song quotes are either chapter titles, slogans (a perfume ad says “The Times They Are A-Changin’”), or chapter-ending epigraphs: Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” soon before disaster strikes New York, or the gentler John Cale lyric “Sanities” (“It would be a stronger world, a strong and loving world to die in”) as the world settles down post-climax. Those epigraphs are outside the story. They’re guideposts, directing us toward the mood of what’s to follow. And having them all apparently play off of a radio or a jukebox would’ve been distracting. The real world isn’t that elegant, or on-the-nose. The real world doesn’t have as much music, either – and no underscore for life, as much as we might like a “Theme For Me” that plays when we do something dramatic.
I shouldn’t expect a popcorn entertainment like Watchmen the movie to wrestle deeply with the philosophical issues of “How can this film seem like more than a film? How can it seem like another world?,” but I know the filmmakers considered how their alternate history should sound as well as look. That’s why I was excited to hear Tyler Bates’s Watchmen score compared to the strong, oh-so-Eighties underscores for Blade Runner (Vangelis) and To Live and Die in L.A. (Wang Chung). Makes it easier to pretend that Watchmen got filmed in the Eighties, by reinforcing that Eighties feel. I was alive and aware in the Eighties; I remember the era’s vibe. I have more than just movie memories of it.
So what could songs add? Snyder and Co. made inspired song choices in Dawn of the Dead: Johnny Cash’s “The Man Comes Around” as the world collapses; a muzak version of “Don’t Worry Be Happy”; Richard Cheese’s lounge cover of “Down with the Sickness” over a montage of the people in the mall and the zombies outside, underlining how wrong the “new normal” was. But I wondered if Watchmen could use a different effect: songs that are a kind of director’s commentary, like the book’s epigraphs, looking in on the events of the film and talking about them, only commenting on a world instead of a film. I wanted the music to mean more.
In some films, that’s too much to ask. (It was too much to ask from Forrest Gump and its K-Tel-on-steroids soundtrack.) But it’s been done, like with Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko, also inspired with its mix of Eighties originals and covers like the Gary Jules/Michael Andrews rendition of “Mad World,” a version which tears your heart out. We hear “Mad World” during the Donnie-changes-everything moment in that film’s plot, and while we know something huge is happening, all we see are several characters in Donnie’s life, in their beds, having sleepless nights. The music is slow, quiet; no one says anything, they simply look pensive. The world of Donnie Darko is shifting, almost literally, but it’s nothing like Christopher Reeve spinning the Earth backwards to huge John Williams music at Superman’s end. Instead of the music saying This is happening!, the music says something like Something happened. What does this make our characters feel?
In cases like Dawn of the Dead and Donnie Darko, the songs can mean more than what they originally meant; they can be more than just what happens to play on a jukebox or a character’s radio. And sometimes, they should mean more.
There’s no opening Superman- or Batman-esque brass fanfare when Watchmen starts – no sound at all, in fact, which is rare for a major studio film. As an audience we’re trained to expect music to play almost immediately – Bernard Herrmann liked having music start right off, for one example – and the longer the music waits to kick in, the more we’re unconsciously put on-edge because we’re getting fewer clues about what to expect. In those crucial first minutes the lack of music is meant to make us more attentive to the depth of the detail of this alternate world. We’re pushed to pay more attention.
And then Nat King Cole’s “Unforgettable” plays, a beautiful tune smashing against the brutality of the attack on Eddie Blake. Then it’s time for the immersive opening credits, already the most famous part of the film, as Bob Dylan sings “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” Indeed. It’s a one-two musical punch, shifting our expectations just a little bit. Not quite as all-encompassing an effect as I’d hoped, but probably enough to serve. Superhero films don’t have songs like that, except this one.
On to the rest of the soundtrack. Several of the final film’s songs nicely imply big, dramatic events, befitting the big, dramatic events of the world of Watchmen: “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” by Tears For Fears (elevator music for Ozymandias), the Hendrix version of “All Along the Watchtower,” and Leonard Cohen’s “First We Take Manhattan.” Others are there more for each era’s particular pop flavor: Nena’s 1983 hit “99 Luftballoons” (with its Capt. Kirk reference; too bad Watchmen’s world probably wouldn’t have Star Trek), Janis Joplin’s version of “Me and Bobby McGee,” and KC & The Sunshine Band’s “I’m Your Boogie Man.” And one inspired musical choice is the Philip Glass two-fer from the mood piece Koyaanisqatsi, "Prophecies" and "Pruit Igoe." Glass's music has long sounded like it comes from a slightly alternate, more elegant reality, and here they add to the alien quality of Dr. Manhattan. Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sounds of Silence” for Eddie Blake’s funeral was a little too on-the-button for me, but I don’t know what would’ve been a better song. And having no music would’ve been too naturalistic for this emotional moment; it may have risked the funeral seeming a little ridiculous, because while funerals are part of our normal, unscored world, superheroes aren’t. It could’ve been distracting.
Watchmen is a special work for many of us geeks, and the film labored mightily to meet that in an audio-visual way. It wanted to grab us as a film the way the original work grabbed us as a comic book. That I keep thinking back to the film a month after seeing it, that I want to see it again and experience more of its world, means it had some success for me. The movie couldn’t change the world, but there were enough hints that it could at least convincingly show us an alternate world. And that’s compelling, even if the music had been nothing but ABBA. (How different a world would have ABBA as the biggest band ever?)
* Visually, this sex scene is awkward, and (like in the comic) that’s intentional. It’s with middle-aged former vigilantes who are out of practice sexually, with health issues and paunch and occasional impotence, but the two of them are making it work. “Hallelujiah” is almost too dramatic for that. What may have been a better, less jarring song choice? My mind goes straight to Nick Cave: either “Into My Arms” or “(Are You) the One I’ve Been Waiting For?” Wrong era, though (1997).