This week’s question comes from our film editor, A.A. Dowd:
What overplayed song are you nonetheless always happy to hear in a trailer?
I’ll own up: 17 years after Donnie Darko (A.D.D.), I still get a kick out of Michael Andrews and Gary Jules’ somber, spooky cover of “Mad World.” Jules’ take on the Tears For Fears single is so moody, in fact, that it almost never gets played straight when it ends up in trailer land, instead employed to ironically underscore the testosterone-poisoned action of a Gears Of War game, or to give a subtlety-free coda to the 2010 remake of The Crazies. (“Why yes,” you might find yourself thinking, “A planet where everyone has super rabies would be a very, very mad world.”) As someone who has to watch trailers for a living, though—and thus a devotee of the “take a pop song and slow it way down” school of trailer soundtracking—my favorite version of the song is actually the one that accompanied the trailer for 2016’s Ewan McGregor drama American Pastoral. You wouldn’t think you could make “Mad World” even more melodramatically sad, but damn if singer Jasmine Thompson doesn’t try.
For a while there, “Mr. Blue Sky” by Electric Light Orchestra was the unofficial fight song of the Charlie Kaufman filmography, its Beatles-esque bounce heralding the arrivals of Adaptation (on TV at least—in theaters, the trailer was cut to the similarly overused “Under Pressure”) and Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind. The song, with its kitchen-sink production and lyrics that easily map onto the emotional instability of Kaufman’s scripts, re-entered the public consciousness just as ELO’s pure pop confections were getting an overdue re-appraisal; the Adaptation spot aired simultaneously with Volkswagen’s “Mr. Blue Sky”-backed “Bubble” ads, and it wasn’t long before “Livin’ Thing” was being repurposed for a JC Penney holiday campaign. But there’s too much playful energy within “Mr. Blue Sky” for any single film or filmmaker to lay claim to the thing, and I cheer its continued presence on the big screen, whether its in an early trailer for a long-gestating love letter to ’70s cinema or Baby Groot’s dance through the Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 credits, the latter of which may as well be a trailer-within-the-film in the way it whets the appetite for a movie that looks like it’s taking place within an ELO album cover.
I’m not sure the feeling in my stomach could be described as “happy” when I hear “Lux Aeterna,” from Clint Mansell’s Requiem For A Dream soundtrack, but I will say that unlike pretty much all over-played pop music used in trailers the track always works, at least for me. I hear those gloomy strings and the tense piano figure and am immediately convinced that some serious shit is going down in this movie, even if it is, um, the trailer for Babylon A.D. or I Am Legend. Half the time these are rip-offs engineered to sound almost identical to the original, as in the video game Assassin’s Creed. It’s also become a sports-stadium staple. It’s a little weird that something invented to soundtrack the depths of human depravity and despair could be transposed so neatly to ass-kickin’ fun, but I guess that’s the point, right? The Requiem song always works.
I won’t begrudge Martin Scorsese or any trailer editor for including the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” in previews. Released in 1969 on Let It Bleed, the haunting track evokes so much about the ’70s—the era’s grit, coolness, and widespread turmoil, which is why it works so well in Casino. But Merry Clayton’s impassioned singing can also be heard in promos for The Departed and The Gambler, despite those movies being set in the decidedly less funky early aughts. Oddly enough, “Gimme Shelter” wasn’t used in 2014’s Gimme Shelter, but it did find its way into 2017’s The Vietnam War. Takeout editor-in-chief Kevin Pang sang the praises of that Ken Burns documentary last year; I’ve yet to tuck into it, but when I do, I’ll probably find myself nodding along to “Gimme Shelter” when it eventually plays.
The most-played video of James Brown’s “I Feel Good” on YouTube is one that alternates an image of the soul singer with another depicting Garfield the cat floating in a saucepan. Which speaks to the evolution of this monstrous 1965 single from ecstatic, chart-topping R&B hit to obligatory comedy soundtrack pick (here’s the tabby dancing to it in 2006’s Garfield: A Tail Of Two Kitties). At this point, the song has appeared in too many films and trailers to count, but I don’t care—this song will never not make me feel, well, good. There’s a reason Brown circled around its themes for years, first writing “I Found You” for Yvonne Fair in 1962 before arriving at “I Got You (I Feel Good)” in 1964; he knew he was crafting funk perfection, building dramatic breaks into the song’s swung blues structure, with brass and bass lines that demand you get on the good foot. The performances from James and saxophonist Maceo Parker in the 1965 version are some of the best ever recorded to tape.
It’s only about 143 years old, so there’s presumably another couple of centuries to go before I get tired of hearing Edvard Grieg’s “In The Hall Of The Mountain King.” That’s a fitting age, since by my rough estimate, it’s been played in approximately that same number of movie and TV trailers. Sure, it’s omnipresent within movies and shows, but it really achieves pride of place in the standard movie trailer, where it most often gets paired with a comedy of errors, the music a now-familiar accompaniment to scenes of gradually escalating chaos. This can either be wholly appropriate, as in the trailer for Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride; a way to make something incredibly annoying slightly less so, as happened with the trailer for Jim Carrey’s excruciating take on How The Grinch Stole Christmas; or just kind of weird, as when it got paired with the trailer for Michael Haneke’s exercise in postmodern finger-pointing at American audiences, Funny Games. But no matter the situation, I’m happy to hear those churning strings and blaring orchestral bursts.
There’s a list of maybe a dozen songs that Hollywood movies, in their funny/exasperating lack of imagination, can’t stop themselves from airing anytime they want to tell the audience that we’re about to be thrust back in time to the swinging ’60s. The odds of hearing one of these overplayed jukebox staples—think: fortunate sons, runs through the jungle, watchtowers—pretty much double if the movie is about Vietnam. And none is perhaps more comically overused than Buffalo Springfield’s protest anthem “For What It’s Worth (Stop, Hey What’s That Sound),” which never fails to inspire a chortle from yours truly when some filmmaker un-ironically cues it up. Here’s the thing, though: I still actually really enjoy hearing that song in movie trailers. Maybe it’s that trailers are, of course, advertisements, and I can forgive them for crassly playing to our recognition centers—a lack of creativity is to be expected in that medium, though it doesn’t have to be. Or maybe it’s just that the song’s gentle ring creates a pretty perfect mood for a highlight reel of enticing shots: cool, smooth, urgent in its own mellow way, with the chorus coming on like a rousing wakeup call, no matter the circumstances being montaged on screen (or the version that’s used—the one in the Three Kings trailer above isn’t the original). Either way, keep selling movies with that song, Hollywood. Just leave it out the movies themselves.